Welcome to the Era of Late Socialism

I'll take late capitalism over late socialism any day.


Alex Edelman/CNP/AdMEdia/SIPA/Newscom

We hear a lot about late capitalism these days, mostly on Facebook and Twitter. A million dollar investment in an app that allows you to send the word "yo"? Late capitalism. $25 nap pods? Late capitalism. $16 cocktails? Late capitalism. (Wait until Twitter finds out about $38 Bloody Marys.)

It's a social media punchline for jaded liberals, and the joke is always the same: Capitalism, having run its course, is increasingly devoted to frivolity and decadence, to solving the niche problems of the wealthy and comfortable. Tagging something as late capitalism is a way of signaling, with mock exasperation, that market economies have stopped solving real problems, or providing anything of real value. It's an easy form of snark that nearly anyone can participate in from the convenience of a mass-market $500 pocket computer. LOL, please like, vote Bernie.

I'll grant the point, at least partially. The Yo app was silly. I can take naps on my couch at home for free. The cocktails, however, are pretty good. Capitalism's end game is nothing if not tasty.

The problem with the joke is that it only runs one way: We're all familiar with the follies of late capitalism. But what about late socialism?

The left has increasingly embraced the idea—or at least the label—of democratic socialism, along with an ambitious agenda of big government programs: single-payer health care, a jobs guarantee, free public college, and so on and so forth. But that agenda comes with a price tag so large that it is hard to imagine much of it becoming reality, even with the ascent of actually-we-don't-need-to-pay-for-itism. (You can get away with saying that deficits don't matter for a while. The problem is that at some point, they do.)

In practice, then, the socialist agenda, or at least the agenda of those Americans who call themselves socialists, is rather less grandiose. Even a brief glance at the handful of urban enclaves where left-leaning interest in democratic socialism is concentrated suggests that socialism, such that it is, has entered a tired and decadent phase of its own.

Here I am thinking of the recent wave of plastic straw bans, the profusion of restrictive zoning rules, caps and bans on ride-sharing services, minimum wage hikes targeted at service industry workers who earn tips, and so on and so forth.

As exercises in petty bureaucratic tyranny, these policies are connected in character: They limit individual choices and force businesses into support roles for social crusades. More importantly, they are pointless at best, and counterproductive at worst. The straw bans don't address the primary sources of plastic waste (presuming that's the goal) and may even result in the disposal of more plastic overall; urban ride-sharing caps are likely to curtail service in poor neighborhoods first; minimum wage hikes for tipped employees were broadly opposed by the very service workers they were supposed to have helped.

One might object—reasonably—that none of this truly counts as socialism. It's just liberal nanny statism at the urban level. Real socialism looks more like Venezuela. If socialists, the real ones who take this sort of thing seriously, want to make this argument, they should go right ahead. You will notice it's a line of reasoning they tend to avoid.

Instead, socialists like Bernie Sanders typically focus on the Nordic economies in Europe. Scandinavia does seem like a nice area of the world in many ways, especially if you like it cold. But here, too, you find that American socialists tend to gloss over certain pesky details. Nordic economies are relatively lightly regulated, certainly when compared to many other European economies. The region is also home to high effective marginal tax rates, which hover around 50 percent for ordinary middle class incomes.

There may be some advantages to the Nordic model, or parts of it anyway, but this is hardly the discussion most of today's up-and-coming socialists are having. If high middle class taxes and low corporate regulation are what the newly energized socialist left wants, then by all means, that's the pitch they should make to American voters.

The point is that where the American left finds itself in power, it ends up pursuing penny-ante restrictions on individual freedoms, one straw, balloon, and scooter at a time. This is not socialism, precisely speaking, but it is what socialism breeds in practice, at the local level, when practiced by those who understand politics entirely as a means of control.

Capitalism hasn't given us a perfect world. Far from it. But its moral gains are difficult to deny. Market-based economic systems have lifted more people out of poverty than any other system of social or political organization in the history of the world.

And yes, the excesses of capitalism are real. (I doubt I'll ever pay for a nap pod, unless someone makes me.) But by and large they are designed to make your life, or at least someone's life, a little more comfortable and more interesting. The excesses of late socialism are petty, pointless exercises in bureaucratic busybodying. Socialism's end game may be shallower and sillier than the true socialism of yore, but it hasn't changed.