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Author: Richard Barbrook



The latest buzzword on the British Left [in 1990] is post-Fordism. This a theory which is being used to justify the ‘New Times’ politics promoted by Marxism Today. This article examines the origins of this concept in the French Regulation School of political economy. In particular, it looks at the work of one of this group’s leading members: Alain Lipietz. He has used these theories to argue for a Red/Green political programme for the Left in Europe. This strategy is inconsistent with that put forward by the advocates of post-Fordist theories in Britain. On each side of the English Channel, the same theoretical language is used to justify very different political programmes.

Past, Present and Future

While the tenth anniversary of Thatcher’s victory is a cause for celebration among the British ruling class, the anniversary is an unwelcome reminder of a decade of defeats for the British Left. The Labour Party has not only lost three successive General Elections, but also its local powerbases have been undermined through the centralisation of government. The trade unions have seen unemployment reduce their membership, repressive laws restrict industrial action and their General Secretaries are no longer welcome in the councils of state. Even the National Union of Mineworkers has been defeated. If the traditional organisations of the Labour movement have had problems, the ‘new social movements’ have fared no better. The peace movement is confused by the new detente in Europe and the women’s movement has fragmented. With all alternatives discredited, Thatcher is able to determine the terms of the debate within British politics. Nowadays even the opposition parties support the economic restructuring of the country by big business through market competition. Britain seems set to become the Alabama or Queensland of Western Europe.

This period of defeat has created an opening for the politics promoted by Marxism Today. This magazine originated as the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain. During the 1980s, as the Communist party disintegrated into various competing factions, Marxism Today survived this debacle by turning itself into a think tank for the Left. In the early 1980s, the magazine called for a ‘Popular Front’ of anti-Thatcher parties and movements against the Conservative government. (Hall and Jacques 1983) This strategy was rejected by most of the British Left because it abandoned any commitment to explicitly socialist solutions to the country’s problems. However, repeated defeats have made Marxism Today‘s project seem more credible. The political initiative has now passed from the Trotskyist sects and the supporters of Tony Benn to Marxism Today and the followers of Neil Kinnock. Nowadays there are no longer even rhetorical promises of socialist solutions.

Marxism Today doesn’t just offer an electoral strategy for removing Thatcher. Its theorists are trying to redefine the whole outlook of the British Left. The magazine asserts that Britain is entering ‘New Times’. The old debate between Left and Right is being replaced by a new opposition between the past and the future. This conceptual shift reflects the changed aspirations and expectations within British Left. Especially among the Left’s metropolitan and white collar supporters, there has been a rejection of the traditional version of Socialism as a combination of the paternalist state, centralised institutions, heavy industrial technologies and a collectivist proletarian culture. Marxism Today wants to portray this vision as not only undesirable, but also as historically obsolescent. In this new era, the task of the Left is to adapt the technological and institutional developments within capitalism for progressive ends. In part, these ‘New Times’ politics are only a repackaging of the Communist party’s old strategy of a crossparty coalition for the 1990s. But Marxism Today has also rediscovered technological determinism with a vengeance. It now believes that technology and therefore history is on its side. The theory which proves the inevitability of the success of the magazine’s politics is known as post-Fordism.

The New Times are Here

Post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-feminism… and now post-Fordism. Like its etymological antecedents, post-Fordism is defined as the antithesis of its predecessor. In the issue of Marxism Today announcing the advent of the ‘New Times’, the new credo is described by Robin Murray (1988), the ex-Chief Economic Advisor to the Labour Group on the Greater London Council. The past was Fordism, an age of mass production and consumption. It was characterised by:

  • the standardisation of commodities;
  • the mechanisation of production;
  • the Taylorist division between conceptual and manual work;
  • the use of assembly lines in factories.

For Marxism Today, the impact of Fordism was not just limited to the workplace. The magazine uses Fordism and Taylorism to analyse all areas of the politics and culture. These concepts become catchphrases, indiscriminately applied to all aspects of the past. Therefore the mass class-based parties and the industrial trade unions are simply seen as reflections of the monolithic organisation of labour found in the factories.

According to Murray (1988), even the arts were shaped by the disciplines imposed by the rhythms of mass production: ‘…Diaghilev was a Taylorist in dance…’ The first break with Fordism came from within the Left, especially in the worker and student revolts from 1968 onwards. In computer networks or worker cooperatives, these activists pioneered the earliest experiments which broke with the Taylorist division of labour. But, in recent years, the initiative has passed to private capital. Especially in Japan, companies have replaced the old methods of standardised and rigid production with new specialised and flexible systems. Both the Taylorist separation between conceptual/manual labour and assembly lines are abandoned. These are replaced by quality circles and information technology: ‘the guerrilla force takes over from the standing army.’ This is the preordained future and its name is post-Fordism.

The importance of this article lies less in what it says, but where it is. Robin Murray wants the Left to campaign for shorter hours, more flexible shifts, local and central government economic intervention and campaigns to unite full-time and part-time workers. These are modest reforms designed to take advantage of the impending and inevitable future. But Marxism Today is not primarily interested in specific proposals. It wants theoretical proof for the magazine’s overall political strategy. The distinction between Fordism and post-Fordism is useful for the magazine because it makes a clear separation between the past and the future. After interpretation by Marxism Today, post-Fordist theories can explain:

  • why the Left suffered a series of defeats;
  • why these defeats were inevitable;
  • why these defeats were the Left’s fault;
  • why these defeats were a good thing.

Marxism Today sees Thatcher’s victories as a result of the Left’s defective strategy. In the early 1980s, many socialists thought the Tories could be defeated by a class struggle waged by the Labour Party and the trade unions. For Marxism Today, this approach was doomed to failure. The Left was fighting for the past and not the future. The mass party and mass unions were products of the centralisation and standardisation of the Fordist era. (Benton 1989; Bassett 1989) Above all else, these organisations were fatally contaminated by the authoritarianism of the factory system. This made the victory of the old-style Left not only impossible, but also undesirable as well. Therefore Marxism Today rejects class politics in both its Social Democratic and Leninist vanguard party forms. These are the politics of the old Fordist Left.

Instead, the magazine calls a rebirth of the Communist party’s old strategy of a multi-party coalition in combination with the ‘new social movements’. (Leadbeater 1988; Hall 1988) But this strategy is not a different way of reaching the old destination of Socialism. For Marxism Today, political pluralism and social diversity have now become goals in their own right. The breakdown of the monolithic Fordist methods of production within the factories is seen as inevitably leading to the success of these post-Fordist political and social aims.

Not suprisingly, many on the Left have reacted strongly against the ‘New Times’ debate. For example, the Trotskyist journal Socialist Organiser described the ‘New Times’ as ‘old rubbish’ because the Communist party had called for cross-class alliances since the 1930s. (Bradley 1988: 67) Others have gone beyond attacking the particular political proposals of Marxism Today. Increasingly, those who disagree with the magazine’s politics are also rejecting the determinist explanation of its inevitable triumph. (Clarke 1988)

Because Marxism Today popularised this approach, the Fordist/post-Fordist analysis now suffers from “guilt by association”. Many think that it is necessary to debunk this theory as a way of discrediting the magazine’s strategy. Amongst the furore of these British quarrels, the specific origins of the post-Fordist debates within the French Left are completely forgotten. Marxism Today borrowed wholesale the language and concepts of French theorists. But there are crucial contrasts between the use of the post-Fordist approach in the two countries. Using similar theories, Alain Lipietz and other leading French analysts of post-Fordism have drawn very different conclusions from those of Marxism Today. Moreover, they have been very active in combating the ideological equivalents of Marxism Today in France! Thus it is necessary to turn to the French originals if the British Left is to find anything useful in these theories.

La École de la Régulation

In France, Lipietz is a member of an intellectual movement known as the Regulation School. The origins of the Regulation School can be traced to a group of economists based at Grenoble University in the early 1970s. Like many others, these intellectuals were radicalised by the political and social upheavals of the period. The earliest regulationist studies were a combination of Marx’s political economy with structuralism, systems theory and Keynesian macroeconomics. (Boyer 1987: 257, 98) The crucial step in the emergence of the Regulation School was the publication of its seminal text: Régulation et Crises du Capitalisme [A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience] by Michel Aglietta. (1979) This book did not simply draw on the researches of the Grenoble founders of the School, it also popularised the terminology of future regulationist studies, such as Fordism, mode of regulation, regime of accumulation and so on. Hence Lipietz uses Aglietta’s book as a starting point for his own researches. Such is the influence of Régulation et Crises du Capitalisme that some critics claim Lipietz and other regulationists are doing nothing more than popularising Aglietta’s findings! (Clarke 1988: 90)

Aglietta used this new terminology because he wanted to expand the analysis of capitalism beyond the basic social relations of the commodity and wage labour. He did not see these social relations as fixed and immutable, but as subject to continuous evolution and increasing complexity. Capitalist societies could successfully develop only by transforming these fundamental social relations over time. For Aglietta, a regime of accumulation was an ‘intermediary concept’ used to explain the connection between abstract Marxist theories of capital accumulation and specific historical periods. (Aglietta 1979: 68) The distinguishing feature of the different epochs of capitalism was the organisation of the process of production. Thus Aglietta saw the modern era was begun by the introduction of Taylorist labour disciplines into the factories. Through the separation of conceptual and manual labour, Taylorism was able to increase the productivity of labour by using close supervision to compel continuous working. In turn, this reorganisation of the process of production developed into Fordism. The Taylorist organisation of production was complemented by the introduction of assembly line production. Now the pace of working was determined not only by labour discipline, but also by the speed of the machinery used in production.

But Aglietta saw Fordism as more than a specific type of factory mechanisation. The large increase in labour productivity led to a wider transformation of society. Aglietta characterised the earliest stages of capitalism as the extensive regime of accumulation. This was because capitalism expanded by reorganising production while leaving the traditional way of life untouched. But the success of this type of growth led to the emergence of the intensive regime of accumulation. Slowly, but surely, capitalism created a new way of life for the working class by replacing communal interpersonal relations with the individual consumption of commodities. Therefore Fordism represented a simultaneous increase in the productivity of labour and the consumption of commodities.

‘Fordism is…the principle of an articulation between process of production and mode of consumption, which constitutes the mass production that is the specific content of the universalisation of wagelabour.’  (Aglietta 1979: 117)

But Aglietta’s book was not just a work of theory. He integrated his analysis with an empirical history of the development of capitalism in the USA. Aglietta wanted to prove his theoretical concepts through an examination of specific changes in the USA in the types of capital, the organisation of labour, and the introduction of new technologies. For Aglietta, the importance of this historical study was as a way of understanding the contemporary economic crisis. As the book’s name suggests, it was written during the years when the postwar boom ended. Aglietta wanted to know why thirty years of uninterrupted growth had suddenly faltered. His analysis showed how the Fordist form of capitalism was reaching its structural limits. In the early 1970s, most Marxist economists thought the crisis could be simply explained as a consequence of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. (Boyer 1987: 77) But this approach failed to tackle the real historical uniqueness of crises in different countries and in different epochs. The crisis of the 1970s was not the same as that of the 1930s.

For Aglietta, the history of capitalism was composed of alternating periods of growth and crisis. During certain times, a specific combination of capital, production process and technology led to years of successful accumulation. But, at other times, capitalist societies entered crises which could only be resolved by reorganising the established forms of capital, production and technology. This approach borrowed from the structuralist schema of alternating stages of social integration and disintegration. Aglietta used this model to show the specificity of each epoch of capitalism. He wanted to find the inherent social, organisational and technical limitations within each particular era of capitalism. The individuality of a crisis was determined by the particular structures of each regime of accumulation. Aglietta was one of the few Marxist economists who could show why the tendency of the rate of profit to fall manifested itself as inflation and stagnation in the 1970s, instead of deflation and unemployment as in the 1930s. The credibility of his explanations meant Aglietta’s book soon acquired cult status.

This analysis was not simply theoretical. By describing contemporary capitalism as Taylorist and Fordist, Aglietta also showed how working class resistance was taking new forms. In the 1970s, many strikers did not want just better wages and conditions, but also an end to the Taylorist organisation of work. Similarly, as Fordism spread commodity relations across all of society, struggles over consumption also became increasingly important. For Aglietta, this heightened class antagonism exposed the fundamental nature of the crisis of the 1970s. Capitalism was about to undergo a radical and irreversible transformation so that a new period of growth could start. Aglietta predicted that the next stage of capitalism would be Neo-Fordism. As in earlier times, this new era would be characterised by a restructuring of production. The most advanced factories were already experimenting with an abolition of Taylorism. Semi-autonomous work groups were taking over many supervisory functions. These teams increased productivity by switching workers between different tasks. This had become possible because of increased automation in production control technologies.

This forecast of Neo-Fordism seems very similar to the post-Fordism proclaimed by Marxism Today. Both analyses see the restructuring of production around flexible working and new technologies as transforming capitalist society. However, Aglietta’s vision of the next stage of capitalism was very different from that of Marxism Today. In the first place, Aglietta did not see the new reorganisation of production as a complete end of Taylorism and Fordism. In a large part, it was the continuation of the old methods without their inefficient rigidities. This similarity meant Neo-Fordism was on the same trajectory of growth as Fordism. Aglietta did not see a decentralised and pluralist future. Instead, he predicted a growing disjuncture between private consumption and social production. Far from promoting decentralisation and competition, labour flexibility and new technologies were accelerating the process of concentration and monopoly. The institutional limits to Fordism could only be overcome by increased socialisation of production and consumption. Neo-Fordism meant the triumph of corporate and state control. Therefore, in 1976, Aglietta predicted that:

‘It would be quite illusory to believe that recourse to market mystique and private initiative could magically limit the take-over by the state of the social cost engendered by the expansion of commodity relations.’ (Aglietta 1979: 245)

and also:

‘The coming massive socialisation of the conditions of life will destroy free enterprise as the pillar of liberal ideology.’ (Aglietta 1979: 385)

This spectacular failure of prediction was shared by the entire French Left of the 1970s. Both the Communist Party and their Maoist rivals believed the crisis would lead to the growing statisation of the economy. Their theoreticians foresaw the tendency to the rate of profit to fall being countered by the state socialising the costs of the crisis through nationalisations and increased government expenditure. Aglietta faithfully reproduced this prognosis in his book. It was left to the next generation of regulationists to understand why this confident prediction failed to come true. This would lead to a further development in the Regulation School approach in understanding the history and trajectory of the crisis of Fordism.

Lipietz as Regulationist

A major problem with making prophecies is that they often don’t come true. The work of Lipietz and other contemporary regulationists is an attempt to understand the disjuncture between Aglietta’s past predictions and presentday reality. Aglietta foresaw more statisation and monopolisation, but the 1980s have seen a growth in the power of private capital and an increased use of market forces. Aglietta was following the ‘scientific’ tradition established by the IInd and IIIrd Internationals. Both Social Democrats and Leninists agreed on a predetermined teleology within capitalism. Family firms evolved into joint stock companies, then into large corporate monopolies and, finally, into state capitalism. This prediction derived from the common interest of both reformist and revolutionary party bureaucrats in substituting the statisation of capital for the self-emancipation of the working class. This vision of the future was reproduced by Left intellectuals as a theoretical view of history as a machine working towards an inevitable statist future. In 1960s France, the high priest of this approach was Louis Althusser.

After 1968, French Left intellectuals were highly influenced by the work of Althusser, especially the Maoists. The Regulation School was no exception to this fashion. Aglietta even wrote his classic text in the same style of convoluted prose! Althusser started from the primacy of theory over empirical investigation. (Thompson 1978: 205-229) In turn, this method asserted the dominance of social structures over human actions. This meant that history became a ‘process without a subject’ because people were merely fulfilling their preordained destiny. Therefore, for Althusser, the centre of any examination of capitalism was the reproduction of the social structures which determined social actions by individuals. The Regulation School borrowed heavily from this method. It allowed them to understand how forms of capital, types of labour process and technologies were combined to form an interdependent structure. Althusser’s work also showed the regulationists how the internal contradictions of these social structures led to moments of disintegration and crisis. (Jessop 1988: 149-150; Clarke 1988: 68) However, by being influenced by Althusser’s method, Aglietta also absorbed his ‘scientific’ statist teleology. This was the ultimate source of Aglietta’s wrong predictions.

What distinguished the Regulation School theorists from their contemporaries was their dislike of Althusser’s ‘anti-historicism’ and ‘anti-economism’. For the regulationists, a purist application of Althusser’s approach could not explain actual crises within capitalism. Althusser dismissed empirical historical research and reduced economics to the ‘last instance’. In contrast, the regulationists embraced the study of both history and political economy. Thus Aglietta’s Régulation et Crises du Capitalisme was a combination of theory with an economic history of twentieth century USA. Though this seminal study was still influenced by Althusser’s determinism, later regulationists were able to rid themselves of these false prophecies as well. Increasingly, empirical investigations were showing the ‘…historically contingency of the forms of organisation’. (Boyer 1987: 1212) The Regulation School were no longer treating political economy as a proof for statism.

In the late 1970s, many French intellectuals broke with their traditional role as apologists for state socialism. For a majority, this took the form of an espousal of the benefits of capitalist democracy. (Garnier and Lewis 1984) Lipietz is an exception to this recuperation of the May ’68 generation. In 1983, he headed an electoral list called ‘Ecologie 93: Les Verts, les Alternatifs, les Autogestionnaires’ [Ecology 93: Greens, Alternatives, Self-Management Supporters]. This is a continuation of a lifetime of political activism, which began in Gauche Ouvriere et Paysanne [Worker and Peasant Left], a 1970s Maoist sect within the ultraleft Parti Socialiste Unifie [Unified Socialist Party]. (Biard 1978: 161-2) Despite their mistakes, Lipietz still defends the Maoists as the only section of the French Left who opposed the capitalist ‘modernisation’ of France. (Lipietz 1984: 10-34)

Lipietz acknowledges a large theoretical debt to Althusser. (Lipietz 1985a: 159) This influence can be seen in Lipietz’s partial continuation of Althusser’s ‘scientism’. He affirms his belief in the construction of a ‘scientific project for understanding history’ by the Regulation School. This is ‘…the study of the regularities which past struggles have imposed upon human relations…’ and how these ‘regularities’ evolve and develop into crises. (Lipietz 1987: 12) However Lipietz has abandoned Althusser’s ‘scientific’ certainties over the direction of history. Institutional stability within capitalist societies is the result of ‘chance discoveries’ and is inherently transient. (Lipietz 1987: 15)  For Lipietz, political economy cannot be a set of fixed and immutable laws. Instead he puts history in the centre of the comprehension of the laws of political economy. Because capitalist social relations are in a state of constant flux, uncertainty and evolution, the prime task of political economists is to understand this process of change. (Lipietz 1989: 1)

Lipietz uses regulationist theories as a way of examining recent history. Aglietta’s work is the starting point for his studies. He examines contemporary capitalist societies as products of the Fordist regime of accumulation. He echoes Aglietta when he defines a regime of accumulation as: ‘…the fairly longterm stabilisation of the allocation of social production between consumption and accumulation. This implies a certain correspondence between the transformation of the conditions of production and the transformation of the conditions of the reproduction of wagelabour, between certain of the modalities in which capitalism is articulated with other modes of production within a national economic and social formation, and between the social and economic formation under consideration and its ‘outside world’.’ (Lipietz 1987: 14)

What Lipietz stresses in Aglietta’s approach is the concept of the mode of regulation. The word ‘regulation’ has a much wider meaning in French than in English. Régulation does not simply describe certain types of law or bureaucratic watchdogs; it also covers the culture, manners, myths and dreams of a society. In other words, the mode of regulation is a way of understanding many aspects of society which are usually seen as ‘non-economic’ are, in fact, deeply bound into the processes of capital accumulation. For example, Fordism depended upon workers internalising social and sexual disciplines outside work as part of their submission to the rhythms of the assembly line. The mode of regulation is ‘the regime of accumulation… materialised in the shape of norms, habits, laws and regulating networks…’ (Lipietz 1987: 14) This concept is a way of overcoming the polarisation between economics and politics/ideology found in most structuralist theories without abandoning the distinction altogether.

The Golden Years of Fordism

For Lipietz, the breakdown of the mode of regulation lies at the heart of the present crisis of Fordism. But, to understand this crisis, it is necessary to understand the birth of Fordism. The pre-Fordist regime of accumulation is called competitive regulation. This describes not only the era of family firms, the Gold Standard, free trade and the British Empire. It also signifies a specific stage in the organisation of work. In this period, capitalists intensified exploitation mainly by lengthening hours or cutting pay. Following Aglietta, Lipietz sees competitive regulation as an extensive regime of accumulation. Capital was primarily accumulated through an expansion in the scale of production, rather than altering the way production was carried out. However, at the leading edges of the economy, firms were increasing profits through reorganising work patterns and mechanising production. (Marx 1976) As in Aglietta, this is seen as leading to an intensive regime of accumulation characterised by constant reorganisation of the means and methods of production. (Lipietz 1987: 33)

Lipietz’s definition of Fordism follows the regulationist orthodoxy. He sees Fordism as ‘…first of all a form of the organisation of labour…’ (Lipietz 1984: 16) Fordism emerged as a distinct regime of accumulation because these new techniques of production systematically spread across the leading capitalist countries. Therefore Fordism primarily took the form of a two-stage transformation of the production process:

  • Taylorism: first of all, the workforce was divided into three: managers/ technocrats; skilled workers; and semiskilled or unskilled workers. The separation of conception and execution led to rigid division and specialisation between workers.
  • Mechanisation: the second stage was the systematic incorporation of the skills of the workers into the machines used in production.

The adoption of Fordism was a dynamic process which involved a continuous restructuring of the process of production. This led to a long-term rise in the productivity. (Lipietz 1985: 15) More and more commodities could be produced with less and less labour. By 1929, this increase volume of commodities led to a crisis of overproduction. According to the Regulation School, this occurred because the mode of regulation was still shaped by the era of competitive regulation while the regime of accumulation was already Fordist. (Lipietz 1987: 334) Under competitive regulation, competition forced firms to keep wages down. Yet, without higher wages, there could be no mass consumption of the commodities produced by the new methods. Failure to resolve this contradiction led to a financial crisis and the Great Depression. During the 1930s and 1940s, there were fierce conflicts within and between states as the different strategies were tried for escaping from the crisis. In the end, the Keynesian policies of the New Deal and Social Democracy were able to pioneer a new mode of regulation which assured the continuing expansion of the Fordist regime of accumulation.

The new mode of regulation primarily involved the introduction of new policies by the nation state, such as a welfare system, minimum wage laws and credit money. (Lipietz 1987: 359; Lipietz 1989: 36) The successful combination of a Fordist regime of accumulation with a mode of regulation didn’t just depend on the skills of the ‘hegemonic bloc’ controlling power in particular states. (Lipietz 1985: 11) It also was a victory for working class resistance to the low wages and bad conditions of competitive regulation. In turn, underlying social conditions had to be sufficiently developed. This maturity was not simply the growth of a powerful Labour movement. For example, it also included the establishment of paper money, regular employment, an established banking sector and state economic intervention. (Lipietz 1985a: 845) For the Regulation School, the process of Fordism may have had its genesis within the production process, but its continued success depended on the reorganisation of society as a whole. The ‘real subsumption of labour to capital’ spread to all areas of social life.

When societies fully adopted the new forms of regulation to complement the new production processes, a ‘Golden Age’ of Fordism occurred. There was a ‘virtuous circle’ of falling costs of fixed capital preventing mechanisation being halted by the price of machinery; consumption rising in parallel with productivity increases through increased wages and welfare provisions; and cyclical fluctuations within production being mitigated through fiscal regulation. (Lipietz 1987: 369) The ‘regularity’ of Fordism was also ensured by trapping workers into a cycle of ‘métro-boulot-télé-dodo’ [commuting-work-TV-sleep]. (Lipietz 1984: 233) However, this ‘ideal type’ of Fordism only existed for a limited period and in a few countries. Lipietz is interested not just in understanding Fordism’s era of (relative) stability, but also why its internal makeup led to revolt and crisis.

The Crisis of Fordism

‘Fundamentally, the researchers have one single conclusion, repeated and multiplied in a flowering of overlapping citations: the rupture with the economic tendencies prior to 1973 comes from the crisis of Fordism, as the principal technical, social and economic form of organisation.’ (Boyer 1987: 35)

In common with the rest of the Regulation School, Lipietz believes that Fordism reached its economic and social limits during the 1970s. Nowhere was this clearer than at the foundations of the whole regime of accumulation: the production process. As Lipietz puts it: ‘at the root of the current economic crisis, there is the crisis of labour.’ (Lipietz 1989: 18) Each new round of restructuring resulted in fewer gains in productivity. (Lipietz 1984: 424) This was not due solely to the re-emergence of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall because of rising costs of fixed capital. It was also connected with the ‘…counteroffensive of the semi-skilled worker…’ which occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Lipietz 1984: 41) The workers were no longer overawed by the disciplines of Taylorism and the controls of mechanisation. Absenteeism, wildcat strikes and sabotage were all forms of resistance against the alienation of the assembly line. This showed how the rigid divisions of labour under Taylorism were themselves becoming a source of inefficiency.

But this crisis of Fordism was not caused solely by internal difficulties within the regime of accumulation established in the advanced capitalist countries. There were external reasons as well. The mode of regulation developed by nation states began to break down because of the internationalisation of capital. (Lipietz 1986: 23) As key areas of production became organised on a global scale, it became increasingly difficult to regulate the economy on a national level. (Lipietz 1989: 11) Crucially, the global market was not subject to any minimum wage laws. This allowed certain countries to ‘cheat’ by benefiting from mass consumption without themselves paying the wages needed to make this possible. Within nation states, Fordist regulation was successful when wages and productivity rose in parallel. Yet the international competition between national economies was preventing the rise in wages necessary to prevent a crisis of overproduction. (Lipietz 1985: 17)

The first phase of the breakdown of Fordism covered the period of from the first Oil Crisis of 1974 to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Lipietz describes this as the era of the ‘Social Democratic management of crisis’. (Lipietz 1984: 456) The remedies discovered after the 1929 Crash were applied within the metropolitan countries to offset the growing profits crisis. Most notably, this strategy involved the rapid expansion in creditmoney. Governments gambled on expanding their way out of the crisis. But the mode of regulation was no longer able to postpone the crisis. Instead the ‘social democratic’ policy led to stagflation: a combination of rapid inflation and stagnating production. (Lipietz 1987: 136) Stagflation was only the ‘symptom of the disease’, demonstrating that the mode of regulation could no longer resuscitate an exhausted regime of accumulation. Inflation was simply displacing the problems of profitable production into the future. (Lipietz 1985a: 1356)

Thus the crisis of Fordism became obvious once the traditional countermeasures were a failure. There were no longer any ‘social democratic’ solutions to the crisis. Lipietz sees capitalism seeking new ways out of the crisis. This was a restructuring of labour disciplines and the introduction of new technologies in the production process. Within the Western industrialised countries, capitalist companies ended the Fordist compromise. In the 1970s, strikers had demanded more wages without corresponding increases in productivity. Now managements were refusing wage rises for greater productivity. Companies were demanding that workers accept new flexible work patterns and the introduction of new technologies. Both these moves were designed to be internal counter-tendencies against declining productivity and falling profits. Companies also took advantage of the external causes of the crisis of Fordism by exporting semi-skilled and unskilled production processes to the Third World. (Lipietz 1984: 468)

In his formative study, Aglietta apologised for deliberately avoiding the issue of imperialism and the world market. Lipietz’s principal contribution to the Regulation School is the use of regulationist theory to analyse capitalism on an international scale. This allows Lipietz to criticise his own Maoist past. The Maoist sects believed that the world revolution would be a repeat of the Chinese Revolution. Rebellion would first be successful in the countryside (the Third World) before spreading to the cities (the West). This analysis asserted that the Third World was being ‘underdeveloped’ by Western imperialism. Therefore industrialisation was impossible without a Maoist revolution. Moreover this belief was not limited to the Maoists, but was widespread on the Left during the 1960s. In Latin America, a whole school of ‘dependency theorists’ arose to defend this thesis. (Lipietz 1987: 64) However, these analysts ran into trouble when reality did not conform to their theories. During the 1970s and 1980s, the impossible occurred.  ‘Real capitalist industrialisation’ started in those Third World countries which had not experienced a ‘socialist’ revolution. This was the era of the emergence of the Newly Industrialising Countries (NICs), such as Brazil, South Korea or Taiwan. (Lipietz 1987: 23, 131)

In his book, Mirages and Miracles (1987), Lipietz uses regulationist theory to rethink the history of the relationship between the First and Third Worlds. He links the emergence of Fordism on a global scale with the postwar dominance of the American empire. This led to a new international division of labour centred on the USA. Successive American governments oversaw the dismantling of the old European empires. In the stage of competitive regulation, these had been semi-autarkic blocs connecting the metropolitan power with its dependent colonies in the periphery. But, under American protection, the spread of Fordism across the old imperial nations led to a metropolitan-centred regime of accumulation. Trade between the First and Third World dropped dramatically, reaching an all-time low in the mid 1960s. Despite the claims of the Maoists and dependency theorists, the exploitation of the periphery played little part in the success of the Fordist countries of the centre. The South only began to play an important part in the world economy again when Northern Fordism entered into crisis.

The internal crisis within the Fordist regime of accumulation in the metropolitan countries encouraged the internationalisation of production. The Taylorist division of labour had already separated workers into managers, skilled labour, and semiskilled/unskilled labour. Therefore companies began to subcontract labour-intensive production processes to Third World countries. These factories used unskilled labour in conjunction with low levels of fixed capital. Lipietz calls this ‘primitive’ or ‘bloody’ Taylorism because it involved the super-exploitation of workers. Repressive Third World regimes denied union and political rights to enforce labour discipline and low wages on their workers.

But the industrialisation of the South did not stop simply at the level of factories using semiskilled or unskilled labour. Central to Lipietz’s analysis is the rise of peripheral Fordism within the NICs. While ‘bloody’ Taylorism was labour intensive, the next stage of growth in many Third World countries was increasingly capital intensive. As more fixed capital was invested, workers were disciplined by the speed of the machinery rather than just by supervision. The rise of the NICs was partially encouraged by the stagnation of the Fordism in the centre which encouraged the multinationals to switch investment to these new areas of growth. But Lipietz stresses that the international corporations have only played a limited part in the rapid development of the NICs. The most important part of their growth has come from internal demand. The arrival of ‘peripheral Fordism’ within the NICs depended on the emergence of the top two layers of the Taylorist division of labour: managers and skilled workers. This not only allowed the NICs to export more capital intensive commodities, but, more importantly, created a growing internal market. The success of certain NICs has broken down the old homogeneity among the excolonies of the European empires. There is now a new division of labour within the South between industrialising and nonindustrialising countries. This has even led to the emergence of some NICs as regional imperialists.

Despite the ‘miracle’ of industrialisation in the South, the international system was still unstable. For Lipietz, a central problem was that the spread of Fordism to the Third World has undermined the state-based mode of regulation. Third World factories could produce cheaper commodities by paying low wages and welfare benefits to their workers. But First World workers provided a market for these commodities only if they had the wages and welfare benefits imposed by the Fordist compromise. Third World competition created a dilemma for First World companies. They needed to cut prices by lowering wage costs while simultaneously needing high wages to sell their commodities. Unfortunately, none of the international institutions were able to impose the Fordist mode of regulation on a global scale. During the 1970s, the banks and finance houses recycled OPEC’s oil rents to the NICs. But this meant that international regulation took place through the financial markets and not through any global Fordist institutions. For example, the shifting of work from First to Third World workers was carried out to cut wage bills. But, in turn, without these workers as consumers, the spectre of overproduction would return.

This source of instability in the world market was closely linked with the lack of the key institutions of Fordism within the NICs. (Lipietz 1985: 256) To compete internationally, corporations relied on their cheap labour. There are no minimum wage laws or welfare state. However, there are plentiful supplies of credit. The NICs have set up an exclusionary version of the Fordist regime of accumulation. The old oligarchy, the capitalists and more skilled workers were well paid. On the other hand, the semiskilled and unskilled workers were pauperised. They were excluded from the high wage and welfare benefits given to workers in the First World. (Lipietz 1987: 149) Because of competition from the NICs,  this exclusionary version of Fordism has spread into the centre during the 1980s. Now it threatened to supplant altogether the old inclusionary regime of accumulation, with its welfare state and minimum wage laws.

This is how Lipietz explains why Aglietta’s prophecies did not come true. Nationalisation and centralisation could act as counter-tendencies to the crisis of Fordism only at the level of an individual state. However, these states were part of an expanding global market. Once Fordism spread to the Third World, national attempts at intervention in the metropolitan countries were checked by the dynamics of an international system organised through market competition. This is how the 1980s became an historical break with the supposedly inevitable advance of statisation and monopolisation. The fatal flaw of Aglietta’s book was his failure to see national economies can exist only as part of a global economy. This is why the crisis of Fordism did not lead to more nationalisation and monopolisation, but instead to privatisation and market competition.

Which Post-Fordism?

Lipietz has seen a vision of the future and it is called Brazil. This is a world where the crisis of Fordism has been resolved by organising the economy through the exclusionary regime of accumulation. Society is divided between a ‘core’ and a ‘periphery’. The core consists of socially integrated, high-paid, skilled and fulltime workers. In contrast, the periphery is composed of marginalised, lowpaid, unskilled and part-time menials. This polarised society combines hitech consumer goods with urban deprivation. Lipietz is not alone in this nightmare. It is the ‘cyberpunk’ backdrop to many science fiction films, such as Bladerunner and Robocop. The potency of this image is strengthened by the spread of this type of society from the Third World into the First World. Lipietz (1987) sees the Reagan years in the USA as having a ‘…bizarre similarity with Brazil in the seventies’. The economy was expanded by redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich and the widespread availability of credit. The consequences were a bizarre combination of rapid technological advance with growing social deprivation.

But Lipietz thinks this post-Fordist dystopia is not the inevitable future for all countries. Within each country, there are competing ‘hegemonic blocs’ offering alternative solutions to the crisis. Some parts of the Left want to defend the old Fordist order, while some sections of the Right dream of a revival of pre-Fordist society. However Lipietz thinks that any return to the Fordist or pre-Fordist past is impossible.  Therefore the central question within contemporary capitalism is: which type of post-Fordism will be adopted? Unlike the determinism promoted by Marxism Today, Lipietz does not believe there is only one way out of the crisis of Fordism.

As shown in the diagram ‘The Psychogeography of the Left’, he sees there are two diverging types of post-Fordism:

  • Liberal productivism: This strategy resolves the crisis in the interests of capital. The production process is restructured by the introduction of new technologies and the division of the labour force into core and periphery workers. The state no longer guarantees mass consumption through minimum wage laws and the welfare state. This is post-Fordism for states who want to be Japan, but could end up like Brazil.
  • Alternative: This approach wants to discover a way out of the crisis which will benefit labour. The production process is restructured using new technologies, but in ways which preserve the unity of the working class. The benefits of increases in productivity continue to be shared between capital and labour. This is post-Fordism for workers who want to combine socialism with ecology. (Lipietz 1989a)

As the crisis of Fordism was caused by the declining productivity of labour, Lipietz (1985) thinks that the introduction of both types of post-Fordism can only occur through a fundamental restructuring of the production process. A new type of labour organisation is needed if there is to be a new type of regime of accumulation. This can only be achieved through the introduction of new types of machinery and types of labour management. Computer technology can create flexible machines, which are used in many different ways in production. If these new machines are introduced, flexible workers are also needed. This new type of production process is called flexible specialisation. The successful introduction of post-Fordist production methods depends upon the enthusiasm and skills of all grades of workers being devoted to raising productivity. Increasingly, new technologies are more productive when they are used for reskilling workers, rather than deskilling them. As with other commentators, Lipietz finds the best examples of this new type of labour process in Japan. But, unlike them, Lipietz does not want the European Left to model their countries solely on Japan. The Left’s main task is to ensure the benefits of the new types of production are not limited to the core workers.

Liberal Productivism in Rocard’s France

Lipietz agrees with the analysis put forward by Robin Murray and Marxism Today on the introduction of flexible specialisation at the leading edge of capitalist production. But he does not think that the reorganisation of the production process leads inevitably to a single variant of post-Fordism. Lipietz thinks there are two possible ways out of the crisis. This means he draws very different political conclusions from the arrival of flexible specialisation. Most importantly, Lipietz doesn’t support the type of political strategy espoused by Marxism Today. He thinks the Left should be fighting for a more radical solution to the crisis of Fordism. Moreover, coalition politics are not an oppositional policy in France as this is the official programme of the government! Under the leadership of Michel Rocard, the Socialist party administration has adopted a policy of ‘opening’ towards the centre parties. The Socialist party also wants to form a new ‘social compromise’ between capital and labour for the ‘modernisation’ of France. (Rocard 1986: 3649; 138205) Lipietz believes the Socialist party is introducing the liberal productivist version of post-Fordism. Not suprisingly, this type of ‘modernisation’ involves the working class paying the costs of resolving the crisis of Fordism. Lipietz challenges these political and economic policies which support liberal productivist post-Fordism.

This submission to liberal productivism resulted from the failures of the first Socialist party government. In 1981, Mitterrand won the presidential election ending two decades of rightwing rule. He came to power on a programme which promised a ‘…radicalised perfection of Fordist compromise.’ (Lipietz 1986: 3) France was going to expand its way out of economic difficulties through rises in welfare, cuts in hours worked and extensive nationalisations. When this approach led to trade deficits and a franc crisis, the Socialist party decided to change course. With the old Left discredited, policies promoted by Rocard became the new Socialist party orthodoxy. This culminated in his elevation to the premiership after Mitterrand’s re-election in 1987. Since the mid 1970s, Rocard has led a faction of the Socialist party known as the deuxième gauche (second Left). This group campaigned to replace the old models of statist socialism with a new approach based on the experience of the leading industrial sectors in Japan, California and Northern Italy. (Lipietz 1984: 801) The deuxième gauche were among the earliest proponents of the type of liberal productivist post-Fordism. Their proposals included:

  • the quick introduction of high technology in industry and society;
  • the replacement of the nation by the firm in economic policy;
  • an emphasis on individual rights as opposed to class solidarity;
  • the reorientation of state aid from welfare to investment.

The adoption by the Socialist party of a version of liberal productivism resulted from the breakdown of the old social democratic compromise. During the 19816 Socialist party government, these policies started creating an exclusionary regime of accumulation on the Brazilian model. There was a fall in real wages and a rise in unemployment as the costs of the crisis were off-loaded onto labour, especially the weakest sections of the working class such as women, immigrants and part-timers. (Hall 1987) Lipietz (1984) describes this strategy as ‘social sadism’ because suffering was imposed on workers in the name of liberty. Pluralism and diversity became justifications for unfettered exploitation.

The deuxième gauche opposed state controls over the economy and society in the name of liberty and democracy. Instead, Rocard’s tendency saw capitalist companies as the leading instruments of social change. The role of the Socialist party government was to support and regulate this dynamic private sector. The deuxième gauche believed the Socialist party could channel the private egoism of capitalists towards fulfilling the public good. The rise of Rocard and the deuxième gauche to power is an integral part of the recuperation of the generation of ’68. Those who once were Maoists calling for a social revolution in France are now advocating a policy of ‘modernisation’. As Lipietz sardonically comments: ‘the Japanese Left have beaten the Chinese Left’. (Lipietz 1984: 273)

The Alternative Compromise

As shown in the diagram ‘The Psychogeography of the Left’, Lipietz believes there is another way out of the crisis of Fordism. For Lipietz, regulationist studies can show how the Left can propose a policy of modernisation which benefits the working class. This strategy is the only way of regaining the political initiative from the Right. At present, Lipietz sees an ‘absurd polarisation’ within the European Left. (Lipietz 1985: 24) This sterile division is reflected within the different parties of the French Left:

  • the Communist Party wants to preserve the old Fordist compromise. This involves not only defending the welfare state, but also opposing the restructuring of the traditional organisation of production in the factories.
  • the Socialist party is following policies described above which are designed to encourage liberal productivist post-Fordism.

Neither party’s strategy is credible. The Communist party’s strategy is doomed to failure because the old Fordist order cannot be revived, while the Socialist party ‘s policies cannot succeed because liberal productivist post-Fordism is already reaching its social limits. (Lipietz 1989a) The escalating ecological crisis is the most dramatic proof of the long-run unsustainability of liberal productivism’s ‘…reckless unplanned accumulation…’. (Lipietz 1987: 192) What is more, liberal productivism is also discovering that its restructuring of the production process has not even solved the crisis of Fordism. It has only provided a short-term reversal of the long-term decline in the growth in productivity. The problem is that liberal productivism finds difficulties in mobilising workers behind the goals of capital. It can only bribe core workers with more money and terrorise periphery workers with the threat of unemployment. Lipietz believes the faltering of liberal productivism gives an opening to a more radical solution to the crisis of Fordism. He thinks the Left should put forward a new type of compromise, distinct from both the Fordist and liberal productivist models. (Lipietz 1985: 29)

Lipietz believes this strategy is credible because it expresses certain possibilities apparent within the restructuring of the production process around flexible specialisation. The alternative compromise is based on growing need by capital for workers’ conscious involvement in the process of production. The most productive use of information technologies and flexible working leads to continuous innovation within the production process. In turn, this can only happen when the close supervision of the Taylorist division of labour is abandoned. Line workers have to take over many of the functions of management. With the removal of traditional types of labour disciplines, workers must become self-motivated behind the aim of continuously increasing productivity. For Lipietz (1989), this is the only long-term solution to the falling growth in productivity. This makes an alternative compromise attractive to sections of capital as well as labour. Therefore Lipietz thinks the working class is in a strong position to extract a compromise in the interests of all workers in return for rising productivity. Lipietz thinks the workers should extract a high price for its enthusiasm in this process of constant organisational and technical restructuring. He suggests some fundamental demands for the working class during these negotiations:

  • guaranteed lifetime employment in the workers’ home town or area;
  • workers’ involvement in the pace and direction of technological
  • new technology to be used for reskilling rather than deskilling;
  • constant retraining of workers in new skills;
  • a reduction in hours worked with each new increase in productivity;
  • ecologically sustainable production processes.

Above all else, the primary goal in the negotiations for this new compromise would be the abandonment of Taylorism within production. Lipietz (1989; 1989a) sees this as the major gain for the working class in any negotiations. The need to involve both skilled and unskilled workers within the process of change means the old hierarchies are impossible within any sophisticated version of post-Fordism. Lipietz sees this unification of skilled and unskilled workers as a vital first step towards realising full self-management within production. The negotiations themselves will act as ‘schools of self-management’ for the workers as they become involved in issues outside basic pay and conditions.

The workers will not gain solely from the end of the rigid Taylorist division of labour within production. Lipietz is convinced that another important gain of the new compromise will the shortening of the hours worked. Therefore a primary demand in the new compromise will be a trade off between increased productivity and greater free time. This is necessary because there are increasing ecological limits on the production of more and more commodities. It is already impossible for everyone in the world to consume as wastefully as First World inhabitants.

Therefore Lipietz (1989b) sees that ‘the only long-term ecologically sustainable growth is the growth in free time and individual autonomy’. This analysis sees a cut in working hours as not just ecologically justified. A shorter working day is also needed if workers are to achieve individual autonomy by discovering a life beyond work. This demand is made by other radical economists who also see freedom for the working class can only come once it frees itself from alienating, but socially necessary, labour. (Gorz 1985) Thus Lipietz’s short-term compromise between labour and capital is based on the long-term goal of liberating the working class from the necessity for wage labour.

For Lipietz, Marxism Today and the deuxième gauche have abandoned solidarity between social individuals in favour of competition between asocial individuals. In contrast, Lipietz thinks that class solidarity is the only guarantee of autonomy for individual workers. The aim of the new compromise is to strengthen the power of the working class so it can democratically define its own social needs. For example, only when freed from the fear of unemployment, workers will no longer find it necessary to defend unecological or dangerous jobs, such as work in nuclear power stations or mines. Also the introduction of flexible technologies and working patterns can be used to lessen the sectional interests within the working class. When workers are less tied to particular trades, they can be more easily united around their common status as workers. Lipietz wants this process taken even further within the institutions of the welfare state.

In the Fordist era, most welfare services were organised along Taylorist principles. Lipietz (1989) thinks this sector could be an area where self-management could be introduced immediately. He envisages replacing services provided by the welfare state or domestic labour with a new sector organised as self-managed enterprises. He thinks this section of the economy could employ around 10% of the workforce. These welfare providers would not be organised in a Taylorist hierarchy, but be accountable to their workers and clients. This would allow them to respond more closely to the needs of the communities which they would serve. Lipietz (1984) hopes this would form a vital part of the ‘…the collective management of the reproduction of the labour force’ by the workers themselves.

Finally, Lipietz believes that this internal compromise must have an external component as well. This does not simply involve an ending of the debt burden on the NICs and the rest of the Third World. It also must involve the ending of the ‘beggar my neighbour’ policies encouraged by the lack of regulatory institutions on a global level. To prevent the importing of the Brazilian model into the First World, it is necessary to spread the alternative compromise to Brazil itself. This can only happen if the Third World’s debt and trade dependency is alleviated. Above all else, Lipietz (1989) believes First World countries should discriminate in their trade in favour of those countries which guarantee democratic social and political rights for their citizens. This is in the self-interest of the Northern working class. It will make it difficult to undermine the new compromise through competition from super-exploited workers.

The Alternative Movement

In France, Lipietz is politically active in building the Alternative. This is composed of Left groups able to seize the opportunity for a new compromise in labour’s favour. But, as the last elections showed, the French Left is still dominated by the liberal productivist Socialist party and the Fordist Communist party. For Lipietz (1986), the problem is to create a movement which is neither the Left of liberal productivism, nor the Left of Fordism.

Here Lipietz is faced with an ambiguity central to the experience of his generation. He wants the Alternative movement to be both Green and Red. On the one hand, he is inspired by the new social movements which arose outside the traditional party and union structures after the May ’68 Revolution. Thus he sees the political nucleus of the Alternative in the ecologist, immigrant and feminist movements. In contrast to his sharp analysis of Left parties, Lipietz is entirely uncritical of the new social movements. Here, as with the German Greens, his vision of the new Left is as a continuation of the old counterculture of the 1960s. This is Gorz’s new historical subject: the ‘non-class of post-industrial proletarians’. (Gorz 1982) On the other hand, Lipietz’s new compromise is rooted in the persistence of the class struggle within modern capitalist societies. The alternative compromise over the restructuring of the production process is reached in negotiations between capital and labour as contending classes.

For the Left, this strategy can only succeed if the Alternative overcomes the divisions among the working class and creates the basis of class unity. The Socialist party’s liberal productivist strategy can appeal to skilled core workers if they are rewarded with more pay and greater autonomy. The aim of the Alternative must spread the benefits of restructuring to those in  unskilled, semi-skilled and part-time jobs. In this case, the Red/Green movement is appealing to women, immigrants and youth primarily as workers, as part of a coalition which must cover all sections of the oppressed. (Lipietz 1986: 5) This strategy is underpinned by the form of restructuring created by the alternative version of post-Fordism. If the long-term decline in productivity is to be halted, then all workers have to be reskilled if they are going to use the new technologies. For the Left, the major advance in the alternative compromise is the creation of a highly skilled and selfconfident ‘new working class’. (Mallet 1975)

Lipietz doesn’t believe that the Alternative can be limited to one particular political party or social organisation. Instead, he is looking for a family of currents, both  inside and outside the Old Left. (Lipietz 1986: 10) In France, this is expressed through les Verts [Greens], the Nouvelle Gauche [New Left] of Pierre Juquin, dissidents within the Communist or Socialist parties, and people simply active in local campaigns. Though Lipietz is conscious of the need for state intervention to help new initiatives, he also stresses the necessity to build a wide social base for the Alternative. What is more, this movement cannot be limited to one country. The common problems of Western European countries demonstrate the need for cooperation among movements throughout the European Union. The peace and ecological movements have shown the power of organising campaigns on a global basis. Now it is necessary to extend this solidarity further. It is increasingly in the interests of workers in the North to help in stopping super-exploitation in the South, if only to protect their own conditions in the metropolitan countries. (Lipietz 1987: 191) In a sense, Lipietz is proposing a return to the Maoist strategy of an international workerpeasant alliance, but in a more radical and ecological form.

Lipietz and the British Left

In contemporary Britain, the writings of Alain Lipietz suffer from guilt by association with the policies promoted by Marxism Today. The magazine shares the same theoretical language, but uses it to draw different conclusions from those proposed by Lipietz. Marxism Today sees its primary task as reclaiming the future from the Tories. Therefore the magazine rejects the traditional centralised and statist model of socialism. For Marxism Today, this abandonment of the belief in state socialism means that the old divisions between Left and Right are no longer relevant. Now there is only a post-Fordist future. The reorganisation of production around the new methods of flexible specialisation is supposed to bring greater individual freedom and the end of centralised bureaucracies. But it also involves the abandonment of collectivist struggles in favour of modest reforms and coalition politics as ends in themselves.

This analysis is overly determinist about the future of capitalism. In the past, from the IInd and IIIrd Internationals to Aglietta, the Left believed in a statist teleology. Nowadays, Marxism Today promulgates the inevitability of the liberal productivist version of post-Fordism. But is the new determinism any more accurate than the old version? By reading Lipietz’s work, the British Left can learn to take a more critical view of both present day developments and over-optimistic predictions of the future. For a start, Lipietz shows how the post-Fordist future might not be a more humane version of California, but a Northern copy of Brazil’s polarised society.

For Lipietz, historical changes in all areas of social life are shaped by changes in the production process. The development of labour disciplines and assembly line technologies formed the heart of Fordist society. But Lipietz is not just interested in the subordination of the workers to the factory system. He is also interested in the cross-class collusion necessary for the long boom of Fordism. The working class gained from rising social and real wages under Fordism. However, these gains are now under threat because of the end of Fordism. The fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the production process. By the late 1960s, additional mechanisation was failing to keep pace with previous gains in productivity. This problem was exacerbated by the growing revolt by workers against the disciplines of Taylorism.

The policies promoted by Marxism Today accept to capital’s solution to the crisis of Fordism. Nowadays, the leading companies are adopting flexible specialisation as the method of organising their production processes. In turn, this is leading to the restructuring of the whole of society around the liberal productivist model of post-Fordism. As an exclusionary regime of accumulation, this type of post-Fordism cuts back on the regulatory mechanisms of Fordism, such as the welfare state and minimum wage laws. However, Lipietz argues that this liberal productivist solution to the crisis of Fordism cannot succeed. It is already reaching its institutional limits because it cannot solve the problem of productivity which lies at the heart of the crisis of Fordism. Liberal productivism cannot continuously advance labour productivity because it can only incorporate the core workers through money and periphery workers as superexploited subcontractors. Therefore it is pointless for the British Left to support any humanised version of this type of post-Fordism.

Lipietz places the need to raise labour productivity at the centre of the current crisis. The new information technologies and flexible working practices are making the Taylorist division of labour obsolete. Even from the capitalists’ viewpoint, the rule of fear is economically inefficient. Instead, modern production process can only fulfill their potential with a self-disciplined and reskilled working class. The crucial finding of Lipietz for the British Left is that there is choice over the type of post-Fordism adopted. The introduction of flexible specialisation can represent an opportunity for the working class to drive a hard bargain with their employers. If the workers are in a strong situation, Marxism Today‘s capitulation to liberal productivist post-Fordism is unnecessary. The working class can exact a far better deal from the capitalists. This is Lipietz’s alternative compromise. He is not just interested in the shortterm benefits from a new settlement. Lipietz calls for the cutting the working day as ecologically, economically and psychologically necessary. He also sees the reduction in the working day as a step towards the escape from wage work for everyone.

Therefore the British Left can learn from Lipietz’s analyses that there is a different way out of the crisis of Fordism. After the defeats of the past decade, it often seems that the working class is in a very weak position. The present government seems determined to resist all forms of compromise. Therefore Marxism Today‘s policies of modest reforms seem like the only feasible strategy, especially if the success of liberal productivist post-Fordism is inevitable. But Lipietz’s work shows the British Left that these changes within the production process are actually leading in another direction. In time, this will result in a strengthened and more powerful working class. But the alternative compromise will not lead to the immediate end of the alienation of wage slavery. This makes the alternative compromise only a lesser evil than its liberal productivist rival. However the potential gains of the compromise could be major steps towards lessening the daily exploitation of workers, especially if they include cutting the hours of work; reskilling the working class; ending Taylorism and the core/periphery division; stopping discrimination against women and immigrant workers; and encouraging ecologically sound production. The greatest lesson the British Left can learn from Lipietz is his optimism about the emerging historical opening for successful class solidarity politics.


Thanks to Les Levidow, Alain Lipietz and the Centre for Communication and Information Studies, Polytechnic of Central London.

First Publication:
‘Mistranslations: Lipietz in London and Paris’, Science as Culture, No. 8, 1990, pp. 80-117, (ISSN 0950 5431).

‘Mistranslations: Lipietz in London and Paris’ in Bob Jessop (ed.), The Parisian Regulation School: regulation school and the crisis of capitalism volume 1, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham 2001, pp. 303-340, (ISBN 1-840664-651-9).

Corrected: 5th May 2007.

Check out Alain Lipietz’s website: <>


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Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.