What follows Fordism? On the Periodisation of Capitalism and its Regulation

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘What follows Fordism? On the periodization of capitalism and its regulation’, in R. Albritton et al., eds, Phases of Capitalist Development: Booms, Crises, and Globalization, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 282-299, 2001.



This chapter addresses three issues: the general nature of periodisation; alternative criteria for periodising capitalism; and the contradictions of Atlantic Fordism and after-Fordist economies. My analysis rests on a ‘strategic-relational’ approach.[1] Emphasising the interplay of structure and strategy, this implies that, within broad limits set by the abstract logic of capitalism, its structural contradictions and its strategic dilemmas, capitalist development is nonetheless open. Particular trajectories and sequences of capitalist development are always mediated and transformed through specific social forces acting in specific institutional contexts or conjunctures. This openness invalidates attempts to periodise capitalism’s past development or predict its destiny as if these were connected by a pregiven logic. But it does not mean that the succession of stages (or phases) is purely accidental. My task below is to explore the contingent necessities of capitalist development.


The primary purpose of any periodisation is to interpret an otherwise undifferentiated ‘flow’ of historical time by classifying events and/or processes in terms of their internal affinities and external differences in order to identify successive periods of relative invariance and the transitions between them. Alongside any practical concerns, such exercises have general ontological, epistemological, and methodological aspects. Their basic ontological assumption is the paradoxical simultaneity of continuity/discontinuity in the flow of historical time. For, if nothing ever changed, periodisation would be meaningless in the face of the self-identical repetition of eternity; if everything changed at random all the time, however, so that no sequential ordering was discernible, then chaos would render periodisation impossible (Elchardus 1988: 48). It is only possible when relative continuity alternates with relative discontinuity. Relative continuity does not presuppose the stasis of identical self-repetition – only that relevant changes do not disrupt the structural coherence typical of this period (e.g., the widening and deepening of mass production in the Atlantic Fordist accumulation regime). Nor does relative discontinuity presuppose random variation and hence a total absence of structure – only that relevant changes disrupt the previous structural coherence (e.g., the hypermobility of global financial capital versus the Atlantic Fordist mode of regulation). This disruption may itself have a distinctive logic (e.g., neo-liberal structural adjustment programmes imposed on developmental states) and/or serve as an experimental transitional phase with different forces struggling over future patterns of structural coherence (e.g., new accumulation strategies after the ‘Asian crisis’). What matters for present purposes is not the content of this sequential ordering but its grounding in the alternation of relative continuity and discontinuity.

Thus the three keys to periodisation from a critical realist perspective are the extents to which, first, a differentiated and stratified real world creates the possibility of relative invariance and sequential order (Elchardus 1988: 47); second, these possibilities are actualised in specific conjunctures; and, third, one can empirically identify continuity in discontinuity and/or discontinuity in continuity. Clearly the scope for such an exercise depends on the ‘objects’ being periodised and the levels of abstraction and complexity at which they are studied. It is most appropriate where a distinctive temporality is an inherent rather than accidental property of the object under investigation.

Capitalism has just such a naturally necessary temporal structure. This is based on its organisation as an ‘economy of time’. The expanded reproduction of capitalism is never based, as Marx’s simple reproduction schemas might suggest, on purely self-identical repetition. Instead it involves an ever-changing balance among repeated cycles of self-valorisation, continuous self-transformation, bouts of crisis-induced restructuring, and other modalities of change. These are often linked to new patterns of time-space distantiation and time-space compression as well as to shifts in dominant spatio-temporal horizons and in the leading accumulation spaces. These different spatio-temporal aspects provide solid ontological grounds for attempts to periodise capitalism.

Epistemologically, the simultaneity of relative invariance and sequential change means that, just like individual ‘events’, periods do not exist in themselves before their identification. A participant or observer must first abstract some features from time’s flow that permit her to identify sequential periods of relative continuity and relative discontinuity (or vice versa) relevant to the practical and/or intellectual task in hand. The appropriate criteria to establish when the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism occurred in England, for example, differ from those useful for identifying a suitable alliance strategy in a critical election. The chosen levels of abstraction and complexity also affect whether more emphasis is given to continuity or discontinuity. Thus one might emphasise the survival of the generic features of capitalism in a shift from industrial to post-industrial society; or, alternatively, the changes in ‘late Fordism’ compared to ‘high Fordism’. Periodisations always refer to particular problems and units of analysis. There can be no master periodisation that captures the essence of a period and reveals its coherence for all purposes.

Methodologically, a strategic-relational approach would examine how a particular relatively invariant structure may privilege some actors, some identities, some strategies, some spatial and temporal horizons, some actions over others; and the ways, if any, in which actors (individual and/or collective) consider this differential privileging in ‘strategic-context’ analyses when deciding how to act. It involves studying relatively invariant structures in terms of their structurally-inscribed strategic selectivities and studying actions in terms of actors’ (differentially reflexive) structurally-oriented strategic calculation. Insofar as reflexively reorganised structural configurations and recursively selected strategies and tactics co-evolve to produce a relatively invariant order, we can describe it as structurally coherent. This co-produced (and always tendential) structural coherence involves a structurally-inscribed strategic selectivity that differentially rewards actions (including attempts to transform it) that are compatible with the recursive reproduction of the structure(s) in question.

The implications of a strategic-relational approach can be seen in three features that distinguish a periodisation from a chronology. First, a chronology orders actions, events, or periods on a unilinear time scale that serves as a neutral parameter (e.g., clock times from nano-seconds to geological time or beyond). Conversely, a periodisation uses several time scales that include the temporalities of the phenomena being periodised. It orders actions, events, or periods in terms of multiple time horizons (e.g., l’événement, trends, the longue durée; business vs. political cycles; the temporalities of different fractions of capital). Second, a chronology recounts temporal coincidence or succession. It groups actions, events, or periods into successive stages according to their occurrence in given time intervals (demarcated simply through the calendar and/or other socially relevant markers, such as government changes). A periodisation focuses on conjunctures. It classifies actions, events, and periods into stages according to their conjunctural implications (as specific combinations of constraints and opportunities) for different social forces over different time horizons and/or for different sites of social action. Third, a chronology typically provides a simple narrative explanation, i.e., it refers to the temporal coincidence or succession of a single series of actions and events. Conversely, a periodisation presupposes an explanatory framework oriented to the contingent necessities generated by more than one series of events that unfold over different time horizons; it can therefore provide the basis for a complex narrative. In short, the key feature of a strategic-relational periodisation is its concern with the strategic possibilities any given period gives for different actors, different identities, different interests, different coalition possibilities, different horizons of action, different strategies, different tactics.

There are many bases of periodisation and the criteria adopted will vary according to its object. Progressively more concrete-complex criteria are needed, for example, to establish the internal unities of capitalism as a pure mode of production, state monopoly capitalism as a stage of capitalism, Fordism as an accumulation regime, ‘flexi-Fordism’ in Germany as a mode of growth, the crisis of the Keynesian welfare national state in post-war Britain as a mode of regulation, or successive steps in the emergence and consolidation of Thatcherism as a neo-liberal response to that crisis. Substantive purposes also make a difference. Sometimes class struggle is crucial, sometimes it is less relevant. Thus, whereas Albritton (1986) claims that class struggle is wholly irrelevant to the analysis of pure capitalism and its division into stages, Cleaver (1979), following the Italian ‘operaist’ school, which focuses on the self-organisation of workers, emphasises just this aspect.

Four sets of complications must be noted before moving to Fordism, its crisis, and the prospects of post-Fordism. First, periodisation is not the only method of studying history. Others include chronicles, which merely record events or list statistics in calendric time; narratives, which emplot selected past events and forces in a sequential order with a beginning, middle, and end with an overarching structure that permits causal and moral lessons to be drawn; chronologies (see above); and genealogies, which trace the differential, fragmentary origins of various elements that are later combined into a structurally coherent pattern marking a new period of relative invariance. Capital provides a genealogy of capitalism as well as analysing its developed logic (Marx 1976).

Second, if capitalist development has no telos, transitions are moments of disjunction and relative openness. They involve relatively unstructured complexity as the preceding structural coherence decomposes and new institutional fixes are sought. This is seen in responses to the crisis of Atlantic Fordism. Thus states acted not only to end the crisis-induced state interventions of the 1970s but also to cut back the ‘normal’ forms of intervention at national and local level that emerged in the heyday of Atlantic Fordism. States also tried to establish new forms of intervention favouring the emergence of a new accumulation regime. Some of these were purely transitional, concerned to establish the preconditions of a post-Fordist ‘take-off’. Others were precursors of the ‘normal’ forms of intervention held suitable for post-Fordist modes of growth in the 1990s or beyond (Jessop 1994). How such superficially confusing initiatives consolidate, if at all, to produce a new structural coherence as a basis for renewed capital accumulation depends on continuing social struggles in a complex conjuncture.

Third, since transitions between periods never involve a total rupture, path-dependent ‘conservation-dissolution’ effects can occur. Change can transform and re-functionalise earlier social relations, institutions, or discourses, conserving them in the new pattern; or, alternatively, can dissolve them into elements that are selectively articulated into the new relations, institutions, or discourses. Failure to note these effects can easily lead one to misread relative continuity or discontinuity across different periods. Thus the fact that Sweden had active labour market policies during Atlantic Fordism and still does so now does not mean that nothing has changed. For in the earlier period they were tied to full employment and redistributive regional policies; today they serve international competitiveness and labour market flexibility.

Fourth, if temporal prefixes (such as ‘proto-‘, ‘pre-‘, ‘neo-‘, ‘late-‘, or ‘post-‘) are be more than chronological markers, more detailed support is needed than reference to the calendar. In the case of post-Fordism, for example, one could show how it emerges from tendencies originating in Fordism but nonetheless marks a break with it; and/or indicate how the articulation of old and new elements in post-Fordism resolves or displaces one or more of the contradictions, dilemmas, or crises that decisively weakened Fordism. In either case this would demonstrate the primacy of discontinuity over continuity needed to justify the term post-Fordism. Otherwise, it might be better to talk of high Fordism, late Fordism, or neo-Fordism.[2] But without at least some continuity, a label that shows merely that the new system is not Fordist would be sufficient (examples include Sonyism, Toyotism, and Wintelism). At best the notion of ‘after-Fordism’ would then indicate that such non-Fordist alternatives first arose and/or became dominant after the period of high Fordism but that this sequencing is accidental.


In his 1857 Introduction Marx said that neither production in general nor general production existed: only particular production and the totality of production. But one could still theorise production in general as a rational abstraction that enabled one to fix the elements common to all forms of production. In specific conjunctures, however, ‘a definite production’ existed and this ‘determines a definite consumption, distribution, and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments’ (1973: 85, 99). Thus periodisation could address not only the specificity of capitalism relative to pre-capitalist modes of production but also what gives coherence to these definite relations in particular phases of capitalism. A good starting point here is the commodity as the cell form of the capitalist mode of production.

Marx located capitalism’s defining feature in the generalisation of the commodity form to labour-power. Only when the commodity form was imposed on labour-power did the self-valorisation of capital became possible. Only then did the sole source of value acquire a commodity form, economic exploitation acquire its distinctive capitalist mediation through exchange relations, and the disposition of labour-power become subject to capitalist laws of value. This last result was reinforced when labour-power was directly subsumed under capitalist control through machine-pacing in the factory system. These conditions enabled (but did not ensure) capital’s repeated metamorphosis as it passes through the successive stages in the circuit of capital. Commodification of labour-power and its direct subsumption under capitalist control also make labour markets and the labour process sites of class struggle. For it shapes the forms of economic exploitation, the nature and stakes of class struggle between capital and labour in production, and the competition among capitals to secure the most effective valorisation of labour-power.

Attempts to valorise capital and contain class struggles in these conditions are the source of capitalism’s dynamism. Even at the most abstract level of analysis, capitalism depends on an unstable balance between its economic supports in the various expressions of the value forms and its extra-economic supports beyond the value form. This excludes the eventual commodification of everything and, hence, a pure capitalist economy. Instead we find uneven waves of commodification, decommodification, and recommodification as the struggle to extend the value moments of the capital relation encounters real structural limits as well as increasing resistance and then seeks new ways to overcome them (Offe 1984). Such structural limits and contradictions (often expressed ideologically as ‘market failure’) offer chances to shift direction insofar as capitalism is constantly oriented, under pressure of competition, to new opportunities for profit. This spurs innovation – in techniques, production, organisation, products, markets, finance, etc. – in the hope of getting temporary competitive advantages, producing ‘rents’ beyond the average level of profit (Schumpeter 1937; Mandel 1970). Successful innovation then pushes other capitals to adopt the same, similar, or superior innovations. This helps explain capitalism’s technically and socially revolutionary character, its drive to extend capitalism around the world, and its uneven and combined development. But there is no fixed endpoint to this general trajectory, which, within broad limits, remains open.

Marx identified a fundamental contradiction in the commodity form between exchange- and use-value. On this basis he dialectically unfolded the complex nature of the capitalist mode of production and its dynamic; and showed the necessity of periodic crises and their role in the forcible re-imposition of the relative unity of capital accumulation (cf. Albritton 1986; Harvey 1982; Postone 1993). My concern here is not to reconstruct the dialectical logic of Marx’s Capital but to build on its account of the basic contradictions in capital. Specifically I argue that all forms of the capital relation embody different versions of the contradiction between exchange-value and use-value and that these impact differently on (different fractions of) capital and labour. These contradictions are reproduced as capitalism itself is reproduced. Changes in their articulation provide one base for periodisation.

Let me enumerate some forms of this contradiction. The commodity is both an exchange-value and a use-value; the worker is both an abstract unit of labour-power substitutable by other such units (or, indeed, other factors of production) and a concrete individual with specific skills, knowledge, and creativity; the wage is both a cost of production and a source of demand; money functions both as an international currency and as national money; productive capital is both abstract value in motion (notably in the form of realised profits available for re-investment) and a concrete stock of time- and place-specific assets in the course of being valorised; and so forth. Such structural contradictions and their associated strategic dilemmas always exist but assume different forms and primacies in different contexts. They can also prove more or less manageable depending on the specific ‘spatio-temporal fixes’ and institutionalised class compromises with which they are associated.

One way to distinguish periods of capitalism (or accumulation regimes and modes of regulation) is in terms of the relative primacy of these different contradictions. Thus Petit suggests that, for any accumulation regime, the overall mode of regulation is organized around one dominant structural form. For Fordism, this was the wage relation; in the emerging post-Fordist regime, competition. Other structural forms that might fill this position in other contexts are money, the state, and international regimes (Petit 1999). But Petit himself concedes there is no good theoretical reason to assume that only one structural form at a time plays this role. Hence it would better to leave this issue open to further theoretical and empirical analysis. Mao’s remarks on contradiction are useful here, especially as read by Althusser (1970). Thus one could examine changes in the principal and secondary contradictions and shifts in their respective primary and secondary aspects. This is the approach developed below.

A strategic-relational approach emphasises the dialectical interplay of structure and strategy. This is illustrated by Poulantzas’s claim that ‘the reproduction of these contradictions with their contradictory effects and their impact on the historical tendency of capitalist development depends on the class struggle‘ (1975: 40-1). Poulantzas tended to essentialise class struggle but his argument can be made less reductionist by referring to two general features of capital accumulation. The first provides a basis for introducing agency into the analysis of accumulation regimes, the second for considering agency’s role in modes of regulation.

First, the complex internal relations among the different moments of the value form have only a formal unity, i.e., they are unified only as modes of expression of generalised commodity production. They do not give it substantive unity or guarantee crisis-free accumulation. From a strategic-relational perspective, any such unity (or structural coherence) that exists is co-produced through structurally-inscribed strategic selectivities and actors’ (differentially reflexive) structurally-oriented strategic calculation. Accumulation strategies and institutionalised class compromises play key roles here in framing attempts to manage capitalism’s contradictions and dilemmas. Accumulation strategies elaborate an account of the general interest in a feasible mode of growth together with its economic and extra-economic conditions, build support around its realisation, and seek to institutionalise the compromise that underpins it (Jessop 1990: 193-247). Whatever its form and content, this general interest is imaginary. For it always marginalises some forces, identities, and interests; and always defers and/or displaces the costs involved in tackling the contradictions and dilemmas of a given accumulation strategy. No such strategy can ever be completely coherent or fully institutionalised, of course, owing to the opacity and indeterminacy of the conditions necessary to accumulation and the need to develop and build support for them despite continuing competition and conflict. Nonetheless, insofar as one accumulation strategy becomes dominant or hegemonic and is institutionalised within a specific spatio-temporal fix, it will help consolidate an accumulation regime within the economic space linked to this fix. Because the underlying contradictions and dilemmas still exist, however, any such regimes are always partial, provisional, and unstable. The circuit of capital can still break at many points. Economic crises then serve to re-impose the always-relative unity of the circuit of capital through its restructuring. If the latter matches the prevailing accumulation regime, growth will be renewed within its parameters. If not, a crisis of – and not just in – the accumulation regime will develop, provoking the search for new strategies, new institutionalised compromises, and new spatio-temporal fixes.

Second, despite the capacity for self-valorisation facilitated by the commodification of labour-power, the capitalist economy is not wholly self-contained. It also depends on social relations that are not subordinate to the value form. Even labour-power itself, despite its commodification, is largely reproduced outside any immediate capitalist labour process[3] – which means that the sole source of value and its bearers, the working class, are placed outside as well as inside the logic of capital. It is also becoming increasingly apparent, as Polanyi noted, that ‘land’ (in the broad sense of nature) is also a fictitious commodity whose reproduction times do not coincide with those of the capital relation (Polanyi 1957; also Altvater 1973; O’Connor 1996; Stahel 1999). In addition, outside a purely imaginary ‘pure capitalist economy’, capitalism is ‘structurally coupled’ to other systems with their own operational logics or instrumental rationalities and to the ‘lifeworld’ formed by various social relations, identities, interests, and values not otherwise anchored in specific systems. At least some of these extra-economic conditions and forces must be integrated into accumulation strategies for the latter to be feasible. Thus accumulation regimes are usually associated with modes of regulation that regularise the extra-economic as well as economic conditions required for their expanded reproduction. Attempts to subordinate other systems and to colonise the lifeworld by extending the value form typically face resistance – with a corresponding impact on the trajectory of capital accumulation. This is also why the more successful accumulation strategies are often connected to hegemonic projects that link economic success to the national-popular (or some equivalent) interest that aims to mobilise a broader social constituency behind the growth strategy. This extends in turn the influence of accumulation via its modes of regulation to the overall mode of societalisation in a given social formation (see Jessop 1997).

Thus an adequate account – and adequate periodisation – of the capitalist economy and its dynamic should explore how it is embedded in a wider nexus of social relations and institutions; how its evolution is linked to environing, embedding institutions; and how the latter help or hinder the overall reproduction, regularisation, and governance of the economy. This is especially significant today as capital becomes increasingly innovation- and information-driven, more closely linked to so-called ‘post-industrial’ processes, and more global in scope – with major implications for embedding, disembedding, and re-embedding. In short, as social embeddedness changes, it produces a path-dependent structural coupling affecting the economy and its environments. Attempts to coordinate capitalist development are inevitably prone to failure. But, insofar as modes of coordination change, they too can inform periodisation. This is illustrated by the importance now attached to networking as opposed to the role of mixed economy in Atlantic Fordism.

Overall, this approach implies that there is no single and unambiguous ‘logic of capital’ but, rather, several such logics with a family resemblance. For, given the underdetermination of capitalism’s dynamic at the level of its generic but inevitably abstract logic, each accumulation regime and/or mode of regulation imparts its own distinctive structure and dynamic to the circuit of capital – including distinctive forms of crisis and breakdown. This can provide the basis for typologies for comparative and/or historical analysis. Moreover, if different regimes and/or modes of regulation succeed each other, it can also inform a chronology (simple succession in a unilinear timeframe) or a periodisation (succession generated through the contingently necessary realisation of the open-ended dialectical logic of capital as a social relation).


I now illustrate this approach with comments on Atlantic Fordism. A full account of post-war capitalism should examine modes of growth elsewhere in the world system – including state socialist economies, economies undergoing dependent development, emerging East Asian economies, etc. – and their complex articulation with the dominant Atlantic Fordist regime. This requires a far more complex analysis and periodisation than is offered here. Nor do I consider the genealogy of Fordism, the reasons for the eventual triumph of the US variant of Fordism, and its subsequent diffusion to create Atlantic Fordism. Instead I focus on the structural coherence of this system, the factors behind its breakdown, and the scope that the latter offers for a coherent post-Fordism.

Fordism and post-Fordism can be analysed in regulationist terms on four different levels: the labour process, the accumulation regime, the mode of regulation, and the mode of societalisation (Jessop 1992). But this analysis is best undertaken by analysing the structural contradictions and strategic dilemmas of capitalism. For these enable us to re-assess the crisis of Fordism by stressing the limits to accumulation and regulation and the problems they pose for any post-Fordist regime. They also enable us to address the changing spatio-temporal dynamics of capital accumulation.

Atlantic Fordism was an accumulation regime based on a virtuous autocentric circle of mass production and mass consumption secured through a distinctive mode of regulation that was institutionally and practically materialised in the Keynesian Welfare National State (hereafter KWNS) (see Jessop 1992; 1994). Its distinctive contribution to Atlantic Fordism was to manage, at least for a while, the contradictions in the different forms of the capital relation. The Atlantic Fordist economies benefited from a spatio-territorial matrix based on the congruence between national economy, national state, national citizenship, and national society; and from institutions relatively well adapted to combining the tasks of securing full employment and growth and managing national electoral cycles. This spatio-temporal fix enabled a specific resolution of the contradictions of accumulation as expressed under Atlantic Fordism. Thus, within relatively closed national economies which had been institutionally-discursively constituted as the primary objects of economic management, national states aimed to achieve full employment by treating wages primarily as a source of (domestic) demand and managed their budgets on the assumption that money circulated primarily as national money. The diffusion of mass production (and its economies of scale) through expanding Fordist firms as well as collective bargaining indexed to productivity and prices helped bring wages as a cost of production under control. And the Bretton Woods monetary regime and GATT trade regime helped ensure that the (still limited) circulation of free-floating international currencies did not seriously disturb Keynesian economic management based on state control over the national money. Welfare rights based on national citizenship helped to generalise norms of mass consumption and to promote full employment levels of demand; and they were sustained in turn by an institutionalised compromise involving Fordist unions and Fordist firms. Full employment and welfare rights were in turn important themes in party political competition.

Some costs of the Fordist compromise and KWNS were borne within Fordist societies by the relative decline of small and medium firms, by workers employed in disadvantaged parts of segmented labour markets, and by women performing both paid and domestic labour. Other costs were exported to other economic and political spaces integrated into international regimes (such as those for cheap oil or migrant labour) necessary to Atlantic Fordism’s continued growth but not included in its Fordist compromise. Atlantic Fordism was also enabled through a Janus-faced temporal fix. On the one hand, it depended on the rapid exploitation of non-renewable resources laid down over millennia; and, on the other, it produced environmental pollution and social problems which it either ignored or hoped to resolve in the indefinite future (see, for example, Altvater 1993: 247-78; Brennan 1995; Stahel 1999).

Crises in and of Fordism are inevitably overdetermined. The typical manifestation of the crisis in Fordism was stagflation – reflecting the grounding of its mode of regulation in the wage and money forms. This crisis-tendency was usually overcome through crisis-induced economic restructuring and incremental institutional changes. The crisis of Fordism emerged with the breakdown of these crisis-management mechanisms. A major contributing factor here was the undermining of the national economy as an object of state management – notably through the internationalisation of trade, investment, and finance. This inverted the primary aspects of its two main contradictions and gave renewed force to other contradictions of capitalism. Thus the wage (both individual and social) was increasingly seen as an international cost of production rather than source of domestic demand; and money increasingly came to circulate as an international currency, weakening Keynesian demand management on a national level. This shift in the primary aspect of the monetary contradiction is related to the tendential subordination of industrial capital to the hypermobile logic of financial capital and the tendency for returns on money capital to exceed those on productive capital. The relative exhaustion of the Atlantic Fordist growth dynamic also posed problems of productivity growth and market saturation (which contributed to an emerging fiscal crisis of the state) and problems of how to manage the transition to the next long wave upswing (a task which entails changes in the temporal horizons as well as forms of state economic intervention). The crisis of US hegemony is also reflected in struggles over new international regimes and how far they should serve American interests rather than capitalism more generally.[4] In addition, new conflicts and/or forms of struggle have emerged that escape stabilisation within existing structural forms: two major examples are the crisis of corporatism and the rise of new social movements. New problems have also arisen, such as pollution and new categories of risk, which are not easily managed, regularised, or governed within the old forms. Finally, relative to Atlantic Fordism’s growth phase, some contradictions have increased in importance and/or acquired new forms.


The problem of re-regulating accumulation after the Fordist crisis is irreducible to finding new ways of managing old contradictions within the same spatio-temporal matrix. This is not just because the primary and secondary aspects of the principal structural forms in Atlantic Fordism (the wage relation and money form) have been reversed. Other contradictions and their associated dilemmas have also become more dominant and the spatio-temporal contexts in which all the above-mentioned contradictions are expressed have become more complex. The wage relation and money forms of after-Fordist economies have been widely discussed elsewhere. I would simply add that they have not successfully resolved Fordism’s crisis-tendencies but have deferred and/or displaced them, thereby creating new forms of international and national disorder. This is especially clear in the dominant neo-liberal form of after-Fordist restructuring. This reinforces the abstract-formal moment of exchange value in different structural forms at the expense of the substantive-material moment of use value. It is capital in these abstract moments that is most easily disembedded from specific places and thereby freed to ‘flow’ freely through space and time. However, in each of its more concrete moments, as noted above, capital has its own particular productive and reproductive requirements. The relative neglect of these in the neo-liberal model at the international and national levels is partly compensated by more interventionist policies at the regional, urban, and local levels (Gough and Eisenschitz 1996; Brenner 1999) as well as by capital’s own increasing resort to various forms of partnership to secure these requirements. The re-scaling of politics and the changing forms of coordination with which these counter-tendencies to neo-liberalism are linked also indicate the continuing movement away from Fordist regulation. But they have not yet produced a stable post-Fordist mode of regulation because this must address other problems too.

I now discuss three newly important contradictions that hinder the search for a stable post-Fordist accumulation regime and mode of regulation. They comprise: first, a dissociation between abstract flows in space and concrete valorisation in place; second, a growing short-termism in economic calculation vs. an increasing dependence of valorisation on extra-economic factors that take a long time to produce; and, third, the contradiction between the information economy and the information society as a specific expression of the fundamental contradiction between private control in the relations of production and socialisation of the forces of production. In addition, though it is not as such a structural contradiction, major problems surround the ideal spatio-temporal fix, if any, within which the principal contradictions of Atlantic Fordism and today’s newly important contradictions might prove manageable.

The first contradiction reflects the fact that ‘the new economy operates in a ‘space’ rather than a place, and over time more and more economic transactions will migrate to this new space’ (Kelly 1998: 94). This is a complex, non-propinquitous, multidimensional, cyberspace with novel spatial dynamics grounded in the possibilities that cyberspace offers for simultaneous co-location of myriad entities and relationships. Yet cyberspace is not a neutral, third space between capital and labour, market and state, public and private: it is a new terrain on which conflicts between these forces, institutions, and domains are fought out. Its best-known expression is the separation of hypermobile financial capital from industrial capital – with the former moving in an abstract space of flows, the latter still needing to be valorised in place. The same contradiction also appears in the individual circuits of financial, industrial, and commercial capital and their interconnections. For, in different ways, each circuit depends on a complex relation between a physical marketplace and a conceptual marketspace (Kelly 1998: 96). However much economic activity migrates into cyberspace, territorialisation remains essential to capital. The grid of global cities provides this territorial ‘fix’ for financial capital and international producer services (Sassen 1996). For industrial capital, it could be innovation milieux, industrial districts, etc., as well as physical infrastructure (see Harvey 1982). Even e-commerce needs such an infrastructure. Thus, an emerging globalising, knowledge-driven, after-Fordism does not signal the final transcendence of spatial barriers but effects ‘new and more complex articulations of the dynamics of mobility and fixity’ (Robins and Gillespie 1992: 149).

The second contradiction is rooted in the paradox that ‘(t)he most advanced economies function more and more in terms of the extra-economic’ (Veltz 1996: 12). The paradox rests on the increasing interdependence between the economic and extra-economic factors making for structural or systemic competitiveness. This is linked to new technologies based on more complex transnational, national, and regional systems of innovation, to the paradigm shift from the Fordist concern with productivity growth rooted in economies of scale to concern with mobilising social as well as economic sources of flexibility and entrepreneurialism, and to the more general attempts to penetrate micro-social relations in the interests of valorisation. It is reflected in the growing emphasis given to social capital, trust, and communities of learning as well as the enhanced role of competitiveness based on entrepreneurial cities, an enterprise culture, and enterprising subjects. This is where Petit’s suggestion that competition is the dominant axis of post-Fordist regulation finds most justification (Petit 1999).

The changing nature of competition generates major new contradictions that affect the spatial and temporal organisation of accumulation. Thus, temporally, there is a major contradiction between short-term economic calculation (especially in financial flows) and the long-term dynamic of ‘real competition’ rooted in resources (skills, trust, heightened reflexivity, collective mastery of techniques, economies of agglomeration and size) that may take years to create, stabilise, and reproduce. Spatially, there is a fundamental contradiction between the economy considered as a pure space of flows and the economy as a territorially and/or socially embedded system of extra-economic as well as economic resources and competencies. The latter moment is reflected in varied concepts to describe the knowledge-driven economy – national, regional, and local systems of innovation, innovative milieus, systemic or structural competitiveness, learning regions, social capital, trust, speed-based competition, etc.. This poses new dilemmas if the capital relation is to be stabilised over more scales as well as increasingly compressed and/or extended temporal horizons of action.

A third contradiction that becomes important once again in the after-Fordist (or, at least, the post-industrial) accumulation regime is one the so-called ‘fundamental contradiction’ of capitalism, namely, that between between the increasing socialisation of the productive forces and private control in the relations of production. Networked knowledge-driven economies heighten this contradiction from both sides. Thus the socialisation of productive forces is enhanced, firstly, by the ‘economies of networks’ that are generated in and through multi-actor, polycentric, and multiscalar networks rather than by single (or quasi-vertically integrated) organisations, which are better able to realise economies of scale; and, secondly, by the almost exponentially increasing returns to network size, such that ‘each additional member increases the network’s value, which in turn attracts more members, initiating a spiral of benefits’ (Kelly 1998: 25). These two features pose a number of collective action problems around socialisation and private appropriation linked to the tendencies to market failure noted even in orthodox studies of the ‘economics of information’. In particular, they make it ‘difficult legally to distinguish between different firms’ intellectual property, since all intellectual property is a mixture of innovations arising from different places’ (Kundnani 1998-9: 56). This reinforces the tendency for network economies to be captured by the network – albeit often asymmetrically – rather than by a particular firm (Kelly 1998: 26-8). This suggests the need for new forms of enterprise able to capture network economies without destroying the broader network(s) that generate them. ‘Virtual’ and/or networked firms are said to correspond to this need (Castells 1996: 151-200). However, unless the ‘virtual’ firm becomes co-extensive with the collective labourer, the contradiction remains. For every capital wants free access to information, knowledge, and expertise, but wants to charge for the information, knowledge, and expertise that it can supply (see Frow 1996: 102).

A fourth site of problems concerns the appropriate horizons of action for the spatio-temporal fix, if any, within which Atlantic Fordism’s principal contradictions and those of the current period might prove manageable. This is closely related to a new complexity in informational capitalism due to new forms of ‘time-space distantiation’ and ‘time-space compression’. Time-space distantiation stretches social relations over time and space so that they can be controlled or coordinated over longer periods of time (including into the ever more distant future) and over longer distances, greater areas, or more scales of activity. Conversely, time-space compression involves the intensification of ‘discrete’ events in real time and/or increased velocity of material and immaterial flows over a given distance. This is linked to changing material and social technologies enabling more precise control over ever-shorter periods of action as well as ‘the conquest of space by time’. Differential abilities to stretch and/or compress time and space shape power and resistance in the emerging global order. Thus hypermobile forms of finance capital have a unique capacity to compress their own decision-making time (e.g., through split-second computerised trading) whilst continuing to extend and consolidate their global reach. New developments in both respects, promoted by certain fractions of capital and some states, helped significantly to erode Atlantic Fordism’s spatio-temporal fix. This occurred because of the growing incongruence between proliferating scales of economic action and because new forms of time-space compression undermined the preferred temporalities of Atlantic Fordist accumulation and regulation.

This is now reflected in a ‘relativisation of scale’ (Collinge 1996). This involves a proliferation of discursively constituted and institutionally embedded spatial scales (whether terrestrial, territorial, or telematic), their relative dissociation in complex tangled hierarchies (rather than a simple nesting of scales), and an increasingly convoluted mix of scale strategies as economic and political forces seek the most favourable conditions for insertion into a changing international order. The national scale has lost its taken-for-granted primacy in Atlantic Fordism; but no other scale of economic, political, or social organisation (whether the ‘global’ or the ‘local’, the ‘urban’ or the ‘triadic’) has yet won a similar primacy. Indeed there is intense competition between different economic and political spaces to become the new primary anchorage point of accumulation. The new politics of scale is still unresolved – although I suspect that ‘triads’ will eventually replace the nation as the primary scale in an eventual post-Fordist spatio-temporal fix.

As yet, however, these four newly important problems have prevented a stable post-Fordist regime from emerging either in the old space of Atlantic Fordism or on some wider scale. I suggest that the principal contradictions around which a new accumulation regime would crystallise comprise the forms of competition (notably the growing importance of the extra-economic conditions of competitiveness and hence their colonisation by the value form and, tied to this as well as the new knowledge-driven technological paradigm, the emergence of the networked firm as the dominant organisational paradigm) and the forms of the state (notably its restructuring in the light of the relativisation of scale and of the incapacity of traditional state forms to govern the new economy). I have addressed both sets of issues in recent work on the shift from the Keynesian welfare national state typical of Atlantic Fordism to an emerging Schumpeterian workfare post-national regime (SWPR) that could help re-regularise an after-Fordist accumulation regime.

The ideal-typical SWPR can be described as follows. First, it tries to promote permanent innovation and flexibility in relatively open economies by intervening on the supply-side and to strengthen their structural and/or systemic competitiveness by re-articulating the extra-economic and economic conditions bearing thereon. Second, it subordinates social policy to the demands of labour market flexibility and/or employability and the perceived imperatives of structural or systemic competitiveness. This includes putting downward pressure on the social wage qua cost of international production. Third, compared with the earlier primacy of the national scale, the SWPR is ‘postnational‘ because the increased significance of other spatial scales and horizons of action makes national territory less important as a ‘power container’. This is associated with transfers of economic and social policy-making functions upwards, downwards, and sideways. International agencies (such as the IMF, World Bank, OECD, and ILO) play an increased role in shaping the economic and social policy agendas; in Europe, the European Union also has a growing role. But there is a simultaneous devolution of some economic and social policy-making to the regional, urban, and local levels on the grounds that policies intended to influence the micro-economic supply-side and social regeneration are best designed close to their sites of implementation. Such arguments also justify cross-border cooperation among regional, urban, or local spaces. Yet, paradoxically, this leads to an enhanced role for national states in controlling the interscalar transfer of these powers – suggesting a shift from sovereignty to a primus inter pares role in intergovernmental relations. Finally, public-private networks have an increased role in state activities on all levels in delivering economic and social policies and compensating for market failures and inadequacies. But here, too, states have a key role through their involvement in meta-governance, i.e., designing governance regimes on different scales and moderating their operations and mutual repercussions (on the SWPR, see Jessop 1993; 1994).


My general conclusions are easily stated. The abstract logic of capitalism is the best starting point for theorising accumulation regimes and their modes of regulation and, a fortiori, for distinguishing and periodising phases of capitalist development. Thus my analysis starts from the basic contradiction between exchange-value and use-value and its relation to different but cognate structural contradictions and strategic dilemmas in all expressions of the value form. I then introduce strategic-relational concepts to examine how the capital relation may acquire an always-relative substantive (as opposed to merely formal) unity as the basis for expanded reproduction. This relative unity can be analysed in a concretisation-complexification spiral to reveal its structural and strategic moments. These include the institutionalised compromises, spatio-temporal fixes, and spatial and temporal horizons of action that help to secure the relative stabilisation and structural coherence of accumulation regimes and modes of regulation. They do this in part by displacing and/or deferring certain contradictions, dilemmas, and costs onto social spaces and forces beyond the internal and external boundaries of the compromise and its spatio-temporal fix. I also argue that different compromises and spatio-temporal fixes involve different relative weights for these contradictions and dilemmas and suggest how this may serve as one basis for periodising capitalism.

Two general methodological conclusions can now be drawn. First, no particular scale or space (such as the national) or particular periodicity (such as long waves, product cycles, or business cycles) should be privileged a priori in analysing phases of capitalism. For the relative importance of different scales, spaces, or time horizons is a key variable in the structural coherence of accumulation regimes and modes of regulation. The key role of the national scale in Atlantic Fordism, for example, contrasts with the more multi-scalar patterns that preceded it and are now succeeding it. Temporal horizons have likewise shifted due to the re-articulation of time-space distantiation and compression, especially given new information and communication technologies. Second, my approach rejects the dichotomous choice of qualitatively different capitalisms in history vs. one over-riding structure since capitalism began. The same abstract logic of capital certainly shapes all forms of capitalism; but this logic can be expressed in different forms. The dynamic of capital accumulation on a world scale depends on diverse complementarities among accumulation regimes and modes of regulation on different scales and on the ways these provide the requisite variety for capital to experiment, to respond to new forms of crisis and obstacles to accumulation, to displace the leading growth centres as new regimes and modes of regulation emerge, and to establish buffer zones and sinks for absorbing the costs of capital’s uneven development outside the spatio-temporal fixes of the leading regions.


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[1]. A need for brevity means my views below are often over-simplified, if not self-caricatured, versions of arguments presented elsewhere. Readers can consult the references for more developed arguments.

[2].  Many early comments on Fordism in crisis saw a revamped Fordism (neo-Fordism) as the solution.

[3]. In this sense it is a ‘fictitious commodity’.

[4]. In contrast the new post-war international regimes established under US hegemony served broader interests in capital accumulation.

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