Why the Phrase 'Late Capitalism' Is Suddenly Everywhere

An investigation into a term that seems to perfectly capture the indignities and absurdities of the modern economy

Workers in Berlin attach chains to lift a statue of Karl Marx.
Tobias Schwarz / Reuters

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.

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