Monday, October 26, 2009

The Three Stages of Capitalism

Suppose for a moment that there are three clear stages of capitalism, defined minimally as the dominance of markets by money. The first, classical capitalism, defines the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, more or less the moment that Veblen analyzed. The engine at this stage of development is the straightforward production of goods and services. In order to clear the markets of these goods and services, the system works to cultivate desire. Accumulated capital—in its most basic form, primitive hoarding—is spent on conspicuous demonstrations of waste in the form of leisure. From the individual point of view, the central goal is a self defined by the demonstration of good taste. Exemplary fiction of the age: Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

The second stage, late capitalism, is what caught the Frankfurt School’s gimlet eye in the middle of the last century. Now the engine of the system is the production not of goods and services but of consumption itself. That is, rather than merely cultivating longstanding desires in new aspirants, the mechanisms of economic growth must manufacture ever-novel desires using the feedback loops of the emergent advertising industry. Capital is reproduced, not merely accumulated: the shadowy shills of the culture industry want us to spend our way to wealth and happiness. Down on the ground, the individual experiences fractured selves, or multiple consumption identities, even while yearning for wholeness. Exemplary fiction: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.

The third stage, postmodern capitalism (for lack of a better label), is with us still. We witness both the cultivation and the manufacture of desire—and the wild proliferation of it. The market engine is still producing consumption, but now it is consumption of the self in the form of the consumer. We’re no longer interested in stuff, or even in the satisfaction that stuff promises; now we chase a certain idea of ourselves, as cool or fashionable or self-actualized. Thus the arrival of what we ought to call erotic capital, the most spectral form. I, with all my carefully constructed preferences for Pink shirts or Lululemon sweats, become the most desirable consumer product in the economy of taste. To paraphrase Slavoj Zižek, the superego is no longer a form of restraining conscience—Don’t do that!—but instead expresses the imperative of smarmy waiters everywhere: Enjoy! Consumption is both intimate and relentless: brand-conscious consumers cannibalize themselves, feeding on their jumble of layered identities. Exemplary fiction: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

From Ways of Not Seeing: On the Limits of Design Fetishism by Mark Kingwell in Harpers, November 2009