In the past two decades the French (or Paris) School of Economic Regulation has developed an ambitious historical-economic theory which has already had a major impact on efforts to understand the current malaise of the capitalist system and the accompanying economic transformations.footnote1 On the face of it, the School’s favourable reception is not difficult to explain. The Theory of Regulation responds to the belief, widespread today, that orthodox economics has failed to interpret satisfactorily actual patterns of development, past or contemporary, and that, in particular, its tendency to economic determinism prevents it from taking into account in systematic fashion the powerful ways in which historically developed class relations, institutional forms and, more generally, political action have shaped the evolution of capitalist economies. For their part, then, the Regulationists explicitly seek to go beyond the ahistorical verities of neoclassical economics. Their relationship to Marxist approaches is less clear. Yet it would seem that their original intention was to grasp how networks of institutional forms, during the
The Regulationists begin, methodologically, from the idea that the overly abstract and ineffectual character of much existing economic theory, as well as the undertheorized nature of much existing economic history, derive from ‘insufficient links between theory and empirical analysis on the one hand and from purely deductive and inductive methods on the other’. Their fundamental goal is to provide those links through ‘build[ing] a series of intermediate models’ to make theory more historically concrete and empirically testable, as well as more useful for historical interpretation.footnote3
The Regulationists thus deny that the capitalist mode of production is comprehensible in terms of a single set of laws that remain unchanged from its inception until its eventual supersession. They see the history of capitalism, rather, as a succession of phases, each distinguished by certain historically developed, socio-institutionally defined structural forms that give rise, so long as they are maintained, to distinctive economic trends and patterns. There is an obvious similarity to the Marxist project of grasping history more generally in terms of a series of historically developed modes of production, each marked by a structure of social-property relations that give rise, so long as it is
It is the purpose of this essay to analyse and evaluate the Regulationists’ theory in terms of their own distinctive aspirations by examining, theoretically and historically, the conceptual links that they have actually constructed between high theory and economic history, and specifically the series of ‘intermediate models’ through which they have sought to understand capitalist development. Let us therefore begin by surveying the basic concepts and the main theoreticalhistorical results of the School.
Each regime of accumulation represents a distinct pattern of economic evolution which, though limited in historical time, is relatively stable. The immediate source of the dynamic specific to each regime of accumulation is a particular series of regularities which include: (i) the pattern of productive organization within firms which defines the wage-earners’ work with the means of production; (ii) the time horizon for decisions about capital formation; (iii) the distribution of income among wages, profits and taxes; (iv) the volume and composition of effective demand; and (v) the connection between capitalism and non-capitalist modes of production.footnote4 What is distinctive about the Regulationists’ standpoint is that the content of the regularities defining the pattern of economic growth that constitutes a regime of accumulation is viewed largely as an expression of institutional structures governing intra and inter-firm relations, the relations among capitals and the relationship between capital and labour—namely, the mode of regulation. (Regularity (v) seems to sit somewhat uneasily with the others, since it obviously cannot be grasped simply as a function of capitalist institutions, and this is a point to which we shall have to return.)
Each mode of regulation is constituted by a historically developed,
The combination of mode of regulation with regime of accumulation gives rise, from the Regulationist standpoint, to a distinctive mode of development, with a distinctive type of cyclical, non-threatening and self-regulating crisis. The extension in time of each mode of development ultimately issues in a series of ever more crippling contradictions, which result from the fetters imposed by the already-existing mode of regulation upon the regime of accumulation. As the mode of development reproduces itself, hitherto virtuous circles thus give way to increasingly vicious circles. The outcome is a structural crisis, which—precisely because the old mode of regulation has broken down—is accompanied by the necessarily unregulated and conflictual action of classes, firms, political groups and governments. Out of these historically indeterminate processes of competitive economic war and socioeconomic and political struggle, one out of a range of alternative resolutions of the crisis is eventually hit upon. A new, historically given mode of regulation—which, by governing the historically developed regime of accumulation, makes possible a new mode of development—is the result.