Is Late-Stage Capitalism a Thing? (Part One)

In recent years, the term late-stage capitalism has been used to refer to our current era and, perhaps, deliniate it from different sub-eras within the history of capitalism. I disagree with the term for a few reasons. First, it says nothing about what makes this capitalism different from other variants of capitalism. Second, it implies a succession from capitalism is nigh. Obviously, we have no idea whether we are near the end of capitalism and this capitalism has qualitatively different characteristics than earlier incarnations of capitalism and the label should denote qualitative, not merely chronological, differences. I would label the current era and the one that has dominated the post-WWII West as Rawlsian-Consumerist Liberalism. Capitalism is an economic system within a liberal political system and would not describe the era as that. I would describe the early 20th century as Regionalist-Institutional Liberalism.

The shift from Regionalist-Institutional Liberalism to Rawlsian-Consumerist Liberalism was that of the dominant forces in the daily life and politics of the individual. A small town in 1935 doesn’t have much in the way of chain stores and the macro forces of capitalism are not in a constant urge to sell to them. They buy things, mostly, as a utility and local monopolies like company towns and utility companies, either explicitly or not so explcitly utility companies, made their money through having turf not competing for for individual consumers, for the most part. Standard Oil, Ford, and Westinghouse Electric did not sell things to people every day. They sold utilties and often did that through contracts with municipalities and companies. Every day items lasted for a long time and didn’t have much planned obsolescence. The radio you bought in 1925 was likely the radio you had in 1935. The diner, the gas station, the movie theater, and the like were locally-lowned small businesses and ones who made their money, mostly, by geographical proximity and not the pretense of having a better product.

Life was dominated by cultural morés and established regional institutions be those the regional monopolies and oligopolies from which the local businesses bought their goods, the regional religions and customs, the regional political machines, and so forth. Its values were not Rawlsian liberalism and while they had major thick-goods; they were not totally the thick-goods that Rawls’ opponents like myself, Jane Jacobs, Harold Bloom, and Martha Nausbaum would argue for. The Post-Rawlsians, of which I would consider myself a member, are not entirely cultural revanchists but ultimately products of the New Left. As pro-traditionalist as those against the School of Resentment seem to be, they are, ironically, expressing a Hippie-ish vision of a rich culture of arts, personal development, science, and eudemonia. Regionalist-Institutional Liberalism was not a Post-Rawlsian thick-good and Regionalist-Institutional Liberalism is also less socially liberal than Rawlsian-Consumerist Liberalism given it is much less individualistic and more communitarian and mutualist, for better and for worse.

Ironically, as non-individualist as those cultures were they were more tolerant of eccentricity, often. Among most communities was a, sort of, code of Omertá. They covered the asses of their own kin and comrades. As Foucault pointed out, in the old world, the village eccentrics were just beloved but tolerated weirdos and it was only in the most modern of eras that society decided to institutionalize and label them. For instance, sodomy laws were seldom ever enforced and gay people just did gay stuff, often as an open secret, and everyone would lie for them. Truthfully, most of them would rather have lived the open secret than fight the system for official state and social sanction to do the exact same thing they were already doing. I dislike that system because of the pervasive hypocrisy but it is a far cry from the sytem the contemporary left imagines it was which was constant persecution. The gay rights movement was as much against the social shift after Robert Moses and John Rawls demolished communities and their general code of Omertá and brought into people’s personal lives on a mass scale the Rule of Law as opposed to the Rule of Moré which had formerly been how behavior was regulated because absent community institutions, the state and statute must suffice.

Just as far as the form of capitalism, I much prefer the early 20th century capitalism in terms of its lack of consumerism and the greater personalism. In the face of automation, my view as to how we replace the jobs is to bring back vintage craftsmanship dominated by small businesses. Where no one works for a chain or does entirely menial work. Where the janitors, landscapers, and fast food workers are all replaced by robots so they can work for small organizations where they are loved in a communiy that loves them. The lack of that love is one of the reasons for the collapse of liberalism. Ultimately, I want a Hegelian synthesis, of sorts, of the vintage community and progressive social liberalism.

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