Capitalist diversity and variety: variegation, the world market, compossibility and ecological dominance.

Author:Jessop, Bob
Position:Critical political economy and the role of institutions - Report


Classical political economy noted important variations in the world market. This tradition continued in studies of primitive accumulation, mercantilism, imperialism, colonialism, and so on. These studies considered economic spaces from the urban through to the emerging world market. Recent research on varieties of capitalism (notably the Hall-Soskice school and its epigones) has less historical depth, more limited comparative breadth, and a narrower theoretical focus. This article builds on the earlier tradition, especially its historical materialist and regulationist versions, to present a critical alternative to more mainstream institutionalist accounts (on revitalising earlier traditions, see also papers by Coates (both), Bieling, Taylor, Hardy, Weiss, Hartmann and Callas in this special issue).

Studies of diversity and variation

No consensus exists on schemes for exploring the unity and heterogeneity of capitalism. Table 1, below, shows four methods used to develop such schemes: taxonomy, ideal-types, cluster analysis, and logical-historical analysis (see also Jessop 2013a). Taxonomists distinguish several 'families of capitalism', often focusing on advanced capitalist economies, with less work done on other families, let alone their subordinate genera and species. Typology is most useful when just a few ideal types are used to disclose hybridity, impurity, 'cocktails', and other forms of real world complexity. Cluster analysis uses statistical induction to produce a set of clusters (sometimes with sub-clusters) and, perhaps, outliers, based on the within-cluster similarity of members on multiple selected criteria and/or on similarities in the weight of revealed latent factors. Finally, the logical-historical approach uses theoretically informed comparison to move stepwise from abstract-simple categories to concrete-complex analyses of cases. This method is quite common in the Marxist critique of political economy.

All four methods can be used to reveal key features of individual varieties, the extent of within-type diversity, and the overall heterogeneity of capitalism. The first three are less useful, however, for an integrated and dynamic analysis of uneven accumulation on a world scale, because these 'faces' of comparative capitalisms scholarship (CC) tend to treat each variety, ideal-type, or cluster separately rather than exploring interdependencies, complementarities, contradictions and co-evolution. This article advances the logical-historical method by introducing some interconnected concepts that are largely missing in other methods: variegation, the world market, compossibility, and ecological dominance.

The first three methods share a broad institutionalist hypothesis that economic performance is likely to be better in the presence of the institutional conditions for effective strategic coordination and adaptation among relevant stakeholders. The list of these conditions and explanations for their emergence and survival varies with the theoretical focus as well as which of four kinds of institutional analysis is adopted. Rational choice institutionalism shares many failings of neoclassical economics and, when it yields interesting results, it often does so in terms of the logic of situated action (cf. Katznelson & Weingast 2005). This is seen in the Hall-Soskice firm-centred 'explanation' for the lesser efficiency of hybrid cases compared to pure liberal or pure coordinated regimes. Sociological institutionalism explores the social embedding of economic action, the key role of extra-economic institutional supports to economic action, and, recently, the effects of the neoliberal disembedding of market forces from their social integument. Such work offers a useful counterfoil to studies that consider the market economy in isolation (or abstraction) from its wider social context, and can also provide a useful supplement to the form-analytical approach developed below (e.g. Streeck 2010).

Historical institutionalism in turn combines evolutionary and institutional concerns with interest in path-dependency and path-shaping, and is more common in work on the diversity of capitalism than on its distinctive varieties. Noting that history matters, it examines institutional inertia, institutional transformation and institutional rupture (e.g. Pierson 2004). For this reason, it partly overlaps with 'middle-range' or more concrete-complex logical-historical analyses. Some studies also explore forms or stages of capitalism (and their variation and diversity), and contribute thereby to comparative and historical studies of capitalist formations. This approach can also clarify how institutional and spatiotemporal fixes help to stabilise specific regimes (see Jessop [2001] and below). Lastly, the discursive or ideational approach is a late, somewhat opportunistic, arrival. It can mean little more than that ideas matter as much as (if not more than) institutions. More substantially, it claims that ideas mediate institutional effects; that institutions filter the role of discourses; and/or that they reflect, embody, or reproduce particular social imaginaries, discursive practices, and projects (e.g. Schmidt 2010). These claims could help to advance the critique of political economy, which, starting with Marx, also criticised the socially constitutive 'categories' through which classical and, later, vulgar political economists construed bourgeois society. In order to realise this potential, however, these claims must be related to the diverse factors that shape the variation, selection, retention and re-contextualisation of 'ideas' in specific conjunctures.

In sum, these four institutional approaches imply that economies perform well, respectively, to the extent that: (1) the conditions for capitalist economic rationality are present; (2) the market economy is embedded in a market society; (3) chance discoveries and/or gradual or punctuated evolution select the right set of institutional complementarities or isomorphism; or (4) for whatever reason, 'the ideation is right'. In contrast, the alternative proposed below regards continuing accumulation in a specific economic space as improbable thanks to capital's inherent contradictions, dilemmas, and antagonisms. Even when an economic space dominated by capitalist social relations seems to perform well according to prevailing capitalist criteria (and, therefore, would be diagnosed as effective in mainstream work), this outcome is necessarily provisional and depends on specific institutional and spatiotemporal fixes that succeed, for a time, in displacing and/or deferring crisis-tendencies. The latter will sooner or later intensify, change their forms of appearance, produce 'blowback' effects, or generate resistance that undermine these fixes, overwhelm crisis-management routines, or, in the case of resistance, weaken, neutralise or overthrow prevailing forms of exploitation and domination. This approach leads to major differences about the spatiotemporal horizons of analysis of diversity and variety as well as about crisis dynamics. In particular, it posits the world market as the ultimate horizon of analysis and considers these topics from this perspective.

Diversity, variety, or variegation?

Mainstream sociological and historical institutional research on diversity and/or variety tends to adopt a methodologically nationalist (or, less often, a local or regional) view on instantiations of 'capitalism'. The scare quotes around capitalism are to warn that many studies fail to define this crucial concept, taking it for granted (see also Bruff & Hartmann and Gallas in this special issue). Apart from this, there are four other problems that pervade mainstream CC research.

First, in isolating distinct families of capitalism (via taxonomic classification, the construction of ideal types, or cluster analysis), it often neglects their interrelations. Second, in listing the institutional complementarities or isomorphisms that underpin 'good' economic performance (usually measured by one or more macroeconomic indicators), it focuses on factors internal to a given type of capitalism. Third, given the rather brief historical periods studied in mainstream work, it does not relate short- or medium-term secular or cyclical performance to longer-term dynamics (such as hegemonic cycles, Kondratieff waves, transitions between regimes such as the rise of finance-led accumulation, or long-term shifts in regional or global growth poles). Fourth, this literature tends to assume that all varieties of capitalism are analytically equal--that they just happen to occupy different places on a continuum, in a two-dimensional property space, or in a more complex, n-dimensional matrix. Or, if one type proves superior to others in a given time frame on relevant indicators, competitive pressures will oblige less successful regimes to 'adapt or die'. This sometimes leads to prescriptive remarks on the efficiency and desirability of a neoliberal turn or, less often, the ability of a coordinated market economy to avoid the worst aspects of its more crisis-prone...

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