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Notes de lecture

Concerning the Limits of Regulation… Which may conceal others

Thomas Lamarche
Traduction de Roger Miller
p. 1-14
Référence(s) :

Stavros Mavroudeas, The Limits of Regulation. A critical analysis of capitalist development, Edward Elgar, 2012

Cet article est une traduction de :
Des limites de la régulation… qui peuvent en cacher d’autres

Texte intégral

The French version of this note was first published in 2012 The author is grateful for the many suggestions made, notably, by Agnès Labrousse, Sandrine Michel, Martino Nieddu and Julien Vercueil, to whom he wishes to offer special thanks. He nevertheless remains entirely responsible for any omissions or over-simplification.

  • 1
  • 2 A comment is required here on the language used to document the régulation theory, which may well g (...)

1The Revue de la régulation could hardly fail to react to a book entitled The Limits of Regulation. A critical analysis of capitalist development. The title is intriguing and somewhat provocative. In the book Stavros Mavroudeas presents a relatively thorough study of the régulation theory. The title indicates that the book covers both the limits of the régulation theory and those of the politics of regulation in the sense of the French réglementation or control by the State and state-controlled bodies. The author is apparently referring to the limits of Anglo-American-style regulation in the context of a period marked by the excesses of financialised capitalism and the crisis it has generated. The title itself mystifies rather than demystifies the reader as to the nature of the régulation theory. The simplified expression “regulation” that Mavroudeas uses to denote the ‘regulation approach’ (an expression used in the opening sentence, the title and the sub-title of the first part of the book, and also, incidentally, in his PhD thesis1) or ‘regulation theory’, or even ‘French regulation theory’ or ‘regulation school’ are all liable to be confused with the notion of regulation as it is understood in the English-speaking world2.

  • 3 Translator’s note. «  les mauvais usages de la régulation chassent les bons » (Boyer, 1986, p. 30).
  • 4 Translator’s note. « ce que la théorie de la régulation n’est pas »… « quelques malentendus » (Boye (...)

2It is clear that the term ‘regulation’ is likely to lead to mistakes. The new-found success of the logic of regulation in the sphere of neoliberal policies has also tended to obscure the concept of regulation as it understood in France, associated with the mode of régulation. Robert Boyer has nevertheless gone to great pains to explain that “the incorrect use of regulation is gaining ground3”, and to elucidate “what the régulation theory is not” so as to clarify “a certain amount of misunderstanding4”. These are precautions of which Mavroudeas steers clear. In order to avoid misunderstanding let us bear in mind that the authors of the régulation theory generally prefer to use the French term in English, but with the French acute accent (“regulation”). A case in point is the book by Boyer and Saillard entitled Régulation Theory. The State of the Art (2002).

  • 5 Translator’s note. « conjonction des mécanismes concourant à la reproduction d’ensemble, compte ten (...)

3Let us note then that, to quote a well-known definition, ‘régulation’ has the following meaning: “the compound effects of diverse mechanisms on the economy as a whole, given the existing economic structures and social framework5. (Boyer, 1986, p. 30).

1. The limits of an approach via the history of economic thought… which does not exist as such

4The régulation theory requires the elaboration of a certain number of intermediate concepts all round the central concepts which correspond to their import, and it is interesting to observe how Mavroudas covers them. De facto, the principal notions (mode of régulation, accumulation regime, institutional forms, and so on) are described in the book in a relatively accurate, if not particularly original, manner. But the contents are dated in that the new constructions are not taken into consideration. Thus the book does not explore the “limits” indicated in the heading.

1. 1. A problem of publication date

5The reader is immediately seized by a strange impression of being transported backwards in time. He re-reads the title and the introduction, but finds nothing to indicate that this is a work about the history of thought. On the contrary, this book is set in the present, albeit in a period that ended in 1990. This gives rise to a number of questions. Is it legitimate to speak of the corpus of the régulation theory and not go beyond that date? How it is possible to consider the degree to which it can explain how capitalism operates without taking into account what has happened since then?

6One is tempted to think that it corresponds to a problem of publication, and that Mavroudeas’ thesis encountered editorial problems at some stage. But a delay of twenty-two years is inconceivable. The reader then imagines that the book is going to deal with what has happened since 1990 and goes on reading, only to find that he is again mistaken.

7Perhaps, then, it is a study of the history of economic thought? But by failing to pursue his research from this standpoint and by drawing his conclusions from the present, the author is actually infringing the rules of scientific practice. Consequently the specialist in the history of thought will find little to interest him or her in the contents of this book.

8This observation is supported by a quick analysis of the items listed in the eleven-page bibliography, scarcely 10% of which date from later than 1990 and less than ten from later than 2000 (and only include three authors for the last twelve years: Ben Fine, Bob Jessop and the author himself). Furthermore, the post-1990 references are only devoted to critical analyses of the régulation theory and never to regulationist authors. This indicates that the open conditions needed for a healthy exchange of ideas are not guaranteed: there can be no debate with proposals, counter-proposals and answers. There is indeed neither any real discussion of the long-term evolution of regulationist construction nor any attempt to scrutinise its potential to counter post-Fordist positions and their delicate characterisation, even though this is a recurrent bone of contention. Thus no reference is made to Amable, Lordon and Théret, and almost none to Orléan, to name but a few visible authors.

9Could it be that Mavroudras’ case is that nothing has happened since 1990, either to “capitalist development” (the sub-title of the book), or to the régulation theory? That would indeed be strange. This point, will be dealt with later in this article, with a view to doing a minimum of justice to what has been done, even if this entails evoking perhaps disappointing developments. In fact ‘disappointment’ corresponds very much to the author’s stance. To confine the régulation theory to its founders is an approach which ignores the evolution in the approach and cannot on any account reveal what has won widespread academic respect (and what has not). This approach denies the theoretical and methodological value of the régulation theory, which nevertheless constitutes a sort of common heritage.

10When Mavroudeas talks of “The lack of general theoretical framework” which leads “to its present [sic] crisis of identity” (p. viii), the reader doesn’t know where to turn. Does he mean in 1990 or now?

11The editorial problem is therefore of major proportions, notably when the author, commenting on page 42 on sources dated 1982, 1984 (qualified as “more recent” [sic]) or even 1986 (not quoted in the bibliography), makes the bold assertion that “nowadays [sic] it has become quite difficult to find much unanimity among regulationists...”. What is he talking about? Was this book ever proofread? If so, in which year?

1. 2. Truncated chronology, with no reference to the institutions responsible for the régulation theory

12When Mavroudeas turns his attention to “The Identity of Regulation” (page 6 and following pages), he questions whether it is a school and concludes, “Thus today [sic] the term ’Regulation Approach’ is accepted as being more appropriate than “Regulation School.” In doing so he is reviving the definition Lipietz made of what was regulationist back in 1985. What use is that now?

  • 6 Translator’s note. « profondément évolué et elle n’est aucunement stabilisée dans une forme transmi (...)

13And yet the question of derivation and of the distinction between original and derived currents of thought (the Grenoble school, monopolistic State capital, the analysis of long cycles, etc.) is important. But the book adds nothing new. If the aim is to show that the régulation theory has failed to produce an alternative model to vie with neoclassical theory or Marxism, an attempt must be made to show that what has been produced, and the seeds that have been sown, in order to explain what has not been produced. Because in the intervening time between the dream-period of the nineteen seventies and the present day the dream scenario of an an alternative general theory has been revisited many times. In view of this, to arrest the course of history in 1990 is to obscure the fact that the so-called Parisian régulation theory has actually imposed its historically-based reading of capitalism by developing standard concepts which can be applied to each period, but without having recourse to the elaboration of a universal law. As Billaudot explains, the régulation theory has “undergone profound developments and has certainly not stabilised into a transmissible form. This can be taken to indicate that the theory is falling apart. The evolution can also, on the other hand, be considered quite normal and even desirable for a major research program and seen as a construction process with regard to an original institutional theory6.”

  • 7 In each of these publications, a lot are in English, see Issues in Régulation Theory.
  • 8 Translator’s note. Centre pour la recherche économique et ses applications.

14As for discussing whether or not the régulation theory is a school, it is surely necessary to analyse the process of institutionalisation which it has undergone. The process has included stages of construction, communication and exchange (from the Barcelona colloquium – which did, however, take place before 1990 – to the Forums de la régulation, plus the summer schools in La Rochelle), and also publications (from the Lettre de la régulation to the Revue de la régulation, without forgetting L’Année de la régulation and the Régulation series of Économie appliquée7). An analytical study of this kind would certainly show a weakening of the institutional positions in the face of all-dominating standard thinking, and also the difficulties of the laboratories and research groups which contribute or contributed in the past to the régulation theory (cf. the decline of the CEPREMAP8 as a major centre for the régulation theory, the ongoing situation of the organisation surrounding the Research & Régulation association, etc.). But the institutionalist contribution with regard to the régulation theory considered as a school is extremely fragmentary, and most of the fragments are well-known and date back several years.

1. 3. Beyond Fordism… doing justice to some more recent regulationist research

15Despite focusing on the initial phase of the régulation theory, Mavroudeas identifies five different periods. If he broke down a twelve-year period into so many sub-divisions and this only amounted to the first era of the régulation theory, one wonders how much more work he could have done if he had included the ensuing periods. It is not the purpose of this article to do the work in his place, but let us pause for a moment to consider a key question: which accumulation regime has replaced Fordism, which was itself an extremely intensive accumulation regime? In this respect, Mavroudeas’ critical view is similar to Jessop’s work (see the interview in the Régulation review) which purports that the régulation theory has failed to provide a solution to the crisis of the Fordist regime, because it has proved to incapable of understanding, characterising and naming the regime that has taken its place (cf. Jessop, 1997).

16The nineties nevertheless saw the emergence of the characterisation of different characterisations of a new regime, which have been the object of numerous commentaries. This new regime does not, therefore, correspond to a moment of unity for the régulation theory. The absence of unity gives rise to recurrent criticism on behalf of various Marxist authors, such as Husson, who qualifies the “plasticity” of the modes of régulation as “practically limitless”, thus opening the flood-gates to “an infinity of combinations”. (2001, p. 178).

17It was certainly difficult to name the regime in the nineteen nineties; consequently designations vary over the period (see the summary by Clévenot, 2008). The most noteworthy proposals once again include the work of Aglietta on the United States, which proposes the characterisation of a “regime of patrimonial growth” (Aglietta, 1998). But the financialisation regime only emerges in one country and functions because of the financial dominance to be found there. The difficulty faced by the régulation theory stems from the unstable character of the regime (and the question as to whether it is possible to define a regime with so little stability) and the fact that it does not rest on an accumulation regime common to a group of countries, unlike the intensive accumulation which preceded it. There is therefore no generalisation of an accumulation trend; and this is a source of unease for the régulation theory, which seeks to identify one (i.e. the one and only) accumulation regime. However the American regime is asymmetrical and not transferable (other than partially to Great Britain). But as it is globalised, it (de)structures national regimes elsewhere. For Lordon (1999) it is possible to identify a financialised accumulation regime which nevertheless co-exists with several different modes of régulation. Thus the discussion of the new regime is linked to the emergence of a growth regime which is not an accumulation regime. This induces a long debate about the financialised regime, the impossibility to reproduce it internally and the fact that it cannot be generalised to the rest of the world outside the United States. All the factors indicate that it cannot be considered as an accumulation regime (Clévenot, 2008).

  • 9 Translator’s note. « dominante immatérielle ».

18The characterisation of the accumulation regime has led to contributions of quite distinct types which shift the debate away from the specifically financial sphere. Some of them focus on a regime of “immaterial dominance” 9 (du Tertre, 2007) and others (rather in discussion with the régulation theory than within the régulation theory) on the emergence of a form of “cognitive capitalism” in which knowledge is actually the object of accumulation (Colletis and Paulré, 2008).

2. Régulation theory against Marx? A pointless confrontation

19We have just seen that the régulation theory has been faced with a difficulty inherent in its method and its object, namely working with stylised facts to account for stabilised historical forms. This is a problem, because this regulation can only be observed after the event. So the régulation theory has not only produced Fordism, but also the concepts needed to explore society history. Researchers are then always obliged to delve into a mass of quantitative and qualitative empirical data in order to understand social evolution. Rather than a general theory, the régulation theory is a theory based on the analysis of the historical variability of reality. That constitutes a major difference in comparison with the production of a general theory aimed at generating a universally applicable explanation.

2. 1. The régulation theory is not a general theory

20One of the basic “limits” announced by Mavroudeas is to be found in the misguided practice of stating that the régulation theory has not succeeded in producing a general theory, because closer examination shows that this has not been its main objective. It was the success of the régulation theory in the midst of the heterodoxy of the early days of the crisis of Fordism that was responsible for these great expectations. More recently it is the successful attempts to spread the theory throughout the intellectual community that have led to many common practices, thus diversifying the corpus of the régulation theory.

21It may be here that we find the real trap for regulationist research: the characterisation of Fordism is considered to be the prime achievement of the régulation theory. This simplification, originating from the dissemination of the notion of Fordism, tends to draw a veil over the way in which the régulation theory begins by producing a method or a means of apprehending the inherent contradictions of a regime by updating the descriptions of the institutions temporarily responsible for its unity and stability.

  • 10 The scope of this article does not include the investigation of other historical currents which are (...)

22Of course if one looks again at some of the declarations of intent to create a general unified theory that dating from the seventies, the origin of this resentment becomes apparent. And yet there are, in reality, few indications of the desire to produce a global theory as an alternative to the neoclassical theory or to Marxist analysis. The ambition of a general theory is found more implicitly than explicitly in the work of Aglietta (1976). But although this book is at the very foundations of the régulation theory, the regulationist research that followed no longer harboured that ambition. Aglietta’s pioneering book constitutes one of the most directly Marxist approaches ever pursued by regulationist researchers10and as such it bears the imprint of the idea of the construction of a general theory. Aglietta’s book can nevertheless be read as being seminal not, in the main, due to its totalising dimension, but, on the contrary, due to ability to produce concepts which were to nourish an “intermediate” approach closely linked with reality and with stylised facts.

  • 11 « Crise et inflation pourquoi ? » (‘Why the crisis? Why inflation?’). In the first instance this ti (...)

23Another author vectoring this ambition is Alain Lipietz, notably in Crise et inflation pourquoi ? (Lipietz, 1979). The book dates from the very beginning of the régulation theory. The Marxist influence is central and induces a totalist stance, even though the author claims this is not the case11. In a certain way, what Lipietz is proposing corresponds to a universal law of sorts. It is true to say that there were some highly abstract discussions of principle within the régulation theory at one time, but all the work since 1980 has been directed towards producing stylised facts and has thus moved away from a general theory aiming to produce universal laws. Although the régulation theory originated in the coming together of two general theories (Marx and Keynes), it remains closely associated with the Annales School. Thus historicisation (which can indeed underpin a general theory, as with Marx) is originally an approach directed towards facts and history. If the régulation theory is to be discussed on the basis of an essentially Marxist reading and to be judged on its ability to operate within Marxist categories (notably the labour theory of value), as is the case with Mavroudeas, and also several other authors, the importance of this triple affiliation will be underestimated. This reading fails to appreciate the close link with the Annales School, which cannot be simply dismissed as a passing fad or a craze-like effect due to the dominance of these two currents (Annales and régulation theory) in their respective fields (p. 41).

24The régulation theory approach is genealogical or genetic. A distinction must be drawn between the genesis and the functioning of the institutions. This is the approach followed by Théret (2008) and the multi-disciplinary group working with him on monetary questions when he refuses to define money in terms of its functions. The genetic approach causes the régulation theory to reject functionalism, in the perspective of historical institutionalism. It thus distances itself from a clearly Marxist reading (cf. Labrousse, 2006).

2. 2. Is the régulation theory a “middle range” theory?

25Central point of the book is based on the disappointment that the régulation theory has not produced a general theory. Mavroudeas comments at some length on the idea (which is pejorative in his mind) that the régulation theory is or has become a “middle-range theory”. Here is a quotation where the central critical point is made: “The spinal column is its methodology. Regulation belongs to the category of ‘middle-range’ theories that are opposed to ‘grand theory’ tradition (theories covering the whole spectrum, from abstract laws and concepts to empirical analysis) and that are based on a rejection of abstract general laws and general theory in favor of intermediate concepts with almost immediate identification with the most concrete phenomena or with empirical observations believed to be so (‘stylized facts’)” (p. 44).

  • 12 Even though the arrival of the regulationists on the political scene was not particularly successfu (...)

26Not only is there scorn inherent in this interpretation which considers the régulation theory as having a general theory programme, or rather as belonging to a “grand theory tradition”, but more importantly, this debate has been closed for twenty years now. The absence of the régulation theory from the field of value theory (to which we will return later in this article), but more fundamentally the refusal to define general laws is a salient feature of the régulation theory. Is that to say that the régulation theory constitutes a methodological form in its own right? This formulation does not explain the ability to engender generally-applicable concepts which also aim to return towards reality12. In fact the régulation theory is essentially geared to producing intermediate concepts that are linked to each other and form a corpus of doctrine, the self-contained and coherent nature of which has been extensively described. The basic works of Boyer in 1986 and 2004, together with that of Boyer and Saillard (1995 in French and 2002 in English), constitute the well-known core of the subject. We have already noted the complexity of the period that began with the crisis of Fordism, followed by the emergence of a financialised regime and today’s crisis. Given this situation, we may indeed wonder whether to continue to discuss the “grand theory”, but heterodox groups, notably the regulationists, have collaborated successfully on research devoted to stylised facts and intermediate concepts, even if the universal analysts have also met with success in their work on simplification or denunciation.

27The main explanation of the rejection of the régulation theory that Mavroudeas is proposing is to be found in the criticism of the Marxist heritage that underpins the régulation theory. Let it nevertheless be said that the régulation theory is more at pains to distance itself from Marxism than from Marx. But the author criticises this distancing both with regard to orthodox Marxism and to standard analysis, and reacts as if the régulation theory aimed to remain an equal distance away from each of these corpora: “The more recent (sic) dicta of Aglietta and Brender (1984) against both neoclassicism and Marxism for their common totalizing and totalitarian character...” (p. 42).

28Of course it is not only the distancing from Marxism that troubles Mavroudeas, but its interpretation, which he qualifies as a “gross misrepresentation with regard to Marxian dialectics” (p. 71). Before that (p. 70) Mavroudeas regrets that no answers are given to his own critical stance (his 1990 thesis). It is all very well for Mavroudeas to reduce the régulation theory to a “middle-range theory”, using supposedly authoritative destructive arguments (p. 74, for example), but that does not answer the key-question of whether it would have been more useful during this period to have attempted make progress with a totalistic and univocal “grand theory”. The reader would love to know more precisely what Mavroudeas is proposing. By developing a critical stance that hides behind academic Marxism, Mavroudeas omits to consider the nature of the Marxist affiliation and fails to perceive how capitalist social relations form the structure of all regulationist concepts (market nexus, wage-labor nexus, accumulation regime, etc.).

29Mavroudeas thus suggests that the régulation theory purports a non-conflictual vision of society. His stance is simple: “Regulation ends up implicitly denying the existence of class-struggle unless it is institutionally expressed” (p. 111). He continues by asking himself how it could have been possible to arrive at mass-consumption without social conflict and without worker agitation. This is an often-voiced critical view that was presented in systematic form by Brenner and Glick, (1991; one the few references dating from after Mavroudeas’ thesis). This criticism is characteristic of regret that orthodox Marxist views have not been faithfully observed. Mavroudeas’ position minimises the complexity and conflictuality surrounding the concept of institutionalised social compromise and that fact that the regulation forms emerge precisely in order to make the tensions produced by the accumulation regime more bearable. In reality he pays scant attention to this, even though it is one of the keys to understanding the temporary stabilisation processes regarding the conflicts which are the centre of the concept of the mode of régulation. His interest in the class struggle appears to prevent him grasping the logic underlying the elaboration of these compromises, which are in fact the consequence of a struggle for the balance of power. Albeit that an idealised vision of Fordism as the golden age may indeed have transpired from the various applications of Fordism in various quarters, these applications are not based on regulationist analysis, and should not, therefore, be included an a critical study of the régulation theory claiming to be scientific. The focus on class relations has been replaced by different approaches which have not, however, turned a blind eye to conflict. This is apparent in the references to violence (in connection with money, Aglietta and Orléan, 1982), to power confrontation (as in the work on conatus, Lordon, 2010) or to the metaphysics of strife (Lordon, 2008a), etc.

30By including the area of power in its coverage of political economy, the régulation theory has been one of the places where debate has been centred not only on the market economy but also on capitalism. And the existence of this dichotomy proves that it is not true that the régulation theory seeks to remain an equal distance away from Marx and the neoclassical theory. If Mavroudeas had taken the trouble to trace the history over a period of nearly forty years, he might have seen just how the régulation theory has elaborated its own historicity by a long-term process of experimentation involving many meanders. Due to the radical change in the regulation of capitalism, the régulation theory has avoided the simplification of a general monocausal theory. In short, Mavroudeas’ criticism is a reaction to the criticism levelled at orthodox Marxist by the régulation theory, and at the way the theory revisits Marx and has the nerve to list everything in its cupboard (Boyer, 2007).

31Instead of commenting only on the distance the theory has put between itself and Marx’s totalist approach, Mavroudeas could look at how, by working on the characterisation of institutional forms, the theory has been able to move from abstract relations to social relations based on historical and territorial reality. It is quite true that the régulation theory offers no universal explanations; it examines capitalism but fails to produce a systematic vision of it, preferring to acquire an understanding of features identifiable in space and time (i.e. modes of régulation and even different forms of capitalism). Following on from historical institutionalism, the régulation theory refuses to adopt a teleological vision of the way societies evolve. The backbone of the concepts is causative and sequential causality. Time is therefore essential, and is marked by the presence of irreversibility and by the effect of politics and social representation (Boyer et al., 1991). So causality is sequential, but also circular and recursive, with a return of the effect to the cause. The analysis is marked by dialectics. Thus the Marxist heritage continues to be apparent in the social relations, notably as they are characterised in the institutional forms, and indeed in the central identity of the accumulation regime.

32One point of discussion missing from the link with Marxism is the discussion of functionality, and in particular sector functionality, which has a mechanical dimension in Marxist analysis (cf. two-sector model, consumer goods, production goods, Bertrand, 1983). The sectoral research, initially on the construction sector and petrochemicals (du Tertre, 1989) and subsequently on the wine sector (Bartoli and Boulet, 1990), have called into question this functionalist attitude and replaced it with a notion of “semi-functionality” in an attempt to characterise the variety of types of sector pattern identified in their own sectoral history (Boyer, 1990). This approach refutes functionalism and demonstrates that the independent evolution of different sectors has in turn had an influence on the overall pattern, which depends on the nature of the accumulation regime (Laurent and du Tertre, 2008). The semi-functionality of the sector at the macroeconomic level results from a dialectic relationship between a macroeconomic functional dimension and a pattern specific to a particular sector. Sector transformations are also showing as leading to the structural instability of the accumulation regime in the post-Fordist period. In short, work of this type aims to describe the passages from macroeconomy to mesoeconomy in a more dialectic and historical fashion.

33The Marxist theory which is Mavroudeas’ point of reference is a theory that claims to be both historical and general. It adopts a teleological vision of history and so cannot easily be applied to the evolution of capitalism or of different forms of capitalism. The problem here lies in the very definition of a general theory: is it necessary to search for new laws? The régulation theory is nevertheless general in another sense, namely by the fact that it proposes an explanatory theory based on general concepts, some of which correspond to the Marxist heritage. These concepts only acquire sense and content due to the historical observation of societies. For the régulation theory, the exploratory conceptual framework has a dimension of generality, and the same applies to the notion of situated regularity. And hence, as the regularity is situated, it is important to continue to study them constantly and endeavour to stylise the facts.

34It is important to return to the fact that the régulation theory adopts an abductive procedure to develop its analytical descriptions, in the sense it is understood by pragmatic American philosophy in the mind of John Dewey. It is concerned by the endogenous emergence of novelty (notably unexpected and surprising facts) via historical processes. Taking stylised facts as a starting point, the régulation theory attempts to construct a theoretical corpus adapted to the object being studied. The construction of the object (the regime, its regularity, its crises) is therefore simultaneously a fundamental stage of the research (i.e. a method) and a result of the same research.

  • 13 Incidentally this is also true for the so-called exact sciences.

35It would appear that, in short, the general theory to which Mavroudeas refers recalls a representation of science which has been revisited time and time again. For example, in the social sciences13 when time is referred to, since historic institutionalism and the School of Annales, the existence of generalities, the duration and truth of which correspond to definite temporal phases has been more and more frequently accepted. In the régulation theory, the existence of regularities specific to a mode of régulation is demonstrated by juxtaposing an accumulation regime with institutional forms. This conceptualisation has made it possible to identify the most characteristic elements and features of a historical period, without erasing them entirely from the explanation of another period, and without neglecting the way in which the functioning of a mode of régulation generates new modes. Theoretically, regularity certainly expresses a generality, but the acceptance of its historic, and therefore finite, character implies that the causes of its passing must be understood. So the epistemological question is no longer that of a general theory, but of the capacity of a theory to produce a representation which integrates unity, diversity and duration. Time comes first and there is no teleology.

2. 3. From a refusal to align with value theory… to its re-introduction into a debate on principles

36Debates on value theory, and then the refusal to align with value theory constitute another critical point with the regard to the régulation theory.

  • 14 Translator’s note. « la plupart des travaux régulationnistes font abstraction du problème, se conte (...)
  • 15 Translator’s note.« Considérant les contradictions et les limites de la théorie valeur-travail, Agl (...)

37Although Mavroudeas devotes a long section to the labour theory of value, this has not been central in the history of the construction of the régulation theory, which has left this key element of Marxist analysis relatively untouched. Nadel characterised the slackening of the links with Marx after the initial research by Aglietta and Lipietz: “most regulationist research ignores the problem and, as far as applied research is concerned, simply uses stylised modelling for standard data”, adding that “The efforts made by regulation to establish a theoretical base on the question of value, prices and money in line with Marx exist, but remain sporadic and ambiguous”14. By not going beyond the most specifically Marxist period of the régulation theory, and by his own commentary which is underpinned by Marxist analysis, Mavroudeas fails to notice the place that money takes in the regulation theory construction process as a whole, in concordance with Orléan’s research. After devoting a long chapter on value theory, which is not, therefore, central to the régulation theory, the author recognises in one short sentence on the last page that he has not covered money, credit or inflation; thus leaving us with a more than biased analysis! Mavroudeas’ Marxist analysis insists on the founding authors, who are no longer the main proponents of the régulation theory, which is thus no longer the same theory that was initiated by Aglietta. The refusal to align with labour theory of value is a constant object of criticism by the Marxist group in discussion with the régulation theory. There is in fact a reference to this in the current issue of the Revue de la régulation: “In view of the contradictions and limits of the labour theory of value, Aglietta and Orléan (1982 and 2002) will decide to break away from the value theory and replace it with the question of money”15.

  • 16 Translator’s note. « Il faut rompre avec la théorie de la valeur et lui substituer une analyse de l (...)
  • 17 Translator’s note. « monnaie et valeur constituent une seule et même réalité » (2007).

38This has been the case since Aglietta and Orléan (1982), which has led to considerable tension with the labour theory of value. The authors put forward that, “It is necessary to break away from the labour theory of value and replace it with the analysis of money as a process by which market societies are organised and acquire stability. In order to state this in a schematic manner, economists are in the habit of thinking of price from the standpoint of value, whereas for us, it is based on money. ‘Value versus money’, this in our eyes the essential choice.16 The arrival of monetary economics (of Keynesian inspiration this time), in which money comes before exchange, takes the régulation theory away from the labour theory of value. Lordon and Orléan were to demonstrate later that, “Money and value amount to one and the same reality.”17

  • 18 Translated in 2014, The Empire of Value: A New Foundation for Economics, MIT Press.

39This tendency is also to be found in Orléan (201118), who reconsiders the labour theory of value and concludes that it is different to any substantive approach, so as to prepare the ground for the economic thinkers to engineer its insertion into the social sciences. That shows not only that the debate has not been abandoned, but moreover that it is central, both for the régulation theory and for heterodox researchers, in that it examines the link between economics and the social sciences by re-introducing value into the field of social relations via the discussion of value as such. In short, the question of labour theory of value shows us that debates on principles in the régulation theory are alive and well.

To conclude

There are no lone rider: from the régulation theory to open discussion...

40We have just seen that Mavroudeas is interested in the régulation theory because it could have elaborated a general theory, and in doing so he is focusing on its unity, whereas the research conducted indicates that this is not its principal object.

  • 19 Translator’s note. « économie politique hétérodoxe »for this expression, see Lordon, 2008b

41It would doubtless have been interesting to match the criticism of the weakness of the régulation theory as a school proposing a general theory with the nature of the discussions that have been taking place in the perspective of a “heterodox political economy19” (for comments on this expression, see Lordon, 2008b) and the social sciences as a unidiscipline.

  • 20 Translator’s note. « centrée sur les propriétés dynamiques des formes institutionnelles » et une éc (...)

42Discussion with the economics of conventions would seem to be an obvious and central entry point, given all the two ‘schools’ have in common, and all the past tensions between them. Olivier Favereau explains as follows in L’État des savoirs (’The State of the Art’) how he perceives a potential “convergencebetween a régulation theory detached from its Marxist origins and “centred on the dynamic properties of the institutional forms” and an economics of conventions “based on the learning patterns associated with a given institutional group.”20 It is interesting to see how the “agreement”, which takes pride of place in the economics of conventions, is in tension with the régulation theory’s notion of institutionalised social compromise, which supposes that it is not the commonly shared conventions that stabilise situations. Favereau’s position regarding conflictuality or balance of power stand opposite Mavroudeas’ criticism, which refers to the supposed abandonment of class relations. What Favereau identifies in this text is an institutionalist framework with a macroeconomic dimension (the régulation theory) and microeconomic foundations (the economics of conventions).

  • 21 Almost a decade was to go by before there was any serious re-examination of the points of convergen (...)

43No comment will be made here of the major tensions marking the relations between régulation theory and economics of conventions in the 2000’s, when Amable and Palombarini (2005) put forward the idea that the two approaches are irreconcilable with each other, and that their scientific projects actually serve to organise their incompatibility: they purport that the economics of conventions originated in an act of theoretical original sin by denying the capacity of conflicts and power relations to form a structural framework, and by declaring as a substantive principle the existence of so-called general interest (even if it is subdivided on the grounds of the legitimacy tests of different orders or cities). This calls for two comments: firstly, it is reasonable to think that the form given to the convention/régulation debate, which must be considered separately from its content, steered the discussions towards separation21; secondly, it would appear that the debate on the existence of general interest or on its orchestration by the hegemonic advocates of institutional compromise is consubstantial with all the social sciences. That provides all the more justification for a programme of convergence which entails the construction of an arena for dialogue.

In parallel, the discussion has also spread widely to other disciplines, notably political science, as is apparent from the exchanges regarding ‘varieties of capitalism’ and also from the contributions to L’Année de la régulation. The régulation theory began a discussion at the end of the nineteen-nineties on the work of Hall and Soskice (2001) which was followed by Amable’s characterisation of five forms of capitalism (Amable, 2003). The régulation theory then turned to the different institutional configurations, discussing the hierarchy of institutional forms which make it possible to define a variety of mode of régulation around a small number of configurations (Amable et al., 2002) and their differentiated capacities to pilot an accumulation regime.

The approach by varieties of capitalism is inserted, or even directed, by a number of pieces of regulationist research (see the work on transition, Europe, etc.). If, like Mavroudeas, one considers the régulation theory as univocal, it is not possible to situate its evolution in time by a sort of hybrid procedure using different approaches. It is in this sense that the pattern associated with stylised facts always prevails over the construction of a univocal general theory. Yet again it is the triple Marx-Keynes-Annales grounding which takes preference over each of the component parts, a fact that an exclusively Marxist reading fails to reveal.

In this way the régulation theory has constantly established links within the humanities and social sciences, often with political science and history, but also with anthropology (cf. Théret, 2008), sociology, notably sociology of labour, but also with economic sociology (Steiner and Vatin, 2009) and management science (regarding the company and corporate social responsibility, Lamarche, 2011).

The central notion of the institution been one of the objects of this interdisciplinary approach which is much more than an approach by any one school. In the régulation theory and the different heterodox currents it has become more and more central to create a firm basis for the thinking within the humanities and the social sciences. This is also a major contextual fact which Mavroudeas cannot identify: after 1990 the régulation theory is marginalised by the standard domination of methodological individualism. The same applies, incidentally, to other heterodoxies and is also the case for Keynesianism, notably in its post-Keynesian component (Labrousse et al., 2012).

  • 22 The colloquium organised jointly in July 2012 by three major associations, AFEP, AHE and IIPPE, is (...)

Mavroudeas has a relatively narrow vision of schools and of their need for internal coherence. In his discussion of the identity of the régulation theory (page 6 and following pages) he insists, unlike Jessop (1997), Boyer (2007) and Théret (2000) on what differentiates and what divides. On the contrary, many recent institutional approaches lead to wide-reaching exchanges and engender the potential to further institutionalist knowledge by working together, not only in the area of economic thinking but also more widely throughout the social sciences. Jessop, for example, states that we do not have the luxury of considering ourselves among the founding fathers of the social sciences in a unified or non-differentiated "pre-discipline". He concludes, "I sometimes describe my work as pre-disciplinary in inspiration, trans-disciplinary in practice (or perspiration!), and post-disciplinary in aspiration" (Jessop, 2012). This is a perspective that Mavroudeas does not perceive because he focuses on the notion of a school, whereas the important thing at present is the capacity to work together22. If these wide-reaching exchanges do lead to the weakening of the school in the unified sense, then will be the time to tackle the issue of its pertinence.

On this point, Théret (2000) advances towards a unidisciplinary specific to the social sciences, combining politics, economics and sociology. This is a long way away from the notion of a research object that is supposed to gravitate round a school. It is also a question that permits the characterisation of different institutional approaches (Billaudot, 2009) starting with the characterisation of the institutions. As for the link to philosophy, notably that of Spinoza, it opens the perspective of building a general theory of institutions placing desire and not interest at the centre of social relations (Citton and Lordon, 2008). Indeed, the approach based on “affects” developed in Spinoza’s anthropology can be read as a complement to Marxist structuralism and not solely a break away from it (Lordon 2010).

This is how, rather than opting for the (re)construction of a discipline outside economics, in the spirit of the new economic sociology or socio-economics, the régulation theory has preferred to participate in a vast collective movement aiming at compensating for the lack of attention to social issues in orthodox economic thinking seeking to identify the regular patterns that exist beyond contradictions and conflicts. It is collective challenge for heterodox groups to insert economics into the social sciences by using their variety of methods, research objects and paradigms with a view to establishing the social sciences as a unidiscipline (Orléan, 2005).

In short, we have recalled that the priorities for our community have undergone radical change since 1990. Saving a place for heterodoxy in the discipline and in its thinking is a vexed question which requires us to look beyond the unity or universality of a school to explore the spheres and conditions needed to comprehend the world. It is probably necessary to review the objects of research and the concepts of the régulation theory in order to bring them closer to the living world and also to consider the risk of dissolution.

There is certainly tension between producing connections by opening up to a wider range of heterodoxies and maintaining a school in the narrow sense. But as the school is no more, in the strict sense of the word, we feel justified, particularly in the columns of this journal, in supporting the regulationist studies. The Latin-American example (Revue de la régulation, no 11) is also highly edifying by virtue of the vitality of the research and its proximity to the economic policy in currently use. We can safely wager that this bodes well for the future.

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The régulation theory in its original version is marked by (Althusserian) structuralism and then turns its attention to conflicts of interest and dominance relations in association with Pierre Bourdieu’s action theory. The discussion with the economics of conventions and the aspects of it that are borrowed by the régulation theory are aimed at improving comprehension of patterns of institutional change, given that it (also) originates in individual behaviour. Much research on the economics of conventions is thus aimed at a broader approach, and contributes on the one hand to the dilution of the “schools” in the narrow sense, and on the other hand to setting up a forum for sharing work done, which is a major challenge for humanities and social sciences (Eymard-Duvernay et al., 2006). Thus the exchanges between the economics of conventions and the régulation theory have to do with the construction of an action theory associating microeconomic foundations and the structuralist approach (cf. Postel and Sobel, 2006). The same spirit of building a joint edifice is to be found in the work aimed at developing an actor theory common to the economics of conventions and the régulation theory, which Bessis calls a “theory of limited reflexivity”, and which is designed to bring “justified relations” and “power relations” together (Bessis, 2008a). As we can see, convergences are under discussion that go beyond the régulation theory or the economics of conventions, taking each of them separately.

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Stavros Mavroudeas presented his thesis entitled “The Regulation Approach: a critical appraisal” in 1990 at Birkbeck College, University of London, under the supervision of Ben Fine.

2 A comment is required here on the language used to document the régulation theory, which may well give rise to some incomprehension. The régulation theory and most of the discussion surrounding it have been expressed in French, which has limited their international impact. The biography of this book suggests that the author has a reading knowledge of French.

3 Translator’s note. «  les mauvais usages de la régulation chassent les bons » (Boyer, 1986, p. 30).

4 Translator’s note. « ce que la théorie de la régulation n’est pas »… « quelques malentendus » (Boyer, 2007, p. 7).

5 Translator’s note. « conjonction des mécanismes concourant à la reproduction d’ensemble, compte tenu des structures économiques et des formes sociales en vigueur » (Boyer, 1986, p. 30).

6 Translator’s note. « profondément évolué et elle n’est aucunement stabilisée dans une forme transmissible. Certains décèlent en cela un éclatement. On peut, au contraire, considérer cette évolution comme normale et même souhaitable pour un programme de recherche conséquent et la voir comme un processus de construction d’une théorie institutionnelle originale » (Billaudot, 2001, p. 11).

7 In each of these publications, a lot are in English, see Issues in Régulation Theory.

8 Translator’s note. Centre pour la recherche économique et ses applications.

9 Translator’s note. « dominante immatérielle ».

10 The scope of this article does not include the investigation of other historical currents which are considered parallel to the “Parisian school” (such as, for example, state monopoly capitalism).

11 « Crise et inflation pourquoi ? » (‘Why the crisis? Why inflation?’). In the first instance this title should be taken literally. Despite the imposing dimensions of certain developments and their apparently systematic charcter, this is not a presentation of contemporary capitalism […] The subject is far more limited: not “why the crisis?” but “why this inflationist crisis?” (« Ce titre doit être d’abord pris à la lettre. Malgré l’ampleur de certains développements et leur caractère apparemment systématique, ce n’est pas un exposé sur le capitalisme contemporain. […] Le propos est beaucoup plus mince : non pas “pourquoi la crise ?”, mais “pourquoi cette crise inflationniste ») Lipietz, 1979, p. 7-8.

12 Even though the arrival of the regulationists on the political scene was not particularly successful, cf. the round table discussion « Les régulationnistes en politique : la théorie à l’épreuve de la réalité », (The regulationists in politics: theory put to the test of reality) Forum de la régulation, 10 October 2003, Paris. The recording of the discussion is available online at

13 Incidentally this is also true for the so-called exact sciences.

14 Translator’s note. « la plupart des travaux régulationnistes font abstraction du problème, se contentant pour ce qui est de la recherche appliquée, de l’utilisation des données courantes et d’une modélisation stylisée »... « l’effort déployé par la régulation pour constituer un fondement théorique sur la question de la valeur, des prix et de la monnaie en filiation avec Marx existe mais reste dispersé et ambigu » (Nadel, 2002, p. 42).

15 Translator’s note.« Considérant les contradictions et les limites de la théorie valeur-travail, Aglietta et Orléan (1982 puis 2002) vont choisir de rompre avec la théorie de la valeur pour y substituer la question de la monnaie » (Montalban, 2012).

16 Translator’s note. « Il faut rompre avec la théorie de la valeur et lui substituer une analyse de la monnaie comme processus par lequel les sociétés marchandes se structurent et accèdent à une existence stabilisée. Pour le dire de manière schématique, les économistes ont eu pour habitude de penser le prix en partant de la valeur, quand, pour nous, son fondement est à trouver dans la monnaie. “Valeur versus monnaie”, telle est, selon nous, l’alternative essentielle. » (2002, p. 24).

17 Translator’s note. « monnaie et valeur constituent une seule et même réalité » (2007).

18 Translated in 2014, The Empire of Value: A New Foundation for Economics, MIT Press.

19 Translator’s note. « économie politique hétérodoxe »for this expression, see Lordon, 2008b

20 Translator’s note. « centrée sur les propriétés dynamiques des formes institutionnelles » et une économie des conventions « tournée vers les dynamiques d’apprentissage associées à un ensemble institutionnel donné » (Favereau, 1995, p. 514).

21 Almost a decade was to go by before there was any serious re-examination of the points of convergence; see the work of Bessis (2008b) to this effect.

22 The colloquium organised jointly in July 2012 by three major associations, AFEP, AHE and IIPPE, is an indication of the spread of this work to different heterodox groups.

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Thomas Lamarche

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