The ‘post-Fordist’ hypothesis concerning the development of a new ‘mode of regulation’ of modern capitalism is a fertile and important one. It was developed, following Gramsci’s footnote1 key early understanding of the significance of mass production and consumption, by Michel Aglietta footnote2 and other members of the ‘regulation school’ in France in the 1970s. footnote3 It has been further developed by Michael Piore and Charles Sabel in the United States, as the formulation of a choice of ‘post-Fordist’ options for American society. footnote4 The essential theoretical breakthrough of this school was its repudiation of a simple economism, and its recognition, following the wider influence of structuralist and sociological perspectives on Marxist debate especially in France, of the complexity and multidimensionality of modern capitalism. The post-war stabilization of this system, on both economic and political levels, required that a new attention be given to the enhanced role of the state, to mass consumption, to processes of socialization, and to the ideological role of the information industries in the ‘consumer societies’. The reproduction of the social relations of capitalism (not least the relations of gender) became as important to Marxist theory as the system of production itself. The ‘regulation school’ sought to formulate these issues as a theory of political economy, as the concomitants and conditions of possibility of different forms of production.

Writing towards the end of the long boom, and at the point of breakdown of the class compromise that had characterized it, the theorists of the regulation school also identified that the whole system was entering a period of major crisis and transition. In response to the contradictions and problems generated by the ‘Fordist’ system of regulation at its most developed stage (problems of inflation, declining rates of profit, the enhanced bargaining power of labour, ‘decommodification’ of many sectors of production and consumption in response to political pressures, economic stagnation, etc.), new strategies were being developed by capital, both intellectually and in political practice. These included the internationalization of its operations, transferring ‘Fordist’ forms of production to less developed countries, while maintaining crucial command and research functions in the metropolises; the imposition of more stringent market disciplines on capital and labour, through the international ‘de-regulation’ of trade, movements of capital, and labour; the internal ‘marketization’ of operations within large firms, through the institution of management by local profit-centres; the development of new technologies and forms of production and marketing (the famous ‘flexible specialization’) footnote5 and a dispersal and reduction of the scale of production in order to elude the countervailing cultures and institutions of organized labour. footnote6 Thatcherism in Britain is in part an instrument of these strategies. Elsewhere (e.g. West Germany, Sweden, Italy), the response to the crisis of Fordism has been less dramatic: governments have sought to restore profit-levels by changing priorities within a framework of class compromise and the welfare state, rather than by attempting to tear up these pacts and re-write their terms completely. (In the case of France, an attack on class compromise and the mediating role of the state was attempted, but failed. In the United States, it may now have been fought to a standstill.)

Now, several years after the first discussions of these arguments in New Left Review, they have become central to political debate in Britain, through a series of important interventions by Marxism Today and by the Communist Party of Great Britain. The idea of ‘postFordism’ is central to the thoroughgoing programmatic revision presented in the Party’s new draft strategy, Facing Up To the Future, and in the various ‘New Times’ symposia of Marxism Today. footnote7 The political importance of this debate goes well beyond the cpgb. Such is the thinness of the Labour Party’s political culture that Marxism Today has, since the virtual demise of New Socialist, become more or less the theoretical organ of Labour revisionism too, sometimes lining up the left of both parties in opposition to its new realist positions.

The ‘post-Fordist’ hypothesis on which these new positions are based is the nearest thing we have to a paradigm which can link widespread changes in forms of production to changes in class relations, state forms and individual identities. It thus pursues the far-reaching scope of explanation and connection between disparate phenomena that has previously been expected of Marxist political economy. As Geoff Mulgan has pointed out, it is Marxist in its basic form of analysis (notably in the causal priority it assigns to the new information-based technologies of production and distribution), even though it is highly subversive of left-wing orthodoxy in what it infers for the position of the working class, the appropriate forms of state and welfare institutions, and the roles of communist or socialist parties. footnote8 It is valuable to have had this new paradigm placed so firmly in the centre of debate, and none of the criticisms made in this article should be taken to diminish appreciation of that.

As is so often the case, the sense of an ending of an era has illuminated its general shape. What have been unmistakably clarified in the writing of Piore and Sabel, Aglietta, Lipietz and their English exponents are the social relations of Fordism: the link between the systems of mass production and mass consumption, the role of Keynesianism and the welfare state in underwriting long-term growth and profitability, and the integration of trade unions, on an industrial and later national-corporatist basis, in the management of the post-war Fordist economy. The counterposed model of ‘post-Fordism’ also has the power to explain the shape and direction of the emerging economic system, at least in part. footnote9 Modern technical systems do depend increasingly on the rapid and powerful processing of information, more than on their sheer mechanical power. The speed of knowledge-production, and of technical innovation, has vastly accelerated. Product ranges are modified more quickly, and are more internally diversified, than in classic forms of production for mass consumer markets. Modern information systems allow both finer tuning of product flows and mixes in relation to changing and segmented markets, and greater producer influence over consumer demand. The social relations of these new systems of production and distribution are different from those of ‘mass production’, as was pointed out long ago by sociologists of organization. Where there is rapid change and uncertainty, flatter hierarchies and greater lateral communication between members are more functional for organizational goals than bureaucratic command models, in which all communication must pass up and down hierarchies or lines of command. footnote10 This pattern of lateral interdependence may exist between organizations—the science park or ‘Third Italy’ models footnote11 —as well as within organizations, for example, in the research and development section of a firm. Markets capable of rapid innovation and flexible specialization may encourage the diversification of demand rather than tending to homogenize it in the interests of economies of scale. Hence the phenomena of market-nicheing, lifestylism, etc.

The value of this model is that it attempts a historical materialist explanation of the changes associated in Britain with Thatcherism, at the level of changes in the means of production and their consequences for class structures and ideological forms. Without such a model, we are liable to be left with explanations set in basically neo-classical terms: either a view of the market as the norm, from which state intervention, trade unionism, ‘political overload’ etc. are deviations; or else an argument against markets that is made in mainly normative language, in terms of distribution, externalities, public goods etc. We finish up with a largely prescriptive antithesis of state versus market, the claims of equality versus those of freedom, whilst the sphere of factual definition and explanation—the description of how things are—is left to the liberal right. The ‘post-Fordist’ model, in which production remains at least one dominant category, has the great merit of being an attempt to theorize structures and their effects. It thus becomes possible, in principle, to derive explanations, predictions and strategic choices based on assessments of possibility. By contrast, liberal and social democratic models tend to confine us to ahistorical and normative choices, and a politics based on the ethics of redistribution.

This model appears to have considerable cogency and explanatory power, and its theoretical ambitions are admirable. There are, however, serious problems in determining its scope of application. It is far from clear how much of the emerging economic system fits this new pattern of technology and organization, and how much still operates either in old ‘mass production’ modes, or by still more technologically-backward methods dependent on unskilled labour, such as those found in most of the (expanding) hotel and catering trades. Even the state-of-the-information-arts example of television raises this question in acute forms. Just when the ‘Channel 4’ model has been established to the general acclaim of the post-Fordist intellectual public, the system as a whole is threatened with regression under pressure of market forces to the worst forms of mass formulaprogramming on a global scale. What seems to be emerging is not one ‘progressive’ mode of information-based production, but a plethora of co-existing and competing systems, whose ultimate relative weight in the system is impossible to predict. Since socio-technical systems do not develop completely autonomously, but only in response to cultural definition, conflicts of social forces, and political decision, it is dubious in principle and possibly misleading in fact to make linear extrapolations from what might seem to be ‘leading instances’, or current trends, to the shape of a whole system.