JAMESON EXPLAINS in
Postmodernism (1991), the term "late capitalism"
originated with the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer,
etc.) and refers to the form of capitalism that came to the fore in
the modernist period and now dominates our own postmodern culture. (On
postmodernism, see my
introduction.) The Frankfurt school
stressed two essential features: (1) a tendential web of bureaucratic
control..., and (2) the interpenetration of government and big business
('state capitalism') such that Nazism and the New Deal are related
As Jameson explains, the term "late capitalism" now has "very
different overtones from these" (xviii);
indeed, Jameson dates the emergence of "late capitalism" in
the 1950s, so that late capitalism for Jameson is ultimately coincident
with and even synonymous with postmodernism: "the economic preparation
of postmodernism or late capitalism began in the 1950s, after the wartime
shortages of consumer goods and spare parts had been made up, and new
products and new technologies (not least those of the media) could be
xx). In turn, the psychic break that made possible the cultural
(rather than merely economic) emergence of late-capitalist sensibilities
occurred, according to Jameson, in the 1960s. Finally, the 1970s allowed
the economic and the cultural side of postmodern late capitalism to
come together: the economic system and the cultural "structure
of feeling" "somehow crystallized in the great shock of the
crises of 1971 (the oil crisis, the end of the international gold standard,
for all intents and purposes the end of the great wave of 'wars of national
liberation' and the beginning of the end of traditional communism)"
xx-xxi). In general, Jameson understands "late capitalism"
as the pervasive condition of our own age, a condition that speaks both
to economic and cultural structures: "What 'late' generally conveys
is... the sense that something has changed, that things are different,
that we have gone through a transformation of the life world which is
somehow decisive but incomparable with the older convulsions of modernization
and industrialization, less perceptible and dramatic, somehow, but more
permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all-pervasive"
According to Jameson, the new elements that
postmodernism adds to the Frankfurt School's version of late capitalism
1) "new forms of business
organization (multinationals, transnationals) beyond the monopoly
xviii-xix). Lenin's concept of the "monopoly stage"
of capitalism now expands out beyond any national border.
2) an internationalization
of business beyond the older imperial model; in the new order
of capital, multinational corporations are not tied to any one country
but represent a form of power and influence greater than any one nation.
That internationalization also applies to the division of labor, making
possible the continued exploitation of workers from poor countries
in support of multinational capital. Jameson refers to "the flight
of production to advanced Third World areas, along with all the more
familiar social consequences, including the crisis of traditional
labor, the emergence of yuppies, and gentrification on a now-global
3) "a vertiginous new
dynamic in international banking and the stock exchanges (including
the enormous Second and Third World debt)" (Postmodernism
xix). Through such a banking structure, the First World's multinational
corporations maintain their control over the world market.
4) "new forms of media
xix). The media constitutes one of the more influential new products
of late capitalism (print, internet, television, film) and a new means
for the capitalist take-over of our lives. Through the mediatization
of culture, we become increasingly reliant on the media's version
of our reality, a version of reality that is filled predominantly
with capitalist values.
5) "computers and automation"
xix). Advances in computer automation have allowed for an unprecedented
level of mass production, leading to ever greater profit-margins for
6) planned obsolescence.
As Jameson puts it, "the frantic economic urgency of producing
fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes),
at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential
structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation"
7) American military domination.
As Jameson writes in Postmodernism, "this whole global,
yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural
expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination
throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history,
the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror"
Some synonyms for "late capitalism"
include "'multinational capitalism, 'spectacle or image society,'
'media capitalism,' 'the world system,' even 'postmodernism' itself"
xviii). Jameson however rejects the synonym "postindustrial
society" because that term suggests that what we are seeing is
a radical break from the forms of capital that existed in the nineteenth
century (and thus, by implication, a break from Karl Marx's understanding
of capital). Jameson is more interested in perceiving a continuity from
earlier forms of industrial society (even as he acknowledges the differences)
and in affirming the continuing relevance of Marx's theories.