Late capitalism may be having a banner year.
According to data from document research company Nexis, the term “late capitalism” appeared 274 times in popular English-language news in 2018 through Nov. 15, and looks set to end the year with more than 340 mentions. That means the term’s use is on track to surpass its 2013 high of 326. This does not even take into account its endless daily use on social media.
Late capitalism is a vague, and difficult to define. It is generally used in reference to the excesses of developed market economies.
Similar to the term “neoliberalism,” late capitalism is a way for leftist critics to deride capitalism without being specific. It is the kind of academic-sounding jargon that is supposed to make the user sound smart. In an article in the National Review, author Stephen Miller (no, not that one), argues that late capitalism is a “meaningless phrase.” I agree. Whenever anyone uses the term, it leaves me wanting them to explain what they actually mean.
Here is an example of how it is typically employed, from a recent review in the Columbus Dispatch of the new movie The Grinch: “So while The Grinch brushes up against the crushing horrors of late capitalism in terms both the conspicuous consumption of Christmas gifting and the reality that is providing for a family and securing child care, the film doesn’t get too deep.” (Consider whether the sentence would be changed without the word “late.”)
In a 2017 article, the Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey explored the origins of the term. Lowery found that the German economist Werner Sombart coined late capitalism around 1900, and the Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel popularized it in the mid-20th century to refer to the period after World War II, when large multinational corporations gained strength.
More recently, Lowery explains, late capitalism is often applied to efforts by brands to co-opt social movements. For example, Tiffany selling an “eco-friendly” silver straw for $375 would qualify as an example of late capitalism. Still others use the term more broadly to refer to growing inequality and other contemporary economics ills.
Lowery celebrates the rise of the term. She says its usage “captures the resurgent left’s anger…” She is too generous.
I for one would cheer the downfall of late capitalism. It’s a term that deserves to die.