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Revue de la régulation

Capitalisme, Institutions, Pouvoirs, n°1, 2007

Capitalism Strikes Back


Why and What Consequences for Social Sciences?1

Robert Boyer 2

Résumé
Le retour du capitalisme : Causes et conséquences pour les sciences sociales
Pourquoi le terme de capitalisme a été de plus en plus utilisé au cours de la dernière
décennie ? Comment les recherches en socio-économie pourraient-elles contribuer à
la compréhension des diverses variantes du capitalisme ? En réponse à ces deux
questions, l’article s’attache à montrer que le concept de capitalisme n’est pas
équivalent à celui d’économie de marché car il invite à étudier les relations sociales et
le changement qui sont constitutifs de ce régime économique. Les années 90
marquent un changement majeur dans l’analyse des sociétés contemporaines car la
capacité du capitalisme à innover, à bouleverser les formes d’organisation et les
institutions et à déborder les frontières nationales constitue autant de traits distinctifs
qui sont au cœur des travaux fondateurs de l’économie politique. Compte tenu de la
multiplicité des composantes et des facettes du capitalisme, la plupart des sciences
sociales peuvent utilement éclairer ce régime complexe et évolutif, qu’il s’agisse du
droit, de l’histoire économique, de la science politique, de la sociologie, de la théorie
économique ou des analyses du changement technique. L’essentiel de l’article est
alors consacré à une brève revue de la littérature sur les mérites et limites comparés
de trois programmes de recherche : la sociologie économique, la nouvelle économie
politique et la théorie de la régulation. Il en ressort que ces trois approches peuvent
être rendues complémentaires. Ce pronostic pourrait favoriser une nouvelle
génération de travaux régulationnistes.

Mots clés
économie de marché, capitalisme, sociologie économique, nouvelle économie
politique, théorie de la Régulation, économie institutionnelle

1 This article develops a presentation prepared for the conference “Economic Sociology and Political
Economy”. First Max Planck Summer Conference on Economy and Society, Villa Vigoni, Italy, July 15-18th,
2006. The author thanks the participants of the conference and two referees for their useful comments. Version
5 after referees, editorial committee requirements, English editing and final proposal by the author
2 PSE - PARIS-JOURDAN SCIENCES ECONOMIQUES Joint Research Unit CNRS-EHESS-

ENPC-ENS) 48, Boulevard Jourdan 75014 PARIS, France Phone: (33-1) 43 13 62 56 — Fax: (33-1)
43 13 62 59 e-mail: robert.boyer@ens.fr web site: http://www.jourdan.ens.fr/~boyer
Revue de la régulation, Capitalisme, Institutions, Pouvoirs, n°1, 2007
http ://regulation.revues.org

Abstract
This article addresses a twofold issue: why the word capitalism has become more and
more frequently used during the last decade? How could socio-economic researches
contribute to understanding of the contemporary transformations of the various
brands of capitalism? First, it is argued that the concept of capitalism is not
equivalent to the concept of market economy since it also refers to the study of
social relations and dynamic patterns of evolution. Second, the 90s were probably a
turning point in the analysis of contemporary societies since the built-in propensity
of capitalism to innovate and ability to propel structural change and promote
globalization, are easy to recognize. Third, given the multifaceted aspects of
capitalism, all social sciences (legal studies, economic history, political sciences,
sociology, economic theory, technical change analysis…) do shed some light upon
this complex and evolving regime. The bulk of the paper then surveys both the
contribution and weaknesses of economic sociology and new political economy and
proposes a research agenda in which their respective programs provide a
complementary analysis of contemporary structural transformations of capitalism.
Regulation theory is part of such a research agenda and could itself benefit from
such a joint venture.

Key words
market economy, capitalism, economic sociology, new political economy, Régulation
theory,institutional economics

J.E.L. Classification : B25 - B41 - B52 – K00 – N00 – O11 – P10 – P17 – Z1

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Revue de la régulation, Capitalisme, Institutions, Pouvoirs, n°1, 2007
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Capitalism strikes back


Why and what consequences for social sciences?

Robert Boyer

Introduction
It is not an easy task to speak about capitalism, neither as a concept of social science,
nor as a really existing economic regime. Didn’t Marx build an entire theory of
capitalism that concluded to the irreversible deepening of contradictions, structural
crises and conflicts of the economic system built upon the domination of capital
accumulation? Now economists, even sympathetic with the Marxist approach,
recognize that the demonstration exhibited a lot of flaws and economic history
research has shown the noticeable resilience of market economies even to major
financial crises. At the other extreme of the methodological spectrum, neoclassical
economists never used, and still most of them do not use, the notion of capitalism,
since for them it is basically an ideological term that brings a critical assessment and a
political flavor to the cold and rigorous analysis of market economies that should be
the unique preoccupation of economic theories.
Back in the 1960s, the term capitalism was rarely used. It is no longer the case in the
2000s. A brief test of the number of occurrences of the term “Capitalism” in the
content of Google Scholar shows an impressive explosion after 1989, usually
perceived as the epochal transformation where the adoption of capitalism and
democracy has become the only available horizon for contemporary societies (Table
1).
Table 1 – The number of annual references to capitalism in Google Scholar
1940-49 1950-59 1960-69 1970-79 1980-89 1990-99 2000-03
71 114 102 189 331 1125 3248
Note: Since the number of Reviews covered increases with time, the series should not be over
interpreted.

This article proposes to investigate various facets of this explosion of references. (1)
First it is important to contrast a market economy approach with an analysis of
capitalism. (2) Second, the origins and the reasons for this renewed interest in this
quite complex concept are to be investigated. (3) The central message of this paper is
that understanding and explaining capitalism cannot be limited to a single discipline
since the very resilience of this economic regime derives from its embeddedness in
society and polity. (4) The rest of the paper is devoted to a comparative analysis of
three research programs. What does economic sociology capture as the core of
capitalism? (5) How to explain that State and more generally polity are so present in
modern capitalism at the very epoch of liberalization and globalization? (6) To what
extent is the “regulation theory” at the crossroads of the institutions and dynamics of
capitalism ? (7) A brief conclusion proposes some common research themes.
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1. Market economy or capitalism: what differences does


it make ?
Implicitly at least, economists, sociologists and historians do not use these terms as
synonymous. What are the key features that distinguish these two “visions” of
economies and societies?
• The adoption of the notion of market economy implies that markets are the
dominant, if not totally exclusive, mechanisms for coordinating economic activity.
States, communities, and civil society are a priori excluded and this might be perceived
as evidence for the limited ambition and, modesty of the economist. But as soon as
actual observations contradict the hypothesis of self-equilibrating markets, the
neoclassical economists are prone to attribute the related malfunction to an
imperfection with respect to the ideal of a “pure” market. Why are such imperfections
so widely present, for example for labor and credit? Because these markets are
embedded into social, political relations that distort the mere pursuit of self
(economic) interest and the convergence towards an equilibrium. Hence General-
Equilibrium Theory (GET) is the implicit – and frequently explicit – benchmark in
many empirical analyses by conventional economists. Contrary to frequent statements,
a market economy approach is not necessarily devoid of any value judgment, since it
assumes that efficiency is the key performance criteria and that markets are the less
imperfect mechanisms of coordination between free and independent individuals
pursuing their own interests. Indeed, for some fundamentalists, markets are the only
perfect mechanism. The normative content of the notion of market economy should
never be underestimated. Last but not least, since Adam Smith, (1776) the market is
perceived by economists as an abstraction for the price mechanism itself. The power
of the metaphor of “the market” is quite strong since its use has been extended to
some domains of sociology (the marriage market,) or of political sciences (the idea
market, voting as a market, the median voter…).
• The notion of capitalism unfortunately evokes an ideological construction that is
supposed to be sustained by the doctrine of liberalism, to follow feudalism and to be
opposed to socialism and communism. Actually, it can also be an analytical tool. A
synthetic definition would state that “capitalism is a legal regime, an economic system
and a social formation that unfolds in history and that is built upon two basic social
relations: the market competition and the capital/labor nexus”. The differences with
respect to a market economy are not purely semantic (table 2).
- First, the role of market is only one component of a capitalist
economy that does not exclude other coordinating mechanisms or actors than
markets and firms.
- Second, capitalism is not by nature only an economic system, since it
requires legal rules and a precise type of political power that respects and
defends property. Empirical observations exhibit more diverse social, economic
and political configurations than a single economic system. This explains why
the literature on capitalism stresses so much the existence of stages of
capitalism (commercial, industrial, financial, cognitive) as well as the variety of
its brands in contemporary world.
- Third, the interplay of market competition with the conflicting nature
of the capital/labor nexus promotes the accumulation of capital as a systemic
constraint, a quasi law, full of disequilibria, contradictions and crises, at odds
with the smooth equilibrium typical of the static world captured by the notion
of market economy. Capitalist economies are dynamic systems, putting into
motion structural change, innovation i.e. history. The authors working along
these lines – Marx, Sombart, Veblen, Schumpeter, in a sense Keynes, Braudel,
Galbraith… – do recognize the historical nature of capitalist configurations and
the interdependence between the various spheres (economy, polity, society)
that are kept disconnected by “market economy” approaches.

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Table 2 – Market economy versus capitalism: two research programs


Market economy Capitalism
CONCEPT OF 1. A pure econommic 1. A nexus of social relations
MARKETS abstraction of supply and
demand adjustments
2. Horizontal coordination 2. Both horizontal
among equals (competition among firms)
and vertical relations
(capital/labor nexus)
3. Ideally self equilibrating 3. Propagation of an
unbalanced capital
accumulation
LINKS BETWEEN 4. Ideal of a total 4. The interdependence of
VARIOUS SPHERES disconnection of the economy, society and polity
economic sphere (pure is intrinsic¤
economy)
NATURE OF 5. Implicit conception of a 5. Law of accumulation and
EVOLUTIONS "natural equilibrium" changing social and
economic relations
6. At best, kinematical time 6. Sense of historical time
UNIQUENESS / 7. Ideal of Pareto 7. Succession of historical
DIVERSITY optimality……and stages and coexistence of
benchmarking or competition various brands of capitalism
reducing variety

Finally two different research programs should be distinguished, even if the


reference to capitalism is not, by far, a sufficient condition for belonging to the
heterodox camp3. It thus is important to try to explain why a significant fraction of
former orthodox economists have adopted a dynamic approach to capitalism instead
of refining models of “pure” and static economies.

2. The 1990s: a severe test for the theories of market


economies
The last decade has clearly shown the limits of mainstream economists’ approaches.
The panorama of ideas and theories is now quite large, as exemplified by the
conversion of some key economists. At present, the major findings of the 2000s do
not fit with the market economy doxa and seem to give a clear advantage to
methodologies that recognize the relevance of the notion of capitalism (Table 3).

• The Great Transformation of the Soviet regime has challenged conventional thinking
that postulated that as soon as central planning vanished and political pluralism was
implemented, the Russian economy would rapidly converge towards a typical
advanced market economy, with a similar standard of living for all citizens (Aslund,
1992). This reduction of capitalism to self-instituting and self-equilibrating markets
has proved to be quite false. If the State’s authority is totally destroyed, it is impossible
to implement and legitimize the basic institutions of capitalism: the rule of law, the
credibility of national currency, the preservation of property, the enforcement of
competition and the security of citizens. International organizations such as the World
Bank (World Bank, 2002) have had to recognize that the State can be the key actor in

3 In reference to the famous book by Milton Friedman Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,
1962.
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the institution of a market economy. Nowadays, much active research in economics
deals with the interaction between institutions and markets. The hypothesis of a pure
economy is to be discarded and has to be replaced by a more eclectic analysis of the
complementarities of State, market, norms, values, and even constitutional order
(North, 1990; 2005).
• All governments have fallen in love with markets that they promoted as an alternative
to difficult and complex public interventions. Ironically, politicians have invoked the
creative character of the market, whereas they actually relied on its destructive role on
the institutional architecture inherited from the Golden Age (Hollingsworth, Boyer,
1997). The contradictions generated by the liberalization process have constrained to a
significant aggiornamiento of governments, whatever their political and ideological
preferences. The Chilean trajectory is quite illuminating indeed: one of the earliest and
most dramatic examples of the adoption of a free market strategy generated such
macroeconomic disequilibria that the conservative governments brought the State
back by nationalizing copper mines, instituting reserves in order to curb down short
run financial capital movements and even nationalizing banks temporarily after a
major crisis. More generally, comparative analyses of Latin-American countries show
that success has been attained after a significant re-regulation in order to correct the
imbalances created by drastic moves towards free markets. To some extent, the same
correction took place after the Thatcher years and the succession of Blair’s
government in the UK.
• The so-called Washington consensus (liberalization, international opening,
privatization and reduction of the role of the State) has not produced the expected
results, a strong and stable recovery and steady growth, at all. It is especially true in
Latin America, where many governments applied quite drastic liberalization programs.
The collapse of Argentina should have completely destroyed the naive pro-market
consensus of international organizations (Boyer, Neffa, 2004). Actually, this financial,
social and political crisis contributed to a bifurcation among mainstream economists.
The majority of them blamed governments for not being bold enough to continue full
liberalization or being insufficiently patient in the difficult learning process of living
within a globalized world. Others, including some well known economists, changed
their mind and recognized that liberalization policies did not find relevant
justifications in modern economic theories: the very imperfection of market relations
call for significant but relevant public interventions (Stiglitz, 2003).
• More fundamentally, the conventional and now obsolete theory has been unable to
explain why a series of partial measures in the “right direction” have not been
sufficient to promote the emergence of a viable institutional configuration. The very idea
that contemporary economies are only composed of markets as the unique
coordinating mechanism does not help at all in understanding how institutional
configurations, mixing public and private actors, formal and informal rules,
institutions and organizations, coalesce into viable economic regimes. By contrast,
most of the authors who adopt the concept of capitalism are concerned by more
structural analyses about the compatibility of a series of initially disconnected
institutional reforms.
• The collapse of the Berlin Wall was supposed to promote the unification of the entire
world under the hegemony of markets in the economic sphere and democracy in the
political domain. In retrospect, it is quite ironical to read the literature about the end
of history (Fukuyama, 1992). The rhetoric of the symbiosis of market with democracy
seems to have won throughout the world even though comparative research
recurrently concludes that national trajectories differ drastically across the triad (North
America, Asia and Europe) and even between the closely interdependent members of
the European Union, NAFTA or MERCOSUR (Albert, 1991; Withley, 1999; 2002;
Hall, Soskice, 2001; Streeck, Yamamura, 2001; Coates 2002; Amable, 2003; Boyer,
2004; Hopner, 2006). For mainstream analysts (Aslund, 1992; Shleifer, Vishny, 1998),
this is only transitory institutional inertia and consequently a form of benchmarking
should favor institutional convergence towards a typical market economy. The
diagnosis is quite different if one adopts an analysis in terms of capitalism: the variety
of its configurations is the logical outcome of contrasted institutional compromises
(Hibbs, 1987), the impact of increasing returns on path dependency (Arthur, 1994) or
of the fact that there exist many methods in order to correct the so-called market
imperfections (Akerlof, 1984). These include State interventions, collective actions at
the relevant level, networks, codes of conduct, social values, informal norms and
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conventions. Within the same economic system, broadly defined as capitalism, various
configurations can coexist (Berger, Dore, 1996). Furthermore, they generate specific
specializations that are frequently more complementary that substitutive (Hancké,
1999; Amable, 2003).

Table 3 – Two research programs facing the surprises of the 2000s


Stylized facts The market economy The capitalism approach
of the 2000s approach
1. Difficult “transition” of 1. Hysteresis, irrationality, 1. A Great Transformation.
Soviet economies bad governments, The building of a socio-
prevalence of obsolete social economic regime is a long
values term process
2. From full liberalization to 2. Pressure of uninformed 2. Expression of the required
regulation and new forms of public opinion, populism, complementarities between
State intervention irrationality of agents public and private spheres

3. A series of “good” 3. Insufficient liberalization 3. Disconnected reforms do


macroeconomic and sectoral of labor, product and capital not design a new and
policies have not been markets coherent regime
sufficient to renew with fast
growth
4. Repetition of major crises 4. Incomplete liberalization, 4. The complete freedom
after financial liberalization possibly insufficient granted to markets destroys
financial supervision institutional order
5. Absence of convergence 5. Lack of diffusion of best 5. Variety and long run
neither for macroeconomic practices, institutional coexistence of various
performance nor institutional inertial brands of capitalism
architecture
6. Rising inequalities (or the 6. Social compromises 6. False perception of the
fear of) trigger opposition to limiting inequality legitimize benefits of globalization,
globalization and/or and stabilize capitalist irrationality, role of populism
European integration institutions
7. Possible discrepancy 7. Shift from neoclassical 7. The factors governing
between flexibility and long theory to a Schumpeterian capital accumulation differ
term growth vision of innovation from those that shape
cyclical patterns
• The last decade gives many examples of the intricacies of the links between economic
efficiency and social justice. For instance, in the absence of corrective redistribution
mechanisms via the tax and welfare systems, the liberalization process and
participation in the world economy have been associated with widening inequalities.
Thus, many social and political movements have challenged globalization all over the world.
For conservative economists, this is a typical irrational reaction and the consequence
of populist governments. It is quite a surprising interpretation for researchers who
stress methodological individualism! Again, research in terms of capitalist
transformations seems to deliver a better understanding: it is quite rational for the
losers of free market policies to oppose their governments. Conversely, the national
economies where social solidarity is embedded into strong institutional compromises
such as universal welfare and progressive taxation exhibit less opposition to the
contemporary process of internationalization (Boyer, 2000). Basically, capitalism needs
political legitimacy and some economic stability in order to reap the benefits of
innovation and structural change.
• Finally, the observed discrepancy between significant short-term flexibility and poor
long-term growth performance directly challenged mainstream economists. They
usually restrict their analyses to static efficiency and short run adjustment, in such a way
that the long term evolution is no more than the succession of a series of short term
equilibrium states (Boyer, 1996). This framework does not fit with the pattern
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observed in Latin America or in European Union where market friendly reforms are
not followed by a recovery in growth. Therefore a significant shift of the economic
profession is occurring, from a typical Walrasian approach to evolutionary and
neoschumpeterian theorizing, based on the leading role of innovations. After all, this is a
typical feature of capitalist economies, and in a sense, it is a tribute to the old Marxian
idea according which the process of accumulation is the key mechanism of modern
economies (Lipietz, 1979). The methodology and conclusions of neoschumpeterians
(Dosi, 2001) and new Marxist economists (Duménil, Lévy, 1993) differ but they both
share the hypothesis that capitalism is a relevant concept to understand the
contemporary world.
The definitions of capitalism are quite diverse, because capitalism is a complex entity.
Thus capitalism presents a challenge for social scientists.

3. Analyzing capitalism: the need for a multi disciplinary


approach
A review of the various definitions of capitalism brings to the forefront the
multiplicity of disciplines concerned and contributes to an interesting analysis of
capitalism (table 4).
• One of the more basic definitions states that capitalism is a production system based
upon the primacy of private property. This definition justifies the various approaches
that underscore the role of law in economic activity: various strands of legal studies, law
and economics, sociology of law…but also the typical interpretation of the Marxist heritage
that opposes the private character of property in capitalism to the collective
appropriation in the previous economic systems...as well as in the regimes that are
supposed to follow the collapse of capitalism, i.e. socialism and communism. But
property is not a natural endowment of individuals but a social and political
construction. Clearly, the transformations of property rights have accompanied the
rise of capitalism, from the British enclosure to contemporary struggles concerning
the definition and enforcement of intellectual property rights. It is no surprise if the
emergence of the so-called cognitive capitalism is associated, especially in the US, with
a surge of legal cases in order to build the institutional basis of what neoclassical and
Schumpeterian economists call “knowledge based economy”.
• Economists prefer a more precise definition: capitalism is the economic system based
on the competition between firms in order to satisfy the demands and needs of consumers.
Of course, private property is the implicit requirement for such an economic system,
but the major emphasis is upon the dynamics of production, price, investment, and
innovation generated by the stimulus of competition. After all, the General
Equilibrium Theory is no more than an abstraction of the mechanism of competition
that is supposed to deliver a spontaneous equilibrium and the most efficient method
for allocating scarce resources. Programs launched by conservative governments to
deregulate product markets, capital markets and finally labor markets themselves
acutely illustrate the issue of competition. But as Marx already pointed out, the logic
of competition frequently leads to the formation of a monopoly. Consequently, one of
the emerging roles of State is to try to enforce fair competition, in order to check the
typical trends that occur in industries with large fixed costs and increasing scale
returns. Thus, industrial economics, competition law and jurisprudence as well as general
economic theory explore this aspect of capitalism.
• A third tradition, inspired by Marxist thinking, defines capitalism as a socio-economic
regime characterized by two basic social relations: the market relation on one side, the
capital/labor relation on the other. The first one relates to firms competing on
markets, whereas the second introduces the specificity of a capitalist society: wage-
earners have to sell their labor power to firms, thus accepting their authority in
exchange for remuneration that is supposed to result from competition on labor
markets. It is the capital/labor relation that distinguishes capitalism from a market
economy composed of independent and individual entrepreneurs without hiring any
wage earner. Even if few researchers dare to mention that their analysis of labor is
inspired by a Marxist legacy, this line of analysis is nonetheless present in labor law,
labor sociology and even in the so-called new economics of labor markets that studies
all the consequences of the specificity of labor. The wage labor nexus is both a market

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relation and the submission to the authority of the entrepreneur, and therefore a
matter of power and conflict. For social scientists, this definition highlights first, the
centrality of work in contemporary society and second, the conflicting nature of the
wage labor nexus. For example, this definition helps to understand why strategies for
rendering the labor market flexible have been so difficult to implement and have
generated so many conflicts in spite of the erosion of worker’s and their union’s
bargaining power .

Table 4 – Capitalism - a typical cross disciplinary concept


DEFINITION SOCIAL SCIENCES TYPICAL
RELEVANT CONTRIBUTION
1. A legal regime of private 1. Legal studies, law and 1. Explanation of the
property economics, sociology of law concerns for intellectual
property rights
2. An economic system 2. Industrial economics, 2. Role of the State in the
based on competition among competition law, economic enforcement of fair
firms sociology, grand economic competition
theory
3. A specific social relation: 3. Labor law, labor sociology, 3. Persistence and frequency
the capital/labor nexus new economy of labor of labor conflicts, centrality
markets of the work and employment
4. A socio-economic 4. Economic history, Marxist 4. Evolutionary nature of
formation in history theory capitalism
5. A specific distribution of 5. Marxist theory, political 5. Explanation of the nature
power in production and economy, labor sociology of political conflicts under
society capitalism
6. A system of values 6. Grand sociology (Weber, 6. Co-evolution of culture,
promoting entrepreneurship, Veblen), moral philosophy, economy and policy
saving, consumption convention theory,
Schumpeterian economies,
managerial theory
7. A socio-technical system 7. Theory of innovation, 7. Explanation of the
driven by the profit motive history of techniques. direction and intensity of
Organization theory and technical change (labor
history, analytical Marxism saving). Tentative control of
science and technique by
capital
• The previous definitions of capitalism are based on a static vision of a well-defined
economic system. Other currents stress that capitalism is a perpetually changing socio-
economic entity, that is relevant in historical time. Of course, private property,
competition, labor conflict and specificity are present, but they are embedded into
quite specific institutional configurations that vary through time and space. This is the
domain where long-term economic history is especially useful, since it brings out both
the invariant patterns of evolution but also the novelty of each period. Furthermore,
evolutionary theories provide tools and hints in order to study the co-evolution of
technologies, competition and to some extent institutions and organizations. Such a
framework is useful for analyzing the multifaceted structural transformations of
contemporary capitalisms, at odds with the usual concerns for a static system close to
fully reversible equilibrium. Actually, this fourth definition brings to the forefront the
issue of the irreversibility of some of the components of capitalist systems.
• The third definition highlights the basic social relations of capitalism and provides a
more general characterization of capitalism as a specific distribution of power in
production as well as in society. Traditionally, political science restricts the analysis of
power relations to the sphere of polity, i.e. the process by which governments and
States exert power. The concept of capitalism implies that relations of power are also
present in the economic sphere as soon as some actors are more wealthy and have
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more rights that others (for instance to hire and fire individuals) and an extended
domain of decisions, whereas others are constrained by what is called “the market
logic”. This is an important theme for analytical Marxism and some fractions of
political economy. Of course both labor sociologists and labor economists have to
deal permanently with this asymmetry of power, usually hidden by seemingly
horizontal market relations between equals. Again, this definition helps to understand
why economic and political conflicts are so interrelated in contemporary society.
• Still another definition deals with the system of values that are at the core of
capitalism. Basically, this economic system can be defined as the system of values that
promote projection into the future, entrepreneurship, saving or alternatively
consumption. This is present in the very etymology of the term “capital”: the word
was coined first; the operators of capital (i.e. the merchant, the bourgeois, the
entrepreneur) and the denomination capitalism were introduced afterwards. Once
more, the historical character of capitalism as a socio-economic regime should be
pointed out. Grand sociology “à la Weber” as well as contemporary economists who
look for the secret of Asian economic successes and who tend to attribute it to
Confucianism, are good examples of such analyses. Moral philosophy and convention
theory have explored some of the rationales that justify the constitution of an
economic sphere, as well as its possible conflict or synergy with other spheres
(domestic, related to citizenship…). In a sense, managerial theories themselves, not
only design managerial tools that may permeate the whole of society, but also try to
create a system of values that supports their ongoing strategies: valorization of
autonomy, responsibility, commitment, creation of corporate cultures, codes of
conduct and ethics (Boltanski, Chiapello, 1999). This definition also highlights that
culture is not a static ingredient that capitalism can mobilize for its own purposes, but
is the outcome of an explicit strategy to transform value systems. Thus, within
capitalism, culture and economic institutional forms tend to co-evolve.
• All the previous definitions neglect an important characteristic of capitalism, that is,
its ability to promote technical and even scientific innovations. According to the
seventh definition, capitalism is conceived as a socio-technical system driven by the
profit motive. This definition presents a twofold interest. First, it stresses that the
profit motive becomes the dominant criteria, if not the exclusive one, as soon as the
question relates to the management of economic activity. By extension, the same
valuation can be extended to other spheres of human activity, such as culture, public
administration, education, research and sports. Second, capitalism sets into motion a
process of innovation that is closely related to the perspective of future profits. Such
an impact is quite evident for production techniques, but this process also affects the
direction of scientific activity as far as its findings can deliver new products and new
processes. Therefore, the history of techniques, the theory of innovations but also the
history of firms and organizations shed light on some important aspects of capitalism.
This last definition is especially useful for the contemporary period since it suggests
why the issue of intellectual property rights and the relations between the advances of
open basic science and the tentative of appropriation of generic technologies by firms
are so important.
Clearly, capitalism is such a complex entity that its study cannot be appropriated by
any of the social sciences. Each of them contributes to the understanding of the
nature and evolution of capitalisms, at the risk of excessive specialization. This
balkanization may prevent the very possibility of a cross disciplinary approach. It is
thus important to review how three research domains can interact and eventually
cooperate in the analysis of the transformations of contemporary capitalisms.

4. Economic sociology: from market to capitalism?


The contribution of this research field is potentially rather large for at least two
reasons. First, many studies are investigating the construction, functioning and
consequences of a large series of markets, from the more traditional (agricultural
product) to the most sophisticated and recent one (role of traders, functioning of
derivative markets…). Second, by training and specialization, sociologists stress the
social components of markets that are so important to understanding societies
dominated by capitalism.
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4. 1. An exploration of questions neglected by mainstream


economic theorizing
For economic theoreticians, markets define the abstract mechanism according to
which a unique price emerges as the reconciliation of initially independent or even
conflicting behaviors. By nature, the market is an immaterial entity, a theoretical
construction that deploys the tools of microeconomic theory. This basic mechanism
is supposed to be the unique coordinating mechanism available to agents and that is
why capitalism is associated with a series of interdependent markets. The mechanism
is so abstract that the mathematical demonstrations of the existence of general
equilibrium that are supposed to prove the viability of a totally decentralized market
economy actually correspond to the centralization of all transactions by a benevolent
planner who has the task of computing the equilibrium price. At this level of
abstraction nothing distinguishes a market from a socialist planned economy!
In spite of recent advances in the theory of imperfect competition, the ideal of pure
and atomistic competition still continues to be the benchmark of most empirical
studies that denounce the negative impact on welfare of oligopoly or monopoly. The
degree of proximity with the ideal replaces the careful analysis of the real functioning
of existing markets. Neoclassical theory presents another paradox. By convention,
economics deals with the choices of actors, whereas sociology considers that social
actors are so constrained that they have few choices or even none. The under-
socialization of individuals suggested by neoclassical theorists corresponds to the
over-socialization of sociological theory. A closer look suggests that this view is quite
naive. Facing pure competition, consumers as well as producers have no choice,
since they must stick to their optimum plans. Ex post, their degree of freedom is nil
since they are neither entitled to be price-makers nor to innovate in terms of quality
or service.
The contrast with economic sociology is impressive (Table 5). By definition the
market is a social structure dealing with the exchange of rights that enables people,
firms and products to be evaluated and priced (Aspers, 2006).
Any market is thus embedded into social relations and is the locus of real interaction
among actors that have some degree of initiative in terms of price, information and
quality. It is not a pure abstract mechanism, even if it achieves the remarkable
performance of converting diverse social relations and heterogeneous commodities
and competences into numbers, that is, the price. Contemporary economic sociology
stresses the role of actors in the evaluation of quality, the practical organization of
market transactions, or the formation of expectations that lead to financial
conventions. Similarly, in labor markets the search for employment is not totally
stochastic or anonymous but relies on personal ties that discriminate between
success and failure in getting a job. The beauty of economic sociology is thus to
reverse conventional wisdom: economists adopt an over deterministic approach to
individual behavior, whereas sociologists explore the autonomy, strategic behavior
and innovative capacity of actors.

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Table 5 – Neoclassical theory and economic sociology: Two visions of capitalism

A second difference is still more important. Economists only study already existing
markets and very rarely investigate the theoretical conditions of their emergence. By
contrast, economic sociologists explore specific episodes of the creation or collapse
of a given market. Consequently, what is interpreted as an imperfection by
microeconomic theory is actually the logical consequences of the constitution and
institutionalization of a specific market. In a sense, economists and sociologists seem
to explore complementary aspects of capitalist economies: the first studies the
welfare property markets and is the defender of pure competition; the second
analyzes the complex interactions that take place in a precise market, in a given time
and space.
A third difference relates to the extension and generality of markets in capitalism.
Again, by training and tradition, economists consider that their mechanisms have a
very large scope, not only in the economic sphere but also in society and the political
arena. For example, the Chicago school speaks of the marriage market, the religion
market, the market of political ideas… Within the economic sphere, the market is
supposed to be the simplest method of coordination among actors. Any market
should be self-equilibrating and its mechanisms are so natural that markets emerge
spontaneously as the logical response to coordination and allocation problems. The
sociologist prefers a more positive approach: some markets function and are
successful whereas others collapse or are impossible to implement. It is interesting to

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note for example that the sociologist Harrison White (1981, 1988), developed a
totally different interpretation of the canonical model of industrial economics
elaborated by Joseph Stiglitz: he insists upon the fact that markets are impossible to
open for some specific mix of scale economies and product differentiation by
quality! Usually the economist does not insist upon this structural failure of market
mechanisms. In summary, the economist is more of a market evangelist, presenting the
market as a model of efficiency, whereas the sociologist displays a more positive
approach, by analyzing the market, he assesses both its achievements and failures.
4. 2. Achievements and challenges
It is no surprise if economic sociology adopts different methods and gets different
results by comparison with economists. This is both an asset and a liability (Table 6).
Network analysis is a frequently used tool and in a sense, markets may derive from
the consolidation and institutionalization of networking activity (White, 2001). For
the time being, the major result is that social networks are not stochastic. This is
reassuring but not surprising. Similarly, some markets can be created by direct public
interventions, the subsequent networking of agents being the consequence and not
the cause of the creation of the market. Imagine for instance the market for treasury
bonds, for the care of elderly people or even the creation of the individual housing
market in France (Bourdieu, 2000).
The use of case studies gives a very rich and detailed account of the everyday
functioning of specific markets: the social, ethical, political and economic factors that
are singled out by each specific sub-discipline of social sciences, then come together
and define a complex web of causalities. This exercise is at the other extreme of the
methodological spectrum with respect to the formal modeling that is typical of the
economic profession. Hence a dilemma for future research: how to generalize
findings from case studies? Is it possible to derive alternative hypotheses to oppose
to mainstream economists? A second limit relates to the fact that capitalism is more
than the conjunction of a series of markets, and economic sociology by
methodological choice rarely addresses this issue.
Are markets basically idiosyncratic? Economic sociologists are tempted to respond
positively, whereas the economist searches for a general theory or at least a complete
taxonomy of different forms of market. The issue of generalization is a difficult
challenge for economic sociology. Therefore, in economic and political debates, the
economist plays the role of the generalist, with clear cut ideas and proposals and the
sociologist stresses the complexity of factors involved in the issue under
review…and generally looses the debate! Today, politicians prefer simple ideas even
if they are hardly relevant to complex and accurate analyses of systemic causality.
Can a market function in total isolation from the rest of the society? The economist
usually answers that it should but unfortunately a lot of exogenous factors, either
political or social, mitigate the efficiency of market allocations. Like Karl Polanyi, a
large fraction of economic sociologists state on the contrary that some non-
economic conditions have to be fulfilled in order to warrant soft functioning of
markets. Consequently, a pure capitalist economy cannot prosper or even function if
labor, money and nature become typical commodities (Polanyi, 1948). Recent
research on monetary regimes and the credibility of economic policy show that they
may rely on extra economic beliefs. For instance, the very foundation of the
credibility of money might be in quite archaic representations and not the expression
of the interests of the traders neither the outcome of rational individual strategies
(Aglietta, Orlean, 1998). A second example concerns financial markets: whereas they
are often supposed to be the typical expression of rationality, they actually combine

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various logics linked to social networks (Abolafia, 1996) and/or the political process
of law making (Zorn & al., 2007).
Table 6 – Economic sociology as analysis of capitalism

This last remark introduces quite a challenging issue for economic sociology. Many
historical and empirical studies have convincingly shown that trust is a requisite for
the viability of markets. Economic sociology defines trust as the consequence of a

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set of personal interactions that can be translated from one actor to another one.
Some economic historians have analyzed the emergence and the functioning of
markets in the Middle Ages, the organization of the Chinese business international
commodities market or the diamond market (Greif, 2006). Nonetheless, one may
consider with Karl Polanyi that the market tends to be extended to fictitious
commodities that also warrant the possibility of exchanges for typical commodities.
It is thus necessary to adopt a very long-term view in order to assess the actual role
of trust in the functioning of capitalist markets (Braudel, 1979; Wallerstein, 1999).
Here is a second objection: the network analysis of the building of trust does not
necessarily apply at the macroeconomic level, since confidence in a government, the
reliability of the euro or trust in the competence and the honesty of politicians, all
seem to derive from totally different mechanisms. Seemingly, there is no solution of
continuity between interpersonal and systemic trust (Aglietta, Orlean, 2002).
Actually, various mechanisms and rules have to be defined in order to sustain trust in
the marketplace: functional efficiency, procedural legitimacy, conformity with ethics
are key ingredients in this subtle mechanism. It is precisely at this level that the issue
of trust and legitimacy play a role in the acceptability of capitalist institutions. Clearly,
one form or another of explicit, public or collective intervention is required…and
this is the special appeal of political economic approaches.

5. Political economy: strengths and weaknesses


The term “political economy” is associated with authors such as Adam Smith and
Karl Marx, at the very origin of the discipline that is today labeled as “economics”.
Their project was to elaborate concepts in order to understand the economic regime
that was emerging with the industrial revolution. Marginalist theory and its
subsequent extensions have brought an increasing division of labor between
economics, sociology and political science. This trend is also present within each
discipline and it culminates in contemporary economics. Nevertheless, the links
between politics, economy and the impact of non-market institutions on the
functioning of markets have continued to be investigated by a small community of
researchers. More recently, there has been a renewed interest for a “new political
economy” in order, for instance, to analyze the impact of political institutions on
economic performance. Political economy research is developing along two quite
contrasting lines, with different objectives, tools and results (Höpner, 2006).
5. 1. Two new political economies: economists versus political
scientists
On one side, economists have applied the hypothesis of substantive rationality and
used formal modeling as well as econometric studies in order to extend the scope of
economic theory (Alt, Shepsle, 1990; Shleifer, Vishny, 1998). They adopt a
functionalist view of institutions, which are supposed to be created in order to
respond to typical economic motives. Their major concerns relate to economic
efficiency and the promotion of reforms in the direction of Pareto optima.
Frequently, these economists tend to assimilate organizations and institutions
(Williamson, 1985), at odds with other authors who insist upon the differentiation
between institutions, organizations and informal norms (North, 1990). A better
interaction between polity and economy is achieved by the economists who study
political business cycles or the endogeny of taxation, public spending or the opening
to the international competition (Drazen, 2000). But the reconciliation of political
science and economics is quite partial, since the quasi-exclusive criteria for assessing

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the impact of institutions is economic efficiency. Furthermore, even growth or cycle
models do not deal with the process of endogenous transformation of institutions.
On the other side, political economists, trained as political scientists or in the
heterodox tradition, are objecting to the basic assumption of a political economy
built upon rational choice theory and the market as exclusive coordinating
mechanisms (Piore, Sabel, 1984; Regini, 1995; Berger, Dore, 1996; Fligstein, 2001;
Jessop, 2002; Glyn, 2006). The most basic economic institutions are shaped by and
embedded in a web of pre-existing institutions and non economic factors, such as
political interests, ideologies, ideas, social norms…The logic of polity cannot be
reduced to the pure rational analysis of economic interests, since the two spheres,
polity and economy, have to be articulated. This delivers a general principle for
analyzing the evolution of economic institutions (Theret, 1992; Amable, Palombarini,
2005). A second distinctive feature of these political economists is their concern for
the analysis of long-run structural transformations of capitalist institutions (Streeck,
Yamamura, 2001; Thelen, 2004; Pierson, 2004).
If economic sociology gives social actors the role of architects in the construction of
capitalist organizations and institutions, political economy generally prefers to stress
the role of the State in the emergence and functioning of capitalism. Today, the
choice of monetary and exchange rate regimes, the design of competition laws and
the objectives of labor legislation involve one branch or another of the State: the
Treasury, the Central Bank, the Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, or the Ministry of
Labor. Even if the State is far from being a unified entity, it cannot be neglected in
the analysis of any modern economy (table 7).
5. 2. An implicit division of labor between two disciplines
Somehow, due to two intellectual traditions and discipline delimitations, these two
approaches adopt different but complementary visions of the genesis of capitalist
organizations and institutions.
• Economic sociology adopts a bottom up approach: the interactions among individuals
lead to the possibility of the designing rules of the game in order to facilitate everyday
behaviors and strategies. For instance, professions can organize their members, invent
and then implement a series of rules that are the equivalent of self-regulation. Some
financial markets function according this kind of informal rules, without any direct
intervention of State. But the criticism is precisely that such a configuration is not a
general rule.
Political economy develops the opposite strategy, i.e. a top-down approach of the
emergence of institutions and their influence on organizations. The nature of
property, social rights, the yardstick of fair competition, the tax code and the
principles governing industrial relations all derive from political deliberations and are
imposed by law. By the way, each major crisis of capitalism has been associated with
an impressive wave of public interventions and legislations, in order to redesign the
institutional forms that have failed to deliver an acceptable economic and social
outcome. Conversely, political economy is unable to capture some of the informal
rules that turn out to be quite crucial in the functioning of an economic regime. One
of the new institutional economics currents, inspired by Douglass North, emphasizes
the need for dealing simultaneously with formal and informal rules. This is precisely
the domain of excellence of economic sociology.

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Table 7 – Political economy: contributions to the analysis of capitalism

5. 3. Some possible complementarities and joint ventures ?


Usually, political economy studies the consequence of State decisions upon private
sector organizational choices and strategies. But in this fraction of the literature, the
inner political process that leads to the final intervention is not sufficiently
investigated. New political economy is applying rational choice to politicians and has
adopted the convenient but dubious concept of “median voter”. Even in this case,
the interactions within the political sphere are not investigated. Shouldn’t economic
sociologists mobilize their concepts and methods in order, for instance, to
understand how lobbying resembles strategic networking? This would result in a
sociology of key decisions in terms of basic capitalist institutions.

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Too often, economic sociology does not mention the political resources and
constraints that shape the formation of networks. It would be interesting to explicitly
introduce these variables, thus making possible, and even necessary, a dialogue with
political scientists. Both research agendas share the same meso level but the factors
governing organization formation is quite different, but not necessary incompatible
(figure 1). In order to deal with issues that are not traditionally considered to be part
of each disciplinary research agenda, the methods of one discipline could be applied
to the domains of the other.
A second source of cooperation may emerge when both programs are facing the
same difficult issues. For instance, in both disciplines, recent research tends to give
greater importance to the creation and diffusion of ideas than to positivist analyses
of social and political processes, they used to study in the past. Macro-sociology of
capitalism stresses the role of worker empowerment and projects in new capitalism
(Boltanski, Chiapello, 1999), whereas many political economy studies grant a definite
role to the market ideology, both at the domestic and European Union levels (Jabko,
2006). Both face the same difficulty of the proof: how to be sure whether ideas are
independent variables that cause the change of policy and inspire institutional
reforms? Are they totally independent from conflicts of interest? Wouldn’t the co-
evolution of ideas, interests and institutional reforms be a more relevant hypothesis?
What tools can be used to deliver relevant discourse analyses?

Figure 2 – A possible reconciliation of two research programs

1 : Typical economic sociology applied to organizations


2 : Typical political economy applied to institutional forms
3 : Economic sociology methods applied to the formation of State policies
4 : Political economy methods applied to the implementation of self regulation and their relations with public
interventions

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6. Régulation theory: a tentative institutional and


historical theory of capitalism
Since the early 70s, a group of economists who were dissatisfied with the state of
mainstream economics and impressed by the structural character of the crisis of the
Golden Age, took the concept of capitalism seriously (Aglietta, 1976; 1982; Boyer,
Mistral, 1978, Lipietz, 1979, Baslé, Mazier, Vidal, 1984). Their inspiration was
threefold. First, their objective was to up-date the findings of the Annales School of
economic history. Second, they converted their criticism of orthodox Marxism into a
tentative reconstruction of Marx’s project. Third, they did not hesitate to carefully
use most of the tools of modern economic analysis in order to test the generality and
relevance of this new approach. Under the name of “régulation theory”, these
economists have tried to understand the factors that govern the surprising resilience
of capitalist economies in spite of the repetition of severe crises that were supposed
to challenge the very existence of this socio-economic regime.
A more detailed and systematic presentation of this theory can be found elsewhere
(Boyer, Saillard, 2002). Therefore, this brief analysis will focus upon its relationships
with socio-economics. Régulation theory belongs to the tradition of political economy,
since it recognizes that the most crucial institutions of capitalism emerge out of
social and political processes. It departs from the concept of substantive rationality
since it borrows the concept of habitus from the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, it
extends it and adopts the hypothesis of contextual rationality. In a sense, one of the
foundations of this theory belongs to economic sociology. This has been an
incentive to generalize the theory at the societal level (Théret, 1991, Billaudot, 1996).
Régulation theory shares with Comparative Institutional and Historical Analysis
(Thelen, 2004) a strong concern for historical long-term analysis of the
transformations of economic institutions. It is at odds with the intrinsic difficulty of
mainstream economists in dealing with historical time (Sapir, 2000).
Another distinct feature is the objective of simultaneously explaining stability and
discontinuity, via an extensive analysis of major capitalist crises. Contrary to neo-
classical approaches, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to find economic laws
governing capitalism, whatever the epoch or the territory. Therefore, the
comparative method has proved quite powerful in the process of generalizing the
theory, initially restricted to American and French capitalisms. Whereas conventional
economic theories have progressed via intensive elaboration of concepts and the
search for axioms, régulation approaches have pointed out that any theory has initially
a quite limited domain of validity in time and space. Consequently, the international
comparisons have been quite helpful in enriching the basic concepts and overcoming
the temptation to diagnose a single capitalist configuration for each historical epoch.
Another objective of this theory is to convert a qualitative analysis of social relations
into the quantitative investigation of accumulation regimes, a step rarely observed in
conventional economic sociology.

What are the main findings regarding the definition, the evolution and diversity of
capitalism (Table 8) ?

• A capitalist regime is defined by the precise configuration of the basic social relations
that define five major institutional forms: the monetary regime, the forms of
competition, the wage labor nexus, the links between State and the economy and
finally the insertion of the domestic economy into international relations. This analysis
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is much more precise than the traditional approach that points out the importance of
property rights, good governance and macroeconomic stability (World Bank 2002).
• These institutional forms make possible or problematic an accumulation regime in the
economic sphere, but they result from a very complex process combining social
struggles, political deliberation and law enforcement. Therefore régulation theory
crosses many disciplines of social sciences. Originating from economists, the theory
has somehow diffused in the direction of political scientists, sociologists, and
specialists of urban and regional studies.
• Consequently, various methods have to be combined before formalizing accumulation
regimes, such as long-term growth patterns– and regulation modes (i.e. how do
economic agents react to the existing institutional architecture?) A typical régulationist
investigation should ideally combine a series of steps: a historical institutional analysis,
elaboration of relevant statistical indexes, then the detection of patterns and
regularities by econometric techniques, modeling of partial régulations and finally,
macro-modeling of society wide reproduction and change. A last and more recent
research agenda, quite difficult indeed, relates to the impact of the political processes
upon the direction of reforms of institutional forms during structural crises.
• The limits of régulation theory are closely related to its merits, as are the two sides of a
coin. The researcher has to master more than one discipline in order to get relevant
and new results. This calls for longer and more painful investigations, even if the
outcome is generally and intellectually rewarding. The sense of historical time might
be interpreted as a mere return to the limits of old historicism, whereas the ambitious
objective is to elaborate embryos of theory that could explain major structural changes
and innovations. A last and long lasting criticism concerns the so-called inability of
regulationists to propose economic and social programs to politicians, by contrast
with mainstream economists eager to promote the organization of society as a mere
web of markets. This apparent shortcoming of the régulation school is the direct
consequence of a tentative to build a value free theory that abstracts from any
normative content about what should be the “good economy” and the “good society”
(Amable, Palombarini, 2005).
• This very ambitious project is quite difficult to achieve within the strict boundaries of
economic disciplines. Thus, regulationist economists follow and benefit from the
advances of fellow research fields, such as political economy, economic history and
more recently economic sociology.
• Conversely, if these research fields aim at analyzing contemporary capitalist
economies, they might benefit from a critical assessment of the achievements and
limits of this school. The régulation school provides a lot of evidence about the strong
historicity of different forms of capitalism, their persisting diversity, and screens the
basic institutions that guarantee the viability of a capitalist formation. Nonetheless, the
most important issue still needs to be addressed: what are the factors that govern the
surprising resilience of capitalisms?

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Table 8 – Régulation theory- contributions to capitalism analysis

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Conclusion: a research agenda


This brief survey delivers the following provisional conclusions.
1. The distinction between a market economy and a capitalist regime is
more than a semantic subtlety, since these terms generally correspond to quite
different basic concepts, tools, objectives and results.
2. The unleashing of capitalist logic after 1989 has made evident to a large
fraction of economists and social scientists the need for renewing with a long,
but interrupted, tradition of analysis: capitalism is a dynamic regime that
induces accumulation, frequent crises, globalization and a basic trend towards
the widening of inequalities in the absence of strong collective affirmation of
social solidarity.
3. This could be an opportunity for a paradigm shift that could combine
the methods of institutional economics, economic history, economic sociology
and political economy. Given the constant deepening of specialization among
sub-disciplines of social sciences, this is quite a challenging task.
4. The multifaceted components of capitalism as a concept and the
multiplicity of really existing economic regimes render urgent such a research
agenda. Each discipline captures only a fraction of the whole entity whereas the
task should be to explicit the systemic properties of this socioeconomic regime
via the interchange among various disciplinary approaches. What are the
factors that shape the evolution and permanent transformation of capitalism?
That is a key question for the present century.

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