What Comes After ‘Late Capitalism’: Rot or Renewal?


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On Twitter and seemingly everywhere else, the term “late capitalism” has become a shorthand label for products, ideas, and stories that reflect the absurd excesses and ironies of the contemporary marketplace — like Nordstrom’s $400 jeans caked with a patina of mud, or the Bahamas music fest that descended into refugee-camp squalor. But where did “late capitalism” come from, and what does it really mean?

In The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey traces an intellectual biography of the term, which first emerged among theorists of the left in the early 20th century. Originally it applied to the postwar era of dominant megacorporations — the age of “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” Then the Frankfurt School critics adopted it as a catch-all label for the way modern business co-opts the symbols and ideals of a rebellious culture and recycles them as marketing.

Leftist opponents of Reagan and Thatcher embraced “late capitalism” to describe the excesses of an unfettered free-market ideology. In today’s economy, still reeling a decade after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,we’ve adopted the phrase as a catch-all description for “incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism,” as Lowrey puts it.

Yes, “late capitalism” is a depressing idea. But it does contain one hopeful seed: “Late” implies an end. A more neutral term like “neoliberalism” is open-ended, but “late capitalism” implies a process that builds toward some crisis and, ultimately, a changed world. The phrase opens up a “revolutionary horizon,” as one of the scholars Lowery interviews puts it. Beyond that horizon might lie a different kind of capitalism — or something that isn’t capitalism at all. Whatever it is, it will be early, with time to evolve and improve.

We’re Falling Into the Rich-Poor Gap

Inequality is the most salient characteristic of “late capitalism,” and it’s only getting more intense over time. Bloomberg ran some new numbers and found that the “rich-poor gap” — the difference in average annual income between households in the top 20 percent and those in the bottom 20 percent — increased by more than $29,000, to $189,000, between 2010 and 2015.

The differences vary among regions and urban areas, with the greatest extremes turning up in “high-tech hubs” like San Francisco, San Jose, Austin and Seattle.

One driver of all this inequality is automation, which cuts into the work available for employees at the low end of the pay scale and adds efficiencies to the businesses owned by those at the high end. Industries most “exposed” to this wave of change include “retail and wholesale trade, transportation and storage, and manufacturing,” according to Bloomberg.

The Trump administration has vowed to help middle America’s struggling workers, but so far its policies have offered no coherent plan — just complaints about foreign competition and immigrants stealing jobs.

Airbnb Give Up Its Fight With San Francisco

Airbnb announced yesterday that it is settling the lawsuit it had brought against the city of San Francisco and would work with the local government to establish a registry of Airbnb renters and comply with the city’s laws (Buzzfeed). The company took San Francisco to court last June, arguing that its rules were too onerous and placed too much of a burden on the platform. Now, Airbnb will arrange with the city for new renters in SF to automatically register with the city when they sign up as Airbnb hosts.

The move eliminates one cloud hanging over Airbnb as it gets ready for an IPO over the next year. It also charts a different course for the so-called sharing economy service than the more aggressive one taken by Uber and Lyft, the ride-hailing companies, which pulled out of doing business in Austin, Texas, rather than comply with new city regulations. Maybe the big platforms are beginning to see local governments as partners, and accept that they have a legitimate role to play protecting consumers and drawing boundaries around acceptable business practices.

Parking Lots Can Be Unpaved, Too

Parking lots take up a lot of room in cities that could be better used for, say, parks. In the long run, as self-driving cars take over, we won’t need to devote so much space to lots and garages. But some cities aren’t waiting: In Dallas, Chicago, and other cities around the U.S., lots are starting to be “de-paved” and turned into parks, open spaces, and urban farms (FastCoDesign).

The parking-to-park trend isn’t just popular among tree-lovers and citizens looking for a fine spot to eat lunch; it’s also a good hedge against climate change. The more paved surfaces in town, the more of a “heat island” a city becomes, whereas green spaces help cities cool off and drain excess rainwater, too.

In the past, businesses have often fought to preserve parking, but that’s changing, too. Increasingly, small business owners are coming to understand that parks attract the pedestrian traffic that walks in their doors.


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