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 a permanent one. This period includes the era termed the golden age of capitalism.

The American literary critic and cultural theorist, Frederic Jameson, considered Rudolf Hilferding's term latest capitalism (jüngster Kapitalismus) a more prudent and less prophetic-seeming one than late capitalism.[1] French philosopher Jacques Derrida favoured neo-capitalism over post- or late-capitalism.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

The term 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. Postwar German sociologists needed a term to describe contemporary society. Theodor Adorno preferred "late capitalism" over "industrial society," which was the theme of the 16th Congress of German Sociologists in 1968.[5] In 1971, Leo Kofler published a book called Technologische Rationalität im Spätkapitalismus (technological rationality in late capitalism). And in 1973, Jürgen Habermas published his Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (Legitimacy problems in late capitalism).[6]


Capitalism is an economic system which prides itself in the idea of 'private property'. Vladimir Lenin famously declared that there are no "absolutely hopeless situations" for capitalism.[7] 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.

Immanuel Wallerstein believes that capitalism may be in the process of being replaced by another world system.[8]

Others however see late capitalism in the 21st century as very much in active development; and characterised by a new mix of high-tech advances, the concentration of (speculative) financial capital, and Post-Fordism—all producing a backdrop of increasing differentiation in wealth/security between the better off and the worse off and in between.[9]


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;[10] and also by the increasing commodification and industrialisation of ever more inclusive sectors of human life. Mandel was insistent that "Far from representing a 'post-industrial society', late capitalism thus constitutes generalized universal industrialization for the first time in history".[11]

In his major 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.[12]

In the tradition of the classical Marxists, 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.[13] Mandel's aim was to explain the unexpected revival of capitalism after World War II, contrary to leftist prognostications, and the long economic boom which showed the fastest economic growth ever seen in human history.[14] His work has produced a new interest in the theory of long waves in economic development.[15]


Jameson uses Mandel's third stage designation as the point of departure for his widely cited Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson argues that this postmodernity involves an emergence of a cultural dominant, or mode of cultural production, which differs markedly in its various manifestations (developments in literature, film, fine art, video, social theory, etc.) from those of its predecessor, referred to collectively and broadly as Modernism, particularly in its treatment of "subject position", temporality and narrative. For Jameson, "every position on postmodernism today—whether apologia or stigmatization—is also...necessarily an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today".[16] A section of Jameson's analysis has been reproduced on the Marxists Internet Archive.

Jameson (1996) saw the current, "third" moment of capitalist evolution as involving a new and previously unparalleled global reach—whether it was conceptualised as multinational or as informational capitalism; but expressed doubts as to whether it yet represented what Marx had originally foreseen as the final stage of capitalism, with the universal commodification of the world market.[17]


Cultural references

A character in Thomas Pynchon's novel Bleeding Edge states: "late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale...getting the suckers to believe it's all gonna go on forever."[18]

See also


  1. M. Hardt/K. Weeks eds., The Jameson Reader (2000) p. 257
  2. Catherine Malabou/Jacques Derrida, Counterpath (2004) p. 114-5
  3. See, for example, Natalie Moszkowska's Zur Dynamik des Spätkapitalismus. Zurich: Verlag Der Aufbruch, 1943.
  4. Philip Armstrong, Andrew Glyn and John Harrison, Capitalism Since World War II: The Making and Breakup of the Great Boom. Fontana, 1984, chapter 1.
  5. Theodor W. Adorno (ed.) Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft. Verhandlungen des 16. Deutschen Soziologentages. Stuttgart, 1969.
  6. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973.
  7. V.I. Lenin, "Report On The International Situation And The Fundamental Tasks Of The Communist International", July 19, 1920 .
  8. Michele Dillon, Introduction to Sociological Theory (2009) p. 39
  9. Harry Targ, Late Capitalism, Neoliberal Globalization, & Militarism (2006) p. 15-26
  10. The Jameson Reader p. 268-9
  11. Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (London: Humanities Press, 1975) p. 387
  12. The Jameson Reader p. 165-6
  13. The Jameson Reader, p. 216-7
  14. The Jameson Reader, p. 257
  15. Grace K. Hong, The Ruptures of American Capital (2006) p. 152
  16. The Jameson Reader, p. 190
  17. The Jameson Reader p. 164-171
  18. Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (2013) p. 163

Further reading

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