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La Théorie de la Régulation au fil du temps

Robert Boyer

Chapitre 3. Économie et politique

3.1. Regulation Theory and the role of politics: Reconsidering le statut épistémologique de la Théorie de la Régulation

Markus Perkmann

Texte intégral

  • 128 Villeval 1994; Boyer 1995.
  • 129 Favereau 1995.
  • 130 Billaudot 1995.
  • 131 Théret 1994.
  • 132 Görg 1994.
  • 133 Jessop 1990.

1Various attempts to position Regulation Theory in a more general theoretical perspective have included, on the one hand, the reinterpretation of Regulation Theory as a théorie originale des institutions128 or “TR2129”, conceived as a théorie générale opposed to a “local theory130”. On the other hand, several authors adopted Regulation Theory in a broader social science context. These efforts are illustrated by the concept of social topology131, the reinterpretation of institutional forms in terms of Tony Giddens132 and the project of a regulationist state theory133.

  • 134 The distinction between “value-theoretical” (werttheoretisch) and “price-theoretical” (preistheor (...)

2All these contributions share in common the argument that Regulation Theory cannot be reduced to a théorie locale exclusively preoccupied with the explanation of certain economic regimes, an undertaking threatened by the accusation of descriptivism. A society-centered approach clearly needs to be grounded on a coherent social theoretical framework and the regulation approach was indeed developed with reference to certain underlying theoretical grounds. The first “generation” was strongly inspired by Marxian value theory, whereas the second “generation”, in a more eclectic manner, referred to different traditions like the Annales or Keynesian and Kaleckian macroeconomics134. Although some ties with Marxist social ontology have been conserved, the more recent contributions privileged middle range questions over abstract foundations.

  • 135 Lipietz 1985 (For the esoteric/exoteric distinction).
  • 136 Boyer 1986: 121.

3One of the theoretical difficulties which resulted from this shift was a blurring of what regulation should refer to. In other words: What constitutes the unity which the semantic connotation of “regulation” suggests? If an esoteric level of values was not any more at disposal to function as the reference, how could an equivalent mechanism be found at the exoteric level of prices135? This proved to be a difficult task, due to the weakening of the strongly realist ontology of the value-theoretical approach. Although it offered an important tool for historical analysis, the concept of ex-post functionalism could not convincingly take this role of unity reference, because it failed to bridge the gap between system reproduction and the variety of institutional forms. The correspondence of an accumulation regime and a mode of regulation cannot explain their unity. In fact, pure ex-post functionalism reveals the impossibility of explaining its object in theoretical terms. Nevertheless, Fordism has been characterized as a social formation with a certain “correspondence” or cohérence136. By moving away from the value theory conception of the mode of regulation, however, the clear-cut dichotomy of “competitive” and “monopolist” which was pointing to an ideal-type operational mode has been replaced by a concept which represents more a real-type configuration of institutions. How can the cohesion then be understood?

4It seems reasonable to introduce a concept of politics in order to approach this question. This suggestion can already be found within the noyau dur of Regulation Theory, where politics appears as:

  • 137 Boyer 1990.

5(a) constitutive principle of institutional forms, which are interpreted as resulting from social struggles not having any general, suprahistorical character137.

  • 138 Delorme & André 1983.

6(b) state politics, i.e. an institutional form shaping capital accumulation and economic performance. Politics in this sense has been linked with the idea of institutionalized compromise crystallized in specific forms of the state’s organization and its economic interventions138.

7(c) “integral politics” in those regulationist works relying on Gramscian ideas of hegemony and historical blocs, as illustrated by some contributions by Lipietz (e.g. 1992). A regulation mode in this perspective can be interpreted as corresponding to specific hegemonic practices in conjunction with strategic positions of certain classes and groups.

  • 139 Théret 1990.

8The first concept suffered from the problem that politics was mainly seen as an accidental instance representing historical contingency. However, it points to an important ontological feature of Regulation Theory, namely the departure from any kind of historical determinism. Concerning the state, regulationist work recognized its role as an important institutional site of politics. Nonetheless there is, on the one side, a functionalist tendency to interpret the state as a “superstructure” providing societal cohesion139, and on the other, the danger of overstressing the state’s quality as a compromise between social forces by overlooking its own institutional selectivity.

9By developing further the third perspective, however, some of these difficulties may be overcome. Therefore, in the following I will propose a perspective for a regulationist politics by taking up the concept of hegemony without, however, dismissing the notion of politics conceived as an instance of institutionalization. For that, some guidelines should be suggested:

  • 140 Théret 1994.
  • 141 Billaudot 1995.
  • 142 Bowles & Gintis 1986.

10First, it seems to be appropriate to draw a distinction between state politics and politics in general. By identifying the mechanism of social reproduction as rooted in a heterogeneous ensemble of institutions, Regulation Theory overcomes the reifying dichotomy between (state) politics and economy adopted by standard economics. If politics is interpreted as constitutive for institutional forms, it has to be understood as politics in general not confined to state institutions. It is in this way that the notion of political economy becomes meaningful. Théret conceptualized these distinctions by distinguishing the “order” of the political and the “practices” of politics140. Criticizing Bruno Théret concept of the political as being responsible for all socialization, Bernard Billaudot141 recently put forward an alternative by suggesting to regard the political socialization in substantial terms (registre) as apart from the political order (ordre) based on the institution of citizenship. Similarly, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis drew a distinction between, on the one hand, the institutional “sites” of the state and the capitalist economy, and, on the other hand, the “practices” of politics and economy142.

11Second, that politics is not a separate region within social totality but penetrates the social and economic structures must not lead to its conception as a purely accidental quality affecting social substance. On the contrary, politics must be seen to have its own materiality, otherwise it would escape from the possibility to be theorized in a systematic way. This perspective especially arises from the Gramscian lines in Regulation Theory as mentioned above.

  • 143 My general argument has been strongly inspired by Bertamsen, Frolund Thomsen & Torfing (1991).
  • 144 Luhmann 1993.

12Within this perspective I would like to present a conception of politics that could not only be compatible with Regulation Theory, but that could contribute to strengthen its theoretical foundations143. Paradoxically, this can be achieved by adopting an anti-foundational approach to politics. Such a notion is closely linked with the aspect of politics as a constitutive practice of, say, institutions. This is an asymmetrical notion of politics discarding the idea that politics is a well confined region of society, working according to analogous rules like other regions. Such a symmetrical understanding of politics is actually adopted by autopoieticist theories144. Important qualifications of this symmetry have been put forward by Bruno Théret and Bernard Billaudot.

  • 145 Bertramsen et al. 1991; Torfing 1995.
  • 146 The philosophical reasons can be found in Derrida (1978).

13A more radical asymmetry, however, can be conceptualized under the level of primacy of politics145. This does not indicate the priority of the “political sphere” over other spheres and is therefore not a type of “politicism”. There exists no particular political sphere. Politics in this sense is understood as the subverting instance of the social (and therefore, also the economy). This notion is inspired by post-structuralism and discourse theory. The social, in this perspective, is a complex field of temporarily fixed practices the very contingency of which has become invisible. These practices are, to use a geological metaphor, sedimented and this constitutes the inertia of the social (its “structure”). Since all practices are discourses, they have symbolic character. Their sedimentation, therefore, is a fixation of meaning. Although meaning can never been fully fixed146, it is however possible to establish a precarious unity of these practices within their relational context. This is the field of politics: it defines and subverts meaningful social practices.

14How could this discourse-theoretical concept of politics, which here has only been roughly drafted, contribute to the foundations of Regulation Theory? It seems to be worth looking at some apparent correspondences in order to clarify this question.

15In the first place, Regulation Theory in certain aspects appears to start out from an antifoundationalist ontology. The move from the “esoteric” to the “exoteric” level as represented, in different ways, in the shift from the value-theoretical to the price-theoretical approach as well as in the genealogy of Alain Lipietz’s works can be interpreted in this sense. This move to the “surface” was admittedly linked with a prioritization of middle range analysis over abstract conceptualization. So, “antifoundationalism” could also be understood in terms of lacking abstract foundations, as it is implicit in the objection of descriptivism. In fact, especially in the currently dominant price-theoretical approach the abstract concepts inherited from the realist Marxist legacy (mode of production, value form, wage relation) seem to have a more heuristic than systematic connection to the middle range level. This leads to stress the variety of capitalisms over the general form of capitalism. In other words, contingency is introduced into the analysis of historical configurations. The reference to abstract Marxist concepts here seems to be degenerated to a merely rhetorical hommage to the history of thought.

  • 147 Jessop 1990.
  • 148 Sayer 1995. The notion of “contingent necessities” points to the contingent articulation of objec (...)

16However, antifoundationalism does not necessarily preclude an abstract analysis. Critical realism, for instance, identifies “contingent necessities147” at different levels of “rational abstractions148”. Fordism, in this way, can be characterized as a rational abstraction, at an intermediate level, less abstract then the mode of production, and less concrete then a certain mode of development. This is clearly antifoundationalist, since neither the existence nor the characteristics of the objects “Fordism” are derived from any abstract social ontology (mode of production).

17A second correspondence lies in the fact that Regulation Theory negates the existence of privileged historical actors but nevertheless stresses the political logic of economic development (as opposed to a capital logical approach). Contingency in Regulation Theory is sometimes conceptualized in terms of the objet trouvé, although implicitly institutional forms and regulations modes are supposed to result from social struggles. A post-foundational notion of politics could help to overcome this regulationist indeterminacy where the political is reduced to the role of providing, so to speak, the “degrees of freedom” for the social. If politics is conceded its own materiality, it can become an intelligible object.

  • 149 An argument stressed by Jessop (1990 : 185ff) though he states more precisely that regulation can (...)
  • 150 Laclau 1993: 282.
  • 151 Jessop 1990.

18This could be managed by inspecting more closely the possible complementarity of regulation and hegemony. For that the nature of unity which a mode of regulation is referred to has to be reconsidered. Regulation does not preexist its elements: the unity of the regulation mode is therefore constituted ex post149. In order to avoid the unsatisfactory reference to social cohesion, a non-functionalist explanation of the temporary stability of social formations can be attempted by help of anti-foundational politics. In this view, institutions are constructed through articulation, i.e. through the relational fixation of meaning of a set of practices. Since articulation is always a contingent intervention in an undecidable terrain, from the “outside”, this process is a hegemonic intervention150. The emergence of institutions, therefore, is a political process. Once established, institutions acquire a certain “strategic selectivity151” which gives different social forces different positions to act and to “reduce contingency” in undecidable situations.

  • 152 Torfing 1991: 91.
  • 153 Demirovic (in extenso) 1992.

19Hegemony can be thought as inscribed in a complex field of temporary fixed practices shaped by different accumulation and/or state projects (e.g. the German Soziale Marktwirtschaft project, or more generally: the post-war Keynesian welfare state). Hegemony overcomes the “impossibility of society152” by normalizing social antagonism and putting them into regular forms of conflict153.

  • 154 De Certeau 1984.
  • 155 Bertramsen 1991: 138.
  • 156 Boyer & Hollingsworth 1995.
  • 157 Obviously I do not refer to economic crisis in a strict sense which is defined by the breakdown o (...)

20To summarize, institutions are, on the one hand, the material basis for a hegemonic formation and, on the other, since they are joint places of power, knowledge and spatial structure154, they both selectively constrain and enable the adoption of certain modes of calculation and procedures. Hegemony becomes the “reverse side” of regulation, a correspondence which René Bugge Bertramsen155 has conceptualized in terms of Didier Lockwood’s distinction between “social integration” and “system integration”. The concept of the “mode of development” represents this unity. Hegemony precariously secures the “social structure” upon which regulation is based in a specific historical conjuncture: the process of regulation therefore acquires the character of an ensemble of hegemonic practices. To put it in another way, such a “successful” link between hegemonic practices (as sedimented in institutional forms) and mode of regulation can be conceptualized in terms of the Gramscian “historical bloc”. Basically, this refers to the degree of correspondence between the strategic dimension of a social formation and the (perceived) economic processes which escape from full intelligibility and controllability. A generalized example of this link between strategic and structural dimension is the ongoing restructuration of industrialized economies. The “unity” of institutional reorganization (i.e. competition state, decentralization of industrial relations and productivity regimes through innovation) cannot be perceived without considering the articulation of different projects, the relational positions between different actors involved one to each other and towards what is meant to be economic reality and finally the changing nature of actor’s self-identities within this process. This perspective, therefore, can offer an interesting means to investigate the often discussed problem of institution-building and institutional change156. Underlying Regulation Theory with anti-foundational politics possibly leads to a reformulation of the conditions for stability and crisis of social formations. Economic processes, like other objects, are (and have to be) interpreted socially, and through that they are given a certain meaning, valid only in this specific context. The break down e.g. of a mode of development, like Fordism, therefore depends heavily on the discursive construction of the crisis and the emergence of competing projects. An explanation of a crisis cannot concentrate on a naturalizing interpretation of economic parameters as if there were an economic system which has to reproduce itself157. Social crisis is not directly linked to accumulation dynamics though its interpretation is a very important factor. The crisis of the Fordist mode of development therefore has to be conceived as crisis both of the Fordist regulation and the Fordist hegemonic project.

  • 158 Luhmann 1971.

21A final remark should address the relation between an antifoundational theory of politics and Regulation Theory in terms of theory building. A theory which by definition bases itself on the principle of articulation in order to reduce basic contingency (as does antifoundational politics) cannot, by definition, construct causal models of social processes, since articulation escapes from being determined by causality. Regulation Theory, on the contrary, can identify certain causally explicable processes by referring them to capital accumulation and economic dynamics. In this situation, Regulation Theory provides a “substantiation” of a post-foundational theory of politics. In other words, Regulation Theory provides a systematic account of the specific relation between institutional configurations and economic processes. These can be conceived as objects identified by rational abstractions. To some extent, this recalls the manner in which autopoieticist system theory provides the abstract functional method with a more precise content158. Regulation Theory at various (arbitrary) levels of abstraction conceptualizes the economic aspect of system integration and shows how institutional forms constituting a mode of regulation are articulated with certain economic paths. By exploring the institutional conditions for these accumulation regimes it simultaneously points to the way the economy is constructed by various hegemonic practices. And if seen as an alternative project to neoclassical economics, Regulation Theory itself contributes to construct “the economy” in an alternative way by supposing a different constellation of contingencies and necessities.



Bertramsen René Bugge, Frølund Thomsen Jens-Peter & Jacob Torfing, 1991, State, Economy and Society, London, Unwin Hyman.

Billaudot Bernard, 1995a, L’Approche en terme de régulation : un essai de renouvellement, Grenoble, Institut de Recherche Économique sur la Production et le Développement (IREPD).

, 1995b, « La théorie de la régulation est-elle une théorie économique ? (À propos du statut épistémologique de la théorie de la régulation) », Lettre de la régulation, 14, p. 1-2
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128 Villeval 1994; Boyer 1995.

129 Favereau 1995.

130 Billaudot 1995.

131 Théret 1994.

132 Görg 1994.

133 Jessop 1990.

134 The distinction between “value-theoretical” (werttheoretisch) and “price-theoretical” (preistheoretisch) regulationist approaches made by Hübner (1990) is an ideal-type one.

135 Lipietz 1985 (For the esoteric/exoteric distinction).

136 Boyer 1986: 121.

137 Boyer 1990.

138 Delorme & André 1983.

139 Théret 1990.

140 Théret 1994.

141 Billaudot 1995.

142 Bowles & Gintis 1986.

143 My general argument has been strongly inspired by Bertamsen, Frolund Thomsen & Torfing (1991).

144 Luhmann 1993.

145 Bertramsen et al. 1991; Torfing 1995.

146 The philosophical reasons can be found in Derrida (1978).

147 Jessop 1990.

148 Sayer 1995. The notion of “contingent necessities” points to the contingent articulation of objects, each with its own necessary characteristics. In epistemological terms, one can speak of a “weak realism” of Regulation Theory (Torfing 1991: 68).

149 An argument stressed by Jessop (1990 : 185ff) though he states more precisely that regulation can be thought as articulating dissimilar existing elements (like signifiers) to determinate moments.

150 Laclau 1993: 282.

151 Jessop 1990.

152 Torfing 1991: 91.

153 Demirovic (in extenso) 1992.

154 De Certeau 1984.

155 Bertramsen 1991: 138.

156 Boyer & Hollingsworth 1995.

157 Obviously I do not refer to economic crisis in a strict sense which is defined by the breakdown of certain parameters.

158 Luhmann 1971.


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