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Opinions-débats : Retours sur le colloque "La théorie de la régulation à l'épreuve des crises"

Beyond the ‘Approach in Terms of Régulation’?

Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum

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1This article is our response to suggestions from well-placed insiders at the 2015 Régulation Conference who were not present at the foundation and who have made several suggestions on how to overcome critical deficits in regulationist analyses (see Chanteau et al., this issue). As informed outsiders, we welcome this opportunity to revisit the approach in terms of régulation (ATR) and consider its strengths and weaknesses from our perspective. So we offer five sets of reflections on the ATR and how it might be advanced. First, how should we designate the ATR to emphasise its past and present potential as a contribution to the critique of political economy? Second, how can we understand the disciplinary status of the ATR, including its relation to orthodox economic analysis? Third, what are the objects of régulation and why do they need regularisation? Fourth, how can we interpret institutions in the ATR and put them in their place? And, fifth, how can we integrate the foundational ontological status of spatiality and temporality into the analysis of the capital relation?

The genealogy of the regulation approach

2What began as the ‘approach in terms of régulation’ has since been described as the regulation approach or regulation theory. The last term is too strong because the ATR is actually a pluralistic research programme that asks specific kinds of theoretically-informed question about capitalist reproduction and its régulation. Spurred by the emerging economic crisis of the mid-1970s and seeking to offer explanations that differed from those of neo-classical economics and structural Marxism, it developed an implicit ‘critical realist’ account of classical Marxist theory and method and applied them to contemporary capitalism. Critical realism asks ‘what must the world be like for x to have happened?’ (Bhaskar, 1975). This type of retroductive interrogation occurs in response to an anomalous empirical phenomenon that provokes scientific and practical curiosity. This is more evident when scientific anomalies or newly-defined major ‘social problems’ lead to scientific ruptures than when science operates ‘normally’, i.e., aims to solve puzzles defined within an established paradigm (Lakatos, 1978). For early regulationists, the anomaly appeared at two interrelated levels. First, theoretically, there was the improbability of capitalist reproduction despite the fundamental contradictions, crisis-tendencies, and conflicts generated by the capital relation – features unrecognised by and, a fortiori, inexplicable within neo-classical economics. ATR exponents sought the answer in terms of the historically contingent ensembles of complementary economic and extra-economic mechanisms and practices that enable relatively stable accumulation to occur over relatively long periods but that eventually break down. Second, empirically, there was the quite unexpected breakdown of the Atlantic Fordist regime after les trente glorieuses and, especially, the surprising anomaly of stagflation, which was allegedly impossible.

3The initial agenda had theoretical and political ambitions. First, as a heterodox minority, Parisian School régulationists hoped to persuade their fellow economists and economic planners that orthodox economics did not understand real economies. This is because it analyses the economy as a clearly delimited, socially disembedded sphere of economic relations that tended toward general equilibrium thanks to the optimizing, economizing behaviour of pre-constituted rational individuals with pre-given and stable preference functions oriented to the price mechanism. In contrast, régulationists argued that economic relations were socially embedded; that economic development is path-dependent and largely irreversible; that social institutions matter and should be treated as endogenous economic factors or, at least, as crucial exogenous factors in economic performance; and that the modes of calculation and motives of economic and economically relevant social forces vary across time-space. The pioneers also rejected the so-called structural Marxism inspired by Louis Althusser on the grounds that its account of capitalist production and its reproduction was inadequate. In its place, they proposed more concrete-complex analyses that examined diverse economic and extra-economic institutions and the key role of strategic agency in structuring, facilitating and guiding (in short, regularising) accumulation. Notably, they noted the historical significance for economic dynamics of structural discontinuities, chance discoveries, and the contingencies of class struggle (for a more extended analysis in these terms, see Jessop, 1997).

4Since the pioneering contributions, the ATR and similar approaches have seen several generations, understood in analytical rather than biographical terms. In particular, it has developed in three ways. First, there are simple empirical extensions to new research areas through a wider range of historical case studies, a turn from macro- to micro- and meso-level analyses, interest in specific sectors and branches, and growing attention to spatial scales below, above or transversal to the national level (cf. Chanteau et al., this issue). Second, there has been a more complex, progressive conceptual deepening of work on familiar regulationist topics by exploring the concrete-complex mediation, overdetermination, and instantiation of the capital relation and the dialectic of path-dependency and path-shaping (the first two types of theoretical and empirical development are covered well in Boyer et Saillard, 2002).

5These changes are not well known because there has been a significant loss of institutional memory as pioneers retire or move on and because new cohorts with different backgrounds and interests do not read the pioneering studies at first-hand. One result is a loss of theoretical self-reflection about concept formation and about the anomalous world beyond theory that was a key feature of the pioneering studies. In addition, the few studies that seek to fundamentally remake the regulation approach have had little impact (e.g., Billaudot, 1996; Théret, 1992; Lordon et Orleans, 2008). Fortunately, Robert Boyer provides an institutional memory (e.g., Boyer, 2004, 2015).

6Third, there have been occasional ruptural theoretical redefinitions of ATR themes that undermine (or radically transform) establish assumptions, concepts, and arguments. Discontinuous redefinition more often marks the input of new waves of theorists (e.g., geographers, state theorists, discourse analysts, feminists) as they connect -- and rethink -- regulationist ideas, concepts, and arguments with their own prior and emerging concerns (such ruptures are explored in Jessop et Sum, 2006). This has been especially important in furthering the RA's role outside economics but has had little reciprocal impact among its core theorists. One example is cultural political economy, an approach that is identified with the current authors (Jessop et al., 2012; Sum and Jessop, 2013) but has little resonance in mainstream regulationist work.

What kind of theoretical research programme?

7One implication of critical realism is that the real world is too complex to be understood in all its complexity in real time, if ever. In practical terms, this forces simplification as a condition of ‘going on’ in the world; theoretically, it legitimates diverse entry-points and standpoints for construing and explaining the world. There is no one best way to do this. Specific explananda require different kinds of theoretical approach and it is improbable, in a complex and open world that is far from being a fully constituted totality, that the corresponding entry-points and standpoints could eventually be synthesised into a single general theory of everything. Nonetheless this does not mean that ‘anything goes’ in presenting scientific results even if value-relevance, playfulness and chance may have useful roles in the course of research (cf. Feyerabend, 1978).

8Given these complexities and the scope for pluralism, an interesting question concerns ATR’s disciplinary status. At a minimum it belongs to heterodox rather than pure economics. However, insofar as economic relations are socially embedded, have extra-economic conditions of existence and repercussions, including in ‘second nature’ (the natural world as transformed by social action), then it should also be seen as inter- or trans-disciplinary. This involves more than multi-disciplinary aggregation of specialist disciplinary knowledge. In particular, it requires efforts to integrate various disciplines and develop new concepts that reflect emergent or otherwise unrecognised realities that lie beyond the scope of individual disciplines (Sum et Jessop, 2013). Indeed, besides taking economic forms and institutions seriously, early regulation scholars recognised the contributions of state and civil society to capital accumulation and régulation. This has become harder for current régulationists working in economic departments because of the renewed hegemony of la pensée unique but it is still possible for those from other disciplines, such as politics, sociology, and geography.

Objects of régulation

9A crucial question from the beginning has been why its objects need régulation. This can be answered differently according to levels of abstraction and the sites or fields of regulation. At the most abstract level, we can posit that régulation-cum-governance is necessitated whenever social relations involve complex reciprocal interdependence. This challenge is aggravated when these social relations also involve constitutive and incompressible real contradictions and/or inherent strategic dilemmas that cannot be solved by one-sidedly emphasizing one or other of their horns. This leads to comparisons of ways of handling these contradictions that reflect national configurations and institutionalised class compromises and, in addition, the hierarchy of the structural forms associated with different accumulation regimes en régulation and, conversely, how shifts in this hierarchy can destabilise these regimes (for a fine overview, see Boyer, 2015). Early regulationist work by those affiliated to, or inspired by, Marxist scholarship emphasised the contradictions in the wage-relation and labour process (viewed as a duality of concrete labour and abstract labour time) and in the money form (money, credit, finance). Less attention went to contradictions linked to competition as an essential feature of differential accumulation, the form and functions of the capitalist state (including political regimes), and international regimes. All such contradictions are incompressible but, as Pascal Petit (1998) and Robert Boyer (2015) explore in different ways, their relative weight varies across modes of growth and varieties of capitalism, each of which poses different sets of régulation and governance problems. Sadly, from our perspective, subsequent regulationist scholarship has tended to marginalise the foundational character of the contradictions identified in the pioneering studies and has shown little interest in contradictions in the other structural forms (for a partial exception, see Lordon, 2008, pp. 23-53).

10Bob Jessop is one of the few scholars working in the regulationist tradition who still takes contradictions seriously, building on the first generation work of Michel Aglietta (1976) and Alain Lipietz (1993) to extend the analysis of contradictions to other forms of the capital relation (see Table 1, the discussion below, and Jessop, 2013). He highlights the contradictions in the five structural forms studied in the ATR and explores the institutional and spatiotemporal fixes that enable the resulting crisis-tendencies, antagonisms, and dilemmas to be managed at least temporarily by virtue of displacement and deferral mechanisms. He adds that structural contradictions entail strategic dilemmas. For example, should the State treat wages, including the social wage, mainly as source of demand, as a cost of production, or seek to balance them? The first corresponds to Atlantic Fordism with its Keynesian welfare state, the second to neoliberal retrenchment and the austerity state; and the third to flexicurity regimes. How these contradictions are handled shapes subsequent crises. For example, the Keynesian welfare state, which is typically linked in one form or another with Atlantic Fordist regimes, is weakened as internationalisation shifts the primary aspect of the wage relation from its role as source of demand to its cost implications and also shifts the primary aspect of money from national money to international currency. However, such crises do not directly determine the subsequent primacy of these and other contradictions or the form of régulation-cum-governance configurations as well as the institutional and spatio-temporal fix(es) that might stabilise new growth regimes. This depends on what exists in potentia in a crisis conjuncture and on path-shaping initiatives and new accumulation challenges at different scales.

Table 1: Some foundational contradictions

Table 1: Some foundational contradictions

Source: original compilation based on Sum and Jessop (2013)

11Another implication of complex, contradictory and dilemmatic social relations is that they lead to problems of institutional incoherence and instabilities that may also issue in regulatory and governance failures and, often, crises of crisis-management. This triggers efforts at drawing lessons from such failures, a search for new forms and modes of régulation and governance, or new ways to judiciously modulate the balance among different forms and modes. In addition, in certain circumstances, these social relations generate social antagonisms and conflicts. Further problems derive from the legacies of past and present crises and how they were (mis-)managed.

12In addition to a neglect of contradictions, we also find remarkable inertia in the treatment of structural forms because régulationists still largely work with the five forms identified by Boyer (1986), treat them as relatively heterogeneous, and, as Bernd Röttger (2003) notes, fail to ask whether these five forms (no more, no less) are specific to Fordism or are generic features (with variable content) of all modes of régulation in capitalist societies. This led RA theorists to put more attention to the institutional design of modes of régulation and the breakdown of institutionalised compromises that sustain the five forms.

13The RA has been criticised for its approach to these issues. One alleged failing is teleology, i.e., assuming that modes of régulation emerge in order to stabilise pre-given and inherently unstable accumulation regimes. An initial response was to propose ex post functionalist explanation, i.e., an existing accumulation regime will be consolidated only if an appropriate mode of régulation can be discovered by chance and then successfully institutionalised (Lipietz, 1985). In this context, of course, a mode of régulation is understood as an emergent ensemble of norms, institutions, organisational forms, social networks, and patterns of conduct that can stabilise temporarily an accumulation regime despite the conflictual and antagonistic nature of the capital relation. A better response is that accumulation regimes and modes of régulation are both 'chance discoveries' that are selected, co-constituted and co-evolve through trial-and-error search processes. This response entails that objects of régulation do not pre-exist their régulation but are co-produced through attempts at regulation. This is important because there are multiple attempts, often contrary, if not antagonistic, to identify, constitute, and regularise objects of régulation in different spaces, places, sites, scales, etc., that reflect different economic imaginaries and strategies. There are nonetheless objective limits on this co-variation and co-production that stem from the requirements of coherence in the circuits of capital.

14A further complication is the fractal nature of régulation. It follows from the preceding discussion that there is no primary or privileged object of régulation and, hence, no simple hierarchy of scales or sites where accumulation and régulation occur. A further implication is that there is no pre-given logic in the world market, which is currently the ultimate horizon of capital accumulation. What occurs on the global scale is the unintended result of competing efforts to regularise alternative objects of regulation that may well involve many of the same elements but would transform them into quite different moments depending on how they are articulated. As well as the macro level, there are many competing meso-level objects of régulation: territory, sector, value chain, profession, firm, and so on. In short, regulation and governance are inherently ‘messy’ and ‘fuzzy’ processes and there can be no assumption that all forms of regulation and governance are compossible and can produce coherent structural wholes. While there has been interesting work on institutional complementarities in recent régulationist analyses, less attention has been paid to the conditions making for the compossibility of different structural forms of a given accumulation regime and, in addition, for the compossibility of several accumulation regimes within and across different economic spaces (for an analysis of the growing incoherence of European economic space in these terms, see Jessop, 2014).

15One implication of this is that the CMP is an improbable object of régulation in two senses – its overall reproduction is improbable because of its contradictions, conflicts, dilemmas, and crisis-tendencies and so, too, is the reproduction of specific regimes, which manage these challenges in different ways without eliminating them and therefore give specific expression to them. Key issues for exploring and explaining these specificities are the institutional and spatio-temporal fixes associated with different accumulation regimes and modes of régulation, the discontinuous fuite en avant as new temporary solutions are sought in a trial-and-error process mediated through competing imaginaries and unstable equilibria of social forces, and the extent to which different regimes are compossible.

  1. Institutions, institutionalism, and institutional and spatiotemporal fixes

16The ATR has a thin notion of institutions. Institutional analysis is useful, even necessary, to link macro phenomena to micro-foundations in individual agency and can offer insights into the articulation of different structural forms within and across different economic and political spaces. It also facilitates comparison and cumulative analysis of cases across time and space and is particularly productive in the analysis of varieties of capitalism and their articulation in a variegated world market. Institutional complementarities and contrarieties also provide ways of analysing the relative stability of specific varieties of capitalism when they are en régulation.

17This poses the question of what kinds of institutionalism are suitable and how they can be related to more general analyses of the capital relation. Institutionalism cannot explain the generic features of capitalism and, for this reason, among others, it tends to ignore the roots of crisis in the basic contradictions of the capital relation that were at the heart of initial ATR and that explain, in turn, the instability of given institutional and spatio-temporal fixes. These contradictions explain the necessity of institutional and spatio-temporal fixes and the always temporary, partial, and provisional nature of their effects. Moreover, however well institutionalised a given institutions or sets of institutional complementarities may be, they cannot stop conflicts from overflowing them (primacy of agency). To argue otherwise is to fetishise institutions at the expense of their contingent, relational qualities and their reliance for reproduction on specific practices associated with specific discourses and dispositifs. This is an area where recent Foucauldian analyses of governmentality could be productively deployed.

18Two useful concepts here are institutional fix and spatio-temporal fix. An institutional fix is a complementary set of institutions that, via institutional design, imitation, imposition, or chance evolution, offers a provisional, partial, and relatively stable solution (in given parametric limits) to co-ordination problems involved in a given economic, political, or social order (e.g., an accumulation regime). It sets spatial and temporal boundaries in which the structural coherence (and, hence, institutional complementarities) of a given order (e.g., an accumulation regime) are secured. Even within these boundaries, some social forces are marginalised, excluded, or subject to coercion leading, sooner or later, to social and political blowback ‘at home’ as well as ‘abroad’. Institutional fixes can also be analysed in terms of their spatio-temporal aspects and, where this is the primary analytical focus, the concept of spatio-temporal fix is more appropriate. These aspects matter both because of the inherent spatio-temporality of the capital relation as a political economy of time and because institutions are also inherently spatio-temporal. While institutional and spatio-temporal fixes do not abolish contradictions and dilemmas, they can transform their forms of appearance in space-time.

19Specifically, contradictions and their associated dilemmas may be handled through:

  • hierarchisation (treating some contradictions as more important than others);

  • prioritisation of one aspect of a contradiction or dilemma over the other aspect;

  • spatialisation (relying on different scales and sites of action to address one or another contradiction or aspect or displacing the problems associated with the neglected aspect to a marginal or liminal space, place, or scale); and

  • temporalisation (alternating regularly between treatment of different aspects or focusing one-sidedly on a subset of contradictions, dilemmas, or aspects until it becomes urgent to address what had hitherto been neglected).

20On this basis, a given stage or variety of capitalism (or an accumulation regime and its mode of régulation) would differ in terms of the weights attributed to different contradictions and dilemmas (hierarchisation), the importance accorded to their different aspects (prioritisation), the role of different spaces, places, and scales in these regards (spatialisation), and the sequencing of their treatment (temporalisation). In all cases, because the capital relation is reproduced – when it is – through social agency and entails specific forms, stakes, and sites of conflict and struggle, the relative importance of contradictions and dilemmas is not structurally inscribed nor strategically pre-scripted. It will reflect the institutionally-mediated balance of forces in a given situation.

  1. Time, space and world market

21Marx analysed capital's self-expansion in terms of the distinctive features of the capitalist political economy of time. Given the absence of relevant concepts in classical political economy, he had to build a suitable language for this task (Bensaïd, 1995). Examples include labour time, absolute surplus value, relative surplus value, socially necessary labour time, machine time, circulation time, turnover time, turnover cycle, socially necessary turnover time, interest-bearing capital, expanded reproduction (cf. Grossman, 1977; Tombazos, 1994; Jessop, 2013). Their interaction creates complex temporalities, which must be studied for specific explananda in terms of corresponding periodisations and conjunctures, which are mediated through social practices and struggles and overdetermined by the rhythms of other institutional orders and sites of social action. Again, these issues require a trans-disciplinary approach that looks well beyond the concepts available in pure or even heterodox economics. While these complexities are a crucial dimension of the abstract possibility of crises in capitalist regimes due to the extensive scope for temporal as well sociospatial disjunctions in the circuits of capital, all crises have their own specificities and, a fortiori, pose major problems of symptomatology for social forces and observers alike. The empirical symptoms of crisis are not directly legible but must be linked to their actual forms of appearance and then construed and traced to their real causes in overdetermined conjunctures. This is where sense- and meaning-making acquire a major role in investigations alongside the analysis of structural forms (Sum and Jessop, 2013).

22Further complexities are introduced because of the uneven development of the world market and its integration in space-time. Indeed, as Marx and Engels noted some 170 years ago:

The movement of capital, though much accelerated, still remained, however, relatively slow. The splitting up of the world market into separate parts, each of which was exploited by a particular nation, the exclusion of competition among themselves on the part of the nations, the clumsiness of production itself and the fact that finance was only evolving from its early stages, greatly impeded circulation (Marx et Engels, 1976: 56n)

23In crucial respects these factors were still significant when Marx was preparing Capital so that he anticipated an integration of the world market in real time that, even with the advance of neoliberalisation and finance-dominated accumulation, is not yet complete. This poses challenges for the ATR regarding the spatio-temporal horizons of accumulation regimes and their modes of régulation. It might have been plausible to focus on regional and national regimes in the heyday of Atlantic Fordism, relegating international regimes to one of five institutional forms and implying an initial neglect of imperialist relations in the early regulationist work (Lipietz among the Parisians and l’école grenobloise inspired by Gérard Destanne de Bernis are major exceptions here). Even now these issues are more often studied in terms of varieties of capitalism, internationalisation, and globalisation than with due regard to the complex spatio-temporal relations entailed in a variegated capitalism currently organised in the shadow of neo-liberalism. These require a more sophisticated analysis of temporalities and the relations among territories, places, networks, and scales of economic and extra-economic organisation than has yet been provided in the regulationist literature.

  1. Conclusions

24The ATR is a collaborative research programme that continues to undergo empirical extension, conceptual deepening, and ruptural breaks. It has blind spots, missing links, and uneven strengths but has also engaged in theoretical and empirical dialogue with other disciplines and analytical fields, from which professional economists in the ATR tradition could learn. There is no final, complete master régulation theory and, given the complexities and changing character of its analytical objects, there is no one best way to develop the ATR. Rather we need to develop and test alternatives for specific problems based on commitment to continuing dialogue and mutual learning.

25Our recommendations for renewing the ATR include a return to first generation analyses, not as the answer to its problems but because they comprise a classic body of work. In other words, the first generation asked many of the right questions, most of which are still fresh and important, but not all of the answers it offered are still acceptable. To provide better answers requires régulationists to elaborate new concepts, integrate concepts from other paradigms. The latter approach requires theoretical work to render such concepts commensurable and identify where they best fit into the classical regulationist paradigm in order to avoid the ‘floating eclecticism’ that might otherwise emerge from a random mix of assumptions, concepts, arguments, and so on. The present authors have sought better answers by integrating the cultural turn (a concern with sense- and meaning-making) more fully into the ATR and drawing on concepts from other social science disciplines and trans-disciplinary perspectives. Others have drawn inspiration from conventions theory, historical institutionalism, the work of Pierre Bourdieu or Michel Foucault, critical governance studies, political ecology, and other theoretical resources.

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Titre Table 1: Some foundational contradictions
Crédits Source: original compilation based on Sum and Jessop (2013)
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Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum, « Beyond the ‘Approach in Terms of Régulation’? », Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 19 | 1er semestre/ Spring 2016, mis en ligne le 29 juillet 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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