Mind your language

What does ice cream have to do with ‘late capitalism’?

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

‘More to my taste is Trockenbeerenkapitalismus,’ said my husband with an intonation that indicated a joke. The joke was a play on the German Spätkapitalismus, ‘late capitalism’. There is also a German wine category called Spätlese, ‘late harvest’, and another, when the grapes are exposed to noble rot and allowed to wither on the vine, called Trockenbeerenauslese. Hence the joke. I do not encourage this sort of thing.

But late capitalism deserves no encouragement either. It is generally used to mean anything thought unpleasant about life in western society. I’ve found the phrase attached to Black Friday, two-scoop ice-creams, low wages, James Bond film songs, Pret a Manger, Sinéad O’Connor, cryptocurrency, the monarchy, New Yorker baseball caps and dental insurance.

I’ve looked and looked but found no reference to late capitalism in the Daily Telegraph. Veronica, however, discovered dozens in the Guardian.

Fundamentally it is a Marxist term. Spätkapitalismus has been in use since 1898, but was revived by Ernest Mandel (1923-95) in Late Capitalism in 1974. Mandel, despite the horrors he had lived through, remained a Trotskyist.

A step towards the term’s popularisation was a book by the American Marxist Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). By 2013, a character in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge was saying: ‘Late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of.’

The force of the element late in late capitalism was originally ‘the most recent’. Of course, the Marxists had to explain why capitalism was still around, even though they persevered as the ones who believed in it most strongly (since respectable businessmen preferred enterprise to capitalist oppression). I dislike postmodernist architecture and big business being beastly to workers, but late capitalism seems to me quite a feeble cliché.

In popular thinking, late capitalism is the stage just before the frost kills it off, like John Betjeman’s A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954). They certainly don’t expect, like my husband, that the cold will turn it into Eiswein.

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