Late Capitalism and its Co-Optive Functioning

The absurdities of capitalism are oft-discussed: it’s a system that is incredibly flawed. It’s perhaps fair to assume that we have all felt our throats swell with anger after reading reports of workers being paid as low as 38 cents per hour while the company’s CEO makes over $7000 in the same time after selling their product for over $100 apiece; these numbers are simply appalling. It is also fair to say that no other eco-political system has exploited every perceptible resource –be it natural or human– more than capitalism. We have already lost a lot in the pursuit of profit, and with the consumerist demand and supply dynamic in today’s capitalistic global economy, we only seem to be losing more.

Late capitalism can loosely be defined as a form of capitalism that emerged after the second world war. Central to many socialist and some Marxist discourses, this term describes the absurdities and crisis that arise due to the development of modern business models; it describes an era supposed to signal the final stage of capitalism as we know it, before it collapses under its own weight. While a lot of critique surrounding the term is just debate on whether it actually signals this death knell, everyone seems to agree that late capitalism is rather ludicrous– however, the dangers that lie in its laughably unnecessary products and their promotions are rarely dealt with any seriousness.

In terms of social geography today’s society is seeing a large scale reclamation: women, the LGBTQ+ community and ethnic minorities are fearlessly leading conversations against social injustice and moving towards an order that leaves only bigoted ideologies and hierarchies behind. Capitalism too, seems to have joined this bandwagon, with organizations that sell products and services studying these new patterns of behaviour– there is a visible shift in the way they are now conducting themselves both internally and externally. Their approach to gender equality, for example, was undoubtedly tentative at first– partly a product of generational conditioning and partly the unwillingness to fully plunge into a culture that might affect the portion of their consumer base that had not accepted this new move towards equality. Now, however, we see brands and organizations supporting causes of social importance as though they were a part of their philosophy all along. The most recent organization that came into focus for this was Gillette, with its ‘We Believe: The Best a Man Can Be?’ campaign. People from all over the world lauded the company for its incredibly emotional and impactful commercial which came on the coattails of the #MeToo campaign, while attempting to tackle homophobia and bullying between its celluloid boundaries. The fact that it also came under fire for allegedly attempting to virtue signal men and destroy traditional masculinity is a topic for another day; the timing of the advertisement is what shall be pursued instead.

Gillette and many similar brands have studied the market and expanded their research to include the emotional perspective that comes with the change in social sensibilities and find themselves not catering to a demographic that is slowly but surely becoming a majority. Recognizing that they cannot afford to be too late for this party, brands are radically changing their identities to cater to and capitalize off of this social awareness. They enjoy being seen as harbingers of change, whereas in reality, their renewed stance is often only a result of pandering to the audience with the money. After appropriating these struggles (which in Gillette’s case were also in part manufactured due to their highly sexist advertising throughout history) till they have milked the benefits of this newfound morality, they abandon the plot entirely; rarely do these companies find it within their charter to follow through with their word. Entire studies dedicated to this topic have proven that organizations have rarely put their money where their mouth is: workers are still highly underpaid, and the wage gap still exists.

While these brands influence the dynamics on a macro level, these effects rarely trickle down onto ground reality– where they are the most needed– and become mere ways of profiteering. One can observe this sort of co-option rather aggressively during Pride Month, where brands adopt queer aesthetics and rainbow colours to appease the LGBTQ+ community, and later are never seen funneling the same energy to eliminate the daily struggles the community faces. This phenomenon has earned itself the nickname of ‘pink capitalism’ or ‘rainbow capitalism’– for its effects are a short-lived state of euphoria for the women and LGBTQ+ demographic, resulting only in empty deliverables. We have moved from capitalizing off of people and nature to a much more worrying trend of capitalizing off of struggles and life experiences. However, it remains to be seen whether this sort of ideological takeover manifests into real action that transforms the world for the better.

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