Monday, November 23, 2009

Late Capitalism and Late Modernity: a rant

There are, possibly, greater terms expressing intellectual wankerdom than using ‘late capitalism’ and ‘late modernity’ other than ironically, but none that I find so transparently silly, annoying and pretentious.

We have no idea how long modernity has to run. We have no idea how long capitalism has to run.

None whatsoever.

So we have no idea how “late” in the history of either the current stage of human history is. For all we know, a thousand years down the track, people may regard our period as still being part of early modernity and early capitalism.

On the matter of capitalism, consider two things.

First, how much of the world is still not very capitalist: Africa, much of Asia, most of Latin America (hence Hernando de Soto’s witticism that “capitalism is a great idea and Latin America should try it sometime”).

What do I mean by ‘capitalism’? Capitalism is an economic and social system where the factors of production are substantially exchangeable in markets. So, if much of your economy is either state-owned (in a way that clearly abolishes, or otherwise removes from possibility under the rules in operation, such exchange) or is otherwise not owned in a way that allows such exchange, those parts of your economy are not capitalist. Which much of the developing world suffers from, particularly regarding land. Thus, capitalism has quite a lot of the social space available around the world into which it could (but has not yet) spread.
Second, consider how much capitalism as changed over time. Contemporary capitalism has, we can surely agree, some differences in institutional practices than, for example, the sort of capitalism Braudel kept discovering no matter how far back he went in English history. It is otiose to think further institutional development is not possible, particularly in the light of changes in technology (whose direction and extent we have no way of knowing, especially in the longer term). So, the further changes and development of capitalism are unknown and unknowable.

Since ‘capitalism’ as a term has been used since the mid-C19th, it seems likely that, for most of the history of the term ‘capitalism’, people have been claiming we are in ‘late capitalism’. (Do we remember Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism?) Surely, that would give anyone with an ounce of intellectual humility, indeed common sense, pause.

To talk of ‘late capitalism’ is to talk as if one knows—at least good enough for decent taxonomy—how long the history of capitalism has to run: in duration, scope and structure. Given the comprehensive failure of users of the term ‘late capitalism’ to actually predict any of the key happenings in capitalism over the last couple of decades (how many predicted its spread to the former Soviet bloc? To the People’s Republic of China? How many predicted the IT revolution?) we can be confident that such claims are nonsense.

The same point applies (perhaps even more so) to modernity. Attempts to define modernity have proved rather more fraught than those to define capitalism. Indeed, modernity’s habit of overtaking attempts to capture it by definition suggest something fundamental about modernity—that it is a certain breadth and rate of change. Which is how I think of modernity—continuing change of significant breadth (in technology, in attitudes and outlooks, in knowledge, in institutions) that is fast enough to be discernable in a lifetime.

Modernity basically starts with the Renaissance, which is called The Renaissance because, due to the development of movable type printing, it never stopped. We live in the Renaissance that never stopped. The Carolingian Renaissance was brought to an end by the internecine strife of the Carolingian dynasty and the depredations of the Norse. The Renaissance of the C12th petered out in the “calamitous C14th”. The Renaissance just kept going since literacy became cheaper to impart (cheap textbooks) and to service while knowledge became a lot harder to lose.

The most obvious effect of the spread of printing being the Reformation, since the Church found maintaining its intellectual hegemony across all of Latin Christendom too hard. The advent of mass literacy made Protestantism—with its insistence on the first authority of Scripture, which thus provided a direct connection to God—a natural basis of revolt against the Catholic notion of Scripture being a product of the Church (understood as the community of believers) and the priest as the mediator between lay believers and God.

We have come along way since 1450 and 1517. [Not to mention Europeans beginning the process of creating, for the first time since humans left Africa, a common global history.] Do we have any idea how long the changes of modernity have to run? No. If we begin to move off Earth, the period when we were confined to one planet is hardly going to look like “late modernity”.

What someone is really saying when they use the term ‘late capitalist’ or ‘late modernity’ is “I know where history is going”. No, they do not. Using these terms with any seriousness is the triumph of intellectual pretension over intellectual sense.


  1. Nicely done, Lorenzo. I think it's a very insightful and important point that we are still in the Renaissance.

    I also think there must be some formal cognitive bias regarding overconfidence in one's place in history -- whether it's pretensions of being able to predict the future or to be arrogant because one stands at the pinnacle of advancement (thus far!) -- but not sure what it would be. (I do know there is a nostalgia bias having to do with believing some earlier time was "better" than in fact it was.)

    As Cassius J. Keyser said: "The present is no more exempt from the sneer of the future than the past has been."

  2. Ta. And nice quote.

    As for cognitive bias, I have talked of chronocentrism--overweeming confidence in current perspectives.

  3. Chronocentricism, that sounds like what I was looking for. (quick Google...) actually chronocentrism.