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Creative Reconstructions: Multilateralism and European Varieties of Capitalism after 1950
Published by EH.Net (January 2012)
Orfeo Fioretos, Creative Reconstructions: Multilateralism and European Varieties of Capitalism after 1950. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. xix + 245 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8014-4969-7.
Reviewed for EH.Net by David Coates, Department of Political Science, Wake Forest University.
There is now a long established interest in the character and economic fortunes of different models of capitalism. Important debates continue about their internal dynamics of change. Do modern economies flourish to the degree to which we find “institutional complementaries” within them, as in the original “varieties of capitalism” (VOC) formulation by Hall and Soskice; or do we need to bring something “back in” to supplement or replace the incipient “institutional determinism” of that approach? Do we need to make the “constructivist” turn favored by Vivien Schmidt and others, or do we need to make the “class” turn favored by analysts influenced by an on-going stream of Marxist scholarship? If the argument of this impressively researched and coherently argued work by Orfeo Fioretos holds, the intellectual turn we need to take is towards behavioral economics and the concerns of international political economy, by recognizing the role multilateral strategies play (and have played in the immediate past) in shaping the trajectory of particular European capitalisms and the incentive structures operating on their key firms. We need to bring “the state” back in to our analyses, but to do so in a new and important way.
Covering the years from 1950 to the financial crisis of 2008, this volume explores and explains the interplay of multilateral engagements and internal reform agendas in three major European economies: Britain, Germany and France. Its author asks the standard VOC questions: “why are some national economic models sustainable over time while others disintegrate?” “What explains the fact that some countries are able to transform their economic institutions successfully while others fail?” But he declines to answer them by dropping back into the standard VOC framework of liberal and coordinated market economies deploying different internal strongly embedded patterns of industrial organization, finance and governance. Instead, drawing on Joseph Schumpeter’s characterization of capitalism’s core propensity of creative destruction, he characterizes post-war Western Europe as an area (and a time) of “relentless institutional innovation” (p.2) in order to emphasize a common experience of institutional experimentation and change. He charts the different trajectories of change in his three chosen economies, and uses that chart to deny any simple process of convergence. He sees a shared “movement towards liberal policies,” but also a more limited and differentiated adoption of “the panoply of institutions that are associated with the liberal market economy” (p.4). Breaking from the tendency of many comparative political economy scholars to deploy only binary distinctions to describe and measure change, Orfeo Fioretos develops four. For him, “economic systems are characterized by patterns of consolidation, specialization, systemic transformation, or by patterns of recombination that lead to hybrid systems of governance ” In getting to those, we are told, “multilateralism matters” (p. 8), precisely because, taken overall, ‘the structural and institutional transformations that characterized Europe’s largest economies were not a product of domestic histories and designs alone. They were integrally linked to a history of international cooperation and an expanding set of multilateral institutions” (p. 172, emphasis added).
In a book of this quality, the strengths are so many that listing them all would take considerably more space than I have available here. So let me simply single out three.
One is the quality of the case studies themselves. If students are in need of concise but insightful characterizations of government-business relations and post-war modernization strategies in three leading European economies, they will find it here. French scholars, in particular, must appreciate a work that centers France, and not just Germany and the UK, as models of capitalism in need of consideration. As someone who has long worked on post-war UK political economy, I found the UK chapter one of the strongest I have recently read on all three of the UK”s dominant post-war political projects – insightful precisely because it combines the standard explorations of internal barriers to growth with a sustained consideration of the impact on business incentives of changing UK government involvement in/attitudes to the emerging European Union.
The second is this. The general value of the case studies deployed here is established by Fioretos’ willingness to engage directly with schools of scholarship within the new institutionalism. Here you will find a powerful critique of both historical and rational choice institutionalism, and a willingness to expand their analytical lens by bringing each into a working relationship with insights and agendas situated elsewhere in social science: insights from behavioral economics and agendas from international political economy. The result, “a modified historical institutionalism informed by behavioral economics” (p. 14), retains the firm-centric focus of the original VOC formulations, but uses this behavioral institutionalist approach to explore how the interplay of different national and multilateral designs affects firms’ support for different national reform strategies. The methodological conversations developed in this volume deserve study quite separate from the case studies they inform.
The third is the value of the volume’s central thesis. Multilateralism has mattered in the development of national capitalisms. The relationship between economies, and not just their internal configuration of forces, affects their trajectory. There is no institutional determinism here. Politics and policies matter; and that includes politics and policies directed at other economies. Trajectories are lubricated and constrained from outside as well as from within. What goes on abroad shapes what goes on at home, and that shaping often feeds back into levels of support abroad for original trajectories of reform. Systems of governance in national economies are in that sense open rather than closed, and need to be studied as such.
Do I think that this volume, splendid as it is, completes all that we need to know? No, I do not. There is still a voluntarism in the analysis here, and a willingness to stay firmly on the level of institutions and political actors: an agency focus that, from a Marxist perspective at least, gives insufficient weight to class contradictions within national economies and to the impact on each economy of the place occupied in a globalized system of combined and uneven development. But in a field as complex and important as the one concerned with capitalist diversity, there is always legitimate disagreement about how wide explanatory nets need to be spread, and how deep analysis needs to go for completeness. In that on-going conversation on width and depth, this volume establishes Orfeo Fioretos as an important voice. We all benefit from scholarship and insights of this quality.
David Coates holds the Worrell Char in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. His most recent book is Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy, details of which are at www.davidcoates.net
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