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Late capitalism?

from David Ruccio

Apparently, “late capitalism” is the term that is being widely used to capture and make sense of the irrational and increasingly grotesque features of contemporary economy and society. There’s even a recent novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford.

A reader [ht: ra] wrote in wanting to know what I thought about the label, which is admirably surveyed and discussed in a recent Atlantic article by Anne Lowrey

I’ll admit, I’m suspicious of “late capitalism” (like other such catchall phrases), for two main reasons. First, it presumes and invokes a stage theory of development, which relies on identifying certain “laws of motion” of capitalist history. That’s certainly the way Ernest Mandel understood and developed the term—as the latest in a series of necessary stages of capitalist development. For me, the history of capitalism is too contingent and unpredictable to obey such law-like regularity. Second, “late capitalism” is meant to characterize all of a certain stage of economy and society, thereby invoking a notion of totality. Like other such phrases—I’m thinking, in particular, of “globalization,” “empire,” and “neoliberalism”—the idea is that the entire world, or at least what are considered to be its essential elements, can be captured by the term. As I see it, capitalism exists only in some parts of the world, some but certainly not all economic and social spaces, and, even when and where it does exist, it assumes distinct forms and operates in different modalities. Using a term like “late capitalism” tends to iron out all those differences.

So, I’m wary of the notion of “late capitalism,” which for both reasons may lead us astray in terms of making sense of and responding to what is going on in the world today.

At the same time, I remain sympathetic to the idea that “late capitalism” effectively captures at least some dimensions of contemporary economic and social reality. Here in the United States, there’s clearly something late—both exhausted and exhausting—about contemporary capitalism. In the wake of the worst crises since the first Great Depression, growth rates remains low, leaving millions of workers either unemployed or underemployed. Wages continue to stagnate, even as corporate profits and the stock market soar. And the unequal distribution of income and wealth, having become increasingly obscene in recent decades, has ushered in a new Gilded Age.

As Lowrey explains,

“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.

And, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

What is less clear is if “late capitalism” carries with it a hint of revolution, whether it contains something akin to the idea that the contradictions of capitalism create the possibility of a radical alternative. Even if contemporary capitalism is exhausted and we, witnessing and being subjected to its absurdities and indignities, are being exhausted by it—that doesn’t mean “late capitalism” will generate the political forces required for its being replaced by a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

But perhaps that’s asking too much of the concept. If it merely serves to galvanize new ways of thinking, to recommit us to the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” then we’ll be moving in the right direction.

  1. May 17, 2017 at 3:16 am

    Yes. You are correct.

  2. Craig
    May 17, 2017 at 5:31 am

    We actually live in what would be most accurately described as Creditism. Once you recognize this fact you are able to realize that the obsessive battles between capitalist and socialist theories, political leanings etc. is in the last analysis a missing of the mark and a battle that the elites controlling Creditism are happy to let you fight….forever if necessary.

    If the economic and political advocates of capitalism and socialism were willing and/or able to overcome their habituation to conflict, invalidation and power and instead were willing to do an actual integration which is the combination of ONLY the truths, highest workabilities, applicabilities and ONLY the highest ethical considerations and effects of both sides (which by definition means they would have to be willing to delete any untruths etc. attending their viewpoints, then we’d have a more unified, more ethical and gracefully flowing third system.


  3. May 18, 2017 at 10:31 am

    Repeating this labeling with socialism, was the collapse of the USSR in 1989 the death of “late socialism?” The socialism practiced in the USSR had become grotesque and ridiculous. Unworkable and willing to say or do anything to save itself. The capitalism of the west obsesses about growth rates too low, annoying unemployment and underemployment, wage stagnation, while corporate profits and the stock market soar, and the resulting ever obscener unequal distribution of income and wealth, labeled by some a new Gilded Age. The USSR (socialism) obsesses about military parity, maintaining the Warsaw Pack, expanding access to modern appliances and electronics, and finding new alliances in an increasingly hostile world. Each became more aware of its shortcomings and failures, and concerns about how these effect longevity. The USSR is the most resource rich nation in the world. So, its collapse wasn’t due to socialism running out of resources. It may sound amusing, but I believe the USSR’s socialism lost out to democracy, not capitalism. I believe late capitalism will go the same way. It will lose out to democracy. Providing, those of us living in the “belly of the beast” don’t allow late capitalism to destroy democracy (e.g., think Trump and the Republican Party; Soros and the Democratic Party).

  4. dmf
  5. May 23, 2017 at 9:58 am

    Thanks, dmf. I had forgotten how bad Friedman’s 1970 op-ed piece was. I’ve never thought Friedman was malicious in what he wrote. Friedman contends, “When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the ‘social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,’ I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact, they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.” He was either being ideological or demonstrating his inanity. If the former, it prevents him from accepting any interference with businesses (by government, churches, NGOs, etc.) in a democratic society. This is not just contrary to good sense but impossible to carry out in actual situations. So, we can reject it as any sort of real attempt at serious scholarship. If the latter, Friedman simply lacks the intelligence to study or understand how actual economies function. So, again we can reject this line of thinking. Friedman admires Adam Smith. But apparently not enough to present a full picture of Smith’s beliefs. Aside from “Wealth of Nations” Smith wrote another book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” The latter explained that every society is based on some group of moral beliefs about good/evil, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable. All boiling down to moral and immoral conduct. This code underlay the actions of members of a society and what they believed. Including the famous butcher, etc. of Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” In saying such moral rules should have no part in business, Friedman is not just spouting fanciful nonsense but kicking Smith in the teeth. Not nice and certainly not smart, Milton!

    • robert locke
      May 23, 2017 at 10:48 am

      Every society needs a moral order to function well – a clock that ticks in every person that eliminates the need for a police state to try to maintain order, try but always failing. In the 19th century conservatives were the guardians of this moral order along with the Church. We find it in Bismarcks social insurance programs, for example, adopted in the 1880s. We also find it in the Christian Democrats under Adenauer and Erhard, in their support of co-determination. In the 1990s, following the Milton Friedman doctrine, US corporate leaders abandoned the idea that companies needed to be socially responsible, and said so publically, but they did not do so elsewhere, in Germany or the Nordic countries for examples. The moral crisis is in leadership in America.

      • May 25, 2017 at 6:59 am

        Robert, following Friedman companies in the US and then the UK didn’t just give up any commitment to social responsibility. They rejected the entire notion that the companies were subordinate to society. They reversed the direction of the subordination. Society is now subordinate to the companies. Or, as Republicans like to say, subordinate to the “private sector.” Then they went one step further by demonizing any government arrangements that were not aligned with this new arrangement. A recent example is instructive. When asked why Republicans are attempting to destroy the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, one Republican House member responded that the role of the government should be to help banks and hedge funds, not regulate them. Could there be a more corrupt and anti-democratic response? Cursed now we be!

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