In this post, I will explore some dependencies creating the foundation upon which late-stage capitalism in the United States operates that if extricated would implode the global financial system. It is not meant as a definitive list but as a deployment to use contemporary events and language to theorize late-stage capitalism’s major problematics in the twenty-first century and to reveal the reality of the system against its conventional appearance in our daily lives and the false normativity it perpetuates to protect the interests of a relatively small U.S. oligarchy and the profits of large corporations.
I am aware, of course, that the term late-stage capitalism is fraught with complications, none of which is more important than it implies that the world is nearing a collapse of capitalism, which may or may not be true. I will address that later in this post. Capitalism’s ability to absorb its dissenters and reward them financially has proven quite elastic and lasting through history so to predict its immediate demise without a background of catastrophic events and major street protests makes no sense. I also reject the notion that empirical evidence has shown capitalism evolved in easily defined stages over the last two centuries, especially the last four decades. Nonetheless, the term has entered the lexicon and remains familiar, and it is not extremist to argue that capitalism—consider only its relentless, immoral assault on the environment—will likely not survive the twenty-first century in its current form.
The imminent scholar Noam Chomskey has made us familiar with the word neoliberalism in his scathing critiques of late-stage capitalism, often dated as beginning after World War II and the more generic term free markets is often used by its proponents to extol their virtue and naturalness, but I have to come believe the fundamental use of the word capitalism, even if qualified as I have done, is more beneficial in reaching people mired in an immoral financial system that developed through history to abuse them and steal their labor.
Today’s contemporary, sordid political climate in the United States, mostly what appears to be the final triumph of capitalism shown in the rise of President Donald Trump and the dominance of the Republican Party in this country, has created a specter haunting the country with income anxiety among masses of people. The organization Inequality.org notes this about the U.S., often described as the richest country in the world, “Income disparities have become so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent. Americans in the top 1 percent tower stunningly higher. They average over 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. But that gap pales in comparison to the divide between the nation’s top 0.1 percent and everyone else. Americans at this lofty level are taking in over 198 times the income of the bottom 90 percent.” The fundamental component of late-stage capitalism is this growing income gap between the rich and poor and between the rich and the so-called middle class, but it can only exist because the masses of people acquiesce and participate in its implementation and also believe their precarious position in the human order under the financial system is somehow natural.
Let us be clear at the onset that any stage or period of capitalism is not normal or natural; it is not even an expression of the survival of the fittest. It abases the human condition. It literally ruins lives and kills people to financially benefit a few oligarchs, surrogates and enablers. All of its components, from corporate control of government to the lies of relentless advertising, work together in an intoxicating cloud of obfuscation and lies. Capitalism depends on a lack of self-awareness and it marginalizes those who oppose it through absorption or marginalization. The opposite of capitalism is consciousness.
The dichotomy might be broken down in this manner:
Divisiveness/Shared, Communal Values
Lies of Advertising/Truthful Information
Corporate, Oligarchic Control of Government/People Control of Government
With all this in mind, below are some abbreviated twenty-first century dependencies both generated and exploited by late-stage capitalism to ensure its existence and operations.
Workers Do Not Unite. Late-stage capitalism depends upon maintaining divisiveness among working people so they do not unite either in action against its leading proponents or in a voting block. It does this, as we now see through Trump’s open embrace of white supremacy through fomenting hatred against the immigrant, the African American and gay person. It works against gender equality by creating a salary system that continues to pay women at a lower rate than men for the same labor. It pits one working group against another, such as unionized teachers against non-unionized warehouse workers. All these basic facts are known yet the culprit—late-stage capitalism—is never named as the overarching force that create these conditions. One working group feels jilted because, say, they are not offered health care insurance from their right-to-work employer and so they resent another working group that does receive it and the former group’s members perhaps even vote or actively work to ensure no one has adequate access to health care. The media depicts this as the politics of resentment stoked by Republicans, represented clearly by Trump, and it is, but it remains only a symptom. The underlying cancer is late-stage capitalism, which has virtually eradicated unions and workers’ right in the U.S. As medical science has advanced, more and more people are left out because they cannot afford it in the for-profit system in the U.S. Late-stage capitalism’s existence depends on a sick, underpaid group of people desperate to work and survive on any level as well as the healthy, better-paid counter group who see the sick and underpaid as flawed people who made bad choices or decisions in life. This is an unreal dichotomy based on fiction.
The Lies of Advertising. Late-stage capitalism is highly dependent on the purchase of material goods, many of which are unnecessary to the human condition and cause a great deal of harm and discord to people and the planet. The system is designed to create the appearance of offering consumers—late-stage capitalism’s current dehumanizing term to describe humanity—unlimited choices of products when, in fact, the choices are quite limited for people because monopolies control virtually all markets. The lack of choice is important when we consider advertising because its aim in late-stage capitalism is not to offer a different choice in a type of product but to create a false need for a product. People, then, are bombarded with advertisements that rely on the lie of the superlative—the best—without evidence. In this way, they create brand loyalty and need based on fiction. Advertising conditions humanity to accept lies as normal behavior, as simply salesmanship or, the very worst, hucksterism. It is not a coincidence that a proven serial liar and narcissist—“I am the best”—American businessman has become the U.S. president. U.S. culture has been conditioned for his arrival for generations by the falsehoods and bogus superlatives of relentless advertising. Most importantly, the lies of advertising fund the country’s mainstream media, which is thus prohibited from truly criticizing the foundational elements of the financial system upon which it is dependent.
Corporate and Oligarchic Control of Government. An important component of late-stage capitalism is the near complete control of government by wealthy oligarchs and corporations. This control is growing. The 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed unlimited the use of corporate money to sway elections through the lies of advertising, was not so much a landmark ruling but a logical step in late-state capitalism’s sordid agenda to privatize and corporatize all aspects of human life. The oligarchs themselves may present themselves as concerned humanitarians—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.—or as manipulative social conservative scolds—David and Charles Koch, etc,—but the results of income distribution are the same. This is not the space to discuss the differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, and there are many, but each party within its current core leadership accept this fait accompli of late-stage capitalism and actively participate in its regeneration through their own financial windfalls and their lackadaisical attitude about income inequality. (U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who ran as a Democrat for president in 2016, is an exception.) Oligarchs and corporations control federal and state governments by determining who gets elected through massive campaign contributions and then by dictating policy that increases their profits. Late-stage capitalism’s creation of an increasing number of jobs at low salaries and without benefits is sanctioned by both political parties as the new “gig workplace” or “gig economy” as if it is a move forward for workers, not backwards. The emergence of the control over our lives of for-profit technology companies is a defining feature of late-stage capitalism as well. Facebook, for example, is rewarded with huge tax cuts by our government even as its platform is used by the company to manipulate its users’ buying and voting behavior in an unprecedented manner in terms of scale across the planet.The masses remain oblivious to their brainwashing and its artificiality. Just like the presidency of Donald Trump is not normal so is Facebook not normal. One informs the other. In this regard, Trump and his GOP majorities in the House and Senate represents the pinnacle of capitalism’s success yet it has also predictably created a backlash against the system and a closer examination of it. A growing number of younger people, in particular, are beginning serious investigations of U.S. income inequality and championing socialized systems, such as universal health care and free college tuition. This is often ridiculed by media pundits as sophomoric, but it was the pundits, even on the left, who helped Trump win the presidency.
It almost goes without saying that if workers united under a new, vibrant labor movement, if advertising, at least in its current form, was completely abolished thus reshaping how news gets disseminated and if people took control of their government from oligarchs and corporations through a combination of voting and street protests then capitalism would, indeed, collapse and new socialistic systems would begin to flourish and multiply in the U.S. This would, of course, influence the geopolitical world as well. Trump’s election and the manner in which the country’s oligarchs and major corporations have taken for granted the huge tax cuts they received from his regime represent a clear quid pro quo that will continue to reveal in increasingly stark terms the corruption of late-stage capitalism, and it might very well portend the financial system’s demise. Trump’s racism, his erratic, vulgar demeanor and even his bloated physical presence embody all that is wrong with exploitive capitalism. His vulgarity and narcissism, along with the relentless lying, force everyone to see the true and often hidden sordid nature of capitalism. After Trump, the country will have to begin to turn to the ideas of socialism in order to restore its democracy and in order to create a rational system that assures broader income equality.