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The buzzword for the modern economy.
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Have we gone too far?
$400 jeans flecked with fake mud. Chernobyl tourism. When a geopolitical spat on Twitter leads to a real-life war.
These are, debatably, all symptoms of late capitalism (or late-stage capitalism). Over the past few years, the phrase has become shorthand to describe, as one active Reddit community calls it, “our social, moral and ideological rot.” But as the phrase has transitioned from arcane German economic theory to meme-ified vernacular, its definition has shifted to encompass pretty much everything ironic about money—who has it, how they get it, and who suffers—in our modern era. In fact, in its current usage, the term doesn’t say much about our economic or political structure, and instead virtue-signals an awareness of a collective sense of ennui. Le sigh. Shall we?
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By the digits
75: Years since the start of late capitalism, according to Ernest Mandel
51%: Share of US adults ages 18 to 39 who viewed capitalism positively in 2019
49%: Share of US adults ages 18 to 39 who viewed socialism positively in 2019
615: News articles that mentioned the phrase “late capitalism” in 2019, according to Nexis
14: Articles that include the phrase “late capitalism” published on qz.com, as of February 2020
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Explain it like I’m 5!
Though Karl Marx never used the term “late capitalism” himself, he did describe his vision for the final phase of capitalism in Das Kapital. At that point, he wrote, the global market will have superseded that of any individual country, concentrating the world’s wealth into just a few very lucky hands.
German economist Werner Sombart coined the term in the early 1900s (Sombart was also anti-semitic and associated Jews with the rise of this globalist economy), but it wasn’t until the 1970s when Belgian economist Ernest Mandel used it to refer to a very specific historical period: the one that began after World War II and ended in the 1970s. In his 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, American literary critic Fredric Jameson summed up Mandel’s thinking: “A moment in which not merely the older city but even the nation-state itself has ceased to play a central functional and formal role in a process that has in a new quantum leap of capital prodigiously expanded beyond them.”
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1894: The third volume of Das Kapital, published 11 years after Karl Marx’s death, describes the final stages of capitalism.
1902: Werner Sombart is the first to use the phrase “late capitalism” in his book Der moderne Kapitalismus.
1945: The end of World War II and technically the start of late capitalism, according to Ernest Mandel.
1972: Mandel popularizes the term in his book Der Spätkapitalismus, which looks at the causes and effects of the postwar boom through the lens of Marxist theories.
1991: Fredric Jameson publishes Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, bringing the term to the English-speaking world.
2008: The financial crisis raises doubts about our existing economic system, and leads to the rise of leftist publications that further elevate the term “late capitalism.”
2011: The Occupy Wall Street movement shows people’s continued dissatisfaction with the financial system. Peter Mountford’s novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism is published.
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Isn’t it ironic
“‘Late capitalism,’ in its current usage, is a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class,” writes Annie Lowrey in her influential 2017 piece in The Atlantic.
Colloquially, late capitalism refers to the power structure between corporations and individuals—that global corporations ruthlessly engineered for growth are able to manipulate our emotions and our sense of reality. It points to the commodification of things that were once outside the capitalist sphere (for example, you now have to pay to see Marx’s grave) and the outrage at the inequalities that persist.
It’s a deep, cynical sense of irony and absurdity that only lightly masks our collective despair that we can’t do anything about it at all. It’s a meme. It is essentially postmodernism, which is why so much of the internet discourse on it focuses on its aesthetics.
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The German word for late capitalism is Spätkapitalismus, and it’s much more popular than its English corollary.
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Million-dollar question: What comes after late capitalism?
The phrase “late capitalism” implies that we’re near the end of something. According to Marx’s own definition, late capitalism meant that the revolution was nigh, that we should be able to “see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use,” as political scientist William Clare Roberts told The Atlantic in 2017.
Though the rise of political figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought socialism back into popular discourse, there’s no sign yet that the proletarian revolt is right around the corner. In the UK, the British Labour Party resoundingly lost in December of 2019, when Boris Johnson, not Jeremy Corbyn, became the prime minister. The US isn’t a purely free-market economy, with government controls on corporations and unions and social safety nets like Social Security and Medicaid, though dissatisfaction with the economy in recent years has not yet brought a turn toward European social-democratic norms.
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“I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.”
—Artist Jeff Koons, whose success as a commercial artist some say is extremely late capitalist
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Still confused about what late capitalism looks like in the postmodern era? Read this distillation of Frederic Jameson’s book, complete with a handy list.
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