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.”
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