Stress Test for Regulation Theory
On 8th and 9th of July 2010 I attended the conference "Regulationstheorie in der Krise" (Regulation theory in the era of crisis) jointly organised by the University of Vienna and the Renner Institute (political academy of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, SPOE). The title transports a double meaning, it refers to the crisis of regulation theory as well as to what has regulation theory to say about the current crisis? I do not claim to be an expert in economics and I am also a newbie to the regulation approach. However, I found this conference very interesting and thought provoking, so I try a summary in English.
It's happening in Europe. It's happening in Canada. It's happening in the U.S. Socialists and communists coming out of the woodwork to co-op the youth and spread a dangerous disease. Tomorrow we'll expose it because it's coming to a city near you.
Glenn Beck, Fox News, A Busy Week for Radicals
There were about 80 people present at the lush surroundings of the Altmannsdorf HotelsI+II on the outskirts of Vienna, which belong to the Viennese social democrat business complex financed by past and present surplus labour of Austrian, Viennese and migrant workers. With the exception of Bob Jessop who delivered a kind of introduction and keynote, and Ngai-Ling Sum, who gave a very interesting presentation on the cultural construction of BRIC (Brasil-Russia-India-China) all other presenters were Austrian, German or Swiss and the conference language was German, somewhat to my surprise in this day and age of globalised discourse. Most of those present were Marxists of one or the other kind, on whose intellectual development Regulation Theory (RT) had made a strong impact in the past. In Octobre 2001 a similar but much smaller congress had been held in Vienna. Already then participants had asked themselves inhowfar RT was still relevant, if it needed an upgrade or extension, and if yes, in which directions such an upgrade and extensions should work1
Bob Jessop in his introductory speech2 first explained the emergence of the Parisian regulation approach. He pointed out that those most strongly associated with RT, Michel Aglietta, Alain Lipietz and Rober Boyer, had not been trained as political scientists or economists at university level but came from polytechnicals and had worked in various institutions subordinate to the "Commissariat Général au Plan". They were technocrats fascinated by and busy with the production of diagrams, slow charts, timelines and data series.
Jessop highlighted one of the central achievements of the regulation approach, the identification of structural forms. RT was developed as a critique of neo-classical macroeconomics which understood the equilibrium between production and consumption as an automatic outcome of market forces. RT posed that the reproduction of capitalism was 'improbable' in the first place and that a kind of stability was achieved only through the emergence of 'structural forms' during the era of Fordism. Structural forms were the result of antagonistic forms of class struggle, but once those forms had settled in they were capable of important functions of mediation such as the mediation between production outcomes and consumption norms. Jessop listed five structural forms: wage, enterprise, money, state and the international regime.
Then Jessop went on to explain where RT failed and succeeded. It failed in economics, insofar as it could not replace neo-classical economics as the dominant paradigm in France. Although regulation approach theorists gained some level of influence on French governments, this influence waned in the long term. One reason for this failure that Jessop cited was that neo-liberalism had some very robust defence mechanism and that with its appearant success on the world scale French institutes involved with economic analysis such as CEPREMAP received less and less funding. Today, Jessop reprorted from a recent visit to Paris, even the building is in a sorry state and the major funding does not come from the French state but from corporations interested in long term planning scenarios. Many economists with leftist leanings have turned their backs to RT and are now leaning towards institutional economics which has non-Marxist origins.
According to Bob Jessop, RT's success and failure in social theory is even more paradoxical. Generally it can be said that RT made a big impact on the social sciences. The periodisation and the usage of the terms Fordism and Postfordism is an achievement of RT. The wide-spread reception of RT in the social sciences however, was based on its hybridisation and remix with an eclectic range of other theories through which the specificity of the regulation approach was lost. Or, to put it in more populistic terms, as one friend recently said, in the lefty art-scene today you have to use the term Postfordism to look cool, otherwise you just haven't got it. That the hybridisation of theories results in the dilution of some of the key original concepts is a well known fact and usually regrettable. It is, however, not always clear, what gets lost and what gets won3.
In the course of the general cultural and linguistic turn in the social sciences that we have experienced during the last 30 years what has been lost is a sober and competent analysis of economics, or, to put it more precisely, too little attention has been given to how the economic structural contradictions of capitalism in its current peculiarity condition the preponderance of certain cultural forms (and maybe vice versa). Such an idea informs the Technopolitics project developed on thenextlayer.org. It may also inform, although they are approaching it from another direction, the project of the 'cultural political economy' developed by Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum, or at least that's how I understand it.
There are also other possibilities, as the conference would show, namely a 'return' to supposedly good Marxist values whereby priority is given to the analysis of the economic base and everything else is somehow of secondary importance. This viewpoint, while nobody would openly admit it, appeared to inform the implicit choices of theoretical reflection performed by the majority of participants. Yet in my humble opinion this is exactly what turned off thousands of young people with leftist leanings from Marxist thought in the 1980s and 1990s - and most of them never returned remaining pomos forever, caught up in culturalistic concepts of culture, fighting ghosts with ghosts as Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology.
But I am jumping ahead here. Bob Jessop ended his talk by pointing out that among Marxist economists, there was a return to the capital logic school4 on one hand, and to 'varieties of capitalism' 5 on the other. What Jessop proposed as an alternative to that was a return to the sources: Marx, in particular Capital Vol III, chapter 17, theory of Surplus Value, and Gramsci. He also pointed out briefly some other strands in the development of the RT approach, in particular the German approach6 to state theory, the Konstanz school, the Amsterdam school and 'critical geo-politics' (unrotunately he did not speak out what he referred to with the latter). According to Jessop a new approach in RT needs to be less Euro-ameri-centric and cannot focus on narrow spatio-temporal and institutional fixes. The basic contradictions and crisis tendencies of capital need to stay firmly in focus, but with greater emphasis on how they play out now.
Next was Joachim Becker who teaches developmental economics, political economy and state theory at the University of Economics, Vienna. He compared RT with dependency theory and criticized its narrow focus on the nation state (the Parisian school of RT had mainly focused on the US and France). Becker highlighted the issues connected to the intra- or extra-version (the direction of its economic orientation either towards domestic or foreign relationships) of national economies connected to the question how financialisation affects peripheral economies, and how money expresses relationships of power within a global hierarchy of currencies. Becker demanded that RT should be complemented by state theory. What, for instance, has RT to say about a situation in countries where major cities have a huge marginal sector 7. As RT's economic theory is based on the concept of collective bargaining as the dominant structural form of the wage relationship, it would actually have very little to say about situations where the majority of workers have no way of refusing their labour power in a 'strike'. Becker noticed the difference in the treatment of the working classes in core and peripheral countries. While in core countries there is still some notion of the necessity of a class compromise, the 'finance driven regime of accumulation' is much more openly repressive in peripheral countries. Becker asked for a less technocratic understanding of economic relationships. He pointed out how financialisation in the core countries had created effects which tied the lower middle class and middle class to the system through the privatisation of social security and pension systems. As those very large pools of money were actually some of the most powerful institutional investors on financial markets, their success or failure in speculation decided about long-term social security of low, moderate and medium wage earners in core countries. Furthermore, export oriented economies (such as Germany and Austria) were tightly dependent on demand from import oriented economies such as the US and the UK. As those economies also happen to be among the most financialised, even if Germany and other export oriented countries wanted to de-financialise, they could do so only at their own expense - which explains Merkel's u-turn with regard to bail-out packages. Last not least, Becker lamented the hostile climate for critical thought in the environment of institutional economic research.
Jens Wissel and Thomas Sablowski, both based in Frankfurt, held a joint presentation. They started off with a reference to an article by Brenner and Glick in the New Left Review in 19918, a fundamental critique, which claimed that the analytic terms developed by RT were arbitrary, the periodisation wrong and the structural breaks - or paradigm shifts as we would say - non existent. It would seem necessary to criticise this critique but there is neither time nor place for this in this conference summary.
Then Wissel and Sablowski proceeded to explain a model of three layers: the highest, most abstract layer, or 'logic of capital', a middle layer of phase shifts and spatial characteristics, and a base layer of historically concrete events. Wissel and Sablowski proposed to see the introduction of the middle layer as RT's greates achievement. They admitted that, of course, this was a very simplistic model, but insisted that it would be a mistake to remove this middle or intermediary layer. Although this three layer model was firmly criticised by some, it became a frame of reference of sorts for the remainder of the conference.
After the introductions we split up in small groups to discuss the propositions made by the first speakers. A protocol taker reported the results of the group sessions back to the plenary. I will try to give a summary of the summary:
* the analytic terms developed by RT may serve well to describe Fordism
and its crisis, as they were developed in response to it, but work much less well as heuristic categories for what cam after it (so-called Postfordism)
* RT is Euro-ameri-centric and productionist (Ngai-Ling Sum); one group furthered this critique by saying that RT is a 'euro-centric theory of capitalist stages of growth'
* RT has a problem bringing together structure and action, so it is difficult to bring into the theory concrete historical agents, such as social movements for instance
* RT is lacking a sociological theory of labour
* RT cannot account for the ecological question, neither for gender, nor
* RT created a myth around Fordism by emphasising it as a stable paradigm and by looking too exclusively for those mechanisms which guaranteed Fordism's relative stability (there is a possibility that I mishunderstood this)
* RT does not say much about the articulation of the relationship between formal and informal work; as the feminist critique of what Germans call the 'Normalarbeitsverhältnis' (standard emplyoment relationship) unpaid female labour and other forms of non-wage labour are excluded from analysis, although they are central for the reproduction of capitalist social relations;
* RT, except for a few hints in Aglietta's early work, does not say much about culture in general and the working of the culture industry in particular, which is central to the production of consumption norms
The afternoon was spent in working groups. I participated in the working group on centre-periphery, where we had some very interesting debates, especially on the question of the explanatory capacity of RT with regard to economic forms which do not rely on 'accumulation' of capital at all (solidarity economies, subsistence). In my view this discussion did not go far enough and a sort of 'productionist' viewpoint held sway. What I mean by that is that while almost all participants are against capitalism, positions seem to be much less clear with regard to the 'mode of development'. As Marx himself was quite fascinated with the development of the means of production, i.e. industrial technology, an underlying notion of progress based on scientific and technological innovation, which in themselves receive no particular treatment in RT (except by Coriat, I was reminded, ), appears to be taken for granted. With this regard the centre-periphery model itself would maybe need some revision. As 'our' technological model appears to lead straightaway to the destruction of the planet, maybe European theorists should be a bit more humble about the supposed superiority and inevitability of the developmental model of 'core' countries. In that regard RT clearly looses its interpretative and analytic power. Similar limits were reached in the gender working group. I feel unable to report in any detail, but would like to highlight the quite funny phrase of "putting patriarchy in its place" used by one presenter (unable to jot down name during final round-up).
The final panel focused on the question of periodisation. Is the current crisis the 'final crisis' of Postfordism, and will something entirely new begin, once the crisis is over? Or is the current crisis one of those moments when the system stabilizes itself and a 'maturity' phase in Carlota Perez' terms would kick in? Connected to that is the question of 'the phantom of a stabilised Postfordism'. Was Postfordism ever a stable 'regime'? Or, isn't the fact that no consensual term has been found other than 'Postfordism' to describe the current period, or most recent 20 years, evidence that this is not a 'regime of accumulation' which can be set in analogy to Fordism, but rather just a crisis prone period of experimentation which still tries to overcome the crisis of Fordism and thereby gradually slips ever deeper into a finance driven regime of accumulation?
Joachim Hirsch started the evening plenary panel with an analysis of what had led to the crisis. He pointed out that this crisis so far failed to have the cathartic effect that capitalist crises of over-accumulation usually have; the destruction of fixed capital has not happened which would make necessary the beginning of a new cycle based on new key productive forces the investment into which would guarantee a new upswing; what we have, however, is that basically the finance driven accumulation regime continues, which will need more and continued state interventionism in order not to crumble; this puts, as we can already see, too much pressure on the state. As the current right-wing governments which rule Europe have decided on budget cuts that hit the poor and lower income classes most, as social budgets get ever more reduced, this will trigger more social unrest, as it does already in Greece, which will be answered by more state-authoritarianism. Pulling the rug from underneath the remainders of Europe's social systems may, according to Hirsch, cause a crisis of reproduction; rather than finding any resolution the result might be a prolonged dominance of a crisis prone development exacerbated by ecological disasters and depletion of natural resources. Thus, while RT focused on a succession of phases of crisis and phases of stability, Hirsch suggested a new theoretical focus needed to consider the permanence of crisis as a starting point. This will only further reduce the free space of action for the nation state and thereby leads also to a crisis of representation, i.e. the democratic system as we know it, which could lead to a much more profound crisis of the state than anyone can remember in post-war history. The result could only be further calamity, possibly wars and neo-authoritarian tendencies.
A suggestion that emerged in the discussion later on was that possibly comparisons with 1929 could be made, insofar as wrong reactions by economic and political leaders could lead from recession to depression and from there to neo-fascist tendencies. The world situation, however, is not comparable with 1929, if we consider Asian dynamism, and the much more closely integrated world economy now. Even if BRIC is, as Ngai-Ling Sum suggests, partly a 'cultural' construction aimed at investors, there is also a reality to the expansion of 'markets' by those hypothetical thre billion 'new consumers', bound to find its limitations, however, in scarceness of natural resources and ecological trouble.
The final statement was delivered by Bernd Roettger. His rhetorically brilliant speech focused on different versions of the 'crisis' - big versus small crisis; then he compared 1929 with 1974 and 2010 highlighting different aspects of each crisis. He pointed out that it was RT's unique achievement to highlight that each crisis has its specific reasons. We might learn something by understanding the difference between the above mentioned crisis moments if we can grasp the specificities of the dialectics playing themselves out, rather than sticking to a believe of a uniform type of crisis moment. Roettger also pointed out that an attempt was currently underway of 'restoration' of the system before 2007-08. However, if after the crisis is like before the crisis, then what happened now was no 'big' crisis; but anyway, restoration will fail.
The discussion after those two talks, however stimulating it was, ran itself into the ground and brought up no particularly different viewpoints. On the second day I missed the morning session and then participated in the working groups in the afternoon. However, it would stretch my capacities and maybe also the goodwill of the reader to go in detail into what was discussed there.
The final panel discussed the 'what is to be done' question. Sonja Buckel addressed the 'gaps' in RT. As it had shown, issues such as centre/periphery, gender and ecology had once more been submitted into the relative marginalisation of working groups, while the big panels focused on 'central' issues. She proposed for a future conference not to allow such separations anymore and bring those issues firmly into the centre of discussions. In accordance with such a more holistic orientation, new research programs should be launched. Alex Demirovic called for an opening up of RT and proposed that theorists should get involved in a wider coalition building between all groups and parties of the heterodox Left. Theory should find confirmation through action, which sounds always like a good idea to me. Klaus Deppe, Prof. emeritus at the University of Marburg objected, saying it was not yet the right time. RT had not yet fully understood the current transition from one phase to another. As theorists could not yet say what the new accumulation regime would be, it would be premature to try to build new coalitions and advise social movements. The hostile climate towards Marxist political economists in universities was lamented by Deppe and he suggested that the group should lobby more forcefully to get comrades into academic positions. The emergent argument between Deppe and Demirovic was not resolved, as general fatigue set in. The weather was very hot outside and for some reason the air condition had been turned off.
If there was one strong consensus throughout the conference, it was that RT had provided some useful concepts and insights, but that it was maybe better to work with those concepts without using the terminology. If this conference, however, was the 'stress test' as economists like to say, then RT failed. Critical points which are ten years and older, were only confirmed without throwing up essential new points. But the bigger issue, from my point of view, lay in the very mode of operation of such a conference itself. If the intellectuals present at this conference really want to follow up Demirovic's suggestion to get more involved in concrete social struggles and help try forming new coalitions, then its very mode of operation needs to change. This was very much a conference of institutionalised intellectuals working in academic institutions. The structures and communicative conventions of this conference would turn-off any more anarcho-liberal, grassroots or art oriented person within five seconds. The language itself asks a high price of entry to be even able to participate. And if a question is asked and does not exactly use the right kind of terminological framing, it is bound to bounce back without getting answered at all. This is not the language of coalition building, of social protest and of affective labour9.
- 1. The out come of that conference had resulted in the publication Fit für den Postfordismus
- 2. you can find an abstract here
- 3. For a critical assessment of Bob Jessop's contribution to RT, see: Werner Bonefeld, Aglietta in England : Bob Jessop’s contribution to the regulation approach. For an introduction into the different types of reception which RT received in different countries, see Regulation Theories in Retrospect and Prospect by Bob Jessop
- 4. cf. Henryk Grossmann, Grossmann, Henryk, and Jairus Banaji. 1991. The law of accumulation and breakdown of the capitalist system: being also a theory of crises. London: Pluto Press
- 5. Hall, Peter A., Soskice, David eds., 2001: Varieties of Capitalism. The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage, Oxford: Oxford University Press
- 6. for a good introduction into the German reception of RT, see Die école de la régulation: Französische Wirtschaftstheorie mit Ausstrahlung jenseits des Rheins, by Christoph Scherrer
- 7. cf. World Cities, Mike Davis research on mega slums
- 8. Brenner and Glick 1991, unfortunately the archive of NLR is password protected, which appears to be mimicking the capitalist praxis of seeking rent through the protection of intellectual property, very regrettable from a Marxist point of view
- 9. For an example of a more deeply humanistic leftist inspiration read Brian Holmes' report from the US Social Forum Detroit 2010