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From the École polytechnique to the École de la régulation

Michel Aglietta, 1959–1976
De l’École polytechnique à l’École de la regulation. Michel Aglietta, 1959–1976
De la École polytechnique a la École de la régulation. Michel Aglietta, 1959-1976
Yamina Tadjeddine


Cet article retrace le parcours scientifique de Michel Aglietta, économiste attaché à l’École de la régulation, depuis sa jeunesse jusqu’à la publication de son livre Régulation et Crise du capitalisme (1976). Il s’inscrit dans une série d’études récentes consacrées à la structuration de la pensée économique, et de la théorie macroéconomique en particulier, au tournant des années 1970. La perspective théorique de cette contribution combine histoire de la pensée économique et sociologie des sciences pour inscrire la carrière scientifique d’Aglietta dans une double dynamique : le parcours d’une vie – formation, lieux de travail, collaborations scientifiques – et les contextes économiques, sociaux et politiques qu’il a traversés. L’étude des articles publiés est complétée par le recours aux archives et aux entretiens avec Aglietta et ceux qui ont travaillé avec lui. Le plan de l’article suit les trois lieux successivement fréquentés par Aglietta et qui ont façonné son entrée dans la vie académique : élève de l’École Polytechnique (1959-1965), haut fonctionnaire à l’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE) (1965-1970) et doctorant à l’université de la Sorbonne sous la direction de Raymond Barre (1970-1974). La présentation du parcours personnel et professionnel d’Aglietta entre 1959 et 1976 permet d’expliquer sa contribution à l’avènement de la Théorie de la régulation mais aussi de comprendre sa posture d’expert économiste au service de la conduite des politiques publiques.

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The author would like to thank the people who agreed to be interviewed: M. Aglietta, C. Blum, R. Boyer, A. Orléan, C. Sautter, C. Seibel, J. Cartelier. She also thanks the two reviewers of the Revue de la régulation as well as B. Cherrier, A. Chirat, B. Paulré, E. Mellier and A. Saïdi, the participants at the H2M and RESPIR seminars and the conferences “The History of Regulation Theory and its Contributions to the Analysis of Global Capitalism and its Recent Crises” and Charles Gide 2023 for their comments and criticisms. Opinions and errors are hers alone.

1This article traces the intellectual career of Michel Aglietta, an economist attached to the École de la regulation (Regulation school), from his youth to the mid-1970s. This period covers his education as an economist and the publication of his first major work: Régulation et Crise du capitalisme (1976). This article is one of a number of recent studies on the structuring of economic thought, and particularly macro-economic theory, at the turn of the 1970s.

2The 1970s provide a rich field for historians of economic thought for three reasons. First, it was a decade of theoretical controversies between Keynesians and neoclassical economists, between liberals and Marxists, and between proponents of formal methodology and advocates of econometric approaches (Backhouse & Cherrier, 2017). Second, the 1970s saw the deployment of economic theories in the public sphere (Angeletti, 2023). Economists asserted their role as experts in the service of governments, businesses, trade unions and political parties. They helped to disseminate economic theories in domestic and political practices. Like Bernard Billaudot, Robert Boyer, Alain Lipietz, Jacques Mazier and Jacques Mistral, all of whom are associated with the École de la régulation, and like André Orléan, Aglietta was educated at the École Polytechnique. All began their careers in public administration: Direction de la prévision, Commissariat général au Plan, Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE). Although they then moved on to the academic world (university and/or research centres), their first steps in the field of economics were in government service. Throughout his life, Aglietta has maintained this desire to use economic knowledge to serve society and the state. The third reason is the proximity in time: the protagonists of the 1970s are still alive, which makes it possible to collect their narratives. Here, the author has conducted numerous interviews with Aglietta and those who worked alongside him, including Catherine Blum, Claude Seibel, Christiant Sautter, André Orléan, Jean Cartelier and Robert Boyer.

3The scientific approach adopted in this article is to combine the history of economic thought with the sociology of science. The study of published articles is supplemented by recourse to archives and interviews with Aglietta and those who worked with him. The places where knowledge is disseminated–schools, administrations, universities–are also considered as contributing to his singular intellectual journey. The period of Aglietta’s life studied here, from 1959 to 1976, was marked by a profound transformation of French society, both politically (with the advent of the Fifth Republic, the Algerian War, May 1968, and European integration) and economically (French planning, the end of the Bretton Woods system, stagflation, the oil crisis, etc.). These changes have had an impact not only on Aglietta’s life but also on his intellectual approach.

  • 1 The author was Aglietta's colleague at the University of Nanterre from 2001 to 2016. Aglietta was (...)
  • 2 Sebaï & Vercellone (1992); Herzog (2018); Angeletti (2023); Duarte (2023).

4The aim of this article is to view Aglietta’s academic career in a dual dynamic: the path taken–education, workplaces, intellectual collaborations–and the economic, social and political contexts traversed. The choice of Aglietta’s career path is justified by the singularity of his contribution and by his stance as an economist in the service of society, popularising knowledge to assist in policy-making. The intellectual proximity of the author with Aglietta made it possible to conduct in-depth interviews and to have access to his personal archives.1 The author is aware that this intellectual proximity may also jeopardise this work, as it may eliminate the critical distance necessary to participant observation. To limit the effects of this proximity, the interviews with Aglietta were always prepared in advance with a set of questions, and the conversations were recorded and transcribed so that they could be passed on to other researchers wishing to work on this material. In addition, wherever possible, the facts were cross-checked, either through interviews with the other protagonists, or by consulting archives and secondary sources of researchers having worked on this subject.2

5Education, historical context and personal background are, in the present author’s view, the ingredients that contributed to the emergence of the École de la régulation. The first three sections of the article describe the three stages of Aglietta’s higher education and the fourth is the conclusion.

1. École Polytechnique – INSEE 1959–1964: becoming an expert economist

6Michel Aglietta was born on 18 February 1938 in Chambéry (Savoie, France). He is the only child of a family of modest means of Italian descent. His father, Paul Aglietta, was born in Chambéry in 1905 to an Italian immigrant father and a French mother from Savoie. Aglietta’s mother, Emma Bardotti was born in 1909 in Chambéry; her father, born in Savoie, was the son of Italian immigrants, and her mother was Italian. Aglietta grew up in a Catholic environment. His mother was very loving and attentive to the education of her only son. Paul Aglietta, began as a simple bricklayer and went on to found his own construction and public works company. He was attached to the French Republic though not politically involved. Aglietta had a happy, pampered childhood and was an outstanding pupil. After two years of scientific preparatory classes at the Lycée du Parc in Lyon, he was admitted to the École Polytechnique in 1959. Students there receive a rounded education in the sciences, but also in economics, the humanities, and military matters.

1.1. Teaching economics at the École Polytechnique

7Since its founding during the French Revolution in 1794, the role of the École Polytechnique has been to train scientifically minded engineers and military officers who are loyal to the Republic and its values. Economics was only introduced later as, throughout the nineteenth century, it was thought too ideological, too closely linked to morals and politics, and therefore pointless for the training of scientists, engineers or military officers. Economics was added to the curriculum at the end of the Second World War with a view to turning out economic experts (Armatte, 1994). It was the X-Crise group that established the status of the apolitical economic expert whereby economics acquired the status of an exact (or hard) science capable of producing rational solutions to help politicians with their decision-making (Fischman & Lendjel, 2006). This mission of providing economic guidance devolved to “economic engineering” was seen as similar to the way physics provided guidance for engineers. This economic engineering borrowed the methodology used in the exact sciences, namely the hypothetico-deductive model, which required modelling and the collecting of data to test the validity of the model. Desrosière underlined the importance of X-Crise as follows:

So, a strong alliance between theoretical economics, applied economics and the statistical apparatus was formed, helping to give the latter a legitimacy and authority that were far from what they had been twenty years earlier. This significant transformation of the economists’ role and procedures [...] had been foreshadowed and made public before the war, by a circle of École Polytechnique alumni. [...] The ideas discussed [within the X-Crise group] could subsequently be found in institutions such as the Plan, the Service des Études Économiques et Financières (SEEF) created by Claude Gruson in 1950, the INSEE (directed by the same C. Gruson from 1961 to 1967), or the INED [Institut National d’Études Démographiques] created by Alfred Sauvy in 1946. (Desrosière, 1993/2014, p. 201 and 203)

8In 1928, the X-Crise group’s approach to economics became that of the École Polytechnique when the Chair of Political Economy was awarded to François Divisia, who held it until his retirement in 1959. His replacement–and final holder of the Chair before economics teaching was reformed–was Jacques Dumontier who taught there until his retirement in 1973. It was Dumontier who introduced Aglietta to economics.

9Dumontier epitomised the École Polytechnique economic expert, working as a statistician in various public administrations. In 1942 he worked at the National Statistics Service under the Vichy government. At the Libération, he was in the Economic and Statistical Division of the Plan and from 1949 onwards he worked at the Economic and Social Council where he presented a report on the economic situation every six months. In 1954, he created the CREDOC (Centre de recherches et de documentation sur la consommation) and in 1955 he joined the INSEE, where he directed the Economic Situation and Economic Studies Directorate, and then general statistics (Malinvaud, 1975).

10Dumontier published two textbooks at the end of his career in 1970, based on his courses at the École Polytechnique: Éléments d’économie, tome 1 : Les agents économiques, and tome 2 : Les structures de l’économie. These two books feature various models, a few graphs with descriptions (such as the concrete description of how an organisation functions, volume 1, chapter 2, section 4) and statistical data from national accounts (overall economic table, volume 2, p. 222; inter-industry trade table, volume 2 p. 225). In terms of theory, the early chapters of the textbooks are very much micro-economic whereas the following ones are macro-economic, largely devoted to Keynesian theory and the synthesis approach. This inclination towards Keynesian thought is also reflected in the presentation of the state as an agent, where its objectives, its procedures and the administrations that make it up are explained. Dumontier’s course was aimed at training Keynesian experts who would be conscious both of France’s real problems and the reality of its industrial fabric, while also being largely in favour of state intervention. The two volumes were designed to demonstrate the importance of having a plan to promote economic growth and to redistribute the income from this growth equitably. The economic training of the polytechnicians under Dumontier was not Marxist (even if Marxism is outlined in volume 2, p. 77–79), nor was it liberal and micro-economic.

11These textbooks provide an overview of the economics course Aglietta took at the École Polytechnique. The students on the course were trained to work for the French planning system, the administrations or the INSEE with a vision of a benevolent state. They acquired the culture of the Keynesian economic expert revealed by the X-Crise group, which was reinforced by the conference given by Pierre Massé.

1.2. An “ardent obligation”, Pierre Massé

12The lecture given by Massé (X-1916), who had just been appointed by General de Gaulle as General Commissioner for the Plan, reinforced this “ardent obligation” of the polytechnicians towards their nation. This lecture clearly made a deep impression on the audience, since this term of “ardent obligation” was quoted by the three polytechnicians I interviewed in 2018 about their choice to join the INSEE: Aglietta, Claude Seibel and Christian Sautter. Massé won over his audience of polytechnicians with his enthusiasm for collective action to rebuild France, his Christian humanism, his positivism, and his faith in the possibility of building a better world through economic policies. With him, economics could not be confined to producing articles or theoretical models, read by an elite disconnected from social problems. Economists should act for their country’s good, to make the French people benefit from the knowledge that the Republic had handed down to them.

13In Le Plan ou l’anti-hasard, which he published in 1965, Massé referred to his book as “a philosophy of political action; it is both a method of economic regulation and a humanist viewpoint”. In Chapter 5, he outlined the principles of French planning, framing it as a “search for a middle way reconciling the attachment to freedom and individual initiative with a common orientation of development” (Massé, 1965, p. 113). He also described the need for social dialogue, as well as the importance of statistics and models in building scenarios of the future. Even if Massé was not a Keynesian, he nevertheless acknowledged the legitimacy of state intervention and the role of economic expert assigned to graduates of the École Polytechnique.

14He convinced Aglietta, his friend Philippe Herzog and then Christian Sautter, who all chose the INSEE School, to participate in the nationwide planning effort by providing reliable short-term forecasts (for Herzog at the Forecasting Directorate), and mid-term forecasts (for Aglietta and Sautter at the INSEE Programme Division).

15For them, economics was prescriptive, i.e., to advise politicians and to help them take decisions that would improve collective well-being. The state was not seen as some contemptible actor motivated by self-interest but as acting with integrity to bring about progress and human development. This benevolent conception of the state was the one promoted by Keynes but also by the people who introduced Aglietta to economics: Dumontier, Massé, Gruson and Edmond Malinvaud.

1.3. A committed intellectual

  • 3 During an interview, Aglietta told me about his mobilisation during the Algerian war. In another i (...)

16When he joined the École Polytechnique, Aglietta became an officer cadet and had to do his national service in 1961–1962 in Kabylia while the Algerian war was raging. Having enjoyed the protection of his Catholic family cocoon in Savoie during the Second World War, he had not personally endured the suffering of the German occupation, so fighting in the Algerian war and discovering military atrocities was a great trauma for him.3 It was in Algeria that he became a close friend of Herzog and, on returning to Paris, he found it impossible to be just a scientist disconnected from real-life political and social issues. With Herzog, he completed his education as an economist by reading the works of Karl Marx and François Perroux and became committed to the political left. In his memoirs, Herzog writes:

At the École Polytechnique, against the backdrop of the Algerian war, many of my fellow students were wondering: ‘Where are we going?’ […] The committee in charge of the school festivities invited Jean-Paul Sartre –who disappointed me– and Barbara who impressed me. […] When I joined [the Communist Party], the war had not been over for long. (Herzog, 2018, p. 67-68).

17Unlike Herzog, the conference given by Sartre at the École Polytechnique had a profound effect on Aglietta. The philosopher was invited to speak about the links between intellectuals and the polity. A few years later, Sartre published Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels, on the same topic. For Sartre, the intellectuals, unlike other members of society, were not subject to social alienation and had the freedom to act in accordance with their values. Therefore, they could consciously decide to act against the judgement of the ruling class whenever they felt it contradicted their values. Intellectuals had to stand up for their values and act. Under these conditions, both commitment and non-commitment were forms of action. These comments had a very strong effect at a time when the Algerian war was in full swing and in a society that remained very conservative. As Sartre explained:

In fact, radicalism and the intellectual enterprise are one and the same and reformists’ ‘moderate’ arguments necessarily push the intellectual in this direction, by showing him that he must contest the very principles of the ruling class or serve it by appearing to contest it. For example, many false intellectuals have said in our country (concerning our war in Indochina or during the Algerian war): ‘Our colonial methods are not what they should be, there are too many inequalities in our overseas territories. But I am against all violence, wherever it comes from; I want to be neither executioner nor victim and that is why I oppose the uprising of natives against colonists.’ It is clear to a radicalist thinking that this pseudo-universalist stance amounts to declaring, ‘I am in favour of the chronic violence that the colonists exercise on the colonised […].’ (Sartre, 1965, p. 55)

18For the audience, including Aglietta of course, the message was clear: invite the polytechnicians to take a stance against the war and, more broadly, make scientists take on responsibilities so that they do not remain walled up in their ivory towers but engage with the political and social realities of their country. The scientist should act and participate in collective action. Aglietta accepted that it was his duty as a scientist, towards his fellow men, to struggle on behalf of the downtrodden for the creation of a fairer society. However, he was not a political activist; his involvement was in the field of economic expertise.

19Aglietta attended the École nationale des statistiques et de l’administration économique (ENSAE) between 1962 and 1964 where he continued his studies as an economist under Malinvaud, Maurice Allais and Raymond Barre. According to Aglietta and Orléan, Barre’s lectures were the most stimulating. Barre was an outstanding orator with a broad economic culture. He approached economics from a historical perspective, referring to the French and American institutionalist movements (Barre’s former tutor Perroux, Paul Sweezy and John Kenneth Galbraith). He also addressed the concrete economic problems faced by France, Europe and the world.

20The table below summarises Aglietta’s outlooks during his studies at the École Polytechnique and then at the INSEE (1959–1964):

Theory Methodology Presuppositions
Studies at École Polytechnique, INSEE Macro-economics Hypothetico-deductive Modelling Keynesian expert Positivism
Personal affinity K. Marx; F. Perroux Humanism

Source: Author.

2. INSEE: the statistical expert in the service of French planning

21After training at the INSEE, Aglietta joined the Programme Division at the INSEE as “administrator” where he was involved in setting up the FIFI model that provided medium-term projections for French planning. He thus used his expertise as a Keynesian statistician in the service of the state.

2.1. Claude Gruson: promoting national accounting for policy use

22The formation of the Programme Division at the INSEE, which Aglietta joined in 1964, followed Gruson’s appointment as Director of the INSEE (1961–1967).

23Gruson was a polytechnician trained at the Corps des Mines (Terray, 2017). He held various senior civil service positions, including in the Vichy government of Occupied France. It was during this period that he discovered Keynes’ work (translated in 1942) which was discussed amongst French economists and senior civil servants (including Gruson), some of whom were members of the X-Crise circle that formed around Perroux. In 1944, Perroux launched regular meetings of the Institut de sciences économiques appliquées, where Keynesian theory and its concepts (national income, aggregate consumption, public spending, etc.) were explored in greater depth, as well as the practical application of Keynesian theory, with the need for reliable national statistics to calculate and forecast macro-economic aggregates.

24Gruson was convinced of the importance of economic information as a basis for long-term policy and was subsequently appointed to the Treasury in 1948 to establish a French national accounting team (Terray, 2017, p. 59-79). This team was to become the Service des Études Économiques et Financières (SEEF) which, far from engaging in an arid, intellectual technique, was designed to guide politicians towards measures useful to the French population. Gruson claimed it would be the interface between the world of statistics (which imparts mathematical legitimacy to data), private accounting (which provides data on corporate activity), economic theory (which constructs macro-economic relationships between data) and political practice (which decides which way the economic and social system should be heading). The French national accounting system was developed by the SEEF team (Vanoli, 2002). Although Perroux pioneered the promotion of national accounting in France, it was the polytechnician Councillor of State Gruson who was chosen to implement it. This choice upset Perroux, who remained aloof from the SEEF team.

  • 4 The INSEE journal Économie et Statistique was founded in 1969 to publish articles on the scientifi (...)
  • 5 As evidenced by his last book: Gruson C. (2001), Propos d’un opposant obstiné au libéralisme mondi (...)

25When Gruson took charge of the INSEE in 1961, he took a fraction of the SEEF team with him, while the task of preparing economic budgets (i.e., immediate urgency) remained a prerogative of the Treasury, before it was moved to the Direction de la Prévision (Forecasting Directorate of the Ministry of Finance) in 1965. The INSEE also took on responsibility for the nation’s accounts (i.e., analysis of past events) as well as medium-term economic projections. Gruson’s aim was to ensure that the INSEE could provide more rigorous national accounts and therefore more accurate forecasts, which were both publicly available and potentially useful to French planning. Gruson set great store by making economic information publicly available and, more widely, democratising knowledge. He believed that INSEE statistics should not be reserved for an elite or political bodies but accessible to all; e.g., citizens, employees, and company managers (Terray, 2017, chap. 5). This popularisation of economic knowledge is part of the normalisation of the mechanisms that shape the economic system and legitimise the expertise of economists (Angeletti, 2023, p. 151-153). Aglietta and his colleagues in the Programme Division, along with those in other INSEE departments, were involved in this democratisation of technical knowledge.4 Gruson advocated a state-supervised market economic system, thus opposing both global liberalism and Soviet planning. He defended this position until his death in 2000.5

  • 6 On her arrival, Catherine Blum took the name of her first husband, Girardeau, from whom she later (...)

26These new missions assigned to the INSEE led to an increase in the number of staff. Seibel (polytechnician - 1954, INSEE), Raymond Courbis (École Centrale) and Aglietta were recruited to the programme team in 1964. In 1965, Sautter, Jean-Paul Page, Jean-Jacques Bonnaud, Alain Saglio and Bernard Ullmo joined them while the only woman on the team, Catherine Blum, arrived in 1968.6

27Gruson left the INSEE in early 1967 and was replaced by Jean Ripert (1967–1974) who continued his work and vision.

2.2. FIFI: macro-economic modelling to scientifically prepare the Sixth Plan

28The creation of a team of engineers within the programme division was designed to provide scientific projections from macro-economic models to feed the debates around the preparation of the Fifth and especially the Sixth Plan.

29The arrival of these engineers, who were well versed in macro-economic theory, coincided with the advent of computerisation, which was a game-changer. To quote Seibel:

Until the Fifth plan, projections were calculated manually or with the help of calculators from normatively set data (including the employment rate and external balance) within the framework of accounting consistency. (Seibel, interview by the author, 2018).

30These calculations were by then outdated and too slow, whereas the projections had to be coherent in both accounting and macro-economic terms. Seibel pointed out that the first suggestions for modelling were made by the Programme Division team as early as 1966. According to Angeletti (2011), the first meetings on the future FIFI (a tongue-in-cheek acronym for “Financial Physical”) model took place at the Commissariat général au Plan in July 1966, bringing together five economists from the INSEE and the Plan, including Aglietta (recently recruited by the INSEE), Yves Ullmo (future head of the economic department of the Plan, 1967–1973) and Lionel Stoléru. The FIFI model owes its name to the simultaneous consideration of physical flows (in volume, flows in value which allow the introduction of inflation and the price/wage/unemployment link Phillips curves into the model) and financial flows (financing of investment) in the context of an open economy. The main reference for FIFI is the seminal paper by Stone, Brown and Rowe (1964) which put forward a demand projection for the UK economy.

31The Programme Division spent the whole of 1967 creating the model, i.e., nearly 1,600 equations, 2,300 items of data and 3,500 program instructions. The model was completed in January 1968 and was able to provide medium-term projections (5 years) to the Commissariat général au Plan in 1969, with a view to preparing the Sixth Plan. The initial conditions of the model were programmed using annual data provided by the national accounts and statistics collected by the INSEE (surveys on household budgets, employment, income, savings and assets, and companies by branch and sector). Econometrics was still in its infancy, and the coefficients used were not based on econometric estimations. They submitted several initial accounts: a first version was produced in February 1968, which was reworked following the events of May 1968. The model made it possible to determine the evolution of the system in the medium term (the year 1975), with possible scenarios depending on the economic and social policies chosen. In this competitive economic system, the state could intervene through fiscal measures (direct taxes on household or business income or indirect taxes on consumption), through investments (construction of port infrastructures, new towns), through income redistribution (subsidies to certain sectors, family allowances), through income policy (adjustment of civil servants’ salaries relative to those of the private sector). However, state intervention in the FIFI model was not simply a response to a Keynesian objective of cyclical recovery but also a theoretical basis for state action in structural areas.

Aglietta explains:

The objective was not to work for a party-political policy, as the medium-term choices were very much in line with previous choices. So, we were looking to reach a situation of cruise control for the French economic system that responded to public priorities in the fields of development, health, and education and which incorporated constraints linked to macro-economic closure. (Aglietta, interview by the author, 2018).

2.3. A team of economic experts in the service of society

32It was never intended that the knowledge contained in the FIFI model should remain within the confines of academia but rather that it be made available to anyone wishing to understand it as well as being useful for policymaking.

  • 7 Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, a left-of-centre trade union.

33To this end, the description of the model by its two designers (Aglietta and Courbis) appeared in the first issue of the INSEE monthly review (Économie & Statistique, May 1969), and reflected the ambition of successive INSEE directors to democratise economic knowledge. This same ambition lay behind the publication of the multi-authored book edited by Paul Dubois, La Planification française en pratique (Éditions ouvrières), that brought together contributions from members of the programme division and those of the Plan. Many of this book’s chapters were devoted to the FIFI model with a view to explaining the theoretical issues involved in its construction and the data used to programme it. This desire to communicate and explain economic facts was already present in Gruson’s mind and in line with the connections with trade union and political aspirations of certain members of the team. Sautter, for example, was one of the CFDT7 leaders at the INSEE. From 1969 onwards, popularising knowledge was part of a political approach to establish the democratic legitimacy of economic tools and their accessibility to all. So, not only were the members of the Programme Division good engineers, but they also had to be able to pass on their knowledge to laymen by explaining the scientific method, its complexity, and its political usefulness.

34The Programme Division’s team was worried that the FIFI model would be seen as a technological diktat imposed upon the world of politics whereas it was only intended to facilitate decision-making. This fear was clearly reflected in La Planification française en pratique. The book repeats several times that economic modelling is only a tool for politicians (p. 75) and that the INSEE’s role is limited to providing studies and expertise to help prepare the Plan (p. 43). The back-and-forth work was interrupted at this point and the rest of the preparation for the Sixth Plan was carried out without the division team. With FIFI, Keynesian expertise undoubtedly reached its peak; modelling was used by the plan to create an economy in which the drivers of growth were discussed collegially and the redistribution of the fruits of equitable growth was still on the agenda.

35Twenty working sessions were held between October 1969 and February 1970, in addition to meetings of the commissions (employment, industry, housing, education, etc.) and committees (competition, foreign trade, financing) attached to the Sixth Plan. Aglietta (interview, author, 2018) mentioned bi-weekly meetings at the Hôtel de Vogüé (18 rue Martignac in the 7th arrondissement of Paris), mainly with these commissions and the planning committee, but also with the Direction de la Prévision of the Ministry of Finance.

On 21 March 2016 during his acceptance speech of the Legion of Honour in the Hôtel de Vogüé, Aglietta expressed nostalgia for that era:

18 rue de Martignac is a place of national renewal that housed a new institution: the Plan. This Plan came out of the programme of the National Council of the Resistance and was initiated by Jean Monnet, its first commissioner from 1945 to 1952.

This place brings back nostalgic memories because, from 1966 onwards, as a young employee at the INSEE, I often came here and at that time Pierre Massé (another post-war figure) was still commissioner. As a member of the INSEE’s Programme Division, which briefed the prestigious commission on the economy and the financing of our medium-term forecast, I was lucky enough to address representatives of the social partners and the state at the highest level.

It is also nostalgia because, at that time, the state was still respectable and respected. The senior civil servants of the state, as they were called, were competent, had integrity and were not itching to work in the private sector. So, we had the impression that we knew who and what we were working for. (Aglietta, private archive, 21 March 2016)

36It was during the FIFI period that Aglietta became close to the French Communist Party (PCF). This was to be his only involvement with a political party. He took part in the work of the Economic Section of the PCF, then headed by his friend Herzog, alongside the economist Paul Boccara, the theorist of state monopoly capitalism (Boccara, 1971).

The Economic Section of the PCF was a breeding ground for intelligent people from a wide range of professional backgrounds; it became a school of thought and action that radiated throughout the party and beyond. The vitality of this structure was based on numerous working groups headed by volunteer leaders. […] Economists such as Patrice Grevet, Michel Volle, Henri Sterdyniak and Michel Aglietta were more briefly involved in our Economics Section. (Herzog, 2018, p. 70-71)

37This communist commitment may seem paradoxical: Boccara and Herzog defended the thesis of state monopoly capitalism, a theory in total contradiction with the modelling inspired by the Keynesian synthesis used by Aglietta in his professional practice. In agreement with Angeletti (2023, p. 144), the coherence of this political involvement is not to be found on the theoretical side but on the side of the posture of the economic engineer in society who provides positive knowledge to politicians. Aglietta’s involvement in the economic section of the PCF was essentially that of an expert in the service of society, not a scientist or partisan.

2.4. May 1968 and the end of FIFI

38Unfortunately, however, the Plan no longer received the same support from politicians, particularly from Georges Pompidou’s Finance Minister and future President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The oil crisis was also a key factor in this declining support as Aglietta pointed out:

With Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as Finance Minister, the strong state backing disappeared completely as he began to alter the role of the Plan. In particular, he did away with the essence of French planning as an institutionalised space of debate, where collective decisions or at least collective agreements were worked out, even if government priorities were maintained, such as housing, public infrastructure and public facilities. With FIFI, we could insert these social priorities as variables into a macro-equation that would tell us whether proposals were feasible and, if so, how much they would cost. This was crucial. It was possible to have a rational discussion about the distribution of income and how to regulate it. (Aglietta, interview by the author, 2018)

After this peak, the Programme Division continued its work in support of the Plan, the synergy was never the same. Seibel described the end of this FIFI period as follows:

We all knew the role of politicians and technicians, and we had no desire to go beyond our role as technicians. However, there were fears that the technical tool would supersede their human competence. Moreover, several voices were raised, maintaining that the model we had produced no longer met current expectations. After the Sixth Plan, these voices became louder, criticising the size of the quantitative dimension of the decision-making process, even though the theoretical framework remained fragile. And so, bit by bit, modelling lost support and despite technological advances, all these tools withered away somewhat and were used less and less, particularly for the preparation of the Seventh Plan. So much so that in the Eighth Plan there were hardly any figures left and only policy speeches were presented. The results were sketched out but were no longer underpinned by this–perhaps somewhat crazy–undertaking of trying to summarise the medium-term evolution of the real economy, especially in a context of open borders. (Seibel, interview by the author, 2018)

39These six years spent at the INSEE provided Aglietta with both a theoretical grounding (i.e., Keynesian macro-economics) and a practical grounding (i.e. statistical national accounting used as scientific proof). They also enabled him to understand the prescriptive aim of economic knowledge as well as the importance of democratising knowledge in general.

Theory Methodology Presuppositions
INSEE Programme Division Macro-economics of synthesis Modelling National accounting Statistical economist expert for the French planning department. Passing on emerging ideas. Popularisation of technical knowledge
Personal affinity Economic expertise to serve society

Source: Author.

3. The beginnings of the École de la régulation: 1970–1976

  • 8 Aglietta M., Courbis R., Seibel C. & B. Ullmo (1968), « Effets des événements de Mai-Juin 68 et re (...)

40For Aglietta, May 1968 was a turning point in his personal and professional life. Initially, the Programme Division team (Aglietta, Courbis, Seibel and Ullmo) used FIFI modelling, modifying the parameters to incorporate the political commitments arising from the Grenelle Agreements.8 The expert macro-economist’s role was reinforced to provide forecasts to support political action. Aglietta would later realise that trying to influence policies with a statistical model based exclusively on economic behaviour was pointless. Although the Programme Division team’s modelling had taken the social dimension into account, its bottom line remained economic, so it was incapable of detecting social tensions or proposing real alternatives to the competitive framework.

Aglietta described his disappointment as follows:

In the various versions of FIFI, our aim was to pursue collective regulation of the fruits of growth, by regulating wages, profits, and inter-sectoral distribution. So, in theory, if social strains were due exclusively to economic problems, May ’68 should not have happened. May ’68 was based on socio-political demands, on the rejection of contemporary morality and on issues that were, a priori, far removed from economic matters. But these demands fundamentally affected subsequent economic policies.

Our modelling didn’t foresee this social protest, so we had to abandon this purely economic type of modelling and introduce a social dimension to it. (Interview with author, 2018)

41Like R. Courbis, who had become a university professor, Aglietta felt the need to do a doctorate researching how the capitalist economic system manages to overcome the social tensions it generates. The new Director of Research of the INSEE, Malinvaud, established a programme of grants to enable INSEE administrators to study abroad. Aglietta, Sautter and Jacques Mairesse were the first to benefit from it.

3.1. From Harvard to Raymond Barre

42At the end of September 1970, Aglietta joined Harvard Business School, Malinvaud having recommended him to the recently appointed Kenneth Arrow. For Mairesse, the choice was to join MIT where leading economists of the neoclassical-Keynesian synthesis, Robert Solow and Paul Samuelson, taught. Choosing to spend time at MIT would have been more coherent after the FIFI modelling for Aglietta. Studying at Harvard was an epistemological shift for him. However, Harvard did have links with the SEEF: Wassily Leontief and Simon Kuznets –renowned for their contributions to national accounting and long statistical series– worked there. And above all, Harvard took a keen interest in business (Alfred Chandler), industrial relations (John Thomas Dunlop) and American institutionalism (Sweezy and Galbraith). Harvard also provided an entry into meso-economics and to the historical dynamics of capitalism. In his first year, Aglietta attended classes given by Arrow (a choice directed by Malinvaud’s recommendation), Sweezy and Dunlop. He also discovered the work of the American institutionalists (John Commons, Adolf Berle, Gardiner Means) and their use of descriptive statistics to understand institutional dynamics.

43He spent his second year (September 1971–June 1972) in the libraries of Harvard and MIT, where he soaked up economic publications as well as archives on the business world (e.g., Fortune, Forbes), trade unions and more official documents such as legislation. He collected empirical, statistical, and qualitative material which was much more diversified than that used at the INSEE, limited as it was to national accounts, macro-economic and sectoral data. In fact, what he had come to the United States for, in his quest to understand the resolution of conflicts linked to capitalism, was to be found in these institutional forms, this meso-level of the economy, i.e., collective bargaining, wage relations, forms of competition between companies, governance, methods of financing and forms of deployment of public action. These were the structuring and structural forms that ensured the economic and social viability of capitalist regimes. They were not, however, permanent and new regimes of accumulation eventually emerged from their historical transformation. Clearly, Aglietta was opposed to the methodological individualism of micro-economics, but also to the macro-economics of synthesis, to the dominant structuralist Marxism of the time and to the theory of state monopoly capitalism developed by Boccara. He thus severed his ties with the economics section of the PCF.

44Back in France, as Aglietta was an engineer, to enrol for a doctoral thesis he needed to get a Diplôme d’études supérieures universitaires (DES). He chose the DES option économie internationale at the University of Paris La Sorbonne. Aglietta began writing his doctorate while still working for INSEE. Malinvaud arranged his work schedule to allow Aglietta time to write his thesis which he began in October 1973.

  • 9 Crozier M. & E. Friedberg (1977), L'Acteur et le système, Paris, Seuil, p. 86, define the secant m (...)

45Like Herzog, Aglietta chose as his thesis supervisor his former tutor at the INSEE, Barre, who was just finishing his mandate as European Commissioner. This choice may seem paradoxical for Communist sympathisers, as Barre was a figure of Gaullism. For Angeletti (2023, p. 216 note 37), this choice can be explained by Barre’s international scientific stature. Barre can also be seen as a “secant marginal” player:9 he was a legitimate member of the engineering and economics profession because he was an expert economist serving the state and teaching at the INSEE, but he was also legitimate as an academic, open to historical and institutionalist approaches. When Aglietta proposed his doctoral project entitled “Long-term regulation of the capitalist mode of production in the United States: 1870–1970”, Barre agreed to supervise it. He also agreed to the conditions of this supervision: one chapter per month to be read in order to defend his thesis in November 1974 and thus be able to apply for the agrégation examination in 1975.

46At the end of November 1974, Aglietta took his PhD viva before a jury of eclectic luminaries: the political economist Barre, the macro-economist and director of research at the INSEE Malinvaud, the Marxist and theorist of money Carlo Benetti, the economic epistemologist Hubert Brochier and Alain Cotta, educated at HEC, professor at Dauphine and close to Perroux and Barre. During the viva, Edmond Malinvaud raised a theoretical controversy concerning Solow’s growth model. He defended it, while Aglietta argued that the hypothesis of substitutable factors with diminishing returns was untenable. He maintained that, to understand the dynamics of capitalism and its capacity to generate relative surplus value, it was necessary to theorise the emergence of increasing returns, which in the Marxist tradition comes from the exploitation of labour power. The wage relationship (the productivity/wage pair) had to be at the heart of the model to understand the dynamics of the US economy.

47This controversy did not detract in any way from the quality of the thesis, given the originality of its theoretical approach (e.g., long-term dynamics, taking into account institutional forms, abandoning the concept of equilibrium for that of accumulation regime, discarding individualistic reasoning in favour of social class reasoning, the existence of crises) and the richness of its empirical content (archives, long-term statistical data, qualitative descriptions). Most of all, it created a new theoretical paradigm: the École de la régulation.

48On a personal note, Aglietta’s father, Paul Aglietta, died in 1974 in Chambéry, Savoie. He had built up his own thriving construction company, which Aglietta’s mother refused to sell. Their only son took over the management and remained in charge for over twenty years. This helps to explain Aglietta’s down-to-earth vision of the world of business and its governance. Both in theory and in practice, Aglietta sought to understand how the implementation of institutional and managerial compromises could sustain capitalism.

3.2. The birth of the École de la régulation

49Aglietta’s thesis was an academic work fulfilling the academic requirements of the discipline. However, he wanted to make his work accessible to a wider audience through the publication of a book. Indeed, a successful book was subsequently published thanks to a meeting with Boyer and the launching of a working group.

50Aglietta first met Boyer in 1968–69 when both were working on the design of macro-economic models with a critical dimension. Boyer gained admission to the École Polytechnique after Aglietta and chose the École des Ponts before moving on to the forecasting department of the Ministry of the Economy and Finance. From 1970 to 1974, Boyer had set up a team working on the construction of an econometric model of the French economy (the STAR model) for the “Groupe de Recherche Macroéconomique” (Duarte, 2023, p. 167). This model was designed to bridge the gap between short-term economic analysis models and medium-term modelling (FIFI), by including a Marxist conception of accumulation and using the Kaleckian investment equation (Boyer, Mazier & Olive, 1974). The GRM team included Mazier, Boyer, Billaudot and Gaston Olive. In 1974, Boyer joined the Centre d’Études Prospectives d’Économie Mathématique Appliquées à la Planification (CEPREMAP). There he ran a seminar on inflation issues with Mazier and Alain Lipetz.

When Aglietta returned from the United States, he became close to Boyer.

By the time I joined at the end of 1972, Boyer already had a large department at CEPREMAP. He had received a contract to study inflation in France. They had opted for a methodology that was very compatible with my research and they quickly asked me to join them. So, I could work with them on France immediately after having worked on the United States for my PhD. This collaboration was very important for the future and for the École de la régulation. (Aglietta, interview by the author, 2018)

51Out of this first meeting, a research group was formed with researchers from the INSEE, the Forecasting Directorate and various universities. This group met for six months at the INSEE.

52But what was more important for writing the book on ‘regulation and crisis’ was a seminar at the INSEE, lasting six months with one session per month, since there were six chapters in my thesis. There were between 10–15 of us, people from the INSEE and outside. At each session, we worked in detail on a chapter of my PhD with two discussants and a discussion of over two–three hours. So the group was very focused and this allowed me to outline my ideas in depth to a group of people from the INSEE, the university and the forecasting department of the Ministry of Finance: Boyer, Sautter, Cartelier, Herzog, Bernard Guibert, Lipietz, Mistral, Orléan, Anne Singer. For me, this facilitated writing the book and also led to this idea of the École de la régulation. (Aglietta, interview by the author, 2018)

Robert Boyer added that:

At the beginning of the 1970s, Aglietta returned from the United States with a PhD that completely contradicted the theory of state monopoly capitalism, and he called on his friends and professional interlocutors, to discuss it with him. It was this group that fundamentally transformed Aglietta’s PhD into the book he published in 1976 and which was so influential. This small group was the starting point of a network of critical intellectuals spanning the INSEE, the Ministry of Finance and the General Planning Commission. It was anything but a dogmatic group, since major disputes arose over monetary theory and the theory of the state. (Boyer, 2021, p. 164)

The École de la régulation emerged from this seminar on Aglietta’s PhD:

Regulation is defined by the complex processes through which an accumulation, which is contradictory, unequal, or a source of conflict, can nevertheless persist for certain periods of time, thanks to adequate institutional forms. It should have been called the ‘regulation approach’. Aglietta had studied the American dynamic example and with my colleagues at CEPREMAP, we tried to come up with a similar analysis for the case of France since the French Revolution. And the surprise was that beyond the very different institutions, we found the same evolution. So it was a method of analysis, not a theory. [...]

The great contribution of regulation is, in my opinion, to say that capitalism is not a system driven by a single logic that pushes mechanically towards catastrophe. Capitalism will only collapse if it does not find a way to make new political compromises in response to the contradictions it has itself caused. (Boyer, 2021, p. 166)

Aglietta and Boyer planned to write a book together as the latter explained:

We worked together on this project but we decided to stop because our perspectives were too different. Aglietta worked within the analytical framework of the École de la régulation with a prescriptive aim, whereas my position was theoretical. We remained close but we acknowledged our epistemic incompatibilities. (Boyer, interview by the author, 2022)

53The epistemic incompatibility mentioned by Boyer stems from the role attributed to the economist. He understands this role as to produce theoretical knowledge within the framework of a coherent model. Boyer’s work focused on making the École de la Régulation a theoretical school with its own concepts and methodology. For Aglietta, the role of the economist is to provide scientific expertise to political decision-makers, following on from FIFI. For him, regulatory theory is a heuristic matrix (Labrousse, 2023) for modelling, describing and understanding the evolution of capitalism in order to advise policymakers. Regulation theory is not, therefore, the end of his work; for him, it is the best tool for understanding economic interdependence and the complex dynamics of capitalism in a social context.

  • 10 Boyer R. & J. Mistral (1978). Accumulation, inflation, crises, Paris, Presses universitaires de Fr (...)

54Although the École de la régulation is inextricably linked to their two names, they did not publish anything together. At that time, Boyer published with Mistral the second foundational book of the École de la régulation: Accumulation, inflation, crises, in 1978.10

Theory Methodology Presuppositions
PhD Institutionalism Historical statistics Abduction The pursuit of compromise to create a viable society.
Personal affinity Proximity to the business world

Source: Author.


55The École de la régulation is rooted in Aglietta’s singular intellectual path. It is based on a unique epistemic mixture, i.e., on the one hand the time spent at the École Polytechnique and the Programme Division of the INSEE provided the macro-economic foundation, the use of national accounting, the hypothetico-deductive methodology; on the other, the stay at Harvard provided the American institutionalism, the personal affinities with Marxism and the work of Perroux. The methodology mixes formal modelling from macro-economics, historical materialism from Marxism, the use of national accounting from the SEEF, and finally historical data on organisations from the institutionalist heritage. Inherited from polytechnic positivism, the École de la régulation established itself as a science (Sebaï & Vercellone, 1992). However, like any economic approach, it has political and ethical presuppositions. The first presupposition is linked to the polytechnician culture and to the function assigned to the INSEE Programme Division. It assumes that all economic theory has a prescriptive aim directed towards the state to enable it to act in the best interests of society. Aglietta’s stance stems from his positive experience of French planning, which he considered to be a democratic space for dialogue between social, political and economic partners. He rejects the notion of a predatory state or of a state that is only interested in defending the interests of a dominant class. The second presupposition is faith in human beings, in an Enlightenment humanism opposed to the vision of an opportunistic homo-œconomicus. Contrariwise, there is a belief in people’s ability to reach compromises to resolve social and political conflict. This second presupposition also influences Aglietta’s epistemic tolerance. Although he abhors the theoretical framework of marginalist microeconomics, he is open to different economic currents (e.g., Keynesian, Marxist, institutionalist) and to other social sciences (sociology, history, political science).

56Aglietta opens a path for the École de la régulation: offering the state the best economic expertise in the guidance of its policy. Aglietta’s expertise is based on the Regulation Theory, which is used as a heuristic matrix to understand the economic system. In his view, this expertise can be carried out without any commitment to a political party. Two other great names of the École de la régulation, Boyer and Lipietz, chose different paths: the path of science and the path of political activism. Boyer favoured theoretical rigour, exploring concepts and their interactions in depth. Lipietz took a more militant path, remaining loyal to Marxist theory. These differing views on the status of the economist have inexorably created divergences and rifts over the position of the economic advisor advocated by Aglietta (Lipietz, 1995).

57La Violence de la Monnaie, co-authored with Orléan, was published in 1982. It represents a theoretical break with the École de la régulation by modelling the emergence of the monetary institution on the mimetic process as described by the anthropologist René Girard. With this book, Aglietta opened up a second school of thought, the institutionalist theory of money. A forthcoming article will examine this contribution.

Figure 4 summarises how his personal background, the École Polytechnique, the INSEE and his PhD shaped Aglietta’s work:

Figure 4: The plural origins of Regulation and the crisis of capitalism

Figure 4: The plural origins of Regulation and the crisis of capitalism

Source: Author.

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1 The author was Aglietta's colleague at the University of Nanterre from 2001 to 2016. Aglietta was the tutor for her accreditation to supervise research in 2012.

2 Sebaï & Vercellone (1992); Herzog (2018); Angeletti (2023); Duarte (2023).

3 During an interview, Aglietta told me about his mobilisation during the Algerian war. In another interview, Catherine Blum, his wife, talked about the trauma for him of being mobilised in Algeria.

4 The INSEE journal Économie et Statistique was founded in 1969 to publish articles on the scientific work carried out within the INSEE.

5 As evidenced by his last book: Gruson C. (2001), Propos d’un opposant obstiné au libéralisme mondial, Paris, Édition Maison Des Sciences de L’homme.

6 On her arrival, Catherine Blum took the name of her first husband, Girardeau, from whom she later divorced. She became Aglietta’s wife in 1974.

7 Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, a left-of-centre trade union.

8 Aglietta M., Courbis R., Seibel C. & B. Ullmo (1968), « Effets des événements de Mai-Juin 68 et recherche d’une politique de compétitivité des entreprises », 20/09/1968, quoted by Angeletti (2023), p. 148.

9 Crozier M. & E. Friedberg (1977), L'Acteur et le système, Paris, Seuil, p. 86, define the secant marginal as an “actor who is a stakeholder in several interrelated systems of action and who can, as a result, play the indispensable role of intermediary and interpreter between different, even contradictory, logics of action”.

10 Boyer R. & J. Mistral (1978). Accumulation, inflation, crises, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.

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Yamina Tadjeddine, « From the École polytechnique to the École de la régulation »Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 36 | 1er semestre|Spring 2024, mis en ligne le 25 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Yamina Tadjeddine

Université de Lorraine, Université de Strasbourg, CNRS, BETA, 54000, Nancy, France.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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