Social Structures of Accumulation

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Brian Holmes:

"In the United States, from 1978 onward, a group of American Marxist economists - including David Gordon, Thomas Weisskopf, Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards and Michael Reich - developed a set of ideas around what they called "Social Structures of Accumulation" (SSAs). From the outset, they situated their work within the long-wave or "long swing" chronology. Naturally enough, they built their analysis around the distinct phases or stages of US corporate capitalism: the competitive capitalism of the late 19th century, the monopoly capitalism of vertically integrated corporations in the early 20th, the integrated state capitalism of the postwar period, and then of course, contemporary neoliberal globalization. In dialogue with world-systems theory (Wallerstein, Chase-Dunn, Arrighi, etc) they identified a range of institutional arenas which were crucial to the stabilization of capitalist accumulation, including those at the global level, both monetary and military, whose existence American Marxists cannot ignore. So far, so good; and in my view, it gets better.

They began all of this with a strong focus on the labor process itself, and on the institutional forms of labor control. They attempted to identify other social contradictions of capitalism and saw political dissension as the key factor in the dissolution of each long phase (whereas the regulationists usually try to tease out some implicit but hidden contradiction of the economy). They further believed that the decline of the former stage was typically followed by a period of experimentation in which many different categories of actors attempted to negotiate a solution to the deepening economic problems. Yet they also recognized that the complexity of these problems is such that the actors cannot be conceived as fully in control of the outcomes. All of this is extremely useful. It keeps the focus on concrete realities, which is my idea of political economy.

One can gain a good idea of the SSA approach from three texts. The first, from 1980, is by David Gordon, under the title "Stages of Accumulation and Long Economic Cycles." It is more or less the founding text, although it already builds on work by Weisskopf and by Edwards. It contains a tremendous amount of ideas, including some excellent speculations about the nature of the initial capital and social investments that lend unity and duration to a long wave. Thirteen distinct social structures that directly support accumulation are enumerated, and some of their contradictions are analyzed. The second text, "Long Swings and the Stages of Capitalism," is an excerpt from the book *Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States* (1982). Here the focus on the capital/labor conflict is sharper, and the segmentation of workers into distinct groups within the hierarchy of a large corporation is shown to be a crucial mechanism of social control. Undoubtedly this whole book would be worth reading, as well as another one by Richard Edwards, *Contested Terrain : The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century* (1979) from which the notion of hierarchical control is taken.

What's really galvanizing, though, is to read just those two texts and then go on to the one by Michael Wallace and David Brady, which is called "Globalization or Spatialization? The Worldwide Spatial Restructuring of the Labor Process." It's from a recent book called *Contemporary Capitalism and its Crises: Social Structure of Accumulation Theory for the 21st Century* (2010). These guys think that relations of production remain at the heart of the social process, and so they focus on the form of worker control exercised by the spatial form of the contemporary networked corporation, which is able to achieve "concentration through decentralization." In other words, the firm remains coherent through its communicational control of fragmented work processes: it exerts so-called "technocratic" or "algorithmic" control via the highly constraining work routines that its computer programs and LAN networks impose. Here again, this analysis builds on an entire literature, previously unknown to me, which has followed the development of so-called "lean production" since the late 1980s. This is extremely pragmatic stuff, and yet in its analytical precision it opens up to other very characteristic aspects of the contemporary technopolitical paradigm, such as the flexible wage, the form of the networked corporation, the centrality of information as a key input to any industrial process, the frameworks of transnational governance, the just-in-time transportation networks, and so on." (

The Context of the Technopolitics project

Brian Holmes:

"I want to begin with some reflection on our own methodology. A few years ago when our project began, the idea was to bring together the work of the UK-centered "technological innovation school" (Chris Freeman, Francisco Louça, Carlota Perez, Gerhard Mensch, Giovanni Dosi, etc) and the largely French regulation school (Michel Aglietta, Alain Lipietz, Robert Boyer, Bob Jessop, etc). The former group adopted the chronological framework of Kondratiev's long waves in order to do material economic history, which used to be a Marxist strong point and is now sorely lacking on the Left. However, this group also relies heavily on Schumpeter's notion of innovation as the driving historical force: it is innovation that, in Mensch's phrase, "overcomes the depression" and launches a new long wave. Invention a la Schumpeter is closely associated with entrepreneurialism... even if we think it can be associated with hackers too.

Regulation theory, for its part, offered a very sophisticated reading of the way in which institutions support the capital accumulation process and simultaneously assure the continuity of social reproduction - until a crisis erupts and this dynamic adjustment or "regulation" of the economy/society relation finally breaks down. The emergence of a new pattern of economic growth (or what they call a "regime of accumulation") would then depend on the creation of a new social balance, a new "mode of regulation," ie a new way to integrate the productive process into civic and daily life. Class struggle plays a crucial role in regulation theory.

We could therefore use the technologists to analyze the productive process and the regulationists to analyze the integrative process. In that way we could identify specific "techno-political paradigms" in order to see how they initially sustain and then ultimately tear apart the accumulation process of each long wave - including the one we are living through today. We hoped to carry out this kind of analysis at the national or continental scale, in order to keep some kind of focus, but we also wanted to situate each national or continental analysis within larger parameters that we called "global protocols" (involving military power and monetary order, as well as shared epistemology, standards of interoperability, etc - all of which are crucial for capitalism's global market).

To see how a given "techno-political" paradigm evolves, we would try to identify, not just technological innovators, but a wider range of "agents of change" which could include social, cultural or political movements. In this way we hoped to discover what are generally called the "microfoundations" of social reproduction and of social change.

Obviously it's a complex and wildly ambitious program. It's also a timely and necessary one, since what's happening before our eyes is quite likely the breakdown of the current techno-political paradigm (which we call "neoliberal informationalism," in order to indicate both a political framework and a productive system).

As this breakdown accelerates, I feel impatient. It seems that one of the things holding us back is the gap between the relative pragmatism of technological history, and the highly theoretical nature of the regulationist discourse, which has also tended to splinter into separate camps ever since its foundation stone was laid by Aglietta with his book *A Theory of Capitalist Regulation*, way back in 1976." (

More Information