Complaints about The Man were a common theme in film and television through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. As with so many parts of pop culture, the phrase had roots in black film and television before migrating to the mainstream. What used to be a mainstay of blaxploitationfilms was now being parroted by white teenage stoners. Anybody who grew up in the 90s can perfectly recollect “It’s just like, Society, mannnnn. It’s like, The Man, screwing us over” as spoken by an angsty teen.
This was seen as ridiculous. Not all complaints about society are ridiculous, of course. But this particular one always was. The person spouting it was always a disaffected loser. They were rarely making any sort of coherent point. Sometimes they were just listing random things they disliked about the world. And at the end of the complaint was the all-blame-taking Man, the omnipresent Society who was responsible for it all in some sinister way.
Jack Black’s speech here in School of Rock provides a trope-defining example. At this point in the film, Black is a deadbeat who’s failed at most everything in his life. He has vague complaints ranging from the ozone layer to Shamu the whale, and believes that one used to fight The Man with ‘Rock n Roll’ until The Man ruined that as well with MTV. Black takes himself seriously but to the audience he’s inherently comedic, an object of derision.
Fortunately, this trope became so well-worn that today we’re largely spared rants about The Man. Social commentators are too savvy to appear that childish. Unfortunately, the exact same vague complaint has resurfaced in a more respectable form.
Complaints Under Late Stage Capitalism
In an incredible bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu, our talking heads have managed to take the exact same puerile statements about The Man and turn them into serious commentary by substituting ‘capitalism’ for The Man. If you’ve existed on the social web for more than 10 minutes, you’ll have seen this. Mad about gentrification? That’s just life under capitalism. There might be a supply chain issue for bourbon? Capitalism is broken. In a beautiful stroke of irony the internet is filled with merchandise for sale telling you that you don’t hate Mondays, you hate capitalism. The sea is on fire?Proof capitalism can’t be managed. Someone says you should meal prep to save time? Stop sucking capitalism’s dick, man. Once you notice this trend, you will see it everywhere.
Subscribe now for a chance to escape Late Stage Capitalism, mannnnn
What’s incredible about this rhetorical trend is how seriously it’s taken. It’s not just anonymous posters or lazy teenagers who post these things - one of the examples above is Joe Weisenthal, host of one of the most popular economics podcasts in the world. Vox proclaims TV shows to be ‘capitalist tragedies’ or 'set in the ruins of capitalism’. One of the most popular personal finance experts on YouTube gives advice on how to save and invest in late stage capitalism. Even lovable Ted Lasso now comments on late stage capitalism! Commentators like Anne Helen Petersen and Adam Conover have practically built their entire schtick on this trope. Even Bono, who intends to praise capitalism, has to do so begrudgingly - to show that he’s grossed out by it:
We understand Jack Black to be a deeply unserious person when he rants about The Man, but vague complaints about capitalism are given the opposite treatment - they add respectability and weight to an argument. Make any sort of complaint about the state of the world, add on ‘capitalism, am I right guys???’ to the end, and you are now a Serious Social Commentator. I don’t want to be too harsh on the folks above - I think many of them are quite intelligent and do valuable, interesting work. But they just can’t resist appending the capitalism complaint to what they’re saying, whatever it might be. We’ll take Bono’s reluctant sigh as the name for this practice - Ugh, Capitalism.
Why do people reach for this boogeyman so often? The phenomenon of Ugh, Capitalism is frustrating because it doesn’t have a single unifying reason for existing. Instead there are a number of trends in play here.
The Status Signal
Perhaps the most common reason people perform the Ugh, Capitalism dance is pure status signaling. Humans are status seeking monkeys. We’re constantly sending signals of our own status. We want to show that we’re smart, we’re compassionate, we’re successful, that we have the correct political beliefs. This isn’t an attack on any individual as much as a comment on the human condition - we’re all like this. And it’s especially true on social media:
‘Status as a Service’ is the core feature of social media as a business. Beyond the basic utility (it’s useful to have a place to chat with friend, or to upload videos), human beings inherently seek out social capital. We’re hungry for status…
Scroll through Twitter or TikTok and you can practically taste the desperate reaching for status. Everybody wants to get likes, everybody wants to go viral, everybody wants to be recognized as one of the cool kids with a high follower count, lots of clout, and lots of attention.
On the internet, where there’s no tone of voice or body language to send signals, using particularly evocative phrases is even more important than normal. Ugh, Capitalism and all its variations are a reliable way to give any statement that oomph, that hit of seriousness. It can signal that you’re one of the Good Guys, one of the people who gets it. Patricia Lockwood’s excellent book No One is Talking About This is one of the finest examples of internet logic I’ve seen:
Capitalism! It was important to hate it, even though it was how you got money. Slowly, slowly, she found herself moving toward a position so philosophical even Jesus couldn’t have held it: that she must hate capitalism while at the same time loving film montages set in department stores.
Inside the portal, a man who three years ago only ever posted things like “I’m a retard with butt aids” was now exhorting people to open their eyes to power of socialism, which suddenly did seem the only way.
If there’s a better encapsulation of how socialism became culturally trendy and capitalism became our collective object of derision, I haven’t seen it yet. Most of the people invoking capitalism this way can’t give a coherent definition of capitalism without frantic googling, and they certainly can’t explain what capitalism has to do with what they’re saying. They don’t even have any specific complaint. They just want people to know they too are furious at the state of things.
After all, what’s the difference between a video titled ‘How to Invest Smarter’ and ‘How to Invest Smarter Under Late Stage Capitalism’? Nothing, but the second one marks you as a politically-astute-culturally-trendy-cool-person. What other reason than status signaling could explain how every single person on Tinder in Brooklyn advertises that they want to ‘dismantle capitalism’ in their bio? These are overwhelmingly yuppies with well-paying white collar jobs living in one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the country. They are not the oppressed masses or the vanguard of the revolution - they’re just showing how committed they are to having the correct politics, as defined by what is ineffably cool online. It’s why they insist their bougie vegetables are dismantling late stage capitalism, that their cookie recipes have something to do with overthrowing the system.
Oh, you thought those were hypothetical examples?
Another common source of capitalism angst is what Clare Coffey calls ‘failure to cope’. Her entire piece over at Gawker is worth reading, but the most crucial parts are these:
There is a strain of discourse that insists an inability to cope in one’s day-to-day life is in almost all cases a political problem, or even the primary political problem. By volume, the most examples are on social media. Sometimes it’s an elaborate hypothetical in which asking a disabled person to make alternate arrangements and forgo ordering Instacart groceries for one day of a strike is tantamount to a genocidal program. Sometimes it’s a prompt tweet inviting you into a post-revolutionary fantasy world where, instead of collecting municipal garbage, you will be “doing art.”
This is the brand of Ugh, Capitalism that skirts closest to self-parody. It is communism where 90% of the workers produce theory and bad poetry. It is ‘my dog got cancer and capitalism is to blame’. It is the anger that if you don’t prepare food, it will take you longer to eat. Coffey continues:
What binds these pleas together is an application of “the personal is political” so expanded in scope that, for a certain kind of person, personal problems, anxieties, and dissatisfactions are illegible or illegitimate unless described as political problems…
The complete identification of human foible with structural failure excuses you from identifying and dealing with personal problems as such. Especially when it turns out the real culprit is capitalism.
These people aren’t angry at capitalism. They’re upset at the demands inherent to living life in the modern world. They’re mad that the human condition is sometimes stressful or imperfect. Like the first group, they couldn’t define capitalism if they tried. They do have specific complaints, but the complaints are conceptually distant, unrelated to capitalism as a system. Canine cancer would still exist under socialism, as far as I can tell. The concept of Mondays is not dependent on our economic system. At the core, these are people with some degree of dysfunction in their life who need a boogeyman to blame for personal travails.
To let Coffey have the final word:
Capitalism, in this rhetorical strain, is not so much the object of analysis or a concrete historical phenomenon as an all-purpose gesture. “Capitalism” is useful everywhere: as the punchline of self-deprecating jokes about the way we live now, as a perennial-but-distant bogeyman that explains chronic frustrations without ever causing enough pain to force serious disruption. Most importantly, its invocation immediately establishes a phenomenon in the realm of the political, without any further work required.
“Without any further work” is key. There is no politics or economic system that can solve all your problems, or spare your life from instances of suffering, discomfort or pain. Dealing with that is part of being human. It always has been and always will be. The only way to move past those things is to work hard, to strive, to struggle. But if you can blame the system, it’s not your fault. You’re not lazy, you’re a victim. You’re released from the burden of having to struggle and strive - you just need someone to overthrow that damn capitalism.
Angry about a Thing
The last major category of Ugh, Capitalism complaints are more grounded in actual public policy than the previous categories. The typical structure goes something like “Here is a fact about the world. This fact is bad, and it’s bad that we haven’t fixed it with politics or policy. Ugh, Capitalism”.
This is an improvement! They’re not purely riding the vibes, and they’re not talking about personal failings, random television sitcoms, or brunch ingredients. They’ve found a specific fact about world - and it’s even related to the economy or politics! They’re usually pointing out something that is indeed quite bad. The flaw comes when they completely fail to relate the bad thing in question to capitalism.
There’s almost never any attempt to explain of why capitalism caused this. How is it a capitalist problem? There’s no effort to examine what specific chain of events is actually causing the problem. Would it exist under socialism, or some other system? Who knows! Easier to blame capitalism with a sort of vague rhetorical shrug and move on.
Could the problem actually be fixed in a capitalist system? The answer here is almost always yes. The problem our hero is mad about - whether it be the housing crisis, pollution, climate change, working conditions, etc - has virtually always been solved in some other country that the hero admires… which is also capitalist. Given that Ugh, Capitalism complaints almost always come from the left, this is usually an American commentator wanting the US to be more like Denmark. Which is a capitalist country with a somewhat larger welfare state.
The generalized complaint is that the state of the world is imperfect, and if we improved public policy then we could make the world better. Completely true, but unspecific to capitalism. As Eric Levitz wrote in NYMag, blaming capitalism is not an alternative to solving problems.
There’s never any real discussion of detailed fixes in this kind of complaint - because that might acknowledge we can fix the problem without overthrowing the system. There’s never any argument about how under socialism (or some other alternative economic model) public policy tradeoffs, political failures, or scarcity just wouldn’t exist. Perhaps there will be some extremely vague hand-waving at ‘profit motive’ or ‘commoditization’, but let’s be honest - most don’t even bother with that, and the ones who try don’t really understand those ideas either. There’s just Ugh, Capitalism.
If there’s one unifying theme here, it’s that capitalism is not an economic model in these gripes, not really. It’s more of a blame-the-system impulse. People are either mad at how things are, or they at least want to signal that they are. It feels sophisticated to blame “capitalism” (or “America” or “individualism”, etc), and it’s less work than actually deep diving into the guts of policy and figuring out the specific steps needed to correct the issue. Easier to blame late stage capitalism, completely blind to the irony that people have been talking about ‘late capitalism’ for around 100 years. Late capitalism was a term before your grandparents were born and there will still be people talking about it when your grandchildren are old.
There are of course a few lonely souls who can actually define capitalism correctly and make coherent arguments about it. Rare as they may be, some people actually are writing detailed critiques of capitalism as an economic system. Good for them, even if I think they tend to be wrong more often than right. I hope they keep going.
But that’s not the typical way this argument goes. The typical way it goes is basically two words: “Ugh, capitalism”. There’s no escaping this, not until we have another generational shift and complaining about capitalism becomes as culturally passé as complaining about The Man Keeping You Down. It’s likely that as capitalism replaced The Man, some other boogeyman-societal-force will replace capitalism a few decades from now. In the meantime, we should at least notice the pattern.
Small discussion here - https://museumofuncutfunk.com/2011/10/07/blaxploitation-and-the-man/
The sea was set on fire by a fully state-owned and operated department, which means, of course, capitalism was to blame
In a very odd coincidence, Anne Helen Petersen’s dog died the day before I published this. She wrote a very thoughtful post about it, but still couldn’t resist taking a shot at the ‘White Christian Protestant Work Ethic’ as the reason grief is hard. Not blaming capitalism, but certainly something similar. I wrote the dog metaphor more than a week ago, but sometimes life imitates art.
My 15yo has taken to arguing economic systems with my wife and I (both economists). There is a strong Ugh, Capitalism vibe. OTOH, my 15yo is debating economic systems. I'll take the W.
Have you read any C4SS or Markets Without Capitalism? Might interest you.