Economists and others have used the term “late capitalism” to signify both a coming socialist revolution and, conversely, the idea of the modern market economy’s excesses as having become permanently entrenched. More recently, critics have invoked it in reference to something closer to so-called “woke capitalism,” to highlight the emerging tendency of brands to embrace social-justice missions in their marketing. Does the expression actually mean anything?

Rachel Connolly, the London-based writer who flagged the late-capitalism phenomenon in the practice of cultural criticism, argues that the expression is part of a broader pattern of arts and lifestyle critics gesturing at structural analyses they don’t ultimately deliver. Connolly says that, like other invocations of “systemic” forces, the concept of late capitalism can add an aura of urgency and seriousness to critics’ work, but without illuminating the cultural phenomena—whether movies or moisturizers—they’re supposedly reviewing. Rather than asking that critics become activists, she suggests that they embrace a form of culture writing that isn’t pretending to be anything else.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Is “late capitalism” something related to claims by corporations that buying their products will save the world?

Rachel Connolly: It’s not a term used by companies. It’s used a lot in a specific type of writing, which is aiming to read as quite academized, maybe to read as a political and wide-ranging cultural criticism. There is a trend for doing cultural criticism about something writers had noticed within their own social spheres. It might be an advert they were getting a lot on Instagram. It could be brands. It could be a habit. But basically, instead of talking about this brand, and its significance to this person in their friend group, which is I think what they actually meant, they talked about this brand and its significance in the context of “late capitalism.” It’s a way of taking something that relates to a particular milieu, and projecting it to have this wider significance it does not have.

The phrase “late capitalism” is used by highly educated people, people who spend all their time on the internet, who are at the top end of capitalism. So you’ll see people tweet stuff like, Urban Outfitters is the worst impulses of capitalism. The worst symbols of capitalism are like the Sackler family. It’s a way of taking the small discomforts that people like me, millennial university graduates, feel with the lot that’s been handed to us, and making it this incredibly dramatic, apocalyptic thing.

Instead of talking about this brand, and its significance to this person in their friend group, which is I think what they actually meant, they talked about this brand and its significance in the context of “late capitalism.”

Bovy: What you wrote about “late capitalism” asides in articles about consumption reminded me of privilege disclaimers in feminist writing, a subject we’ve both written about.

For the uninitiated, this something like: A woman will recount a marital dispute about loading the dishwasher, and will stop and acknowledge the privilege of having a dishwasher, noting her awareness that not everyone has one. Readers often find these disclaimers grating. But if a writer fails to refer to her own privilege, other readers complain.

Is something like that what’s happening with references to “late capitalism”? Is it just that a vague dig at capitalism is what an educated millennial audience expects from writing about consumption?

Connolly: It’s a way of making your point sound grander and more systemic. So instead of saying, Oh, I find, I find the way this shop does its branding annoying, you say, The way the shop does branding is insidious, and it represents this wider structure. It’s a way of gesturing at structural problems, to make it look as if you’ve done the structural analysis, whereas often you have not.

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