What is this late capitalism we keep hearing about? As a pop culture term, it refers to capitalism run amok with its drive for profits over everything (e.g., the United passenger who was beat up and dragged off the plane so the company’s employees could fly). It’s a term often used by Marxist economists (also called Monopoly Capitalism or Late-Stage Capitalism), suggesting the unsustainable nature of purely instrumentalist market-based societies, where success means cutting costs and expanding production in a process that results in constant capital accumulation by the owners of the means of production. If you’ve ever read The Lorax, you get the idea.
Players (1977) by Don DeLillo
I am continually astonished that this novel is from 1977, and that it’s not considered one of DeLillo’s masterworks. It’s a tone poem involving disaffected elites in New York, a shooting on the floor of the stock exchange, terrorism, and an Occupy Wall Street-type protest. It’s one of the most contemporary (i.e., superbly prescient) depictions of the underlying anxiety of rapacious capitalism—we worship and receive its word as if fixed from a bible, but on some level we know it is neither morally neutral or sustainable.
Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? (2016) by Katrine Marçal
I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis in economics on “Economic Development and Women’s Labor Force Participation,” and concluded that in developed versus under-developed countries, the end game was the same: women did most of the work, including the never-off labor that does not get counted in traditional economic measures. Additionally, the financial penalties of this unpaid work (family stress, “mommy track” drag on careers, unequal pay due to gender discrimination, etc.), don’t factor into our economic world view because the variables that are “important” in economic models have been mostly decided by men. Marçal does a brilliant job making economics accessible and shows the egregious mistake of excluding women from basic economic market principles, and how this invisibility reinforces inequality.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty: If you want a meaty yet general-read-friendly book to help explain the severe and growing income inequality in the U.S. (and around the world), economist Thomas Piketty’s book is the one for you. It’s a decade-long exploration (via painstakingly reverse-engineered tax data) of how, in the current industrialized world, rich people work less and earn more because their wealth (real estate, stocks, inheritance, tax breaks) works for them, while poorer people who depend on income—i.e., working at a wage job—desperately scramble to make ends meet in a trickle-down economy. Don’t be put off by the graphs and equations—this book is also a fascinating account of economic history from Adam Smith to Simon Kuznets to Karl Marx and beyond.
Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) by Cathy O’Neil
O’Neil has worked both as an academic and as a quant for a hedge fund, which puts her in a unique position to investigate how computer algorithms (many of them secret and proprietary) and “big data” are part of a new, non-human way to evaluate things like public school teacher performance and hiring prospects. Many of these algorithms, she contends, are based on “poisonous assumptions,” and—surprise, surprise—in aggregate mostly affect and penalize the poor, who have to face the faceless numbers with little recourse, while the rich use their cronyism, nepotism, and old-boy networks to get ahead—all the while pretending American economic life is a meritocracy.
Landscape with Invisible Hand (2017) by M.T. Anderson: For younger readers, Anderson—who brought us the amazingly prescient 2012 YA novel Feed, where young people meet by connecting directly to the Internet via their brains—now references Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in a techno-future dominated by aliens. This book includes alien nostalgia and misreading of the American 1950s style of dating, and diarrhea pratfalls, and it tackles Piketty-esque inequality:
Almost no one had work since the vuvv came. They promised us tech that would heal all disease and would do all out work for us, but of course no one thought about the fact that all that tech would be owned by someone and would be behind a paywall.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.