Just recently, I came across a Twitter post – “late capitalism is a pox.” I do not remember anymore who posted it among the hundreds that I follow. But what I do know is that the term late capitalism is cropping up everywhere.
A photo of five former U.S. Presidents with Lady Gaga? It was captioned #latecapitalism. A video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight? It was explained away as caused by late capitalism. Balenciaga’s $2,145 bag that closely resembled IKEA’s $0.99 tote bag? It was called a product of late capitalism. Fake news? Dismissed as a result of late capitalism. The rise of U.S. President Donald Trump? This is said to have been foreseen by theorists of late capitalism.
But what really is late capitalism?
Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic defined it as “a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class.” It is being used all over traditional and social media to label anything and everything in a disgusting and mocking way, quite similar to the unsightly skin eruptions caused by the pox viral disease, hence its description as a “pox” on society.
The term itself is nothing new.
The Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced database of popular terms and phrases, defined late capitalism as the “advanced stage of unmanaged capitalism in which corporations and the wealthy, having run out of quick and easy paths to profit and economic growth, begin cannibalizing the societies in which they operate instead of investing in them.”
The definition further provided features of late capitalism such as “declining wages for workers, privatization of government, dismantling of social services, among others.”
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This particular definition is rooted in Marxist thought although not exactly connected to the writings of Karl Marx. Lowrey noted that it was an economist called Walter Sombart who coined the term and Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel who popularized it. In fact, the definition used by the Urban Dictionary is very similar to how Mandel used it. Mandel used the term late capitalism to explain the economic boom after World War II until the 1970s. He pointed out the commodification and industrialization that happened during that time period and cautioned against its very negative impacts to society.
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But deeply striking are the ideas of the members of the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, otherwise known as the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School has been founded in Germany by critical theorists that include Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, among others, sometime in 1923.
Sean Illing of Vox explains that the Frankfurt School saw mass culture as a “prop for totalitarian capitalism.” In other words, culture served as the “stealth vehicle for the inculcation of capitalist values.” This is actually in direct contrast to what the members of the Frankfurt School saw in Germany, in which propaganda could be seen and felt. In America, capitalism was slowly embedded in culture, even dubbed as “insidious” which made it more alarming. This made Adorno quite wary of the so-called culture industry that he has seen in America, noting that it seems to have “blurred the distinction between truth and fiction, between the commercial and the political.”
Perhaps the most significant example of this was how Edward Bernays, often referred to as the Father of Public Relations, was able to make cigarette smoking attractive to women, debunking social and cultural taboos. In 1929, during the Easter parade, Bernays got a group of fashionable women smoking cigarettes and branded it as “torches of freedom.” In this sense, he was able to equate smoking as a symbol for women empowerment, thus selling the idea and increasing sales.
Just last year, I wrote about how advertising has contributed to wasteful consumption, altering consumer behavior, from needs to desires. In this particular piece, I highlighted the effects of advertising as a promotional industry and as a tool of late capitalism in society. As UK’s Goldsmiths College Professor Aeron Davis stressed, we are currently living in a world of “promotional excess.” According to him, “promotion appears everywhere, so much so that we no longer notice. This is not just about explicit selling and buying. The promotional arms race has seeped into all fields, powerfully re-shaping individuals, organizations and our wider society.”
Fredric Jameson, the theorist who authored the book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, argued that the two schools of thought of late capitalism – economic (from the works of Sombart and Mandel) and culture (from the Frankfurt School) came together in the 1970s and serve as a “pervasive condition of our age.” In an interview conducted by Lowrey, Jameson related that late capitalism developed more fully during the time of both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. “It has come out much more fully to the surface of things,” he said. But more importantly, for Jameson, the term late capitalism really refers to how people feel about the world. “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.
With social media, these “people’s feelings” that Jameson was talking about have been provided with a platform for expression. This is the reason why the term late capitalism itself has become more mainstream as people became more open to talking about it and being more aware of how it affects society. Currently, there are several social media channels dedicated to late capitalism, on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even Reddit. It also has its own very popular #latecapitalism hashtag.
“…under late capitalism, modes of consumption and commodification reach ever-deeper into our daily lives.” https://t.co/jrZ0FVZbe3
— M. van Maastricht (@MJvanMaastricht) November 10, 2017
Perhaps the most visible impacts of late capitalism that people keep commenting on refer to Brexit, the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump and even the popularity of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and how French President Emmanuel Macron ran his campaign.
Author Stuart Jeffries explains this phenomenon: “From the perspective of critical theory, Trump is clearly a product of a mass media age. The way he speaks and lies and bombards voters — this is a way of controlling people, especially people who don’t have a sense of history. I saw the same thing in the months leading up the Brexit vote earlier this year: the lying, the fearmongering, the hysteria.”
If we follow this thought, the future seems dire for the world. But fortunately, with people more aware of the effects of late capitalism and discussing it out in the open, there is hope in combating its negative effects.
Do you agree with this? How is it possible to break the clutches of late capitalism? Let us know your thoughts.