Late capitalism: Wikis


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"Late capitalism" is a term sometimes used to refer to capitalism from about 1950 onwards, generally with the implication that it is historically limited, and will eventually end.

This idea has its origin in Karl Marx's judgment that the capitalist mode of production, like any other mode of production, is in the broad sweep of history a limited and transient phenomenon, rather than being the natural, ever-lasting condition for human life. Thus, it can be periodized in terms of its historical emergence, its heyday, and its subsequent phase of decline and disappearance.

However, the notion of late capitalism is partly an ideological perspective based upon a judgement about the future. This is because there is no way of telling exactly when capitalism will end, or if it will simply keep evolving instead. In addition, the global pattern of capitalist development has been extremely uneven; some regions have barely reached the stage of "early capitalism".

In general, Marx seems to have believed—as a generalization—that no mode of production disappears until it has developed all the productive forces which it can contain within its social relations of production. Technologies would ultimately become incompatible with the existing social framework, causing that social framework to break down, and a new social framework to emerge. According to Rosa Luxemburg, that could mean an advance to socialism or a relapse into barbarism.

Capitalism has proved 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. Lenin opined that there were no absolutely hopeless situations for capitalism; its fate depended on the outcome of class struggle. This, however, does not deter critics of the system, who point to various alleged signs of the system's social decay on a world scale.

But there are also others, like Murray Bookchin, who argue that capitalism has already been superseded; in a modern information society the old industrial system is a thing of the past, and the reference to capitalism is an anachronism (although Marx never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. 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. 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.


Origin of the term

The term "late capitalism" came into use in Europe towards the end of the 1930s when many economists believed capitalism was doomed (see, for example, Natalia Moszkowska's Zur Dynamik des Spätkapitalismus. Zurich: Verlag Der Aufbruch, 1943) and it was used in the 1960s particularly in Germany and Austria, among others by Marxists writing in the tradition of the Frankfurt School and Austromarxism. At the end of World War II, many economists including Paul K. Samuelson and Joseph Schumpeter believed the end of capitalism could well be nigh, in that the economic problems might be insurmountable.

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.

In his work Late Capitalism, Mandel argues for three periods in the development of capitalism. First is market capitalism, which occurred from 1700 to 1850 and is characterized largely by the growth of industrial capital in domestic markets. Second is monopoly capitalism, which lasted until approximately 1960, and is characterized by the imperialistic development of international markets as well as the exploitation of colonial territories. Third, is late capitalism, which displays such features as the multinational corporation, globalized markets and labor, mass consumption, and the space of liquid multinational flows of capital.

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, in order to show how the same forces which boosted profitability after the world war must ultimately turn into their dialectical opposites, and cause its decline. Mandel's aim was to explain the unexpected 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".

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.

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 [1]

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


  • 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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