“Late capitalism” is seen as a crank phrase. But there is more than that | Zoe williams

“Maybe mental health isn’t the issue,” Z said, listening to an article on mental health on the radio. “It may be a crisis of late capitalism.”

“It’s funny, that’s what Sinéad O’Connor thinks,” I replied.

“Impossible. She dines in a fancy restaurant, that’s the definition of late capitalism.

“She put it in a comment below the line on his profile in the New York Times. “It is not a measure of health to be well adjusted to a deeply sick society. Except all caps, then you have to imagine him shouting it.

“Or sing it?”

“Or singing it,” I agreed.

“Late capitalism” is the new “neoliberalism”, the phrase that marks you as a nut on the left. This is why I was surprised, since the nutty of my gentleman’s wings usually grows throughout the day, peaking at midnight. When he looks like Noam Chomsky during the Today program, maybe he is have a crisis of late capitalism?

“It’s like when cows have sore udders because you treat them too much. The problem is not the cow. The cow just presents the problem, ”he said.

“The over-massage would just be ordinary capitalism, however. Exploitation of workers and / or cows for profit; meh. It’s like a period drama.

“You are missing the point: this is not just an operation for production, it is an operation to the extent that the worker and / or the cow can no longer produce.”

The reason we keep saying “late capitalism” is the same reason people write it as a crank phrase: It makes it look like capitalism will end and something else will happen. More than that, it seems like it’s already at the end of its continuum.

But the word “late” does a lot. So it behooves me, like a crank, to understand how it differs from “early” and “middle” capitalism.

In the early days of capitalism, everyone goes into a great wheeze of productivity, except it becomes clear over time that one person is making all the money while hundreds of people are doing all the work. The workers are not blind to this asymmetry, but this is all new, plus they are busy trying not to starve.

Middle capitalism is where everyone realizes that a compromise has to be found, because starvation might be better than this madness. The rules are haltingly organized around rudimentary principles of fairness: a fair working day for a fair pay, experience and expertise rewarded with a higher pay, etc.

In late capitalism, you should be grateful to the creators of wealth for getting paid at all. Lots of people would do it for free. Experience, if it makes you more expensive, is just a waste. True productivity is when everyone gets paid the same minimum amount. Late capitalism is like arguing with a teenager. His bet on issues of fairness and dignity is “Why should I?” and its logical endpoint is “robots”. Can’t figure out who I’m blaming – maybe postmoderns?

At the beginning of capitalism, you are delighted to find that you can afford wheat and the end of a candle; middle capitalism causes consumption possibilities to skyrocket and raises research questions about the relationship between wages and prices: what kind of capitalist will make the most money? Whoever produces the most expensive stuff? Or the one whose workers can afford what they produce?

Late capitalism doesn’t care who can afford what; all that matters is the ferocity of their longing for what they cannot afford. This is where the troublesome postcapitalism arises: one cannot ferociously dwell on consumer goods that are forever inaccessible.

Debt is only possible when you are considered solvent, so we can go straight to middle capitalism: here debt is a source of great shame, a stain on character, a moral failure and, therefore, a taboo . In late capitalism, the debt remains shameful; it’s also petrifying, like waking up every morning after sleeping too long.

Yet there is also a strong sense that indebtedness is rampant, coupled with a widespread rejection of taboos, making it a delicate balancing act. If everyone were as open about debt as they were about the conditions of general anxiety that often go back to debt, they would lose their power of shame. Perhaps this is something late capitalism should think about.

In the early days of capitalism, you have two bedrooms and you sleep in one with your cranky spouse, while your seven children sleep in the other. In middle capitalism there are mature discussions about whether this will work in the long run; would it be better to pool resources and build social housing? In late capitalism you have two bedrooms, but luckily you know it’s very irresponsible to have children if you can’t afford them, let alone seven, so that’s great. You have a spare bedroom. (Narrator: You probably don’t have a spare bedroom.)

“The problem is,” I announced, when Mr. Z returned (he still leaves the area while Thought for the Day is on), “I mean ‘late capitalism’ because that makes me feel the winds of change, but it’s impossible to understand what that means without looking like Sinéad O’Connor.

“In your dreams,” he said. “Nothing compares to her.

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