Chapter based on an interview appearing in Aftershocks: Economic Crisis and Institutional Choice, edited by Anton Hemerijck, Ben Knapen and Ellen van Doorne, eds., (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press):93-102."My first indication of the risks of potential crisis came when the financial press began to speak openly about the 'bets' that international financial institutions were making, whether on the direction of the markets , on takeovers, or the like. Banks were no longer making investments; they were making bets. It was commonly understood that the character of banking had changed over the past 15 years, as financial institutions dramatically increased their leverage using new derivatives. But the level of risk taking described by Susan Strange as 'Casino Capitalism' was a new phenomenon.i A few years prior to the crisis, respected financial publications began explicitly using the word 'bet' to describe the investments institutions were making. That was when I began to worry, realizing that this had become a fundamentally different banking sector than the one I grew up with."
Some of the most fruitful insights generated by social science in recent decades flow from explorations of how institutions, understood as sets of regularized practices with a rule-like quality, structure the behavior of political and economic actors.i It is not surprising that attention has now turned to the second-order problem of explaining when and how institutions change.ii In conceptual terms, however, this task is intrinsically difficult. By their nature, analyses designed to explain why institutions have a persistent impact on behavior tend to overstate the solidity of institutions. Acknowledging their plasticity raises questions about when institutions should be seen as determinants of behavior and when objects of strategic action themselves.
Although democracy is often seen as an achievement secured once and for all at one point in time, when the suffrage was extended to the bulk of the population, for instance, in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century in western Europe, in fact, it is the product of an evolving process in which the institutions and ideals of representative government adapt to recurring challenges.1 Democratic institutions are not static features of the political space but subject to continuous challenge and change.
Despite their highly-developed production regimes, modern capitalist economies are rarely static. Their prosperity stems from a capacity to promote 'cycles of creative destruction' (Schumpeter 1949) in which firms abandon older modes of production in order to exploit emerging technologies and new market opportunities. The French economy is no exception: in recent years, it has been called upon to reinvent itself in response to many developments. Foremost among these is the expansion of world markets, as declining barriers to trade, new forms of communication and political liberalization open attractive new markets and production sites around the globe. Rapid technological advance in microprocessors and bioengineering have generated a new industrial revolution, creating entirely sectors and transforming production across the economy. To exploit these developments, new managerial techniques have been adopted by companies all over the world, including just-in-time inventory systems, team production, closer client-supplier relations and new forms of quality. If the French economy cannot keep up with these changes, it cannot expect to flourish.
France has long been portrayed as a nation in which interest groups play a relatively meager and ineffective role in the political process. This view is predicated on three assumptions. The first is that the French are relatively disinclined to join voluntary associations as a result of extreme individualism and the stifling effects of centralization. The second is that the strong French state stands aloof from weakly organized interests. Its higher civil servants, imbued with a Jacobin ethos, vigilantly defend the general interest against ""pressure groups"" broadly viewed as illegitimate. When such ""lobbies"" do manage to affect the decision-making process, mainly through contacts in parliament, their success often derives from corrupt and even scandalous tactics. The third assumption is that the French are uniquely prone to engage in spectacular protest demonstrations. This seems logical: if societal interests are poorly organized and routinely ignored by the state, their only recourse would seem to be to take to the streets. While each of these three assumptions contains a grain of truth, none of them accurately describes the reality of French interest group politics in the Fifth Republic today. Perhaps the main reason why misleading images of group-state relations still have some currency is that French political scientists have traditionally focused on formal institutions, undertaking little empirical research on interest groups (Charlot, 1994, p. 230; Mény, 1989, p. 388). In recent years, however, a number of books and articles have given us a more nuanced view of interest group dynamics in contemporary France.
An old specter is haunting Europe: the specter of liberal orthodoxy. I refer to the view that the only way for a nation to secure high levels of economic growth and employment is to develop an economy built around perfectly competitive markets, an ideal-type that implies weak trade unions, substantially deregulated financial markets, and inter-firm relations based on highly-competitive relationships mediated by legal contracts rather than long-term collaborative arrangements. Of course, this is an Anglo-American orthodoxy, developed since the eighteenth century by British and American economists, whose ideals have been implemented most extensively and with great success in the economies of the United States and the United Kingdom.