“It’s breathtaking what’s happened in the last 20 years or less,” observed Daniel Yergin, the award-winning co-author of the book The Commanding Heights. “It’s as though the whole world has changed its mind.” Indeed, the 20th century concluded with a resounding victory for market forces. The old socialist order was swept away in Europe, East Asian authoritarianism survived, but its command economy did not, and once fashionable Keynesian economic prescriptions fell out of favor in the West. The democratic revolutions of this period had some successes and some failures, but almost everywhere capitalism emerged triumphant.
To some, this is just a detour on the road to capitalism’s inevitable collapse. Only in the Marxian imagination could a prophecy foretelling predestination be deemed scientific, but that is the inescapable conceit inherent in the vogue idea that we are witness to capitalism’s final stages of development. Whether it is invoked ironically to explain why markets cater to unusual tastes or a sincere warning about the cataclysm to come, the phrase “late capitalism” is everywhere.
As Annie Lowery detailed in the Atlantic, a universal definition of what constitutes “late capitalism” is hard to nail down. It describes everything from economic unease to superficial art and conspicuous consumerism. It explains efforts by corporate entities to co-opt liberal socio-political movements even as it also demonstrates why the most unenlightened and cloistered of wealthy patrons will always be the primary beneficiaries of a market economy. It might have dawned at the close of World War II, or it might not have begun yet at all; it might even be over already. One thing everyone can agree on, though: “late capitalism” is bad.
The fact that no one seems to know what the phrase means is no obstacle for those who seek to popularize it. This year, “late capitalism” appeared in more popular English-language news items than any year since 2013. Articles filed under “late capitalism” in Vice News’s archives range from lamentations over long work weeks and the commodification of blood donations to violent fantasies about the prospect of an inter-class shooting war in America. “Late capitalism” shapes our perceptions of sex and entertainment. It is “a slow-motion apocalypse” culminating in the “global consolidation of resources” that will eventually result in “mass suffering followed by mass extinction.”
Often, those who see value in this remarkably elastic expression appear to run away from its implications. Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, endorsed the phrase “late capitalism” as a way to describe market liberalism’s evolution into another, albeit “unrecognizable,” form of market liberalism. Those who claim that the end is nigh for “late capitalism” fail to articulate with any specificity what will replace it (a common understanding of what constitutes “entropic techno-barbarism” remains elusive). And few of those for whom this phrase trips off the tongue dwell on the fact that the conditions they insist are so intolerable have been a spectacular boon to most of the world’s population.
Anyone born before 1980 is old enough to remember when “the free world” saw the nationalization of heavy industries and utilities as not only natural but necessary. They might recall that anti-competitive regulatory practices drove up consumer costs and strangled entrepreneurialism, all while failing to rein in inflation and its pernicious political effects. Stagnation is comfortingly stable, and the disruption that accompanies dynamism is often disorienting. But those who think the sympathetic casualties of economic vitality will form the vanguard of the precariat must also acknowledge that “late capitalism” has been pretty great.
Between 1981 and 2008, more than 700 million emerged out from under extreme poverty, even as the world’s population increased by 48 percent. When the socialist model was sloughed off by the developing world, so, too, were the chains that prevented these burgeoning economies from growing. Accelerated growth and wage increases in the developing world has led some to whisper with guarded optimism that the virtual elimination of extreme poverty is no longer a utopian goal. The post-Cold War years have seen both subjective quality-of-life measurements and objective life-expectancy rates increase almost across the board.
Over the last 40 years, America’s late capitalist economy tripled in real terms. Real wages are growing steadily, albeit slowly, due to low rates of inflation. The number of jobs doubled, and manufacturing productivity is at an all-time high even though manufacturing represents an increasingly smaller share of GDP as more and more people enter the economy’s service sector. This contributes to an unemployment rate at its lowest point since 1969. Those Americans are the invisible beneficiaries of a dynamic that is producing some very visible victims, some of whom are detached from civic and social life. An increase in the number of deaths from suicide and drug overdose last year made it the second consecutive year in which life expectancy in the U.S. declined.
The “why” of this terrible new trend is confounding. Conservatives attribute it to alienation and estrangement from community and tradition. Liberals see it all as an outgrowth of a widening income gap and lower marginal tax rates on the rich. Nearly half of American voters surveyed at the polls this year by AP expressed “pessimistic views about the future.” No doubt, those views are shared by most of those who think they are living through capitalism’s last hurrah.
If the free market is experiencing the kind of crisis “late capitalism’s” advocates imagine, it is a victim of its own success. The prosperity and human progress that took place after the world “changed its mind” is without historical parallel. Amid all this growth, the assertion that capitalism is on its death bed is clearly unsubstantiated. Those who use the phrase without irony are allowing a wish to father the thought—as if they could will capitalism into its final stages by simply declaring it terminal. And if it is a wish, it’s a perverse one.