Re: [OPE] Are Regulation Theorists Marxists? (Not in South Africa, no!)

From: Patrick Bond <>
Date: Fri Aug 21 2009 - 15:07:03 EDT

-----Original Message-----
> From: Dave Zachariah <>
> See:
> Robert Brenner and Mark Glick
> New Left Review I/188, July-August 1991
> <>

As you see from the last endnote, below, this is where we also found
confidence to develop a critique of regulation theory's rather
disastrous application in South Africa. The most powerful advocate, Alec
Erwin, was amongst the most dogmattically neoliberal politicians this
country has ever known.

.... The late 1980s was a time when South Africa’s capitalist class
demanded, perhaps for the first time, an end to formal apartheid. The
reasons for this are closely related to economic stagnation and
financial crisis, but what was disconcerting was how dramatically this
shook many Marxist theorists who, earlier, so profoundly rejected the
liberal thesis that apartheid and capitalism were incompatible. As Gelb
put it, radicals must ‘develop a substantial and consistent analysis of
capital accumulation which preserves their view of the earlier
relationship between apartheid and capitalism, explains the
transformation from long run apartheid boom to economic crisis and then
analyses the crisis itself.’[1] <#_ftn1> To that end Gelb introduced
‘regulation theory’ to dissect the relative stability of South African
capitalism from 1948 through the early 1970s. A new wave of
international scholarship had just emerged from France under the rubric
of regulation, seeking to explain how post-war ‘fordist’ economies
faltered.[2] <#_ftn2>

         Capitalism does, of course, manage to generate fairly long
periods of growth before its internal contradictions become
overwhelming. Describing how capitalism could stabilise itself over a
period of several decades was the task that the founder of regulation
theory, Michel Aglietta, set for himself in his seminal study of United
States economic history.[3] <#_ftn3> The label for the stability that
came of this articulation, in honour of a phrase coined by the Italian
Marxist Antonio Gramsci, was ‘fordism’, signifying the symbiotic
relationship between mass production and mass consumption (the product
of Henry Ford’s assembly line and $5/day wages). As a full-fledged
‘regime of accumulation,’ fordism relied upon intensive kinds of
production in which capital ‘deepened’, and production became
capital-intensive with high productivity. There also emerged under
fordism a wide range of social and political institutions. Those that
were most important to the US version ─ which then served to spread the
fordist regime throughout the advanced capitalist world ─ were the
Bretton Woods agreement (which stabilised the world financial system
under the power of the US dollar); a social contract between big
business, big government and big trade unions (which also involved the
McCarthyite purge of communists); and a limited but real welfare state
(which supported consumption).

         South African ‘racial fordism,’ as Gelb termed it, captures the
post-war combination of formal apartheid with industrialisation based on
import-substitution: ‘As with fordism in the advanced countries,
accumulation in South Africa during this period involved the linking of
the extension of mass production with the extension of mass consumption,
but in a manner that was restricted on both sides of the equation, as is
very familiar.’[4] <#_ftn4> The expensive imported machinery was paid
for by a relatively stable flow of foreign currency provided by mineral
exports. Although political turmoil disturbed the economic boom in 1960,
growth was relatively secure for at least two decades after apartheid
was introduced, and this qualifies as the longest uninterrupted period
of prosperity that the country’s entire white population had ever had.
Even short-term business cycle downturns helped correct imbalances in
the system, says Gelb, in a ‘reproductive’ rather than destructive way.

         But white mass consumption only goes so far ─ an entire
industrialised economy with South Africa’s aspirations could not build
on so small a base. Because ‘the size of the internal market is the main
barrier to this type of accumulation,’ ANC economists Maria Ramos and
Fuad Cassim wrote, ‘the fordist model within a domestic economy must be
described in terms of the conditions of its interaction with the world
economy.’ South Africa’s location on the periphery of the world economy
gives it certain peculiar characteristics, which Ramos and Cassim call
‘peripheral fordism.’[5] <#_ftn5> Thus contrary to Gelb’s analysis of
racial fordist regulation, the mass production-mass consumption link
occurred /between the global and economy and South Africa/, and not
primarily within South Africa, although at first, ‘peripheral fordism
began by producing for a middle class both at home and abroad,’ Ramos
and Cassim acknowledged. ‘To survive, the (international) fordist regime
had to relocate to a country where high rates of exploitation existed,’
which explains the post-war manufacturing boom in places like South
Africa and Brazil. ‘But though foreign capital has been crucial in
underpinning South Africa’s growth, South Africa has been unable to
penetrate the world manufacturing market, in particular against the
competition of more skilled and better utilisation of labour elsewhere.’

         With the crisis in racial fordism largely understood as a
breakdown in the institutional apparatus that regulated capitalist
instability (witnessed in the form of 1970s strikes and social unrest,
the import of international inflation, and the oscillating gold price),
the key task for the regulationists - whether relying upon internal or
international causality - then became how to stitch together a new set
of ‘post-fordist’ institutions and assist in the process of
‘kick-starting’ capitalist growth. Wage restraint, productivity quid pro
quos, social contracts and even Taiwan-style export-orientation have
been advocated by Gelb and progressive economists (many connected to the
Economic Trends Group ‘Industrial Strategy Project’ of Cosatu) who
gained inspiration from the post-fordist discourse.

         But here the politics of regulation theory emerged into full
view. As four social scientists who work in this tradition – Avril
Joffe, David Kaplan, Raphael Kaplinsky and David Lewis - put it in the
final paragraph of a key paper, ‘What is required is to identify a
structured form in which these strategic discussions can be pursued
across the spectrum of industrial activity without at the same time
becoming swamped in a wider agenda of class conflict.’[6] <#_ftn6>
Controversies over trade union policy ─ particularly social contracts
and shopfloor flexible specialisation ─ begun to emerge.[7] <#_ftn7>
Meanwhile, as with earlier approaches to neo-Marxist analysis, an
historical materialist critique of regulation theory became widespread
internationally.[8] <#_ftn8>


[1] <#_ftnref1>. Gelb, S. (1987), ‘Making Sense of the Crisis,’
/Transformation/ 5.

[2] <#_ftnref2>. Jessop, B. (1990), ‘Regulation Theory: Retrospect and
Prospect,’ /Economy and Society/, 19.

[3] <#_ftnref3>. Aglietta, M. (1979), /A Theory of Capitalist
Regulation/, London, Verso.

[4] <#_ftnref4>. Gelb, ‘Making Sense of the Crisis’.

[5] <#_ftnref5>. Ramos, M. and F. Cassim (1989), unpublished paper
presented to ANC economics conference, Lausanne.

[6] <#_ftnref6>. Joffe, A., D. Kaplan, R. Kaplinsky and D. Lewis (1993),
‘Meeting the Global Challenge: A Framework for Industrial Revival in
South Africa,’ Paper presented to the IDASA conference on ‘South
Africa’s International Economic Relations in the 1990s,’ 27-30 April.

[7] <#_ftnref7>. This is best documented in issues of the /South African
Labour Bulletin/.

[8] <#_ftnref8>. Brenner, R. and M. Glick (1991), ‘The Regulation
Approach: Theory and History,’ /New Left Review/, July-August. In South
Africa regulation theory was critiqued by Callinicos, A. (1992),
/Between Apartheid and Capitalism/, London, Bookmarks.

ope mailing list
Received on Fri Aug 21 15:09:47 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Mon Aug 31 2009 - 00:00:02 EDT