Last week, Freddie deBoer took a morbidly hilarious, despairing look at the current state of the Silicon Valley economy as told by the Juicero saga and the ever-nuttier ads evidently plaguing the NYC subways:
Juicero deserved all of the attention it got and more — it was so pure, so impossibly telling about the pre-apocalyptic American wasteland. It was also just one of a whole constellation of companies that now operate under an ingenious model: take some banal product that has been sold forever at low margins, attach the disposable part to a proprietary system that pretends to improve it but really just locks pepole into a particular vendor, add a touch screen manufactured by Chinese tweens, call it “Smart,” and sell it to schlubby dads too indebted to buy a midlife crisis car and too unattractive to have an affair.
Exhibit A: A toothbrush subscription service called Quip:
Are you the kind of person who is so worn down by the numbing drudgery of late capitalism that you can’t summon the energy to drag a 2 ounce toothbrush across your gums for 90 seconds a day? Well, the electric toothbrush has been a thing for a long time. And that means that it’s not good enough. After years of deadening your limbic system through psychotropic medication, video games, and increasingly-extreme internet pornography, you need something new. Enter Quip, the company disrupting the toothbrush. Quip wants you to know that its product is inexpensive, despite the fact that it will charge you $40/year for for its “refill plan” and I just bought 5 perfectly functional regular toothbrushes for $1 in the most expensive city in the country.
DeBoer uses the phrase “late capitalism” again at the end of the piece:
These companies are for people who think temp agencies are too coddling and well remunerative. The only service they sell is making it easier to kill minimally stable, well-compensated jobs. That’s it. They have no other function. They valorize Doers while killing workers. They siphon money from the desperate throngs back to the employers who will use them up and throw them aside like a discarded Juicero bag and, of course, to themselves and their shareholders. That’s it. That’s all they are. That’s all they do. They are the final logic of late capitalism, the engine of human creativity applied to the essential work of making life worse for regular people.
Our society is a hellish wasteland and I am dying inside.
“Late capitalism” is gaining popularity as a just barely ironic descriptor of, well, our existentially hellish and deadening society. I think I’ve only used it once myself–to describe Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show a few years back. It fit. Annie Lowery has a piece today in The Atlantic about its origins:
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.
This publication has used “late capitalism” roughly two dozen times in recent years, describing everything from freakishly oversized turkeys to double-decker armrests for steerage-class plane seats. The New Yorker is likewise enamored of it, invoking it in discussions of Bernie Sanders and fancy lettuces, among other things. There is a wildly popular, year-old Reddit community devoted to it, as well as a Facebook page, a Tumblr, and a lively Twitter hashtag. Google search interest in its has more than doubled in the past year.
[…] A German economist named Werner Sombart seems to have been the first to use it around the turn of the 20th century, with a Marxist theorist and activist named Ernest Mandel popularizing it a half-century later. For Mandel, “late capitalism” denoted the economic period that started with the end of World War II and ended in the early 1970s, a time that saw the rise of multinational corporations, mass communication, and international finance. Roberts said that the term’s current usage departs somewhat from its original meaning. “It’s not this sense that things are getting so bad that the revolution is going to come,” he told me, “but rather that we see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use.”
Post-Mandel, the phrase was taken up by critical theorists; Duke’s Fredric Jameson is credited with popularizing it as a phrase that connotes a connection between neoliberalism and the banality and insidiousness of mass culture.