Regulation Theory In Geography Research Paper

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1. Introduction And General Argument

The regulation theory aims to understand the economic and extra-economic mechanisms which, relatively, stabilize capitalistic societies despite the fundamental contradictions generating crisis and disintegration. The regulation approach (RA) originated in French academic debates about the economic and social changes of the 1970s. Thirty years after World War II, a first serious structural crisis affected western societies indicating the end of the dream of a never-ending prosperity (‘the golden age’). New forms of conflict configuration and new balances of power arose—without undermining the fundamental principles of capitalist societies altogether.

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To understand the restructuring of postwar capitalism, neither the equilibrium models of orthodox economies nor the traditional concepts of Marxism seemed to be satisfactory. In this context an integrative approach has been developed—combining the analysis of political economy with that of civil society and the state, sometimes looking like a kind of institutional economies. But the term ‘regulation’ within RA may not be understood as an authoritative direction in order to govern the economy. Instead a process of self-regulating is addressed to conceptualize the evolution and temporary stability of a crisis-driven capitalist society. Four core concepts help one to understand processes of regulation (Boyer 1990, Boyer and Saillard 1995, Jessop 1997):

(a) an ‘industrial paradigm’ as a model governing the technical and social divisions of labor;

(b) an ‘accumulation regime’ as a complementary pattern of production and consumption which is reproducible over a long period;

(c) a ‘mode of regulation’ as an emergent ensemble of rules, norms, conventions, patterns of conduct, social networks, organizational forms and institutions which can stabilize an accumulation regime; and

(d) a ‘model of development’ as the result when an industrial paradigm, an accumulation regime and a mode of regulation complement each other sufficiently.

These four aspects of capitalist societies are differently configured in successive stages. As the most discussed and inquired, the term ‘Fordism’ refers to a new production concept, introduced by Henry Ford between 1908 and 1925. The Fordist accumulation regime is characterized by a specific combination of mass production and mass consumption. Purchasing power has to be sustained by appropriate wages to ensure demand. This process depends on continuous productivity growth. The corresponding type of state is an intervening welfare state (‘Keynesian welfare state’) that aims to adjust demand to the supply-driven needs of mass production.

Fordism entered into structural crisis in the 1970s. The regulationists discussed several arguments to understand this phenomenon: differentiation of consumer behavior; rising wages, caused by the bargaining power of strong trade unions, but without a corresponding increase of productivity; the internationalization of economy, especially an increasing low cost production in developing countries; and a lack of a corresponding internationalization of politics and policy.

The stage after Fordism is characterized by productivity gains, ideologies and constraints of ‘flexibilization.’ Fordist mass production seems to disappear whereas flexible networks of decentralized production units, partly hierarchically controlled, are significant for the new stage using new technologies and new forms of production organization which enable ‘flexible specialization.’ At the same time there are strong attempts to deregulate the labor market while collective wage bargaining, rigid work relations, and intervening legal forms as institutionalized compromise between capital and labor have been serious constraints for the flexibilization of economy and society. Further, objectives of state acting have changed in order to strengthen the international competitiveness of the national economy. At the same time redistributive welfare rights have been subordinated to a productionist reordering of social policy.

This rather rough sketch of ‘post-Fordism’ is differentiated in the regulationist debate. Thus, it is not possible to identify a definite post-Fordist model of development. Some authors have distinguished two main directions of post-Fordist development (Leborgne and Lipietz 1994): ‘neo-Taylorism’ (deregulation and flexibilization without major constraints; for example, in the UK and USA) and ‘Toyotism’ (decentralization and flexibilization while keeping a high degree of social cohesion; for example, in Japan and Northern Europe).

Spatial patterns are varying between the different stages. The Fordist stage is characterized by strong spatial divisions of labor, homogenization, and core– periphery differentials on all spatial scales (for example, city–suburb, north–south divide). Post-Fordist spatial development is characterized by heterogeneity on all scales: different types of spatial structures (industrial districts, global cities, high-tech regions, regions with functional mixtures, etc.) built up ‘patchworks.’ Definite trends of spatial structures are hard to recognize.

2. Origins And Development Of The Approach

Today there are several RA directions. In the beginning at least two schools of regulationist thinking evolved in France; the ‘Groupe de Recherche sur la Regulation de l’Economie Capitaliste’ (GRREC) based in Grenoble, and the ‘Centre d’etude Prospective d’Economie Mathematique Appliquees a la Planificacion’ (CEPREMAP) in Paris. An important input to both approaches has been the work of François Perroux. Whereas the work of the GRREC is characterized by an elaboration within a more traditional Marxism, the Parisian RA, especially Michel Aglietta, Robert Boyer, and Alain Lipietz, have been basically involved in a renewal of Marxist thought and Althusserian structuralism with respect to evolutionary and institutional economics. Their contributions mark the beginning of the globalization of the RA (see reviews by Jessop 1997, MacLeod 1997). Since the mid-1970s and especially in the 1980s, their ideas spread, leading to new schools of innovation within the RA. A closer look at these discussion groups reveals a broad heterogeneity, bound together by common understandings of basic elements of radical political economy and the ability of social groups to act in order to transform society and economy.

Up to now, three periods of the RA with changing topics are observable: the first one may be labeled as the formative period that is characterized by theoretical and empirical work by the French regulationists. Among others, Aglietta’s outline of the theory of regulation based on an analysis of the evolution and crisis of US capitalism in the twentieth century is usually seen as a well recognized starting point (published in French in 1976; in English in 1979, reprinted 2000). In general the formative period delivered the basic concepts of the RA and a deep understanding of Fordism including its crisis in the 1960s and 1970s.

A second period may be characterized by an intensive search and controversial debate around the term ‘post Fordism.’ Though often rejected as a misleading concept, post-Fordism served as a focus for those who looked after new economic and social principles of capitalist development in the late 1980s and 1990s. Examples are:

(a) the search for the microfoundation of regulation using convention theory or Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (e.g. Painter 1997, Jenson 1993);

(b) debates about new organizational patterns of enterprises and the internationalization of production (e.g. Waringo 1998);

(c) attempts to overcome structuralist shortcomings and a reflection of the structure–agency debate;

 (d) comparative perspectives on modes of regulation in order to understand crisis and changes of the welfare state more profoundly (e.g., the concept of the workfare state by Jessop (1995) or the ‘Wett-bewerbsstaat’ (competition state) by Hirsch 1995); and

(e) the question of scale related to the diminishing power of the nation state and the growing importance of substates (regional, urban) and supranational levels (international regimes) (e.g., Boyer and Hollingsworth 1997).

As outlined above, these attempts to understand the new (flexible) regime of accumulation and new (deconcentrated) mode of regulation indicate a thematic and regional expansion of the original French RA—a globalization of a theoretical program. However, the critical notes about the term post-Fordism—whether it is the guiding concept of a new development model as temporal spatial fix of capitalism evolved at the end of the twentieth century or it is an overloaded catchword demonstrating the inability of the RA to deliver a consistent explanation of changes—illustrate severe difficulties to open and use the RA for new topics and problems.

A regional perspective within RA has been introduced by different authors like Leborgne and Lipietz (1988), Esser and Hirsch (1994), or (Moulaert 1996). More recently Jessop and colleagues have announced what they call a ‘third generation’ of regulationists. They emphasize the ability of RA especially to answer questions of the changing form of the state and the relations between scale, space, and time. In their recent reviews (see Jessop 1997, MacLeod 1997), the RA is located between political science, geography, and sociology leaving the traditional macroeconomic perspectives of RA behind. However, in the new edition of Aglietta, the start-up analysis indicates an ongoing interest in macroeconomic regulation (Aglietta 2000).

We may conclude that the RA has experienced a remarkable differentiation in the last two decades of the twentieth century. This diffusion process did not favor a consistent body of thinking—one theory or school—but has led to a range of different concepts which today form the components of the RA. Though these concepts are far away from being parts of a whole, they are proofs of an ongoing interest of academics to organize their thinking around this approach. But there is also a tendency of the spatial and thematic diffusion of RA to a dissolution of the specialties of this approach into the broad stream of critical social science.

3. Examples Of Special Topics

The diffusion process of the RA makes it difficult to focus on special topics. The following selection tries to outline those we think are probable pathways for future work, especially in geography. The common question of the first body of literature that we would like to emphasize here is addressing problems and changes of scale-dependant institutional arrangements. One of the major changes between the period of Fordism and today is the dissolution of the former regulatory fix that is grounded on the temporal compromise between capital and labor (based on rising wages related to productivity growth), and on macroeconomic regulation (based on the defined territoriality and relatively autonomous power of the nation state). Owing to the loss of importance of the concept of the welfare state as the democratic form of the ‘golden age’ of Fordism, a debate about new forms of institutional arrangements has evolved. Deregulation, privatization, and the evolution of new political re-gimes at local as well as at the international level have resulted in the debate about the concept of governance, which includes new public, private interrelations beyond and within the old concept of nation state.

Within this context, the work of Jessop is of particular interest. The shift from—what he calls—‘the Keynesian welfare national state’ to an emergent ‘Schumpeterian workfare postnational regime’ forms the center of his analysis. Three changes are emphasized:

(a) New state activities evolve which should strengthen the competitiveness of state spaces by stimulating and promoting permanent innovation processes. Besides direct incentives to create national systems of technological innovation, new institutional forms, resources, and values are invented in order to create a ‘Schumpeterian’ mode of regulation.

(b) System competitiveness and labor market flexibility are accompanied by a subordination of social policy to imperatives of the new economic orientation. The term workfare is used to underline a general tendency of post-Fordism to cut back welfare expenditures and to redirect social assistance in order to promote individualistic responsibilities and risk acceptance.

(c) The state itself changes its form substantially. The ‘hollowing out’ of the national state apparatus favors subnational as well as supranational levels. Though the nation state remains important, new state activities emerge on different scales. This deconcentration of state power is accompanied by a shift ‘from government to governance’ which reflects a growing importance of semi-public and private actors, illustrated by new urban and international regimes. At the same time, trends towards de-statization or decentralization are counteracted by new state functions (metagovernance), addressing activities such as self-organization of partnerships, networks, and governance regimes.

The concept of the ‘Schumpeterian workfare postnational regime’ is a promising and far reaching concept of regulation under post-Fordist conditions. Yet, though well elaborated in relation towards RA and state theory (especially Poulantzas position), the concept has to be grounded in empirical work. In particular, the reconfiguration of scales and state activities need further analysis in order to improve our understanding of new organizational principles beyond the nation state.

A second promising body of literature has drawn attention to local and regional modes of social regulation (Tickell and Peck 1992). There are approaches which address urban management and politics (Mayer 1994), and urban social movements (Hitz 1995), local labor markets (Peck 1996) and regional development in a postsocialist environment (Kratke et al. 1997). In particular, in reaction to challenges of urban regime theory, a new theory has set in (a) to conceptualize the relationships between accumulation and regulation on urban and regional scale; (b) to find adequate solutions for structure– agency problems which are inherent in the RA; and (c) to direct concrete research (Goodwin and Painter 1997). According to Goodwin and Painter, the concept of regulation should not be viewed as a static and stable, but as a process which is constituted by material and discursive practices. Because these practices are temporally and spatially embedded, there are many possible patterns of regulation as contingent combinations that might operate to support accumulation. This variety of modes of regulation is enlarged by the possibility that quality and intensity of regulation might differ due to spatial differentiation and uneven development. Therefore, the process of regulation is constituted geographically as result ‘of the contingent interaction of disparate practices’ (Goodwin and Painter 1997, p. 21).

To view regulation as a process, rather than as a fixed mode, and to conceptualize the process as contingent practices is an important contribution to reduce missing links in RA. But new problems arise when these suggestions are followed. For example, in applying the concept of Goodwin and Painter, it becomes difficult to decide what kind of social practices might be relevant in order to reveal processes of regulation. If it is assumed that regulation might be a result of intended and unintended consequences of social practices, we are trapped in the universe of possible practices. Though the introduction of the habitus concept of Bourdieu may serve as a microfoundation of the RA and the identification of structures beyond the variety of practices (Painter 1997), the relationships between habitus and fields, on the one hand, and the concept of regulation as process, on the other, remain undefined. Therefore, if we give up the idea that the mode of regulation is like a development model beyond Bourdieu’s fields of political contest, e.g., as a spatially and temporally defined class compromises, which the subjects are reflecting, the term regulation receives a technical connotation of a self-organized system that creates order out of nowhere.

4. Future Directions

There are several missing links and open questions within RA often partly addressed as a general critique. Some of the important deficits are as follows.

The theoretical status of the terms Fordism and especially post-Fordism has become unclear. Some of the regulationist thinkers seem to give up the idea of development models serving as a background necessary for the evolution of structural coherence in time and space.

The ecological question is still neglected in the majority of contributions to the RA and a further concept is needed within RA, addressing an economic–ecological compromise. The evidence that the Western mode of production is self-neglecting in terms of sustainability of ecological resources and is partly elaborated in the work of Alain Lipietz, who has become one of the major political leaders of the red–green movement in France and Europe (Lipietz 1995).

The immanent functionalism of the RA has to be overcome in order to refuse reductionist explanations of modes of regulation for stabilizing capitalist development.

Though the listed deficits are already challenges for future work within RA, some directions are addressed here because they should receive major attention. The first perspective for future research reflects the growing integration of RA, evolutionary economics and institutional approaches in the social sciences. Within this broad field, the term regulation as a mode or as a process has to be worked out in a more detailed way in relation to state theory and the growing body of literature dealing with ‘governance’ approaches. Whereas RA usually puts more emphasis on structure, macroeconomic forces and large-scale institutional mediations, the post-Fordist variety requires differentiated concepts (a) of the enabling and restricting qualities of institutionalized systems of norms and rules, (b) of forms of leaderships and regimes on different scales, and (c) of forms of social network integration through conventions, coercion, and strategic behavior. As we have shown, there are some promising starting points in RA, but a comprehensive approach on regulation is missing. Further, it is rather unclear what a geographical perspective might look like. Interpretations like reterritorialization and politics of scale (Brenner 1999) as a dominant feature of current restructuring of capitalist society, as well as the notion that ‘all regulation is generated in temporally and spatially embedded social contexts’ (Goodwin and Painter 1997, p. 13), are still beyond a clear understanding of the role of space and scale.

A second promising field of future research evolves within the debate about poststructuralism and the societal paradigm of the mode of regulation (e.g., Scherrer 1995, Jenson 1993). Though the more recent literature is very aware of the problem of economic determinism and the latent functionalism of the RA, it seems to be promising to review the concepts of the RA using discourse analysis (e.g., Laclau and Mouffe 1985). This methodological inquiry may not only serve as a reformulation of basic approaches within RA (like the refusal of a mode of regulation in favor of a process, or a more cautious usage of the term Fordism), but also may lead to (new) answers of the question of political practices deriving from RA analysis.


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