What is Late Capitalism?
What is late capitalism? If you’ve been on the internet at all during the last couple of years, you’ve surely seen the phrase “late capitalism” (or “late-stage capitalism”) pop up. Most of us could give examples of late capitalism, but fewer could formulate a definition.
“Late capitalism,” at least in common usage, has come to possess a variety of meanings. Some of them, indeed, seem contradictory—but it can be argued (and, I think, correctly) that the term’s capacity to be widely, and imprecisely, applied has contributed to its cultural impact. “Late capitalism” evokes a feeling, a flavor of experience, a distinct way of relating to the bewildering social and cultural shifts we’ve experienced since the Second World War.
An article in The Atlantic, pointing out the ubiquity of the phrase, gives some striking examples:
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.
The term, the article notes, wasn’t coined by Marx, but by later Marxist thinkers. Late capitalism is a difficult concept to put into words. The writers who have managed to do so can seem impenetrable to anyone but graduate students. This has led many to the conclusion (unfortunate, but not unreasonable) that late capitalism is a meaningless abstraction.
These theorists write in a specialized language, which shouldn’t be confused for a heightened, eloquent, or clear one. Their style is often ugly and opaque. It reeks of elitism, and it’s self-defeating: they’re writing about grave matters of immediate and global concern. There appears, alas, to be a conscious choice to alienate those who would benefit most from their work—betraying, perhaps, these writers’ lack of confidence in their conclusions, or (what is more likely) a fear that what is valuable in their contribution could be reduced to a PowerPoint presentation.
Marx, say what you will about him, was nothing if not clear. And many brilliant writers have labored in his shadow, so my complaint is somewhat reductive. But an understanding of late capitalism, of the postmodern condition in which we’re drowning, ought to be within the grasp of everyone. You shouldn’t need a graduate seminar to get it.
This article is a long one, but late capitalism isn’t a simple concept. The purpose of this piece is twofold:
- To provide a definition of late capitalism, and an exposition of the conceptual framework upon which the term is based.
- To examine a possible solution to the postmodern dilemma.
Before we proceed to define late capitalism, it would be helpful to address the ideas of Karl Marx, especially his concept of of dialectical materialism. Even for those (like myself) who don’t accept Marx’s conclusions, his work is especially relevant to any understanding of the postmodern.
Dialectical Materialism: A (Very) Brief Introduction
To get a sense of why capitalism, at this point in history, is considered to be “late” (i.e. nearing its end) it’s important to understand the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism.
This Britannica article offers a simple and precise explanation of a very complex topic. It begins:
Dialectical materialism [is] a philosophical approach to reality derived from the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For Marx and Engels, materialism meant that the material world, perceptible to the senses, has objective reality independent of mind or spirit. […] Marx and Engels understood materialism as the opposite of idealism, by which they meant any theory that treats matter as dependent on mind or spirit, or mind or spirit as capable of existing independently of matter.
The above should clarify, say, Marx’s opposition to Christianity. Christianity teaches that God—who is immaterial, spirit—authored the physical world. Marx, on the contrary, would say that our concept of God arises from cultural factors, which are themselves dependent on the material conditions of existence. If a civilization arises near a river, for example, its language might be filled with water metaphors, and its priesthood might make sacrifices to a water god. The religion of the water god, moreover—the moral codes, the dietary and sexual laws, etc.—would serve as a tool to strengthen and preserve the prevailing social order. The Britannica article continues:
Marx’s and Engels’ conception of dialectics owes much to the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. […] Hegelian dialectics considers things in their movements and changes, interrelations and interactions. Everything is in continual process of becoming and ceasing to be, in which nothing is permanent but everything changes and is eventually superseded. All things contain contradictory sides or aspects, whose tension or conflict is the driving force of change and eventually transforms or dissolves them. But whereas Hegel saw change and development as the expression of the world spirit, or Idea, realizing itself in nature and in human society, for Marx and Engels change was inherent in the nature of the material world. They therefore held that one could not, as Hegel tried, deduce the actual course of events from any “principles of dialectics”; the principles must be inferred from the events.
Marx, too, saw history as a “continual process of becoming and ceasing to be, in which nothing is permanent but everything changes and is eventually superseded.” However, for Hegel, these changes were driven by a kind of divine force [Geist in German, translated as “mind” or “spirit”], which determines the course of historical development.
History, in Hegel, is the process of estrangement and reconciliation. The self is alienated from a part of itself, and perceives this alienation as other, external. It doesn’t fully “know itself” in all its various aspects, because the alienated parts are unconscious of the fact that they come from a single self. They suffer because they possess merely partial knowledge. When they awaken to their estrangement, the broken self becomes whole. Whatever seemed contradictory, tragic, and incomprehensible now gains coherence and clarity in the light of absolute knowledge.
When, for example, Hegel conceives wealth, the power of the state, etc., as entities estranged from the being of man, he conceives them only in their thought form… They are entities of thought, and therefore simply an estrangement of pure – i.e., abstract – philosophical thought. Therefore, the entire movement ends with absolute knowledge. What these objects are estranged from and what they confront with their claim to reality is none other than abstract thought. The philosopher – himself an abstract form of estranged man – sets himself up as the yardstick of the estranged world. The entire history of alienation, and the entire retraction of this alienation, is, therefore, nothing more than the history of the production of abstract (i.e., absolute), thought, of logical, speculative thought. […] It is not the fact that the human essence objectifies itself in an inhuman way, in opposition to itself, but that it objectifies itself in distinction from and in opposition to abstract thought, which constitutes the essence of estrangement as it exists and as it is to be superseded.
Hegel sees “wealth, the power of the state, etc.” not as permanent truths of existence, but as developments in a ceaseless process of change. But, “They are entities of […] philosophical thought.” Born from Geist, they are abstract and immaterial. It is from this realm that problems arise, and here that they’re resolved.
Recall, above, our example of the river god. For Marx, it’s not that a river god helped found a civilization near a river—on the contrary, the civilization, which arose near a river, concocted a river god because of the material conditions in which this culture developed. If we take this perspective, we can understand how Hegel, a philosopher, “himself an abstract form of estranged man,” might “set himself up as the yardstick of the estranged world.” If you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail.
Marx, too, was a hammer, but the nails he saw were hardly abstract. In The Communist Manifesto, we read:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. […]
Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.
Marx, following Hegel, sees history as a process of conflict, division, and reconciliation. For him, though, material and economic conditions drive the motor of history, determining the rise and fall of nations. In the preface to the 1883 German edition, written after Marx’s death, Engels notes that “economic production, and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising therefrom, constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch.” Under capitalism, class struggle has reached a pitch both savage and auspicious. Marx conceived of humanity in industrial Europe as being divided into two great camps, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Engels, in a footnote to the 1888 English edition, defines them as follows:
- By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour.
- By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.
The showdown between these two would be unlike the reckonings of all previous epochs. “This struggle,” wrote Engels, “has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie), without at the same time forever freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression, class struggles.”
The proletariat will one day realize its power, that it vastly outnumbers the bourgeoisie, and that the bourgeoisie depends on it to maintain the oppressive apparatus of modern capitalism. Then the proletariat will seize the means of production from its masters and establish itself as the ruling class. The state, at least as we currencly conceive of it, will cease to be, since, “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.”
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
The anticipated revolution never occurred. There were, of course, plenty of Marxist revolutions—but none accomplished the radical, global change predicted in The Communist Manifesto.
Critics, of course, used this to dismiss Marx as a false prophet. But dialectical materialism, and the view of history it popularized, has been revised, critiqued, and modified by thinkers in a wide range of disciplines. Many of them see capitalism as an outworn template, soon to be superseded.
What Does “Late Capitalism” Mean?
The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
As The Atlantic article points out, Marxist thinker Frederic Jameson “introduced the phrase [‘late capitalism’] to a broader English-speaking audience of academics and theorists.” His essay, “Postmodenism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” is vast in scope and obscure. This essay, along with Jameson’s book of the same title, offers considerable insight on the term and the circumstances (historical, social, political, aesthetic) it describes.
Jameson noted that capitalism, “after the earlier expansions of the national market and the older imperialist system,” had engulfed the world. This third stage of capitalism, the late or postmodern period, is distinct from previous incarnations—there’s no longer a capitalism of England, or of industrial Europe, or of the United States. Late capitalism, on the contrary, is international in a way that—before the dawn of instant communication and air travel—it could never be.
In the preceding age, there remained vestiges of the natural world—that which was not swallowed, altered, commodified through the lens of capitalism. “Postmodernism,” he writes, “is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.”
The world, at this point, becomes “more fully human” in the sense that everything we see and experience has been conditioned by our activity. Visit, for example, any national park, and you have to pay a fee, maybe get a permit to camp, and so forth—nature, here, has been transformed into a product, has been subsumed into the human world of late capitalism.
Another distinct feature of the postmodern is an “immense dilation” of the sphere of culture. Following Marx, Jameson notes that the sphere of culture is “the sphere of commodities.”
Culture, recall, derives from economic conditions and serves to uphold them. Let us return to our hypothetical national park. Say a family decides to spend a weekend there. They’ve heard it’s great from their friends, who’ve heard it’s great from advertisements paid for by the state. The family purchases tents, gear, permits, and gasoline for the trip. They bring cell phones to document their journey, and post the pictures on social media, where their personal information is collected and their movements tracked, transforming the campers themselves into products. On Monday, when Dad returns to work, he may tell his colleagues about his weekend getaway, where he spent three lovely days going “back to nature.” But he did nothing of the kind. In fact, virtually every moment of this excursion was dedicated to the service of late capitalism.
All the gear they bought (including, and perhaps especially, the smartphones) was assembled in developing countries, where factory workers slaved under degrading conditions. Perhaps Mom and Dad chose the national park, and a weekend trip, because they couldn’t afford to spend ten days in the Caribbean like Dad’s boss, in a resort where the attendants, paid (we hope) a little better than the factory workers, attend to their patrons’ every need. (This resort is immaculately maintained, and the poverty in which most of the islanders live is kept conveniently out of the guests’ sight.)
Mom and Dad and Bub and Sis would have loved it, but they simply didn’t have the cash or the vacation time to make the trip. Bub has asthma and Mom recovered from cancer last year, and their health insurance isn’t the best, so they had to settle for a weekend in “nature.” They made the best of it, and who could blame them? They’re picked to pieces at every turn. The asthma medication and the chemo and the fees for insurance (which paid for some, but not all, of mom’s treatment) have taken a material, psychological, and spiritual toll on our poor family. There’s no use telling them—perhaps they couldn’t bear it, and, even if they could, blissful ignorance beats a knowledge of one’s helplessness—but the trip itself was a further insult, yet another erosion of their humanity. After all, their time together, the effort they made to create cherished memories, to escape, to relax, to be in the presence of one another and God’s world away from the forces that batter them relentlessly—this, too, has been subsumed. Their very identity, once the photos have been uploaded and tagged and posted, has become commodified, an object for consumption, reinforcing the bars of an invisible prison that they, against their will, have purchased, erected, and locked themselves within.
Jameson is careful to point out that the modifier “late” in no way indicates an inevitable revolution, nor the dawn of a new classless society:
[The “late” in “late capitalism”] rarely means anything so silly as the ultimate senescence, breakdown, and death of the system as such (a temporal vision that would rather seem to belong to modernism than postmodernism). What “late” generally conveys is rather the sense that something has changed, that things are different, that we have gone through a transformation of the life world which is somehow decisive but incomparable with the older convulsions of modernization and industrialization, less perceptible and dramatic, somehow, but more permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all-pervasive.
Most folks who use the term, though, probably aren’t familiar with Jameson or his work. In its modern usage, especially as it appears online, there’s a clear longing for social upheaval. As The Atlantic states:
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,” [Political scientist William Clare] 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.”
The Memes of Late Capitalism
The need for money is therefore the true need produced by the economic system, and it is the only need which the latter produces. The quantity of money becomes to an ever greater degree its sole effective quality. Just as it reduces everything to its abstract form, so it reduces itself in the course of its own movement to quantitative being. Excess and intemperance come to be its true norm. Subjectively, this appears partly in the fact that the extension of products and needs becomes a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites. Private property does not know how to change crude need into human need. Its idealism is fantasy, caprice and whim; and no eunuch flatters his despot more basely or uses more despicable means to stimulate his dulled capacity for pleasure in order to sneak a favour for himself than does the industrial eunuch – the producer – in order to sneak for himself a few pieces of silver, in order to charm the golden birds, out of the pockets of his dearly beloved neighbours in Christ.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Late capitalism has become the theme of countless memes, as this compilation will show. Below, I’ve selected a few that are especially characteristic:
In the above, we notice some recurring anxieties:
- The exploitation of the working class
- A cycle of debt and poverty that traps the working class
- The inevitable collapse of the current system, and a hope for revolution
Were it not for the hospital bill and the Timberland ad, we might dismiss the other memes as comic exaggeration. The effect is indeed comic, but the situation of the working class is dire and unsustainable.
What is most characteristic, though, of late capitalism, is that these memes are displayed on a webpage with advertisements. Presumably, those who made the memes were not compensated for their work, and take no share in the profit from the traffic that their art helped generate. (Of this exploitation, I, too, am guilty.)
The very people articulating the exploitative nature of late capitalism are here, in a darkly comic turn, made its victims. Their labor is purloined, their critique of the system cannibalized by that very system and employed to turn a profit. No one could rightly call it ironic, because it’s wholly unsurprising.
The language of revolution, misguided as it is, doesn’t arise from nowhere. From the right, we frequently hear complaints about bad professors and communist propaganda being drummed into the young. Let us grant, for the moment, that these claims aren’t partisan alarmism. If our society were a robust one, in which the freedoms we champion were self-evidently possessed by all, how could revolutionary sentiments find any purchase?
During the pandemic, The Great Resignation offered clear evidence that many Americans, especially in low-wage jobs, would prefer unemployment to work they find dehumanizing. Those who blame it on laziness or or a lack of some other virtue tend, by and large, to earn comfortable livings.
If we are in the midst of a crisis, and it seems evident that we are, then there’s blame to go around. It is imprudent and reductive to point our finger solely at the rich. For the rich are made rich by the consumer. There’s been plenty of ink spilled, for example, about the dreadful conditions in which Apple products are made—that didn’t stop Apple from becoming the most valuable company in history. The consumer—and the working poor, too, are consumers—determines the success or failure of a product. We have been complicit in sustaining the so-called “late capitalism” we decry.
Revolution won’t help us. We, who are an unjust people, will not replace our current order with a more equitable one. On the contrary, it, too, will bear all the features of our diseased conscience.
Unto This Last and the Problem with Political Economy
We usually speak as if death pursued us, and we fled from him; but that is only so in rare instances. Ordinarily he masks himself – makes himself beautiful – all-glorious; not like the King’s daughter, all glorious within, but outwardly: his clothing of wrought gold. We pursue him frantically all our days, he flying or hiding from us. Our crowning success at three-score and ten is utterly and perfectly to seize, and hold him in his eternal integrity – robes, ashes, and sting.John Ruskin, Unto This Last
Late capitalism admits of no easy solution. But there is, I think, a solution. It is not easy, though it is simple. The following two sections will examine a book published nearly two centuries ago. There is little need to update the language, or the concerns articulated, to suit our present situation. This book was ahead of its time and ours: it diagnoses, far more lucidly than Jameson, the sickness that bred postmodernism, and prescribes a cure.
John Ruskin, one of the most celebrated art critics of the 19th century, stirred up considerable controversy in his short book on political economy, Unto This Last. Accused of being a socialist, and of pandering to some truly unsavory elements—even harboring revolutionary impulses—Ruskin was, in fact, a staunch conservative.
Unto This Last is a disturbing piece of work—not because its contents are in any way indecent, but because it points out (to this reader, at least) the considerable gulf between the ideals we profess and the social injustice we help to perpetuate.
Unto this Last, more than anything, is a sustained attack on the science of political economy. Figures like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill provided a theoretical basis for modern industry. The concepts they proposed still exert a major influence on our understanding of capitalism today. For Ruskin, though, this so-called science is little more than superstition. Its central assumptions are based on faulty premises.
Political economy is bad science, he thinks, because it fundamentally misunderstands human nature. Unto this Last likens it to a theory of gymnastics that presumes humans have no skeletons. If we start with this assumption, we might find it “advantageous to roll up students into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability.” Political economy, for Ruskin, makes a similar blunder:
Assuming, not that the human being has no skeleton, but that it is all skeleton, it founds an ossifiant theory of progress on this negation of a soul; and having shown the utmost that may be made of bones, and constructed a number of interesting geometrical figures with death’s-head and humeri, successfully proves the inconvenience of the reappearance of a soul among these corpuscular structures. I do not deny the truth of this theory: I simply deny its applicability to the present phase of the world.
Political economy views human beings as bodies, as units—consumers, capitalists, workers, etc. It understands them quantitatively, discarding the qualities that distinguish one individual from another, and human beings from animals. The laws that apply to one worker, one manager, one consumer, are equally applicable to any other. In this sense, it’s fundamentally dehumanizing.
One example Ruskin uses to illustrate this point is his critique of the principle that one should buy low and sell high. This, of course, makes sense if we’re only thinking of profit and the accumulation of wealth. But what determines the price of a given commodity?
If a town is destroyed by fire or earthquake, one could acquire charcoal or bricks for nothing. Perhaps all an enterprising entrepreneur would need, in terms of cost, was the labor to collect these bricks or charcoal. Moreover, the labor itself could likely be procured at a discount rate, since those whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed, desperate for work, could be enlisted on the cheap to collect the ruins of their former properties. By this logic, earthquake and fire could be seen as benefits.
In addition to being a deeply cruel form of reasoning, it’s also flawed on a practical level. Quantitatively, at least in the short term, a few people might stand to make a great deal of money. But the quality of life for many would be decimated. The health of the community would suffer, and whatever “wealth” was gained would be at the expense of those who lost it. If profit is always generated in such a manner, with little regard for the spiritual welfare of others, order erodes, and society is eventually undone.
Ruskin’s Restorative Economics
The argument most often made against Ruskin—and the most effective, since it’s true—is that he’s an idealist. On this side of the eschaton, at least, perfect justice is unachievable. This fact, sad as it is, indisputable as it is, is no justification to exploit and oppress.
But political economy, whatever the intent of those who developed it, has been used to justify, sanitize, and obscure. Unto This Last frequently calls into question the terminology employed by that discipline, insisting that its anodyne language hides repugnant actions.
The book’s argument is largely a semantic one. Terms like “price,” “exchange,” “labor,” “capital,” and “profit,” which shared a commonly accepted meaning among political economists, are examined through Ruskin’s uncompromising lens. His purpose isn’t to redefine—rather, Unto This Last seems to imply that it is the political economist who offers a novel interpretation of terms whose meaning, to anyone with a conscience, should be entirely obvious.
Price and Exchange
The term “exchange” will provide a fitting example. In an honest exchange, no profit is made—at least not in the sense that the average businessman would understand. Say I plant a certain amount of corn, and the harvest yields double the amount I planted. And say my neighbor isn’t a farmer, but a miner and blacksmith. He takes his tool, enters a mine, uses that tool to dig out some metal, and forges it into another tool. I need tools and he needs food: I provide him enough food to sustain himself for future digs, and he gives me one of his tools so I can farm more efficiently. We both benefit here, and in equal measure.
In this very simple (and admittedly hypothetical) exchange, the price isn’t set to favor the farmer over the blacksmith, or vice versa. In this sense, then, there’s no “profit.” Ruskin explains:
They exchange the gained grain for the gained tool; and both are the better for the exchange; but though there is much advantage in the transaction, there is no profit. Nothing is constructed or produced. Only that which had been before constructed is given to the person by whom it can be used.
How, then, are we to understand price and profit? According to Unto This Last, political economists have performed a clever act of obfuscation, hiding an ugly truth behind dry and scientific-sounding language.
For Ruskin, it would be clearer to speak of acquisition. “If, in the exchange,” he writes, “one man is able to give what cost him little labor for what has cost the other much, he ‘acquires’ a certain quantity of the produce of the other’s labor. And precisely what he acquires, the other loses.” This is what we really mean when we speak of profit.
This science of exchange has some highly unusual features, features not represented in any other science. “Profit,” at least in the sense that it’s commonly understood, is a question of advantage.
Say I’m a merchant from a European colonial power, and I find myself in a distant land, where the indigenous people have an immense supply of diamonds. Let’s assume, further, that the diamonds aren’t seen as valuable by the natives. Perhaps they’re willing to exchange diamonds for their weight in needles. If I can get them to do so, it’s likely due either to (a) their ignorance of how valuable diamonds are in my culture, or (b) their need to sell the diamonds coupled with their inability to receive a better price. While I have a clear advantage here, we’ve in no way participated in an equitable exchange.
The so-called science of exchange, for Ruskin, is based on the “ignorance or incapacity” of one party. “When these vanish,” he writes, “it also vanishes.”
Ruskin points out that this is the only science whose existence depends on the promotion of “nescience,” or ignorance. Science, in all other cases, seeks to illuminate, to clarify that which is obscure. As for political economy:
It is, therefore, peculiarly and alone the science of darkness; probably a bastard science – not by any means a divina scientia, but one begotten of another father, that father who, advising his children to turn stones into bread, is himself employed in turning bread into stones, and who, if you ask a fish of him (fish not being producible on his estate), can but give you a serpent.
Ruskin is here evoking biblical language to make his point explicit: the science of political economy is, in its essence, satanic. It is grounded in lies and dissimulation and, whatever language we use to legitimize it, the gain of one party at the expense of another.
What, then, would constitute a just law of exchange? For Ruskin, an exchange is just when there is either (a) advantage on both sides, or (b) advantage on one side without disadvantage on the other. There must be just payment to all involved—including any intermediate parties, such as merchants involved in the transaction. If there’s any advantage on either side, it shouldn’t be hidden from any of the concerned parties. “All attempt at concealment,” Ruskin writes, “implies some practice of the opposite, or undivine science, founded on nescience.”
Unto This Last points out a truth as obvious as it is inconvenient: when we speak of money, of managing household matters (whether the household is a single family or a nation) our concern is never really material, but is, at its heart, metaphysical and psychological. To deny this truth is to make a psychological, metaphysical, and even spiritual stand.
The term “advantage,” Ruskin notes, “includes two ideas.” The first kind of advantage is getting what we need, and the second kind is getting “what we wish for.” The vast majority, he notes, of our demands are “founded on visions, idealisms, hopes, and affections; and the regulation of the purse is, in its essence, regulation of the imagination and the heart.”
Intemperance, greed, vanity, and so forth all arise from a disordered soul, a heart poorly regulated. Anyone subject to these impulses will betray by their actions—whether as entrepreneur or employee or consumer—an enslavement to vice.
The Value of Labor
Ruskin understands price to be “the quantity of labor given by the person desiring it, in order to obtain possession of it.” This requires a note of explanation: wages, for Ruskin, are understood as a kind of debt. When someone is paid, it’s an acknowledgement of debt by the state. Say a man works a shift at a factory, and is paid one hundred dollars for the day: this payment essentially says that he’s able to solicit one hundred dollars worth of goods and services from someone else. The state itself is the guarantor that the currency he receives will be exchangeable for X amount of goods and services. When someone possesses currency, then, they possess both the power to solicit labor, and the power to buy goods and services, themselves produced by labor. So, then, the possession of currency is the possession of labor, either one’s own labor or that of someone else.
“The price of everything,” writes Ruskin, “is to be calculated finally in labour.” Ruskin follows this statement by defining labor in a way that is by no means new, but striking because it is at once incontestable and so removed from our current reality.
Ruskin understands labor, fundamentally, as conflict of life with its opposite. “Life” includes “intellect, soul, and power,” and its opposite is “difficulty, trial, or material force.”
The higher the quality of labor, the more elements of life it incorporates. Ruskin likens the quality of labor to “gold or silver of a given standard.” He qualifies “bad” labor as “heartless, inexperienced, or senseless” work, and says that, “like gold of uncertain alloy, or flawed iron,” it is worthless.
The value of labor of a given quality is, for Ruskin, invariable. Of course, the same can’t be said for how much labor is needed for to perform a service or craft a good. “The price of other things must always be counted,” he writes, “by the quantity of labour, not the price of labour by the quantity of other things.”
He uses the example of planting an apple tree. Say two equally skilled workers plant two different trees—one plants it in rocky ground, and another in soil. The first tree takes two hours to plant; the second is planted in thirty minutes. Assuming the quality of labor is equal in both cases, the first tree took four times the labor that the second did.
“Now,” he writes, “the proper statement of this fact is, not that the labour on the hard ground is cheaper than on the soft; but that the tree is dearer.” This may not have any bearing on the price—say both trees are planted at a large estate, with plenty of soft ground. In such a case, assuming that there’s no need to plant the tree in rocky ground, there would be no reason to charge extra for the additional labor required.
When we speak of cheap labor, that’s not what we really mean: remember, the value of labor of a certain quality is invariable. What’s variable is the amount of labor it takes to perform a service or manufacture a good. So when we speak of cheap labor, what we’re really saying is that “much labor is required to produce a small result.”
Production, Consumption, and Capital
All labor, for Ruskin, is productive. But labor, even labor of the highest quality, can be directed toward constructive or destructive aims. Whatever produces, furthers, or sustains life would be productive, and whatever does the opposite would be negative to the degree that it opposes life. “The most directly negative labour,” says Ruskin, “is murder, and the most directly positive, the bearing and rearing of children.”
National prosperity, then, can’t merely be judged by GDP. Rather, “the prosperity of any nation is in exact proportion to the quantity of labour which it spends in obtaining and employing means of life.” Production whose end is profit—at least, profit in terms of quantitative monetary gain—isn’t the goal. Production, in order to generate true prosperity, must encourage distribution and consumption that helps further life.
The term “consumerism” bears such a negative connotation that “consumer” can function as a pejorative. Ruskin is hardly an opponent of consumerism. On the contrary, he is its ardent champion. However, the consumerism he celebrates is a leagues away from our current model. “Wise consumption,” Ruskin notes, “is a far more difficult art than wise production.” For every twenty people who gain money, he says, only one tends to use it properly.
For individuals and for nations, the question is the same. We shouldn’t ask how much money is made, but to what end it’s spent.
Ruskin defines capital as follows:
Capital signifies ‘head, or source, or root material’ – it is material by which some derivative or secondary good is produced. It is only capital proper (caput vivum, not caput mortuum) when it is thus producing something different from itself. It is a root, which does not enter into vital function till it produces something else than a root: namely, fruit. That fruit will in time again produce roots; and so all living capital issues in reproduction of capital; but capital which produces nothing but capital is only root producing root; bulb issuing in bulb, never in tulip; seed issuing in seed, never in bread.
Ruskin notes that, in his day, political economists are concerned merely with “the multiplication, or (less even) the aggregation, of bulbs.”
In Ruskin’s estimation, “The best and simplest general type of capital is a well-made ploughshare.” This is in keeping with his philosophy of wise production—unlike, say, a gun (which would be designed to destroy life), or a diamond necklace (which could lead the wearer to vanity, and the manufacturer to commit all kinds of depravity to acquire the materials necessary for its production), a ploughshare is designed to produce sustenance, to further and sustain life. But what if our ploughshare “did nothing but beget other ploughshares”? In such a case, it would be of little use in bettering the lives of the farmers who used it.
The final object of political economy, therefore, is to get good method of consumption, and great quantity of consumption: in other words, to use everything, and to use it nobly; whether it be substance, service, or service perfecting substance.
In order to determine the value of production, then, it’s necessary to judge what it produces—i.e. whether the product made or service rendered contributes to the furtherance of life.
Late Capitalism Reconsidered
THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others. A strange political economy; the only one, nevertheless, that ever was or can be: all political economy founded on self-interest being but the fulfilment of that which once brought schism into the Policy of angels, and ruin into the Economy of Heaven.John Ruskin, Unto This Last
In August 2020, The Washington Examiner reported that a guillotine had been constructed outside of Jeff Bezos’s home. Chris Smalls, a former amazon employee, led the event. It wasn’t the first of its kind that year.
The protesters, evoking the French Revolution, were presumably likening Bezos to a monarch like Louis XVI, accusing him of exploiting the common man, and of being a decadent ruler losing grip on a crumbling empire.
While the French Revolution was a tragedy, this performance doesn’t even rise to the level of farce. Not because the grievances are illegitimate (they’re not), or because they chose the wrong target (they did), but because their act of rebellion served to support the very system that, on the surface, it was meant to undermine.
The story was reported by The Washington Examiner, a conservative publication. No doubt, it generated clicks and ad revenue and an outrage as justified as it is misplaced. Vanity Fair, in a brief article on the incident, took a supportive tone:
During the pandemic alone, Bezos made over $24 billion, and on Wednesday, Forbes revealed he has become the first person to ever be worth $200 billion, almost $90 billion more than the world’s second-richest person, Bill Gates.
To celebrate that milestone, protestors set up a guillotine in front of his home, an apparatus made famous in the late 18th century during the French Revolution for beheading nobility, including Marie Antoinette of “let them eat cake” fame and King Louis XVI. Protestors surrounded the antique execution device with signs decrying Bezos’s poor treatment of workers. Smalls has protested outside Bezos’s home before, organizing a group of activists in New York on August 9 and at his D.C. home in June, an event which also featured a guillotine.
According to The Washington Post, Bezos purchased his latest D.C. pied-à-terre in October for $23 million in cash, a million over the listing price, or .000115% of his total net worth. The 27,000-square-foot property is actually the city’s former Textile Museum that spanned two historic mansions and which he has now converted into a single-family home. Just a humble abode for the richest man on the planet.
This take could strike many readers as confusing. After all, in the event of a revolution, the staff of Vanity Fair, among the establishment media’s cultural elite, would certainly find their heads on the chopping block. But perhaps the author is more savvy than we realize, and recognizes that this protest—however it appears—is, far from being a danger to the social order, an indispensable tool for it’s expansion.
The protesters no doubt erected the guillotine as a spectacle—there was, presumably, no real intent to execute Bezos, even if we assume that none of them would have opposed such violence were they not held responsible. The purpose of the guillotine was to draw the press’s attention to their cause, to generate posts and shares and tweets, debate and discussion.
Let us assume, for simplicity’s sake, that the motive for drawing this attention was to effect radical change. Say they wanted more than a hike in their wages and better and better benefits—say they sought a true revolution. Had this been the case, they could hardly have chosen a more self-defeating approach.
Whatever concessions, if any, such activity won for the protesters, it is nothing compared to the concessions they made to the late capitalist order for which, however unwittingly, they have enlisted themselves as footsoldiers. Let us consider the following:
- Media outlets, both legacy and new, seek compelling content. The more provocative the story, the more likely they are to get traffic, increasing subscriptions and ad revenue and user engagement, etc.
- In generating attention for their cause, the protesters have made themselves dependent on these outlets to spread their message.
- In order to become visible to these outlets in the first place, the protesters must purchase devices manufactured by the system they find oppressive. To post on Facebook or Twitter, they must cede their personal information allowing their every post—however radical, however “anticapitalist”—to become a product.
- As in the case of the memes above, the protesters’ labor (building the guillotine, showing up, posting, giving interviews) is exploited by media both critical and “sympathetic,” and they are not compensated, at least not materially, for the revenue they play an essential role in generating.
If late capitalism is as powerful, and as ubiquitous, as its opponents claim, it follows that any real threat to it would be met with a considerably different reaction. The above makes clear, however, that, far from being a danger to its hegemony, such political theater is one of late capitalism’s most novel, and demoralizing, features.
The tools of radical politics (protest, the dissemination of propaganda, even the act of political violence) have been subsumed into the global field of late capitalism. No lasting solution can ever be achieved through political means—but in our postmodern age, all politics, a commodity like any other, renders the Molotov cocktail (or, for that matter, the vote) no more potent than a Big Mac.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen a great many evocations of the French Revolution. An article in Eleventh Column likens the toppling of racist statues to the actions of the destruction, more than two hundred years earlier, of the monuments of the Ancien Régime.
Those who opposed the abolition of Confederate monuments accused the protesters of “erasing history.” But it is not history that these works were designed to preserve. They were erected, on the contrary, to santize and obscure it. The first of these monuments was built at the close of the nineteenth century, and the practice continued until the 1950s. The builders’ intent was apparently to idealize the Confederacy, and to bolster support for Jim Crow.
What the protesters sought to abolish, then, was a false history. A noble goal, of course, with an even nobler implication—once the lie was torn down, the truth it hid would be visible.
Here it would be appropriate to observe Jameson, who wrote:
It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.
The Eleventh Column article states that the French revolutionaries weren’t committing acts of vandalism, but iconoclasm. The icons they were destroying weren’t exclusively religious (though plenty of churches, too, were wrecked), but the artifacts of culture that, like Jim Crow-era Confederate monuments, were designed to preserve a system of oppression.
There is an argument, and a reasonable one, to be made for this interpretation. The article, though, in an omission it is hard not to believe was intentional, makes no mention of the thousands guillotined by the revolutionary government—many of them iconoclasts themselves.
The fruits of the Revolution, like the system it toppled, were pretty rotten. Once the revolutionary government faded, the French had to endure the dictatorship of Napoleon, along with years of warfare, before the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy under Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI.
“The tradition of all the dead generations,” Marx wrote, “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
The French Revolution, on its face, seemed to represent something radical. They abolished the Church, even went so far as to set up a new calendar. Why, at this moment unprecedented in history, would the revolutionaries look to ancient Rome? According to Mortimer Sellers:
The history and institutions of the Roman republic gave the French and American educated classes attitudes and the vocabulary to support their own revolutions nearly two millennia after Caesar and Augustus extinguished republican liberty in the ancient world. The French and American revolutionaries assumed Roman names, such as “Publius” and “Cincinnatus”, embraced Roman vocabulary, such as “liberty” and “virtue”, and revived Roman republican institutions, such as a “Senate”, whose “advice and consent” preceded all legislation.
Ancient Rome, of course, was hardly an egalitarian utopia. The Revolutionaries, well aware of this fact, were trained in classical languages, history, and culture. Rome, then, wasn’t their only ancient model, but it certainly had the greatest influence. Even during the Ancien Régime, the glory of this long-dead empire was held up as a standard for justice, reason, and efficient government.
The evocation of Ancient Rome wasn’t limited to names and ideas. It helped shape the new cultural standards, and and, in the pictures below, we can discern its influence in painting, architecture, and fashion:
While America remained (at least nominally) a republic, France, with the rise of Napoleon, became an empire like Rome before it. Napoleon, who styled himself as a new Caesar, was proclaimed “Emperor of Europe.” But his empire fell, and the Bourbons returned to the throne.
Marx, reflecting on the Revolution, offers some clarity as to why Vanity Fair, in reporting on the protesters’ guillotine, wasn’t especially disquieted:
Thus […] the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire […] Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society. The first ones knocked the feudal basis to pieces and mowed off the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the conditions under which alone free competition could be developed, parceled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders he everywhere swept the feudal institutions away, so far as was necessary to furnish bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. The new social formation once established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity—the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.
What the Revolution ultimately achieved, for Marx, wasn’t the new world of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” its champions (and their modern-day defenders) claimed to want. For him, the undoing of the old class structure unfettered economic forces that led to widespread industrialization, and the oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.
This interpretation of the Revolution as a triumph for the bourgeoisie, and for capitalism, is a controversial one. Nonetheless, it’s indisputable that Enlightenment thought, propagated by a cultural elite, helped shape the ideology on which the new society was grounded.
The staff of Vanity Fair are, like the cultural and elites of any Western country, the direct descendants of this progress. Let us repeat, once more, Jameson’s words:
It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.
The thinkers of Revolutionary France were steeped, from their earliest years, in the culture they sought to imitate—they were fully capable of historical thought. The guillotine, of course, was always political theater. Even its mode of slaughter was a product of Enlightenment values: previously, the nobility was subject to a different system of punishment, and more “humane” forms of execution should the crime warrant it. Revolutionary France, though, advocated for equality under the law, and saw this machine (a paragon, if nothing else, of efficiency) as a means of delivering a swift and painless death.
The guillotine erected by the protesters, and its celebration (or condemnation) by the press, seem characteristically lacking in self-awareness. The original guillotine was a symbol (if we are being charitable), of a radical erasure of an outmoded, oppressive regime, a violent affirmation of total equality that “knocked the feudal basis to pieces and mowed off the feudal heads which had grown on it.” In this new incarnation, it is transformed into its opposite: it isn’t used for execution, but to generate attention and ad revenue for cultural elites like Bezos, who, lest we forget, owns The Washington Post, as well as the largest distributor of print and ebooks that the world has ever seen.
This new guillotine is a neutered one, lacking (thank God) the original’s violent potency. Perhaps, then, it’s not an inversion of the original—perhaps the dazzling, murderous power of the original effectively masked its true intent, which wasn’t to breed a utopia, but a new tyranny under different masters.
It is a telling coincidence that Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. This book, the first systematic work of political economy, exerted an immense influence on the French Revolution. My goal, to be clear, is neither to attack Smith’s character nor his ideas. He is a complicated and misunderstood figure, and worthy of study.
I’m seeking, rather, to demonstrate that we’re currently caught in a web of technology and power that some call “Late Capitalism.” Political action, as shown above, cannot excise us.
Even if revolution, culminating in the establishment of a new social order, were achievable, it would not be desirable. This is not to say, of course, that things will simply proceed as they are, no matter what we do. As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, radical, and potentially catastrophic, change may be impending and inevitable. Our incapacity to think historically is a grave threat to civilization. Whatever upheaval this change provokes will almost certainly have a political element.
But, despite Marx’s insistence to the contrary, politics, like economics, are only symptoms of an underlying spiritual reality. It is this reality that John Ruskin sought to address in Unto This Last. Whether or not his economic theory passes muster, many of the moral assertions he makes are self-evidently true. But morality alone cannot save us.
If as Ruskin notes, “there is no wealth but life,” then the whole discipline of political economy is called into question. A just economics would privilege practices that encourage the greatest quality of life over quantitative measures of prosperity.
Unto This Last asserts that the employer has an essentially paternal responsibility. For many, more waking hours are spent at work than at home. A certain professional distance from our colleagues is, of course, appropriate. This distance, however, is too often used to license the attitude that a coworker, less than a friend, should be afforded little more courtesy than a stranger. While such an attitude may improve efficiency (and prove entirely necessary for success in the present corporate climate), that doesn’t make it any less unjust.
“In most cases,” Ruskin writes, “a youth entering a commercial establishment is withdrawn altogether from home influence; his master must become his father, else he has, for practical and constant help, no father at hand.” Generally, the way an employer exercises authority and the culture he fosters in the office, the factory, etc., along with the character of his colleagues, has a “more immediate and pressing weight than home influence, and will usually neutralize it either for good or evil.” For the employer to act justly toward those under his authority, he must “ask himself sternly whether he is dealing with such subordinate as he would with his own son.”
This principle, as we have noted, does not apply only to employers. When we buy a product that was manufactured in inhumane conditions, we tacitly endorse such degradation. If our child worked in a Foxconn factory, would we be as eager to buy an iPhone?
Perhaps we would—and maybe we’d be even more eager. “There’s no question,” South China Morning Post notes, “that Foxconn pays more than its workers would earn in their rural villages.” Life, at least by quantitative metrics, is better. But working 29 days a month, twelve hours a day, is no kind of life for Americans—most of us wouldn’t choose such a grueling schedule unless we were compelled by passion or necessity.
Of course, they’re not us. They live far off and out of sight, and should some news of their misfortune cross our field of vision, we can always scroll away.
Consumer and manufacturer, boss and employee, journalist and would-be revolutionary—there are a great many personae for those who strut and fret upon the postmodern stage to assume. But there is, in each one, an element of dissimulation. The real nature of our pursuit must be hidden: a grave sin, and difficult to perform without compunction. We mask (and teach our children to mask) the truth from ourselves, so that its concealment from others can become second nature. Here, once more, is Jameson:
[T]his whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.
This is what we’re hiding. Sure, the Soviets were worse, as is the CCP—such whataboutism leaves the beam in our eye firmly intact. Late capitalism, in a manner singular and insidious and far subtler than that of political economy, promotes a culture of nescience. It effectively numbs and neutralizes, hyptnotizing the denizens of its candy-colored landscape, commanding them to forget.
What is to be done? Radical politics, in our postmodern era, is hardly impotent: indeed, each viral guillotine is another brick in the edifice of late capitalism. It is a prison that we—all of us—have helped to build. And it is not, at its core, a political problem. Nor is it an economic one.
A moral solution, too, will prove untenable, because, as Jameson notes, “if postmodernism is a historical phenomenon, then the attempt to conceptualize it in terms of moral or moralizing judgments must finally be identified as a category mistake.” Late capitalism is a product of historical development, guided by a hand much older and more powerful than ours. The critique itself must become, despite our best efforts, yet another feature in the topography of late capitalism.
But eternity is long and God is just. And we will be called to account for our inattention, for the hungry we did not feed and the naked we did not clothe—for those we allowed to suffer out of convenience.
We cannot simply seek to do good, we must seek the Author of good, who is beyond all categories, who precedes being and nonbeing. Late capitalism thrives in nescience, but there is a Light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness cannot comprehend.
Late capitalism is a symptom of a spiritual malady. The disease, utlimately, is a terminal one, and Heaven and Earth will die with it. Then there will be renewal. But for now, if we are to expect any temporal relief, if there is to be any (relative) justice on earth, we must give people their due. We must forgive those who don’t, and pray for them and for ourselves. “Things are more complicated than that.” Of course they are, but that’s no excuse, and we ought to stop making excuses.