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.

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