As the horrors of capitalism grow ever worse in their impacts on people and planet it has counter-intuitively (it seems to me) become ever more common to hear talk of ‘late’ capitalism, which perhaps reflects some inexorable Marxist process taking shape, or the possibility, as some would probably argue, that capitalism with its destructive all-consuming appetite will burn itself up (and the rest of us with it). Since no-one can foretell the future I would venture to suggest that it is far too soon to talk of something as frenetically organic as capitalism being in its ‘late’ stage. I think I would be happier if people spoke about mutant capitalism, that is a form of capitalism that adapts to the circumstances--whatever they are. Since I am not an economist, I have no knowledge of whether what I describe as mutant capitalism is discussed in expert circles.
I am prompted to write about the subject after reading an article in the current New York Review of Books, ‘Getting Away With Murder,’ by Jed S. Rakoff (sic), reviewing a book called Corporate Crime and Punishment: The Crisis of Underenforcement, by John C. Coffee. Here’s a telling quotation:
‘Existing [U.S.] law provides that a pharmaceutical company found guilty of a felony can no longer sell prescription drugs through Medicare or Medicaid. But in the Purdue Pharma case, and in numerous cases of criminal misconduct by the pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer, the companies were able to convince prosecutors to let their guilty pleas be made by shell subsidiaries to avoid this severe penalty, which might cause the company to fail. In fact they were able to convince prosecutors that the draconian penalty of killing the companies would unfairly punish the innocent shareholders, the many equally innocent employees, and anyone who depended on regular doses of their medications . .’
In other words, by and large leading capitalist corporations have the state (and citizens) over a barrel, since the state’s legal powers are constrained by some very real practical concerns, not least of which is their simple lack of effective enforcement machinery when pitted against corporate lawyers in what can be termed ‘lawfare.’ In many cases there doesn’t seem an appetite for confrontation—not least when the likes of e.g. Pfizer are set to save us from doom. In the current pandemic another mutant (perhaps I should actually use the word ‘normal’ here) capitalism falls into the ‘crony’ capitalism category, fully revealed in the manner in which the Johnson government has rushed to reward friends and patrons with millions and possibly billions worth of contracts, some which have been unfulfilled (and once again insufficient enforcement will see many scamsters get away scot free). The relationship between governments and corporations as we know is often close, employing a multitude of revolving doors, cash and sinecures.
Occasionally significant challenges to corporations take place, but these, such as the anti-trust action to break up Standard Oil in 1911 are not challenges to capitalism as such but merely blips in the development of monopolistic tendencies. These monopolistic tendencies can re-emerge in many forms, in the case of the oil industry we can point to the behaviour of the ‘seven sisters’ - supposedly independent companies with their history of price fixing. Current talk of breaking up the tech giants does not fill me with any confidence that e.g. what is now termed ‘surveillance capitalism’ would be curtailed, not least since governments have put so much effort into surveillance technology partnerships with the private sector.
So I’m not satisfied that prefacing capitalism with the word ‘late’ actually signifies very much if we are meant to understand it as a state of approaching terminality. Far from it, we could talk as easily of ‘infant’ capitalism, since it’s only been around for about 300 years. The Roman Empire lasted for many centuries—add a thousand years if you consider Byzantium its natural heir. I wonder if Romans ever started talking about ‘late Roman’ times.