Late capitalism

Late capitalism

"Late capitalism" is a term used by neo-Marxists to refer to capitalism from about 1945 onwards, with the implication that it is a historically limited stage rather than an eternal feature of all future human society. Postwar German sociologists needed a term to describe contemporary society. Theodore Adorno preferred "late capitalism" over "industrial society," which was the theme of the 16th Congress of German Sociologists in 1968.[1] This period includes the era termed the golden age of capitalism.


Origin of the term

The term "late capitalism" was first used by Werner Sombart in his 1902 magnum opus Der Moderne Kapitalismus; Sombart distinguished between early capitalism, the heyday of capitalism and late capitalism. The term began to be used by socialists in Europe towards the end of the 1930s and in the 1940s, when many economists believed capitalism was doomed [2] and it was used in the 1960s particularly in Germany and Austria, among others by Western Marxists writing in the tradition of the Frankfurt School and Austromarxism. At the end of World War II, many economists including Joseph Schumpeter and Paul Samuelson believed the end of capitalism could well be nigh, in that the economic problems might be insurmountable.[3]


Capitalism is perceived to be a flexible and adaptive system, able to survive terrible catastrophes including two world wars and an enormous number of smaller wars - suggesting, for many thinkers, that the end is not yet near. Vladimir Lenin famously declared that there are no "absolutely hopeless situations" for capitalism.[4]

This, however, does not deter critics of the system, who point to its relative newness, the rapid collapse of prior orders of much greater duration, the effects of modern communications on class consciousness, and a general perceived inadequacy of its ability to deal with various crises of its own making and other long term structural problems.

But there are also others, like Murray Bookchin, who argue that capitalism has already been superseded; in a modern information society the old industrial system is a thing of the past, and the reference to capitalism is an anachronism[citation needed] (although Marx never defined capitalism as being purely industrial). Similarly, Immanuel Wallerstein believes that capitalism is in the process of being replaced by another world system in several of his works and lectures on world-systems theory[citation needed]. Wallerstein places the time at which this process began as somewhere around 1968, during the so-called revolutions of 1968 and as the hegemony of the United States began to move into a period of decline[citation needed]. Wallerstein does not state what sort of system the world is theorized to be transitioning to, indeed he believes it is impossible to know until the transition has already been made[citation needed].


According to the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel, who popularised the term with his 1972 PhD dissertation, late-stage capitalism will be dominated by the machinations – or perhaps better, fluidities – of financial capital.[citation needed]

In his work Late Capitalism, Mandel argues for three periods in the development of the capitalist mode of production. The first is freely competitive capitalism, which occurred from 1700 to 1850 and is characterized largely by the growth of industrial capital in domestic markets. Secondly there is the phase of monopoly capitalism, which lasted until approximately 1940, and is characterized by the imperialistic development of international markets as well as the exploitation of colonial territories. Finally there is the epoch of late capitalism emerging out of the Second World War, which has as its dominant features the multinational corporation, globalized markets and labor, mass consumption, and the space of liquid multinational flows of capital[citation needed].

In the tradition of the classical Marxists[citation needed], Mandel tried to characterize the nature of the modern epoch as a whole, with reference to the main laws of motion of capitalism specified by Marx[citation needed], in order to show how the same forces which boosted profitability after the world war must ultimately turn into their dialectical opposites[citation needed], and cause its decline. Mandel's aim was to explain the unexpected[according to whom?] revival of capitalism after World War II, and a long economic boom which showed the fastest economic growth ever seen in human history.

For Mandel, profitability could be influenced by numerous different factors, and was only the general indicator of the condition of the system as a whole; his critics (such as Paul Mattick) however argued that Mandel is too eclectic, and failed to give an orthodox Marxist explanation of the famous "tendency of the rate of profit to fall".[citation needed]

Whereas Mandel organised his explanation of the long boom mainly in terms of factors counteracting the falling rate of profit, he did not distinguish clearly between the rate and volume of profit and considered effective demand an important variable. This invited the accusation that Mandel subscribed to a theory of underconsumptionism, i.e. attributing crisis phenomena to a lack of buying power by workers. Such an approach, it was argued, is conducive to a reformist redistribution of wealth, rather than total revolution.[citation needed]


Other critics, such as the Marxist-Leninists, preferred the concept of state monopoly capitalism, or reject any periodisation of capitalism in terms of "early" and "late" stages as unscientific.

The American literary critic and cultural theorist, Fredric Jameson, also used Mandel's third stage designation as the point of departure for his widely-cited Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in which, among other issues, Jameson argues that this period involves an emergence of a Cultural Dominant or Mode of Cultural Production which differs markedly in its various manifestations (Jameson comments on developments in Literature, Film, Fine Art, Video, Social Theory, etc.) from those of its predecessor, referred to collectively and broadly as Modernism, mainly in its treatment of "subject position," temporality and narrative.

Cultural critique

Late capitalism is also an important component of Fredric Jameson's influential cultural analysis of postmodernity. A section of Jameson's analysis has been reproduced on the Marxists Internet Archive.

The theme of the end of history, recalling an idea from Hegel, was rekindled by A. Kojève in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. It is discussed by Francis Fukuyama in a book of the same name, and criticised by Frank Furedi [2] The idea of the "end of history" is that liberal democracy represents the highest and ultimate development of human society and that all societies tend towards liberal democracy as an end state.

A related term is late bourgeois society as contrasted with early bourgeois society in the 17th and 18th century, and classical bourgeois society in the 19th and early 20th century.

See also

Notes and References

  1. ^ Theodor W. Adorno (ed.) Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft. Verhandlungen des 16. Deutschen Soziologentages. Stuttgart, 1969.
  2. ^ see, for example, Natalia Moszkowska's Zur Dynamik des Spätkapitalismus. Zurich: Verlag Der Aufbruch, 1943.
  3. ^ Philip Armstrong, Andrew Glyn and John Harrison, Capitalism Since World War II: The Making and Breakup of the Great Boom. Fontana, 1984, chapter 1.
  4. ^ V.I. Lenin, "Report On The International Situation And The Fundamental Tasks Of The Communist International", July 19, 1920 [1].

Additional References

  • Ernest Mandel. Late Capitalism (London: Humanities Press, 1975).
  • Immanuel Wallerstein. The Essential Wallerstein (New York: The New Press, 2000), World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

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