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Laurence Cossu-Beaumont, Jacques-Henri Coste and Jean-Baptiste Velut (eds.), The Crisis and Renewal of American Capitalism. A Civilizational Approach to Modern American Political Economy

Abingdon, Routledge, 2016, 301 p. ISBN: 978-1-138-90875-8. £115
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Laurence Cossu-Beaumont, Jacques-Henri Coste and Jean-Baptiste Velut (eds.), The Crisis and Renewal of American Capitalism. A Civilizational Approach to Modern American Political Economy. Abingdon, Routledge, 2016, 301 p. ISBN: 978-1-138-90875-8. £115

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1This collection of essays is a contribution to the large body of research devoted to the change in paradigm shift undergone by the US capitalism in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but seeks to integrate more fully the study of social and political institutions in order to elucidate their interactions with economic phenomena. It thus promotes a “civilizational” approach, in the wake of methodological currents such as the French Théorie de la régulation, the New Economic Sociology or the Varieties of Capitalism theory. A corollary of this approach is the identification of typologies of capitalism, which offers a valuable tool for comparative analysis and allows to delineate the characteristics of the US economy as representing a form of capitalism per se. Beyond the national dimension of political economy, the volume is also intended to fill a gap in literature, namely the insufficient consideration of subnational actors, particularly adequate in the case of the US political system, and of “shadow institutional processes”.

2The first part is entitled “re-embedding the financial crisis in its cultural milieu”. In keeping with the “economic civilization analysis” approach of the collection, James Mc Bride’s contribution anchors US financial market deregulation in a tradition of “lawlessness” comparable to the Wild West. Exploring the Federal Reserve’s contribution to the Great Recession, Nicholas Sowels shows how monetary policy illustrated the prevalence of the neoliberal paradigm, and how, despite the questions and doubts raised by the crisis, “the basic structural mechanisms of neoliberalism in finance remain in place”, thus further endangering economies. This concern is echoed in the following chapter, devoted to the “resilience of American neoliberalism”. Bradley Smith uses three perspectives to demonstrate that since the crisis, the United States has not taken much distance from the neoliberal paradigm: the post-crisis increase in federal intervention should not be interpreted as an ideological shift, the power of financial capital has not diminished, and no political counter-movement can be identified. The topic of the decline of the United States is then addressed by Pierre Arnaud by means of an alternative use of the traditional arguments of economic imbalances: he demonstrates that they may be seen as “expressions of an original form of leadership” and result from “dynamic interactions between the international role of the dollar and the cultural factors that have shaped America’s consumer markets and contemporary revenue distribution”. The latter include the tradition of a debt-driven consumption relying on a “redefinition of the American Dream”, whereby, for lack of entrepreneurial opportunities, the ideal of the independent entrepreneur was substituted by a dynamics of mass consumption which permitted the acquisition of material signs of social achievement and, as a collateral effect, also contributed to the overall development of the economy and made it more egalitarian.

3In the second part of the volume, US capitalism is studied at different scales, “beyond the national crisis”, in order to identify “shifting paradigms, shifting scopes”. Using a multi-scalar and cross-disciplinary approach, Martine Azuelos uses the “nature and impact of the Great Recession” as analytical tools to delineate American capitalism, and finds three main features: first, the importance of the state-market nexus at various key stages of US economic history; secondly, internal diversity of the US economy, exemplified by differences in regional growth and unemployment rates during the Great Recession; thirdly, such differences are explained by geography and institutions. In the next chapter, Cécile Cormier studies the states’ and localities’ budgetary situations and trade-offs. She shows that the financial issues of local governments preexisted the crisis but were deepened by it as their residents were struck by unemployment. They reacted to this by tax increases, spending cuts and the issuing of municipal bonds, the latter being an illustration of a neoliberal rationale behind state and local government budgetary decisions and resulting in the downgrading of public services and social programs. Through the prism of the housing mortgage system, Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin tackles the subprime crisis at the subnational level, following two threads. First, she aims at revealing the “urban and local roots of the financial crisis”, which affected inner cities as well as suburbs. The second line of argument consists in evaluating the “shift in American ‘civilization’” initiated by the crisis, whereby the traditional model of “ownership of a house surrounded by a garden”, one of the major symbols of the American Dream, has come to be challenged. Several urban planners see the crisis as an opportunity for reshaping suburbs according to “a more compact design of subdivisions” and to move from an ownership society to a “rentership society”, in a shift away from pre-crisis individualism and the “ideal of suburban comfort”. America’s competitive strategy is assessed by Jean-Baptiste Velut through innovation policy, military-industrial programs and trade diplomacy, so as to identify the kind of political action implemented to respond to the challenges of globalization. He highlights a “hybridization phenomenon”, with an increasing collaboration of public and corporate actors in the three sectors under study.

4The last part of the volume addresses “disruptive and creative agency” and the “dynamics of cultural resilience and renewal”. Jacques-Henri Coste views the US “national system of innovation” as a shifting economic and policy paradigm, where connections between private and public initiatives vary according to the successive business cycles. In the aftermath of the crisis, the downward trend in innovation may be reversed by “re-assembling public institutions and private agents” to create “more productive and sustainable complementarities”. Catherine Sauviat notes that the US labor market model, whose flexibility was long considered as a factor of resilience, was challenged by the high unemployment rate entailed by the Great Recession and by the declining capacity of the US economy to create jobs. She shows that the model is in fact characterized by many long-standing institutional weaknesses, notably pertaining to unsuccessful collective bargaining, labor-market polarization and insufficient worker protection through unemployment insurance. The crisis has contributed to accelerating the erosion of these labor market institutions, and raises the question of whether “the decline in labor market dynamism is cyclical or has taken a more structural pattern”. According to Marie-Christine Pauwels, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement’s potentially disruptive capacity was undermined by its failure to correctly assess “the potency of the cultural myths within which the American capitalist model is embedded”. The choice to remain out of institutional-electoral politics was a weakening factor, as was the concentration on the responsibility of big business in the process of rising inequality, instead of acknowledging also the failures of the state. In an article devoted to philanthropy as a “specifically American approach” to the excesses of capitalism, Laurence Cossu-Beaumont focuses on the Giving Pledge initiative launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2009. While resting upon the traditional narrative of the successful self-made man whose moral obligation is to give back to society, it is also innovative through the creation of the form of “philantro-capitalism”, where philanthropy does not counterbalance modern capitalism but draws inspiration from the techniques of the for-profit sector, with a view to obtaining the highest returns possible, and, rather than questioning it, demonstrates the resilience of the American business model.

5The variety of the perspectives present in the different essays therefore makes this collection a useful contribution to an understanding of the US capitalism as transformed by the Great Recession, and of the paramount civilizational underpinnings of economic phenomena and policymaking.

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Référence électronique

Ruxandra PAVELCHIEVICI, « Laurence Cossu-Beaumont, Jacques-Henri Coste and Jean-Baptiste Velut (eds.), The Crisis and Renewal of American Capitalism. A Civilizational Approach to Modern American Political Economy », E-rea [En ligne], 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 16 octobre 2019. URL :

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Université Côte d’Azur, LIRCES

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