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Why the Phrase ‘Late Capitalism’ Is Suddenly Everywhere

Why the Phrase ‘Late Capitalism’ Is Suddenly Everywhere thumbnail

A job advertisement celebrating sleep deprivation? That’s late capitalism. Free-wheeling Coachella outfits that somehow all look the same and cost thousands of dollars? Also late capitalism. Same goes for this wifi-connected $400 juicer that does no better than human hands, Pepsi’s advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner, United Airlines’ forcible removal of a seated passenger who just wanted to go home, and the glorious debacle that was the Fyre Festival. The phrase—ominous, academic, despairing, sarcastic—has suddenly started showing up everywhere.

This publication has used “late capitalism” roughly two dozen times in recent years, describing everything from freakishly oversized turkeys to double-decker armrests for steerage-class plane seats. The New Yorker is likewise enamored of it, invoking it in discussions of Bernie Sanders and fancy lettuces, among other things. There is a wildly popular, year-old Reddit community devoted to it, as well as a Facebook page, a Tumblr, and a lively Twitter hashtag. Google search interest in its has more than doubled in the past year.

“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. But what is “late capitalism,” really? Where did the phrase come from, and why did so many people start using it all of a sudden?

For my own part, I vaguely remembered it coming from the writings of Karl Marx—the decadence that precedes the revolution? I polled a few friends, and they all sort of remembered the same thing, something to do with 19th-century Europeans and the inherent instability of the capitalist system. This collective half-remembering turned out to be not quite right. “It’s not Marx’s term,” William Clare Roberts, a political scientist at McGill University, told me.

Rather, it was Marxist thinkers that came up with it to describe the industrialized economies they saw around them. A German economist named Werner Sombart seems to have been the first to use it around the turn of the 20th century, with a Marxist theorist and activist named Ernest Mandel popularizing it a half-century later. For Mandel, “late capitalism” denoted the economic period that started with the end of World War II and ended in the early 1970s, a time that saw the rise of multinational corporations, mass communication, and international finance. Roberts said that the term’s current usage departs somewhat from its original meaning. “It’s not this sense that things are getting so bad that the revolution is going to come,” he told me, “but rather that we see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use.”

Mandel did warn about the forces of automation, globalization, and wage stagnation, and feared that they would tear at the social fabric by making workers miserable. Still, during the period that he defined as “late capitalism,” the American middle class was flourishing and Europe was healing. “There is an irony to it being [originally] used to refer to the one time things were going well for a while,” Richard Yeselson, a contributing editor at Dissent and an expert on the labor movement, told me, riffing on the term.

“Late capitalism” took on a darker connotation in the works of the 20th-century critical theorists, who borrowed from and critiqued and built on Marx and the Marxists. Members of the Frankfurt School, reeling from the horrors of World War II, saw in it excessive social control on the part of big government and big business. Theodor Adorno argued that “late capitalism” might lead not to socialism, but away from it, by blunting the proletariat’s potential for revolution. “The economic process continues to perpetuate domination over human beings,” he said in a speech on late capitalism in 1968. (If only he could have seen the Jenner-Pepsi ad.)

It was Duke University’s Fredric Jameson who introduced the phrase to a broader English-speaking audience of academics and theorists. “It was a much older and more popular term in German,” Jameson told me. (Spätkapitalismus, for those wondering.) “It’s very interesting! It’s kind of—how should I say it—symptomatic of people’s feelings about the world. About society itself,” he said, a little surprised and a little chuffed to hear that the term was finding wider appreciation. “It used to be a sort of taboo outside of the left to even mention the word ‘capitalism.’ Now it’s pretty obvious that it’s there, and that’s what it is.”

In his canonical 1984 essay and 1991 book, both titled Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson argued that the globalized, post-industrial economy had given rise to postmodernist culture and art. Everything, everywhere, became commodified and consumable. High and low culture collapsed, with art becoming more self-referential and superficial. He told me he saw late capitalism as kicking into gear in the Thatcher and Reagan years, and persisting until today. “It has come out much more fully to the surface of things,” he said, citing the flash crash, derivatives, and “all this consumption by mail.”

It took the emergence of a new, tenacious left to jailbreak it from the ivory tower and push it into wider use. In the wake of the Great Recession, the protestors of the Occupy movement occupied; the Sanders campaign found real, unexpected traction; the Fight for $15 helped convince 19 states and cities to boost their minimum wages up to $15 an hour. Editors and writers on the left founded or expanded publications like Jacobin, The New Inquiry, and n+1.

Those cerebral outlets helped to fuel renewed interest in Marx and critical theory, as well as late capitalism. David Graeber, a leading figure in Occupy and the coiner of the phrase “We are the 99 percent,” for instance, wrote a long essay for The Baffler that touched on Jameson, Mandel, corporate profitability, flying cars, and, of course, late capitalism. The novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism came out to good reviews in 2011. Pop-scholarly uses of the phrase started showing up in more mainstream publications, soaked up, as though by osmosis, from these publications and thinkers on the far left.

The same happened on social media, itself growing rapidly as the recession gave way to the recovery. There were just a handful of mentions of “late capitalism” on Twitter before 2009, a few hundred in that year, and perhaps a few thousand in the next, many referring to college coursework.

In 2011, with Occupy taking over Zuccotti Park, it started to take off.

Now, it is everywhere, in thousands of social-media posts and listicles aimed at Millennials and news stories about modern malaise.

Over time, the semantics of the phrase shifted a bit. “Late capitalism” became a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism. Nordstrom selling jeans with fake mud on them for $425. Prisoners’ phone calls costing $14 a minute. Starbucks forcing baristas to write “Come Together” on cups due to the fiscal-cliff showdown.

This usage captures the resurgent left’s anger over the recovery and the inequality that long preceded it—as well as the rage of millions of less politically engaged Americans who nevertheless feel left out and left behind. “I think it’s popular again now because the financial crisis and subsequent decade has really stripped away a veneer on what’s going on in the economy,” Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, told me. “Austerity, runaway top incomes, globalization, populations permanently out of the job market, competition pushed further into our everyday lives. These aren’t new, but they have an extra cruelty that is boiling over everywhere.”

The current usage also captures the perceived froth and foolishness of Silicon Valley. The gig economy in particular provides plenty of late-capitalist fodder, with investors showering cash on platforms to create cheap services for the rich and lazy and no-benefit jobs for the eager and poor. At the same time, traditional jobs seem to be providing less in the way of security, stability, and support, too. “There’s this growing discussion about how work is changing,” Carrie Gleason of the Fair Workweek Initiative told me. “The idea of what stable employment is, or what we can expect in terms of stable employment, is changing. That’s part of this.”

“Late capitalism” skewers inequality, whether businesses’ feverish attempts to sell goods to the richest of the rich (here’s looking at you, $1,200 margarita) or to provide less and less to the rest (hey, airlines that make economy customers board after pets). It lampoons brands’ attempts to mimic or co-opt the language, culture, and content of their customers. Conspicuous minimalism, curated and artificial moments of zen, the gaslighting of the lifehacking and wellness movements: This is all late capitalism.

Finally, “late capitalism” gestures to the potential for revolution, whether because the robots end up taking all the jobs or because the proletariat finally rejects all this nonsense. A “late” period always comes at the end of something, after all. “It has the constant referent to revolution,” Roberts said. “‘Late capitalism’ necessarily says, ‘This is a stage we’re going to come out of at some point, whereas ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t say that, ‘Shit is fucked up and bullshit’ doesn’t say that. It hints at a sort of optimism amongst a post-Bernie left, the young left online. Something of the revolutionary horizon of classical Marxism.”

It does all this with a certain concision, erudition, even beauty. It’s ominous and knowing, brainy and pissed-off. “Now is a crazy political time,” Yeselson said. “It’s Trump. It’s Brexit. It’s whatever is going on in France. Why talk about capitalism when nothing seems to be shaken up? But now things are shaken up. Let’s allude to the big, giant, totalistic system that is underneath everything. And let’s give it more than a hint of foreboding. Late capitalism. Late is so pregnant.”

That it has strayed so far from its original meaning? Nobody I spoke with seemed to care, Jameson included, and the phrase has always had a certain malleability anyway. Sombart’s late capitalism differed from Mandel’s differed from Adorno’s differed from Jameson’s. “Late capitalism” often seems more like “the latest in capitalism,” Konczal quipped.

This late capitalism is today’s, then. At least until the brands get ahold of it.

the atlantic

26 Comments on "Why the Phrase ‘Late Capitalism’ Is Suddenly Everywhere"

  1. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 2nd May 2017 7:17 pm 

    Capitalism used to work great.
    Then the Republicans bought the government,
    paid cash.

    Now capitalism just not working anymore.
    If nobody will buy their worthless crap,
    they import 20 million foreigners so that
    that somebody buy their crap.

    Real capitalism does make crappy products
    nobody wants, then import the buyers.

  2. twocats on Tue, 2nd May 2017 7:33 pm 

    Late industrial civilization was bound to have a lot of fallout, not the least of which was the collapse of Western Capitalist ideologies.

    This will leave many existentially fractured and empty. Suicides for the introverted. Purging for the extroverted. The popular thing in Cleveland is for roving bands of dirt-bike and 4-wheel off-road vehicles weaving through traffic not much different than Akira. The cops have a “no-pursue” policy for the time being. It’s not hard to see that turning south.

    Or take the mega-high rent cities of the coasts. How long before some suit passing through a throng of homeless/underclass says the wrong thing and starts a riot?

    How many riots does it take to start a revolution? would revolution be anything more than accelerating collapse?

  3. Davy on Tue, 2nd May 2017 9:15 pm 

    Late civilization without the renewal is a better picture. A revolution that becomes a wake. This can’t be blamed on capitalism. This is more and deeper. This goes to the essence of what is now the modern human. Until we confront this very essence as anti-life we will not find the humility that is required to search for new meaning in a destroyed world. What we will do is double down on the techno and combined that with a complimenting ideology that gives us a story of hope. This hope is of affluence and comfort. This is diametrically opposed to our reality.

    You as the individual can make this change. Our civilization can’t because it could not continue as it is once changed. If you think you can change things you are mistaken. You are just going to be consumed in the inferno. Change what is inside you and then go forth in that wisdom with a power that is beyond you and is bequeathed by nature. Man’s power is the power of death. Nature’s power is truth.

    What I just said will be dismissed as fringe and nutter. This is why you should listen. We are in a time of paradoxes where right is wrong and wrong is right. This is not how it seems either. This is not about morality. This is about our essence. We are no longer a species expanding. We are now a species in decline in a world in destructive change. This means a new type of thinking and living.

  4. paulo1 on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:06 pm 

    Great comment, Davy. Amen.

    regarding: “This goes to the essence of what is now the modern human.”

    I fear modern western humans will simply spend more time and money on drug use, excess alcohol and food consumption, electronic pacifiers, and mindless consumption of goods they don’t really need. It’s just so much easier than thinking, doing, and striving. Some people like being told what to do and would be lost if they had to think and do for themselves.

    I disagree with one thing you said. You say it is not about morality and I think it is about morality. We are a species mindlessly destroying for short term attainments of things that aren’t important or necessary for our survival or even happiness. That has to be immoral, certainly plain old wrong.


  5. makati1 on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:25 pm 

    Immorality is rampant in the West. The U$ is the immorality poster child and number one in hypocrisy also. Nothing will change for the better there, only for the the worse. Wait and see.

  6. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:27 pm 

    Late capitalism and last stage humanity. The only thing that will rush the humans quicker to their doom than more more more capitalism is a nuke war or a 10 mile wide asteroid. What I see is a global game of last man standing. If you get thrown under the bus or if you are one of the growing number of people who there is just no place for you in society anymore then it’s jail or homeless or ODing on fentanyl or heroin or alcoholism. Since the true believers could never admit their beloved system/ideology is failing fast, it MUST be the individuals fault. Cruel mother fuckers eh? Since fascism and communism were both abysmal failures, what will the humans come up with next? I don’t know, but there is going to be blood.

    This article has lots of numbers and stats, thus it is appealing to white boys.

    Where Did All the Men Go?

    “While there are a dozen plausible reasons for the shocking result of the 2016 presidential election, the discontent of white men lacking college degrees ranks high on most lists. And no small part of that discontent is linked to their diminishing role in the workplace.”

    “Over the past two generations, America has suffered a quiet catastrophe in the collapse of work for men.”

    Sorry fellas. Your country (capitalists overlords) has no use for you anymore so fuck off and die.

  7. onlooker on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:31 pm 

    Late Civilization or Late Capitalism really means the end is nearing for our techno hyper charged modern civilization. If that was it, I for one would be cheering but unfortunately, our modern industrial civilization is leaving in its wake poisoned and degraded habitats and ecosystems and a planet with a climate system which will become deadly to most current life forms including ourselves. Our putative greatest achievement has in the most bitter irony became the instrument of our own demise.

  8. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:32 pm 

    US housing wealth is growing for the oldest and wealthiest Americans, at the expense of everybody else

    “A new working paper (pdf) from the economists Edward Glaeser of Harvard University and Joseph Gyourko of the University of Pennsylvania shows exactly how much the winners have gained. The researchers analyzed household survey data from 1983 to 2013 (the last year data was collected), and found that housing wealth increased “almost exclusively among the wealthiest, older Americans.”

  9. makati1 on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:49 pm 

    Signs of the times:

    “Outside the United States is Terrifying! (According to the Government)” (Americans have no idea what the real world is like. Brainwashed to the bone.)
    “It’s A Public Health Crisis” – Is Pittsburgh The Next Flint?”
    “Why There Will Never Be A Political Solution To America’s Problems”
    “Feds Send In Reinforcements After Baltimore Mayor Pleads For Help: “Murder Is Out Of Control””
    “Trump: US “Needs A Good Shutdown In September To Fix This Mess””
    “Are American Debt Slaves Getting In Trouble Again?”
    “Watch Live: Airline Execs Testify Before Congress; Will Promise To Stop Beating Passengers”
    “51% Of Murders In The U.S. Come From Just 2% Of The Counties”
    “A Chinese Factory Slave Explains Why Manufacturing Jobs Are Never Coming Back To America” (Hint: $450/mo)
    “It Is Becoming Illegal To Be Homeless In America”
    “May Day Protests Turn Violent in Portland as Police Cancel Permits”
    “Wheat Soars Most On Record After Freak Snowstorm Blankets Midwest”
    “Beef Prices Soar After Blizzard Clobbers Midwest”
    “40% of Americans spend up to half of their income servicing debt”
    “Economic Reality: Bottom 50% of Americans No Longer Matter”

    And on and on…

  10. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:54 pm 

    A big cork is about to go POP!

    Huge Antarctic ice shelf crack now has second branch

    “Once the crack completely shears off, it will create one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, one that’s larger than the state of Rhode Island.”

    “Ice shelves are permanent floating sheets of ice that connect to a land mass, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Studying them is important because they “hold back the glaciers that ‘feed’ them,” Luckman said. “When they disappear, ice can flow faster from the land to the ocean and contribute more quickly to sea-level rise.

  11. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 10:58 pm 

    Mak, I see there is plenty of employment in the P’s

    Climate change has created a new generation of sex-trafficking victims

    “But the storm, known locally as Yolanda, was just the beginning of the painful journey she was about to take.
    After the skies cleared, a second humanitarian disaster unfolded in the Tacloban Astrodome, a sports arena where thousands took shelter. An underground economy took root as women and girls were sold for food and scarce aid supplies, or trafficked into forced labor and sex work by recruiters offering jobs and scholarships. Kristine says she was sold to men every night; some of the men were foreign-aid workers, she believes. The men raped her, and took graphic pictures and videos. Kristine was 13.”

  12. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 11:14 pm 

    Proof positive that one not need to be a white man to be a Cancer. Any Humans will do and just look at what the Indians have done to their country in only a few decades after adopting capitalism.

    India’s Silicon Valley Is Dying of Thirst. Your City May Be Next

    “BANGALORE HAS A PROBLEM: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Banga­lore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, “the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.”

    “Every year since 2012, Bangalore has been hit by drought; last year Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, received its lowest rainfall level in four decades. But the changing climate is not exclusively to blame for Bangalore’s water problems. The city’s growth, hustled along by its tech sector, made it ripe for crisis. Echoing urban patterns around the world, Bangalore’s population nearly doubled from 5.7 million in 2001 to 10.5 million today. By 2020 more than 2 million IT professionals are expected to live here.”

    “According to International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook (April-2015), GDP (nominal) per capita of India in 2014 at current prices is $1,627 compare to $1,508 in 2013. India is the ninth largest economy of the world.”

    WoW they might get all the way up to $2000 per capita (unevenly distributed) before the country is almost uninhabitable and the die off starts. Three cheers for canceralisim.

    BTW 80% of the worlds pharmaceutical ingredients are manufactured there, so when India goes down so will many Viagra hardons – blood pressure B going up.

  13. makati1 on Tue, 2nd May 2017 11:18 pm 

    Ap, Quartz and written by a woman. Not a good mix. But, yes prostitution is everywhere in the world. “Forced” is a matter of degree. Is eating daily a force? At what point would YOU turn to sex for a meal? 1 day? 2? 3? Think about it.

    Interesting article but not news.

    Number of Prostitutes in the World: 13,828,700

    China – 5 Million
    India – 3 Million
    United States – 1 Million
    Philippines – 800,000
    Mexico – 500,000
    Germany – 400,000
    Brazil – 250,000 children

    Only going to increase as times get harder. (No pun intended)

  14. onlooker on Tue, 2nd May 2017 11:23 pm 

    Oh yeah AP, China and India have taken up the cancer ethos with relish and gusto. They are by far the two most populated which goes to show two thing. We are all similar in our tastes and wants and they’re is no cure for what afflicts this planet namely us, as they’re is no cure for what afflicts us

  15. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 11:24 pm 

    The only people who believe in Econ 101 are those who don’t know it’s history. Hell, most economists know it’s bunk, but what else is a secular priest to do? Student loan ans all that.

    The Borrowed Science of Neoclassical Economics

    “Another “Econ 101” story we hear in microeconomics classes is that, as consumers, individuals are always involved in a rational, hedonistic competition trying to maximize their own utility. The utility principle was brought to the forefront of the economics profession with the Marginal Revolution of the 1870s. The Marginal Revolution, the story goes, was a response to the rise in prominence of the theories of Karl Marx. While this might be true, it is only part of the story. The rest has been conveniently left out of the intro courses because it reveals that the foundations of neoclassical economics were essentially plagiarized from the natural sciences.”

  16. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 11:34 pm 

    Economists And The Powerful

    “One of the most glaring omissions from modern economics is the complete absence of any mention of power. Textbooks describe a world where everyone is equal and no one has power to influence others to benefit themselves. Norbert Haring and Niall Douglas make a huge contribution to correcting this omission by discussing the importance of power relations in economics and during the financial crash in their brilliant book, Economists And The Powerful. They show how power got removed from the economics discourse for ideological reasons, the power and influence of the financial industry, the corporate elite, how the economy is best described as monopolistic competition, how the money supply is controlled by banks, how the labour force is shaped by market power and how the government is manipulated by corporate interests for their own gain. It is a superb book that I highly recommend.”

  17. Apneaman on Tue, 2nd May 2017 11:38 pm 

    Australian Scientist Reveals Deforestation Is Endangering Most Of The Earth’s Species

    “From butterflies to bats – a study from Macquarie University shows that hundreds of thousands of species could soon go extinct due to the effects of deforestation.

    The study examined global data, with the researcher warning that numerous extinctions of rare species may have already taken place in regions within the tropics.
    The research is the first to use local-scale ecological data to predict possible extinctions at a global scale, documenting 11 key ecological groups.”

    Perhaps they can replace them with robots like they do with the human species?

  18. onlooker on Tue, 2nd May 2017 11:59 pm 

    They show how power got removed from the economics discourse for ideological reasons–
    How quaint, the use of economic power and coercion conveniently removed. Next they will want all of us to believe that all the rich and those who aspire to be, do so out of the goodness of their heart for their fellow man. I was born at night but not last night

  19. ________________________________________ on Wed, 3rd May 2017 1:42 am 


  20. dooma on Wed, 3rd May 2017 4:14 am 

    The only stable jobs are working with horses.

  21. deadlykillerbeaz on Wed, 3rd May 2017 6:13 am 

    It’s all bullshit, really.

    Doesn’t sound like late capitalism to me, just another hard day on the planet.

    How about Tibet? Are the domesticated yaks up there in the rarefied air of Tibet late capitalism?

  22. eugene on Wed, 3rd May 2017 8:46 am 

    The reality is we don’t make anything of substance. Convenience items with changes every few months to produce sales. Frantic efforts like subprime loans, Wall Street legal activity (criminal?), stagnant wages for decades, typical government lying re inflation and the list is long. Like a fat old man struggling to make a buck. Nearly half the population electing a loud mouthed president promising a return to the good old days bring jobs back to who, what and where. Forty percent of the population can’t read well enough to fill out a job application. And Canada has the same problem. But enough. For those of you who still “believe”. Good luck.

  23. Dredd on Wed, 3rd May 2017 9:27 am 

    Yep, steric late capitalism denial is a danger to civilization itself (Steric β, Mass, and Volume In Sea Level Calculations).

    Many misunderstandings in the realm of late capitalism.

  24. Jef on Wed, 3rd May 2017 11:13 am 

    Capitalism is a board game. Are there any board games where it works out great for everyone in the end?

    I call it the cannibalism stage of capitalism. All attempts at maintaining the game at this stage simply helps the winners to rake in more…everything.

  25. onlooker on Wed, 3rd May 2017 12:57 pm 

    Hey, ___________, you messed up the formatting on this topic. Please don’t do it again. Oh and Jef, yes Capitalism as always been about Big Fish eating small fish. And now we one gigantic devouring everything in its sight

  26. joe on Thu, 4th May 2017 8:43 am 

    Marxism refers to industrial society, such a thing hardly exists in the west. We have fiat currency paying for oil and trade, its a fiat debt based system in which we try to balance the comparative values of our currency internationally so that we can get cheap things and also provide massive social welfare systems. The system we have today is a so fairly close to what Karl Marx would have thought possible for the starving half-naked child workers he saw in England. If he were to critique the system he would say that the governments could provide more social welfare to stave off revolution and also they could incentivise people away from revolutionary religions like Islam. Beyond that, Marx would have far fewer complaints than many people think, heck even Obamacare is only being tinkered with, not reversed, health is a right, not a privledge etc etc….

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