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Demystifying late stage capitalism on both a global and national level: the ball and chain of a 21st century free market economy 

Capitalism, at least for a child of the 2008 economic collapse, presents a rather loaded phrase. When I reflect upon the term, images of Andy Warhol’s, perhaps even Norman Rockwell’s envisaging comes to mind; Campbell’s soup cans and “freedom from want” Thanksgiving turkeys. Even the economic system itself has been commodified. While these associations are deeply entrenched in an American cultural identity, the negative implications of the system aren’t exclusive to shores west of the Atlantic. The talons of a capitalist economy have long been sunk in nations far from the white picket fences of the U.S, such that we must all live out the consequences birthed by the winter of its years. The almost satirical novelty of capitalist tropes masks a menacing truth, bound to play out in a not-so-distant future underpinned by “stagnancy, surplus population and environmental breakdown”.

End stage capitalism was a term originally coined by German economist Werner Sombart, laid out in his magnum opus of ‘der moderne kapitalismus’ in 1902, a publication explaining the correlation between “mind and society” and its role in an economy.  Sombart theorises about the logical conclusion to an economic system described by Vladimir Lenin as one without “absolutely hopeless situations”. He compartmentalises the lifespan of capitalism into four stages. Of the four stages, the time proceeding WW1 is thought to be what we now call late capitalism, a time of systemic dissolution where economic problems have the potential to prove ‘insurmountable’. When one analyses the problems, both economically and socially, at home and abroad, Sombart’s theorisation has come to a frightening fruition. With an ever-deteriorating climate, all consuming, ever frequent cost of living crises and rocketing inflation, the notion that capitalism can be preserved in its current model, a model that encourages “growth for the sake of growth…the ideology of the cancer cell”  seems virtually untenable to me.  

First approaching through the lens of a domestic landscape, we need look no further than our own white knuckles and tightly fastened purse strings to feel the need for change. It is no state secret that in Ireland’s recent history, the country has become a centre for commerce, experiencing a period of exponential economic growth as a result. Such growth is driven largely by the presence of multinational companies attracted by our competitively low corporation tax rate of, until last year, just 12.5% as opposed to the global average of 23.85%. Employment figures have triumphed under this foreign direct investment, with a handful of the biggest tech names in the industry providing a total of “200,000 jobs” directly, bringing with them “a touch of Silicon Valley” . However, such is the ever-widening gyre of a late capitalist economy, the rich will only become richer and the poor, founder in their wake. In tandem with this economic success story, a delicate societal dynamic of the country has been further disturbed. Dublin is a capital that has found itself entrenched in controversy amid a worsening and protracted housing crisis. Despite this “full employment and record economic growth”, owner occupied housing has plummeted, as Dublin property prices climb to “10 times the average wage”. Success with regard to a booming GDP is altogether diametrically opposed against a floundering middle and lower class. It seems to me that these “gleaming new corporate offices” stand a shameful and stark reminder of the inequality that stands to ruin this capital. Economic expansion is not and cannot ever be tantamount to societal gain. 

Shifting focus to a global view, the outlook is no less daunting. The impact of our current economic system is no longer exclusive to nations who have consciously adopted its principles, but it seems that society writ large will be forced to bear the consequences in the form of environmental anarchy. One comment on the deforestation of Brazil’s Cerrado underpins this notion: ‘if one system crashes, it is likely to drag others down, triggering a cascade of chaos known as systemic environmental collapse’. The foundation of late capitalist theory is rooted in its drive for wealth maximisation at any and all costs, even if it means the demise of our earthly equilibrium. However, blame, as ever, is deflected and it is we, the public who will inevitably foot the bill for this relentless pursuit of profit. Government and media alike have endorsed the narrative that reversing generations of damage, much of which is of corporate doing, lies solely with the consumer of their products. Store campaigns offering 20 cents off your flat white with a reusable cup, or better still, charging over inflated prices to somehow nullify the evil of plastic carrier bags are futile examples of a certain corporate propaganda- branding customers as scapegoats. This circumvented blame can be traced back to as early as 1953 with the “Keep America Beautiful Campaign”. This advertising was beamed into the homes and lives of all Americans, heralding the message that “People start pollution. People can stop it”. In reality, the campaign was produced by packaging manufacturers aiming to villainise consumers. They shifted the responsibility for the tidal wave of their newly created disposable packaging on to consumers, dubbing them “litter bugs”.  Fed a steady diet of micro consumerism, served to us on a silver platter as a cure-all to the world’s climatic woes, there is generated a sense of achievement in the bare minimum. We don’t choose to seek out the true source of the problem because we feel it’s already been solved. Ignorance or denial? The jury is out on the answer. What we do know agrees with academic R. Hunter, that “catastrophic climate change and ecological degradation raise the stakes for a critique of the capitalist state”. 

While the solutions to this systemic breakdown, both globally and domestically, won’t be forthcoming with great speed, it is not to say such remedies don’t exist. Perhaps the most expedient well spring of change rises only with generational disobedience- a refusal, on mass, to swallow the red pill. Indeed, this will only come with a change in conversation. There must be a conscious effort made, on the part of our media to create an open dialogue about the uncomfortable issues. Comic relief is only so effective, until it begins to congest the lines of communication, and dull our perception of reality. Journalist G. Monbiot is in agreement with this sentiment, commenting, “the trivialisation of public life creates a loop: it becomes socially impossible to talk about anything else”. In tandem with an overdue change in conversation, tangible regulatory reforms must exist to scaffold this. Late capitalism can only be brought back from the brink it sits on by holding large corporations, as well as government decisions to account, thereby curbing the monopolistic practices that have landed us in the quagmire to begin with.  It will rest on a societal decision to unlearn the way in which we consume, moving forward with a mind to determined survival rather than mindless acquiescence.


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