My book, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation, was written more than twenty years ago.footnote1 The new edition perhaps testifies to the longevity of the ideas it sought to communicate. These two decades, however, have not been kind to anyone trying to make sense of the erratic and sometimes disconcerting development of contemporary societies. Here, I should like to say how the ideas contained in the book have stood this test, and how they can be modified or extended so that we can try to understand the dramas we are witnessing and the hopes of renewal we cherish as this twentieth century draws to its close.

A Theory of Capitalist Regulation has been the source of an approach to the analysis of economic phenomena which has gained widespread acceptance, in the sense that a wide range of studies and analyses have seized upon its ideas and have developed them in many different directions. We must speak of an approach rather than a theory. What has gained acceptance is not a body of fully refined concepts but a research programme.

When the theoretical positions defended in A Theory of Capitalist Regulation were elaborated, ambitious synoptic studies were ideologically appealing as interpretations of the economic system. They were intellectually seductive because of their capacity to grasp the economic system as a whole. On the basis of so-called first principles, they developed consistent concepts reconciling microeconomics and macroeconomics, microscopic and macroscopic phenomena. Yet this could not take place without a postulate of homogeneity that gave these theories, however mutually antagonistic, a peculiar epistemological congruity.

The neo-classical theory inspired by liberalism, which amounts to a representation of the system as a pure economy in a natural state of equilibrium, stretches the postulate of homogeneity to its very limits. Not only does the axiom of rationality assign the same identity to all individuals in pursuit of their goals by defining an economic behaviour pattern that can be applied to any domain of social practice, but the characterization of the whole system as an equilibrium created by perfect competition implies that each player is totally aware of the web of their relations with all other players, and that this web presents itself to the individual in the form of constraints on the use of their resources.

Marxism, as an economic theory, is built upon a radical separation which explains capitalism by rejecting the postulate of homogeneity. Not only is market exchange no longer perceived as a symmetrical relation between contracting parties; the labour force is also put on one side of a basic social division which sets one class of individuals against the other. Nevertheless, the Marxist view of the economy remains strongly homogeneous because capitalism is supposed to move in accordance with general laws which lead to its overthrow, whatever the nature of the society in which it develops. Furthermore, the overthrow of capitalism heralds the coming of a transparent and homogeneous system of perfect planning.

The debate that raged in the 1930s on the relative merits of a market economy and a planned economy culminated in the demonstration by Oskar Lange that perfect competition and perfect planning were identical. If the economic system is homogeneous, there can be no real decentralization. A general economic equilibrium is a completely centralized system, either because the characteristics of the system are in the minds of all individuals, who act like a single representative individual—the hypothesis of rational expectations—or because the coordination of individual plans is guided by an explicit or implicit planner—the omniscient invisible hand in Léon Walras’s general equilibrium model.

Advances in economic thought have been made against the postulate of homogeneity, but they run into a formidable difficulty. Where heterogeneous features are taken into account in the behaviour of microeconomic players, the coherence of the entire system becomes a puzzle. Microeconomics and macroeconomics become estranged because it is no longer possible to postulate a uniform system of coordination. This state of affairs is not unique to economics. In the physical sciences and life sciences, it is known that microscopic and macroscopic phenomena cannot be described with the same formal tools. Macroscopic regularities have their own autonomy. However, it is in economics that the philosophy of methodological individualism is found at its most virulent. The desire to found macroeconomics on microeconomic principles is such that the prevailing inclination is to overlook such obstacles and hence to perpetuate the postulate of homogeneity against all empirical evidence. Thus, the macroeconomy is no more than a microeconomy enlarged to full size by means of the hypothesis of the representative agent. Another approach is simply to deny that macroeconomics is in any way relevant. It is evident that this type of fundamentalism has serious consequences for economic policy. We have experienced the paradox of ideological ossification at the very time when theoretical progress has revealed the complexity of relations between the levels at which economic phenomena are perceived. But this progress has forever tainted the purity of the great paradigms.