A neo-Gramscian approach to the regulation of urban regimes: accumulation strategies, hegemonic projects, and governance

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘A neo-Gramscian approach to the regulation of urban regimes’, in M. Lauria, ed., Reconstructing Urban Regime Theory, London: Sage, 51-73, 1997.


The perspective on urban regimes presented here is based on a neo-Gramscian reading of the regulation approach as well as a classically Gramscian account of the reciprocal relations between state and civil society. In particular I argue that urban regimes can be fruitfully analyzed in terms of strategically selective combinations of political society and civil society, of government and governance, of ‘hegemony armoured by coercion’. I also argue that such regimes may be linked to the formation of a local hegemonic bloc (or ‘power bloc’) and an historical bloc (or accumulation regime and its mode of regulation). To support these proposals I present some of Gramsci’s ideas about the relations between the economic base and its superstructure as well as his key concepts for analysing the state and state power. This will enable me to show marked similarities between a Gramscian account of the state and regulationist views on the capital relation. In the light of these analogies I outline eight key lessons for an exploration of urban regimes inspired by a neo-Gramscian regulation approach and, drawing on more recent work in the regulation approach, I offer some reflections on current changes in urban regimes. My argument is shaped by European experience but I would also claim that the neo-Gramscian approach can be fruitfully applied elsewhere.

I. Theoretical Perspectives on Urban Regimes

I now present three theoretical perspectives for an alternative research agenda on urban regimes. After briefly presenting some Gramscian insights into politics and key ideas from the French regulation approach, I consider Gramsci’s ideas about the ethico-political dimension of economic regimes. This enables me to propose some parallels between Gramscian and regulationist approaches to political economy. I also comment on the relevance of governance theory to both approaches.

I.1  Gramsci and ‘Integral Politics’

Gramsci analyzed the state ‘in its inclusive sense’. He defined it as ‘the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules’ (1971: 244). This approach is linked to his equation of the state with ‘political society + civil society’ and his claim that state power in the West rests on ‘hegemony armoured by coercion’ (1971: 261-3). Gramsci did not examine the constitutional and institutional features of government, its formal decision-making procedures, or its general policies (the state in its narrow sense, so to speak); instead he explored how political, intellectual, and moral leadership was mediated through a complex ensemble of institutions, organizations, and forces operating within, oriented towards, or located at a distance from the juridico-political state apparatus. This suggests that the political sphere can be seen as the domain where attempts are made to (re-)define a ‘collective will’ for an imagined political community2 and to (re-)articulate various mechanisms and practices of government and governance in pursuit of projects deemed to serve it. Whilst his prison writings dealt mainly with ‘national-popular’ politics in national states (especially Italy and France), nothing excludes its application to urban politics. This can be seen from Gramsci’s notes on communal politics in medieval Italy as well as incidental remarks on contemporary cities such as Turin, Rome, and Naples. More generally, one could argue that his approach is actually highly relevant to local politics because it downplays the importance of sovereign states with their monopoly of coercion and allows more weight to other apparatuses, organizations, and practices involved in exercising political power.

I.2  The Regulation Approach and ‘Integral Economics’

Regulationists study the economy in an inclusive sense. In a manner reminiscent of Gramsci’s expanded treatment of the state (as lo stato integrale or ‘the integral state’), they investigate what one could likewise call l’economia integrale (or the ‘integral economy’). Expressed in other words, regulation theorists examine the historically contingent ensembles of complementary economic and extra-economic mechanisms and practices which enable capital accumulation to occur in a relatively stable way over long periods despite the fundamental contradictions and conflicts generated by the capital relation itself (cf. Aglietta 1979; Boyer 1990; Lipietz 1987). In particular, whilst far from neglectful of the essentially anarchic role of exchange relations in mediating capitalist reproduction, regulationists tend to emphasize the complementary role of other mechanisms (institutions, norms, conventions, networks, procedures, and modes of calculation) in structuring, facilitating, and guiding (in short, regulating) capital accumulation. They argue that relatively stable capitalist expansion over any extended time period depends not only on economic institutions and practices but also on crucial extra-economic conditions which cannot be taken for granted. And, in this context, they must go well beyond any narrow concern with production functions, economizing behaviour, and pure market forces to study the wide range of institutional factors and social forces which are directly and/or indirectly involved in capital accumulation.

In the pioneer analysis in this approach, Aglietta studied how regulation ‘creates new forms that are both economic and non-economic, that are organized in structures and themselves reproduce a determinant structure, the mode of production’ (1979: 13, 16). Thus he was initially interested in what one might call both the economic and the social modes of economic regulation. The economic mode would refer to the key role of economic exchange and market forces in the self-organization of capitalism; and the social mode would refer to the role of the ‘extra-economic’ in organizing economic activities. Among other factors frequently mentioned by regulationists in this regard are: the legal and social regulation of the wage relation, the articulation of financial and industrial capital, forms of corporate organization, modes of economic calculation, the role of the state, education and training, and international regimes. Interestingly, since Aglietta’s initial work, many regulationists have increasingly focused on the ‘social’ mode of economic regulation to the neglect of the economic. This seems to move them even closer, albeit implicitly, to a Gramscian perspective on the expanded reproduction-régulation of the capital relation. This impression is reinforced by references, this time quite explicit, by some key regulation theorists to the need to strengthen their account of the state (a topic they regard as under-theorized within the French regulation approach) with Gramscian or neo-Gramscian ideas (e.g., Aglietta 1979; Häusler and Hirsch 1987; Jenson 1990; Lipietz 1987, 1994; Lordon 1995; Noël 1988; for further details, see Jessop 1990: 311-319).

I.3  Once More on Gramsci

To reinforce these points I now return to Gramsci’s approach to economics and politics. Whereas regulationists’ main concern has been to offer a comprehensive economic analysis of the socially embedded, socially regularized nature of the capital relation in order the better to understand its relative stability as well as its crisis-tendencies and transformation, Gramsci’s chief concern was to develop an autonomous Marxist science of politics in capitalist societies and thereby establish the most likely conditions under which revolutionary forces might eventually replace capitalism. These apparently contrasting theoretical (as opposed practical) interests are by no means inconsistent. Indeed, in discussing different modes of enquiry and knowledge, Gramsci observed that:

In economics the unitary centre (sc. of analysis) is value, alias the relationship between the worker and the industrial productive forces. … In philosophy [it is] praxis, that is, the relationship between human will (superstructure) and economic structure. In politics [it is] the relationship between the State and civil society, that is, the intervention of the State (centralised will) to educate the educator, the social environment in general’ (Gramsci 1971: 402-3; cf. remarks on the difference between economic and political interests and calculation, 140).

Although Gramsci spent most of his prison years working on philosophy and politics, he also offered various comments that anticipated the regulation approach. This is most obvious, of course, in his pioneering remarks on Americanism and Fordism and the prospects of introducing them into a Europe with a very different history and civilization (1971: 277-318; 1995: 256-7). But he also offered some important methodological remarks on economic analysis. In particular we may note how he redefined Ricardo’s concept of ‘”determined market” (mercato determinato)3 as “equivalent to [a] determined relation of social forces in a determined structure of the productive apparatus”, this relationship being guaranteed (that is, rendered permanent) by a determined political, moral and juridical superstructure’ (1971: 410). Gramsci continued that, whereas classical economists had treated determined market as an arbitrary abstraction and reified its various elements and laws as ‘eternal’ and ‘natural’, Marxist political economy began from the historical character of ‘determined market’ and its social ‘automatism’ and studied these phenomena in terms of ‘the ensemble of the concrete economic activities of a determined social form’ (1971: 400n, 411; cf. 1975: 172, 427). Thus, according to Gramsci, economic laws (necessities, ‘automatism’) should be understood as tendencies, located historically, grounded in specific material conditions, and linked to the formation of a specific type of homo oeconomicus, reflected in turn in ‘popular beliefs’ and a certain level of culture (1971: 279-318, 412, 400n, 413; 1975: 167). Economic laws or ‘regularities’ (regolarità) are secured in so far as the actions of one or more strata of intellectuals give the dominant class a certain homogeneity and an awareness of its own function in the social and political as well as the economic fields (1971: 410-414). For it is essential that entrepreneurs are able to organize ‘the general system of relationships external to the business itself’ (1971: 6). It is in this context that Gramsci notes that the ‘conquest of power and achievement of a new productive world are inseparable, and that propaganda for one of them is also propaganda for the other, and that in reality it is solely in this coincidence that the unity of the dominant class — at once economic and political — resides’ (1971: 116, emphasis added).4

These ideas can be developed by considering two further insights. One is Gramsci’s basic analytical distinction between historical bloc and power bloc. The first term in this conceptual couplet has important implications for the regulation approach, the second for work on growth coalitions. The other insight is expressed in Gramsci’s account of the ‘decisive economic nucleus’ necessary for hegemonic projects to be successful in the long run. This account also has important implications for urban regimes, especially the social and economic bases of different growth coalitions.

Gramsci employs the notion of historical bloc to solve the Marxian problem of the reciprocal relationship between the economic ‘base’ and its politico-ideological ‘superstructure’. He addresses this problem in terms of how ‘the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production’. This issue is typically analyzed dialectically in terms of how the historical bloc reflects ‘the necessary reciprocity between structure and superstructure’ (1971: 366). This reciprocity is realized, according to Gramsci, through specific intellectual, moral, and political practices which translate narrow sectoral, professional, or local (in short, in Gramscian terms, ‘economic-corporate’) interests into broader ‘ethico-political’ ones. Only thus does the economic structure cease to be an external, constraining force and become a source of initiative and subjective freedom (1971: 366-7). In this sense the ethico-political not only co-constitutes economic structures but also provides them with their rationale and legitimacy. Gramsci adds that analyzing the historical bloc can show how ‘material forces are the content and ideologies are the form, though this distinction between form and content has purely didactic value’ (1971: 377). Although Gramsci does not introduce regulationist concepts such as ‘industrial paradigms’, ‘models of development’ (Lipietz 1987), ‘accumulation strategies’ (Jessop 1983), or ‘societal paradigms’ (Jenson 1990, 1993) in this context, such concepts certainly help to illuminate the ‘ethico-political’ moment of the historical bloc. For they bring out the importance of values, norms, vision, discourses, linguistic forms, popular beliefs, etc., in shaping the realization of specific productive forces and relations of production.

In this spirit, an historical bloc can be defined as an historically constituted and socially reproduced correspondence between the economic base and the politico-ideological superstructures of a social formation. Stripped of its historical materialist ‘base-superstructure’ jargon, this concept is easily redefined in Parisian regulationist terms. Thus an historical bloc could be understood as the complex, contradictory and discordant unity of an accumulation regime (or mode of growth) and its mode of economic regulation.5 The dialectical relationship between form and content could then be seen to develop through what one could interpret as the co-constitution of the accumulation regime as an object of regulation in and through its co-evolution with a corresponding mode of regulation (cf. Jessop 1990: 310; also Painter, this volume). Or, to paraphrase Gramsci’s own comments on the state and state power, one could say that the economy in its inclusive sense comprises an ‘accumulation regime + mode of regulation’ and that accumulation occurs through ‘self-valorization of capital in and through regulation’.

The concept of hegemonic bloc was introduced in Gramsci’s discussion of class alliances and/or national-popular forces mobilized in support of a particular hegemonic project. It refers to the historical unity, not of structures (as in the case of the historical bloc), but of social forces (which Gramsci analysed in terms of the ruling classes, supporting classes, mass movements, and intellectuals). An hegemonic bloc is a durable alliance of class forces organized by a class (or class fraction) which has proved itself capable of exercising political, intellectual, and moral leadership over the dominant classes and the popular masses alike. Thus Gramsci notes that ‘[t]he historical unity of the ruling classes … results from the organic relations between State or political society and “civil society”‘ (Gramsci 1971: 52). Although this argument applies principally to the national state, it can also be used in studying supra- and sub-national regimes (see, for example, van der Pijl 1982 on the transatlantic ruling class in Atlantic Fordism; and, on the local state and hegemony in French regions and communes, Dulong 1978).

It is important to note that Gramsci recognizes several degrees and forms of political rule — not all of them fully hegemonic. They range from an inclusive hegemony which secures the active consent of the majority of all classes; through more limited forms of hegemony based on selective incorporation of subordinate groups (or, at least their leaders) and limited, piecemeal material (‘economic-corporate’) concessions; to a resort, in exceptional cases, to generalized coercion (1971: 105-6). Gramsci remarks, for example, that the dominant economic class in Italy’s medieval communes was unable to create its own category of intellectuals and so failed to build a solid hegemony. The communes had a more confederal, ‘syndicalist’ nature: rather than having a hegemonic bloc, they rested on a mechanical bloc of social groups, often of different races, with some subaltern groups having para-statal institutions of their own and enjoying considerable autonomy within broad limits set by coercive police powers (1971: 54n, 56n). Elsewhere Gramsci criticizes urban politics in non-industrial cities, such as Naples, which serve primarily as unproductive centres for regional government and the consumption of parasitic classes and strata; he also notes that their dominant intellectual strata are more likely to be ‘pettifogging lawyers’ than the technocrats who predominate in northern industrial cities (1971: 90-94, 98-100).

The final insight to be explored here is Gramsci’s observation that ‘though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity’ (1971: 161). This claim would seem open to several interpretations. It could be taken to imply that only the bourgeoisie (or its dominant fraction) could really exercise hegemony once capitalism has emerged; and that only the proletariat is in a position to develop an organic counter-hegemonic project. But, given the mediating role of organic intellectuals (who need not themselves be recruited from the two fundamental or decisive classes), this interpretation is far too class reductionist and instrumentalist. Thus Gramsci’s claim could be better read in an (integral) economic manner as implying that the essential function of an hegemonic project is to secure the (integral) economic base of the dominant mode of growth; and that it does this through the direct, active conforming of all social relations to the economic (and extra-economic) needs of the latter. Thus Gramsci argues that ‘every State is ethical in as much as one of its most important functions is to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level, a level (or type) which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling classes’ (1971: 258). This reading is better than the first but it still involves a residual (albeit integral) economism.6

A third interpretation can be framed in integral political terms. Here Gramsci’s comment could be taken to mean that all feasible organic hegemonic projects need to respect (or take account of) ‘economic determination in the last instance’. Gramsci argues the economy is nothing but ‘the mainspring of history in the last analysis’ (1971: 162). Only by examining forms of consciousness and methods of knowledge can one decipher the necessarily indirect impact and repercussions of economics within the wider society (1971: 162, 164, 167, 365). Thus ‘an analysis of the balance of forces — at all levels — can only culminate in the sphere of hegemony and ethico-political relations’ (1971: 167). In this sense, political forces have a vested interest in securing the productive potential of the economic base which both generates political resources and defines the scope for making material concessions. Wealth must first be produced before it can be distributed. From an integral political viewpoint, this does not mean that economic growth is invariably accorded the highest political priority — even when such growth is understood integrally. It implies only that political agents must be concerned with the economic conditions of juridico-political and/or politico-military power and be sensitive to the political effects of economic developments. Thus, whilst certain economic-corporate interests of (fractions of) the bourgeoisie can be sacrificed, the essential foundations of capitalism must be respected. In addition to hegemony directly and explicitly based on an accumulation strategy, therefore, hegemony could also establish other priorities provided that the core conditions for capital accumulation are not thereby irrevocably undermined.

I.4  Governance Theory

The final term to be introduced here is governance. This is increasingly popular both as an umbrella term for all forms of coordination of social relations (the ‘conduct of conduct’) and as a more specific (but still very general) term to refer to forms of coordination which involve neither market forces nor formal hierarchy. In this latter sense economic analysts often refer to novel forms of economic coordination such as relational contracting, ‘organized markets’ in group enterprises, clans, networks, business or trade associations, strategic alliances, and various international regimes. Likewise, in political science, disquiet has grown with a rigid public-private distinction in state-centred analyses of politics and its associated top-down account of the exercise of state power. This is reflected in concern with the role of various forms of political coordination which not only span the conventional public-private divide but also involve ‘tangled hierarchies’, parallel power networks, or other forms of complex interdependence across different tiers of government and/or different functional domains. A general definition encompassing all of these forms is that governance refers to the ‘self-organization of inter-organizational relations’ (cf. Jessop 1995b).

Governance is significant both for neo-Gramscian political analysis and for the regulation approach. It is relevant to the ‘micro-physics’ of power, i.e., the channels through which diverse state projects and accumulation strategies are pursued and, indeed, modified during their implementation. Because state power is inevitably realized through its projection into the wider society and its coordination with other forms of power, one must look beyond formal government institutions to a wide range of governance mechanisms and practices. Likewise, governance is relevant to the day-to-day practices in and through which the various structural forms of regulation are instantiated and reproduced. Regulationists typically define these forms in institutional terms (hence the frequent charge against them of structuralism) to the neglect of specific practices and emerging conflicts. This bias can be compensated by examining economic governance in terms of how expectations are stabilized within particular structural contexts and behaviour is regularized through conventions, compromise, and the exercise of power (for some initial regulationist work in this area, see Lipietz 1993; Benko and Lipietz 1994; Boyer and Hollingsworth 1995; and, for a review, Jessop 1995b). Early studies of urban regimes also offer important insights into the nature of governance and more recent work makes explicit use of the concept in posing research issues (for a recent review, see Stoker 1995). In short, it would seem that urban governance is an important area for assessing the potential of a neo-Gramscian regulation approach.

II. On Analyzing Urban Regimes

That urban regimes could be a fruitful testbed in this regard is indicated by Stoker’s comment that regime theory emphasises ‘the interdependence of governmental and non-governmental forces in meeting economic and social challenges’ (1995: 54; cf. Stone 1993). Moreover, given that a neo-Gramscian regulationist approach is concerned with the economy in its inclusive sense, it would seem even more suited to dealing with the role of government and governance in addressing contemporary economic challenges. In this spirit I now suggest eight lessons for studying local economic governance. These largely derive from the preceding theoretical review (supplemented on occasion with arguments from my earlier work) and are meant to serve as analytical guidelines rather than as research hypotheses. Before presenting these guidelines, however, two general cautions are needed. The following lessons are, to repeat, concerned with economic governance; but by no means all urban regimes give this issue the highest priority. Moreover, given the rigorous conditions they establish for success in this regard, these guidelines are best understood as a negative heuristic. For they are more likely to serve in most case studies to identify sources of governance failure than success.

The first lesson concerns objects of governance. Those regulation theorists opposed to functionalist arguments regard modes of regulation as being constitutive of the objects they regulate: objects and modes of regulation co-evolve in a structurally coupled (and, often, indeed, strategically co-ordinated) manner (on this, see Jessop 1990; and Painter, this volume). Thus one should study how the local economy comes to be constituted as an object of economic and extra-economic regulation. This involves examining two interlinked distinctions: (a) the local economy vs. its supra-local economic environment; and (b) the local economy vs. its extra-economic local environment (community, the political system, welfare state, education system, religious institutions, etc.). The first distinction is premissed on the idea that, whatever the vagaries and contingencies of economic development on a global scale, it might be possible to endogenize and control at least some conditions bearing upon local economic development. At stake here is how the boundaries of the local economy are discursively constructed and materialized. The second distinction refers to the means-ends relations involved in attempts to develop local strategies from an integral economic perspective and concerns the range of activities that need to be co-ordinated to realize a given economic development strategy.

The second lesson derives from the regulation approach and work on the governance of complexity. Both the supra-local economic environment and the extra-economic local environment are more complex than local economic actors can understand (especially in real time) and both will always involve a more complex web of causality than they could ever control (since adequate control would require that local economic actors command diverse means of influencing the interaction of causal mechanisms over time and space corresponding to the complexity of those mechanisms). Moreover, as economic and economically relevant activities increasingly extend over larger spatial scales, it gets harder to demarcate a relatively autonomous economic space at less than global scale. Thus we must direct attention to the role of the spatial imaginary and economic narratives and/or discourses in demarcating a local economic space with an imagined community of economic interests from the seamless web of a changing global-regional-national-local nexus. There is no reason, of course, why such a subset of economic relations should coincide with a given political territory. Nor is there any reason a priori why the temporalities of economic should coincide with cycles or rhythms related to localized forms of government and governance or with their overdetermination by outside forces. Thus we must also consider the specific practices, if any, which tend to transform this into a real space amenable to regulation and/or governance concerned to realize these common interests over a given time horizon. This will typically involve organizing local governance on scales that extend beyond local government. According to Gramsci’s views on the reciprocal necessity of base and superstructure, a key role in both respects would fall here to intellectual forces (broadly understood) involved in elaborating the ‘ethico-political’ aspects of the relevant historical bloc. Whether they succeed or not is, of course, another matter entirely.

Lesson three introduces the neo-Gramscian concept of accumulation strategy to build on this double demarcation of a manageable economic space and its extra-economic conditions. Struggles over the economic and social modes of economic regulation play a key role in shaping and unifying different supra-national, national, regional, and local modes of growth. As the different structural forms of the capitalist economy (the commodity, money, wage, price, tax, and company forms) are generic features of all capitalist economic relations and are unified only as modes of expression of generalized commodity production, any substantive unity that characterizes a given capitalist regime in a given economic space must be rooted elsewhere. One such source is accumulation strategies. These define a specific economic ‘growth model’ for a given economic space and its various extra-economic preconditions and they outline a general strategy appropriate to its realisation. As noted above, there is a key role here for organic intellectuals linked to the dominant class. It must be admitted that, regarding Fordism, Gramsci claimed their role would be greater in interwar Europe, which had a more complex class and social structure than the United States; in the latter, the emerging hegemony of Fordism was more securely rooted in the factory and had less need of professional political and intellectual intermediaries (Gramsci 1971: 285). Whatever the merits of his argument for the emergence and consolidation of Fordism on both sides of the Atlantic, however, it is evident that major political, intellectual, and moral struggles have occurred in shaping the emerging post-Fordist modes of regulation with their new, more flexible homo oeconomicus, new norms of production and consumption, new discourses and societal paradigms, new structural forms and institutional supports, and new modes of government and governance. Accumulation strategies can be defined for different spatial scales from international regimes through supranational blocs to national and regional economies and thence to the local. Although this concept has generally been applied to the national level (itself a reflection of the dominance of national economies and national states in the Fordist era), it is also relevant to the regional and local level. Indeed the crisis of Fordism has made it even more relevant (see section IV).

Lesson four concerns the need to examine the relationship between local accumulation strategies and prevailing hegemonic projects. Since economies (even in their inclusive sense) are always embedded in a wider ethico-political context, the stability of the latter also merits attention. A key role may be played here by hegemonic projects which help secure the relative unity of diverse social forces. A hegemonic project achieves this by resolving the abstract problem of conflicts between particular interests and the general interest. It mobilizes support behind a concrete programme of action which asserts a contingent general interest in the pursuit of objectives that explicitly or implicitly advance the long-term interests of the hegemonic class (fraction) and thereby privileges particular economic-corporate interests compatible with this programme whilst derogating the pursuit of other particular interests that are inconsistent with it. Moreover, whilst it serves the long-run interests of the dominant class (or class fraction), the latter will typically sacrifice certain economic-corporate interests in the short-term to help legitimate its overall hegemonic project. For Gramsci, hegemony was generally realized at the ‘national-popular’ level and expressed in the organization of national states; more recent studies have explored international hegemony in Gramscian terms. However, if one of the principal features of contemporary capitalism is the ‘hollowing out’ of national states and the resurgence of regions and cities, it is important to consider how far hegemony can also be re-located (perhaps once again) at the subnational level. This is particularly likely in more federal or decentralized regimes but there are also clear signs of a resurgence of municipal governance in unitary states. Nonetheless we should note that, just like national hegemony, local hegemonies may also vary in their relative inclusiveness, in the balance between active consent, fraud-corruption, and coercion, and in the relative weight of government as opposed to governance. It would be interesting to explore differences here between urban regimes in, for example, export-led flexible industrial districts in boom regions and property-led urban regeneration in crisis-prone Fordist cities.

The fifth lesson derives from state-theoretical (and, more broadly, ‘strategic-relational’) arguments that institutional ensembles involve quite specific forms of strategic selectivity. A major problems with Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony was its emphasis on the changing balance of social forces at the expense of the underlying balance of power inscribed within specific structures. At most he discussed this in terms of metaphors such as war of position and war of manoeuvre. But it is important to analyze both how far, and the manner in which, institutions and apparatuses are strategically selective, i.e., involve a structurally-inscribed mobilization of strategic bias.7 Particular forms of economic and political system privilege some strategies over others, access by some forces over others, some interests over others, some spatial scales of action over others, some time horizons over others, some coalition possibilities over others (cf. on the state, Jessop, 1990: 260 and passim). Structural constraints always operate selectively: they are not absolute and unconditional but always temporally, spatially, agency-, and strategy-specific. This has implications both for general struggles over the economic and extra-economic regularization of capitalist economies and specific struggles involved in securing the hegemony of a specific accumulation strategy. Although the idea of strategic selectivity (and its precursor, structural selectivity) was initially developed in analyses of the state, it has obvious implications for research into modes of growth. Here it would refer to the differential impact of the core structural (including spatio-temporal) features of a labour process, an accumulation regime, or a mode of regulation on the relative capacity of particular forces organized in particular ways to successfully pursue a specific economic strategy over a given time horizon and economic space, acting alone or in combination with other forces and in the face of competition, rivalry, or opposition from yet other forces.

Combining this approach with work on the strategic selectivity of governance regimes should offer powerful tools for urban regime analysis. For not all economic and political forces derive the same advantages from specific modes of growth and/or governance. Mapping such asymmetries has an important role in defining the nature of urban regimes — especially as the strategic selectivity of local institutions affects their long-run stability.  Indeed, the durability of urban regimes depends not only on the overall coherence and economic feasibility of the strategies they promote but also on strategic capacities rooted in local institutional structures and organizations. This said, of course, another implication of the strategic-relational approach is that agents are reflexive, capable of reformulating within limits their own identities and interests, and able to engage in strategic calculation about their current situation (see Jessop 1982, 1996a). This opens the possibility of strategic action to transform the strategic selectivity of extant regimes. For example, much of the Thatcherite attack on local government autonomy in Britain and the associated transfer of local authority functions was due to a concern to redefine access to local power and promote ‘enterprise culture’.

The sixth lesson is more clearly neo-Gramscian and concerns the scope of such power structures. It is important to examine how urban regimes operate through a strategically selective combination of political society and civil society, government and governance, ‘parties’ and partnerships. In this way one could show how some urban regimes may be linked to the formation of a local hegemonic bloc (or ‘power bloc’) and its associated historical bloc. Nonetheless one must recall that Gramsci himself allowed for a wide range of power structures and modes of exercising rule — not all of which involve an inclusive form of hegemony based on active consent. He also emphasized that politics could not be read off mechanically from the economic base and noted that many features of politics (especially in the short-term) are due to political miscalculation, the impact of specific political conjunctures, or organizational necessities of different kinds which have little, if any, direct connection to the economic base (1971: 408-409). Conversely, in the longer run, he emphasized that viable hegemonic projects (and, one might add, accumulation strategies) must have some organic connection to the dominant mode of growth. They cannot simply be ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’ but must have some prospects of forming and consolidating a specific historical bloc (see Gramsci 1971: 376-377).

The seventh lesson is that, whatever specific structural forms and political projects sustain or, at least, privilege the ruling bloc in an urban regime, there is also a need for an adequate repertoire of governance mechanisms and practices to ensure its continued vitality in the face of a turbulent environment and emergent conflicts which threaten the unstable equilibrium of compromise on which it is based. Governance failure will have a serious impact on the relative stability of specific urban regimes and the success of different local economic strategies.

The eighth lesson is cautionary. It would be a gross mistake to assume that a local mode of growth, a local mode of regulation, or an urban regime can exist in isolation from its environment. Whilst this comment may seem unnecessary regarding local modes of growth, discussions of modes of regulation tend to neglect how far both the social and economic aspects of regulation are embedded in tangled hierarchies for any given spatialized object of regulation. Just as the postwar Atlantic Fordist mode of national economic growth had international and regional/local supports, so does the mode of growth of regional and local economies depend on more encompassing economic complementarities, structural forms, modes of governance, and so forth. Strictly speaking, it would be more appropriate, if somewhat convoluted, to talk about pluri-spatial, multi-temporal, and poly-contextual modes of regulating local economies and their relative integration into more encompassing economic spaces. Analogous problems have already been noted in criticisms of urban growth coalition theories (cf. Harding 1995).

III. Local Economies and Economic Strategies

In depicting a local accumulation regime we encounter a definitional problem which is not only present for observers but also affects local participants. This is how to demarcate a local economy and its economic and extra-economic conditions of existence and, on this basis, to formulate a local accumulation strategy concerned with local economic development. Such strategies can be defined for various economic units (both territorial and functional) but my concern here is with possible features of local accumulation strategies associated with specific urban regimes. The variable geometries of economic and political boundaries pose major problems concerning whether local political forces have the juridico-political capacities to manage or govern the local economy. This is often noted for the USA but also occurs elsewhere. Any solution depends as much on the spatial imaginary and the links between state and civil society, however, as on formal territorial demarcations and the re-allocation of formal legal and political powers. For, once one adopts an integral economic and integral political approach to local economic development, it is possible to see how local economies and local regimes might be organized across borders. There is clearly a key role here for local growth coalitions (broadly understood to comprise the major forces mobilized behind the dominant local accumulation strategy rather than limited property development coalitions) in shaping the conditions for local economic performance.

The choice of spatial scale at which local economic development should be pursued is inherently strategic. It is contingent on various political, economic, and social specificities of a particular urban and regional context at a particular moment in time. The temporal and spatial are not separable here. The choice of time horizon will in part dictate the appropriate spatial scale at which development is sought. In turn, the choice of spatial scale will in part determine the time horizon within which local economic growth can be anticipated. Thus the discursive constitution of the boundaries and nature of the (local) economy affects the temporal dimension of strategy-making as well as its spatial scale. This is quite explicit in many economic strategy documents — with powerful players seeking to shape both the spatial and temporal horizons to which economic and political decisions are oriented so that the economic and political benefits are ‘optimized’ (on the case of the East Thames Corridor in Britain, see, e.g., Jessop 1996b). Hence the ability to match spatial scale and time horizon may be a crucial factor shaping the success or failure of local economic development strategies associated with urban regimes. When space and time horizons are articulated more or less successfully, economic development will occur within relatively stable ‘time-space envelopes’ (cf. Massey 1994: 225; Sum 1995).

Regarding the supra-local economic environment and the extra-economic local environment, the attempted governance of complexity involved in local accumulation strategies requires key players to undertake two interrelated tasks. These are: firstly, to model the factors relevant to local economic development based on the analytical distinction between the local economy and its two above-named environments; and, secondly, to develop the ‘requisite variety’ in policy instruments and/or resources to be deployed in the pursuit of local accumulation strategies. This puts considerable demands on the monitoring and self-reflexive capacities of local growth coalitions and suggests the importance of their own organizational learning capacities as well as those of the local or regional economy as a whole. The greater the capacities of a specific group or network to learn, the greater the chances of its becoming hegemonic in defining the local accumulation strategy; and, in addition, that the latter will be organic rather than ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’. In both respects economic hegemony also requires acceptance of the strategy by other key players whose cooperation is needed to deliver the extra-economic conditions to realize an accumulation strategy.

A final point to note is the extent to which local economic and political forces can draw on wider sources of knowledge about the economic and extra-economic conditions which bear on the competitiveness of local economies. For stable modes of local economic growth typically involve building a structured complementarity (or coherence) between the local economy and one or more of its encompassing regional, national, and supranational accumulation regimes. Since capitalism is always characterized by uneven development and tendencies towards polarization, the success of some economic spaces (and the success of the spaces whose growth dynamic is complemented by their own) will inevitably be associated with the marginalization of other economic spaces. This is seen in the changing hierarchy of economic spaces as capitalist growth dynamics are affected by the relative exhaustion of some accumulation strategies and modes of growth and/or the dynamic potential of innovations in materials, processes, products, organization, or markets. This in turn means that different ‘urban growth coalitions’ should orient local accumulation strategies to an assessment of the position of their local economic space in the urban hierarchy and international division of labour. This explains the wide range of alternative strategies in different localities, highlighting the need for economic development initiatives that are sensitive to the specificities of particular local economies (cf. Barlow 1995; Hay and Jessop 1995; Krätke 1995).

These considerations make it important that strategically reflexive actors on the local scene try to choose appropriate spatial and temporal horizons of action as well as appropriate strategies and tactics to improve their chances of realizing their aims and objectives. Yet any attempt to isolate spatio-temporally a set of social relations from the complex and continuous web of causal connections is inherently fragile and bound to produce unintended consequences. These will be harder to deal with and learn from to the extent that the environment is more turbulent and/or the system more complex. Moreover, although all actors routinely monitor the effects of their actions, such turbulence and complexity obviously constrain their ability to engage in strategic (including organizational) learning.

IV. Changing Urban Regimes

We can now attempt a re-interpretation of the changed economic agenda of economic partnerships in contemporary western capitalism. It was always one-sided to suggest that local growth coalitions were oriented primarily to property development. For during Fordism, as now, strategies pursued by local authorities and agencies of local governance were numerous, spatially and temporally specific, and divergent. But it is fair to say that the local coalitions were oriented to specific models of development which generally complemented the dominance of Atlantic Fordism and its distinctive forms of uneven development. Thus local states under Fordism typically provided a local infrastructure to support Fordist mass production, promoted collective consumption, implemented local welfare state policies, and, in some cases (especially as the crisis unfolded), engaged in competitive subsidies to attract new jobs or prevent the loss of established jobs. Whilst local economic conditions clearly shaped how individual local governments saw their respective economic roles, there was an almost universal commitment to the Keynesian welfare social policy role. These generalizations apply most strongly, of course, to trends in Europe. Indeed, as Gramsci himself noted, hegemony was more rooted in the factory in the USA; inter alia, this meant that Keynesian welfare was supplied in part through company- or industry-level bargaining for those in the privileged Fordist sectors of segmented labour markets. Even in the USA, however, the heyday of Fordism witnessed attempts to complement military Keynesianism with a ‘Great Society’ reinvigoration of the New Deal welfare state.

With the crisis of Fordism on both sides of the Atlantic, however, we can discern a transition from systems of local government organized around expanding, localized delivery of ‘Keynesian welfare state’ functions towards a system of local governance organized around what, by analogy, can be termed a ‘Schumpeterian workfare’ role. This role is quite novel. In economic terms, it attempts to promote flexibility, economies of scope, and permanent innovation in open economies by intervening more widely and deeply on the supply-side of the economy and tries to strengthen as far as possible the structural competitiveness of the relevant economic spaces. And, in social terms, it subordinates social to economic policy with particular emphasis on labour market flexibility, structural competitiveness, and the impact of the social wage as an international cost of production (cf. Jessop 1993).

Developments in the global economy have radically altered the relevance of the typical Fordist demarcations of economic space. National economies are no longer taken for granted as the main space and/or object of economic regulation; and the range of extra-economic conditions considered to be significant for securing economic competitiveness has been much extended. Thus, whereas the crisis of Fordism initially led to attempts to reinvigorate the conditions for Fordist accumulation at local and national levels, a consensus (valid or not) has since grown that the economic spaces most relevant to accumulation and the main extra-economic conditions for economic competitiveness have changed significantly. This is reflected in dominant economic discourses and the demarcation of spaces of accumulation. Alongside discourses of globalization, triadization, and so on (with their important supra-national strategic implications), there is the alleged discovery (or, perhaps, re-discovery) of flexible industrial districts, innovative milieux, technopoles, entrepreneurial cities, ‘learning regions’, cross-border regions, global cities, and so forth (with their more localized strategic implications).

The impact of globalization, the growth of new core technologies, and the marked paradigm shift from Fordism to post-Fordism8 are also associated with a far broader account of the conditions making for economic competitiveness. It is now held to depend on a wide range of extra-economic factors and thus to need a wide range of competitiveness-enhancing policies.

This dual re-orientation has been reinforced in so far as regional and local economies have been seen to have their own specific problems which could be resolved neither through national macro-economic policies nor through uniformly imposed meso- or micro-economic policies. This perception indicated the need for new measures to restructure capital in regard to these newly significant economic spaces and for new forms of urban governance to implement them. This is associated with demands for specifically tailored and targeted urban and regional policies to be implemented from below, with or without national or supranational sponsorship or facilitation. These tendencies are reflected at local level in a widening and deepening of initiatives in re-skilling, technology transfer, local venture capital, innovation centres, science and high technology industrial parks, incubator units for small business, support for entrepreneurship, efforts to expand export markets, and so on. This in turn affects the definition of economic spaces. For, rightly or wrongly, they are seen as much more strongly socially and/or institutionally embedded and, perhaps consequently, as requiring more complex forms of regularization and governance than Fordist forms of economic organization.

This is related to a shift in economic governance mechanisms away from the typical postwar bifurcation of market and state. Indeed, postwar forms of urban government which rested on this institutional distinction were often seen as ill-equipped to pursue new approaches and thus came to be seen as part of the problem of poor economic performance. In part this is reflected (especially in Europe) in the search for supranational forms of government to compensate for the deficiencies of local as well as national government; but it is also associated with the search for new forms of governance at all levels able to overcome the problems linked to pure market or hierarchical, bureaucratic solutions. Thus we find new forms of network-based forms of policy coordination emerging — cross-cutting previous ‘private-public’ boundaries and involving ‘key’ economic players from local and regional as well as national and, increasingly, international economies. Sub-national governments (including urban authorities) have been reorganized to promote economic regeneration in partnership with a range of local (or localized) economic, social, and political forces. This entails active, state-sponsored dispersion of local power from elected local authorities to a wide range of local (or localized) economic and political forces. This is intended to enhance the reorganized local state’s strategic capacities in the ever more closely interconnected fields of social and economic policy-making; and to help it cope with the far-reaching political repercussions of economic and social restructuring.

Although the increased significance of governance typically involves a loss of decisional and operational autonomy by state apparatuses (at whatever level), it can also enhance their capacity to project state power and achieve state objectives by mobilizing knowledge and power resources from influential non-governmental partners or stakeholders. However, as regional and local states are becoming a partner, facilitator, and arbitrator in public-private consortia, growth coalitions, etc., they risk losing their overall coordinating role for and on behalf of local community interests and, thereby, a part of their legitimacy. This problem is particularly acute where urban areas have active social movements with political agendas rooted in the continuing crisis of Fordism and/or the economic and social pressures arising from more flexible, but also more insecure, post-Fordist economic order.

A final point to note regarding changing urban regimes is the enhanced role of the local state and local governance mechanisms in international economic activities. This is closely related to more general changes in the autonomy and capacity of national states due to the expansion of supranational intergovernmental regimes, local governance regimes, and transnationalized local policy networks. Duchacek was one of the first theorists to describe the expanding regional, provincial, and local government roles in international affairs. He referred to ‘micro-diplomacy’ (including overseas representation, promotion, lobbying, etc.) in such fields as economic interchange, environmental policy, and welfare (e.g., Duchacek 1984). The result is a ‘perforated sovereignty’ where nations are more open to trans-sovereign contacts by subnational governments and where international policy transfer between localities is likely to increase (see Cappellin 1992; Church and Reid 1995). This reinforces the importance of looking beyond increasingly artificial local boundaries in studying urban regimes and growth coalitions. It also poses the problem of increased vulnerability by allowing foreign actors to divide and rule different levels of policy making (cf. Rycroft 1990: 218-19, 229).

Since post-Fordist economies will be co-constituted through post-Fordist modes of regulation (see above), there is no pre-given blueprint from which to derive appropriate forms of governance. Regulation theorists have long argued that new modes of regulation emerge as ‘chance discoveries’ through trial-and-error search processes. This is reflected in continuing experiments to find new, more adequate forms of articulation of regulation and governance in response to narratives which ascribe part of the blame for failure and crisis on previous models of urban politics and local economies. It is hardly surprising that there is widespread experimentation with new forms of economic governance for new urban regimes and that there are always new fads and fashions for models (and their backers) that appear to promise success.

V. Concluding Remarks

In the spirit of this volume, I have proposed an alternative research agenda intended to supplement and reorient rather than to wholly supplant the study of urban regimes. Thus I have drawn on Gramscian state theory, the regulation approach, recent insights into governance, and some reflections on the ‘spatial imaginary’ in order to present some key dimensions to urban regimes, their structural and strategic dimensions, their economic and ‘ethico-political’ moments, and their embeddedness in a wider economic and extra-economic context. My primary concern with agenda-setting and a firm editorial reminder not to stray beyond strict word limits have precluded any presentation of new empirical material (although my arguments have been shaped by ongoing research in Greater Manchester and the Thames Gateway in England) (see, for example, Hay and Jessop 1995). Given the principal aims of the present volume, however, this theoretical and methodological focus is probably justified. Accordingly I now want to note some key points for this alternative, strategic-relational approach to urban regimes.

Methodologically I hope to have added to arguments presented elsewhere in this volume on the potential role of the regulation approach as a supplement to the still evolving urban regimes approach. But I have done so by putting a particular gloss on the regulation approach — one that notes its remarkable similarities to Gramsci’s work on the state in its inclusive sense and, even more strikingly perhaps, his various reflections on the ethico-political and psycho-economic moments of economic regimes. It is certainly worth remarking the significant extent to which each paradigm adopts a strategic-relational approach and also places its specific theoretical object in its wider social context. Thus, whereas Gramsci examined the social embeddedness and social regularization of state power, the regulation approach examines the social embeddedness and social regularization of accumulation. For Gramsci, this meant examining the modalities of political power (hegemony, coercion, domination, leadership) which enable a historically specific hegemonic bloc (power bloc) to project power beyond the boundaries of the state and thereby secure the conditions for political class domination. Conversely, for regulationists, this involves studying the modalities of economic regulation (the wage relation, money and credit, forms of competition, international regimes, and the state) which regularize, discipline, and guide micro-economic behaviour within limits that are compatible in given historical circumstances with the expanded reproduction of capitalism as a whole. In this sense both approaches are interested in the strategic selectivity of specific regimes (political or economic respectively) and their implications for class domination (likewise political or economic).

In bringing these approaches together we can strengthen each of them and, at the same time, develop useful tools for studying the nature and succession of urban regimes. Gramsci’s own work is itself marred by its gestural (if still theoretically tantalizing) treatment of the ‘decisive economic nucleus’ of hegemony. This neglect is often more serious in recent neo-Gramscian work.  Regulation theory is one way to remedy this particular deficiency and has the virtue of intrinsic compatibility with Gramscian concepts. Moreover, as I tried to indicate above, it was in certain respects anticipated in Gramsci’s writings. Conversely, the regulation approach is regularly criticized for its neglect of the distinctive dynamic of the state system and political regimes. Only a few theorists (mostly working outside the Parisian mainstream) have paid much attention to the state system. More generally there has been a one-sided concern with the various structural forms and institutions involved in the overall reproduction-régulation of capitalism to the neglect of the many and varied governance mechanisms involved in the organization or self-organization of the complex web of interdependencies among these forms and institutions. Clearly this is a serious defect from the viewpoint of someone interested in urban regimes and suggests that in its predominant versions the regulation approach can at best contextualize the nature and succession of urban regimes rather than explain them (important exceptions regarding the state can be found in the work of German theorists working with regulationist concepts, e.g., Esser and Hirsch 1988, Keil 1993, or Mayer 1994). Lastly, the regulation approach has neglected the role of the ethico-political dimension to regulation and, in particular, the key role of economic discourses, the organic intellectuals involved in elaborating accumulation strategies and hegemonic projects, and their implications for the formation of economic subjects. The study of urban regimes needs to address such issues and link them to the current transformation of economic strategies.

Nonetheless it is important to note here that neo-Gramscian theory and the regulation approach are still only complementary. They cannot be combined without further theoretical work to establish more detailed conceptual linkages and logical connections. And, in doing so one must be careful to avoid any simple-minded reduction of urban politics to the needs of the economic base (let alone a base that is understood in narrow economic terms). Moreover, as already suggested in my comments on governance theory here and elsewhere (see, for example, Jessop 1995b), both the regulationist and neo-Gramscian approaches would benefit from more interest in issues of governance and meta-governance.

Two additional lessons need to be stated. First, as already noted above, it would be wrong to attribute any (let alone all) of the changes identified in urban regimes theory simply to the effect of economic changes. The regulation approach is useful for contextualizing changes in the nature of urban regimes but cannot directly explain them. Due regard must be paid to how economic issues are first translated into political problems for action by the state in its inclusive sense and their solution is mediated by the structurally inscribed, strategically selective nature of political regimes. Moreover, as I have conceded above, by no means all urban regimes prioritize economic development. Thus many of the preceding arguments must be interpreted in terms of the need for alternative hegemonic projects to recognize that the viability of urban regimes depends in the last instance on the economy in the sense that adequate revenues must either be generated locally or re-directed from more succesful economic spaces elsewhere. Second, from a more state-centric viewpoint, it would be wrong to suggest that any of these trends are purely attributable to economic changes, however ‘integrally’ or ‘inclusively’ these are analyzed. For there could also be distinctive political reasons prompting state managers and/or other relevant political forces to engage in institutional redesign and strategic reorientation regarding local economic strategy (cf. Jessop 1992a; 1995a; 1995c).


1. This paper arises from an ESRC research programme on local governance, grant number L311253032. It has benefitted from comments by my research officer, Gordon MacLeod, other participants in the ESRC programme, and the editor and contributors to the present volume. The usual disclaimers apply.

2. Anderson (1991) regards nations as ‘imagined’ communities; states, regions, cities, etc., are likewise ‘imagined’ entities.

3. Although Gramsci probably misattributes the idea of ‘determined market’ to Ricardo, this is unimportant for present purposes.

4. Current splits within the Conservative Government and the Establishment reflect the narrowing of Major government horizons to the retention of office at the expense of establishing a new productive world.

5. American radical political economists who work on social structures of accumulation come even closer to the Gramscian concept of historic bloc. See, for example: Kotz, McDonough, and Reich, 1994.

6. Gramsci himself often criticizes pocket-geniuses who resort to simple economistic explanations for any event (Gramsci 1971: 167 and ???).

7. On the mobilization of bias, see Schattschneider (1970). Similar ideas occur in the debate on the three faces of power between pluralists and elite theorists.

8. This reference to a paradigm shift does not imply that there has already been a transition from Fordism to post-Fordism in the real economy. Apart from any conflation this would introduce between strategic paradigms and real economies, some commentators argue that a real transition has not yet occurred and that all that we can witness are various states of disorder.


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