I call them “this thing is late capitalism” essays. There are several variations on this genre of lifestyle writing. They don’t always invoke the “late capitalism” phrase explicitly, but all offer a critique of a popular brand or product in terms of its relationship to the system. Some are formulated as takedowns of companies that market themselves as millennial-friendly, or environmentally focused or, most often, feminist. In these essays, a writer will explain that, while this brand claims to be offering you empowerment, it is selling you a product at the end of the day: the enlightened brand is actually capitalist, but you might be fooled into thinking otherwise. Another type is the one in which writers chronicle their journey as they use a selection of hip, socially conscious products for a week, ultimately finding that, although these products promised to improve their life, it has, disappointingly, remained the same. Even the fanciest things cannot make you a better version of yourself, the writer will conclude, but it’s easy to be conned into thinking they might. Finally, there are the essays that credulously profile a company seeking to make a statement about, or better still, “shake up” capitalism.
There is, of course, crossover here, and many such essays fall under more than one grouping. But a few common features apply across the board: they are heavy on analysis but low on data; they make statements about the millennial experience that apply primarily to those who are relatively wealthy, living in cities, and in possession of one or more college degrees; they take it as a given that the marketing targeted by “cool” companies at this particular demographic is received without cynicism; and they all conclude with a kind of “no ethical consumption under capitalism” mantra. Recently, as I’ve noticed more and more of these essays appearing across the internet, on everything from Sweetgreen salads to puffer jackets, I’ve found myself wondering: What is the point?
A few months ago, BuzzFeed News writer Anne Helen Petersen wrote a glowing profile of the millennial-focused company Pattern as it launched Equal Parts, a brand of cookware aimed at time-strapped young professionals that offers a cooking “coach” text service, consisting of friendly reminders and advice, designed to make preparing meals seem less overwhelming. Petersen set out to discover “what an anti-burnout company, operating within American capitalism might actually look like.” The answer, it turns out, is pretty much like a regular company with slightly more flexible maternity leave; a loose (but not official) policy to not work later than 6 p.m.; and signs on the wall reminding employees to “ENJOY DAILY LIFE.”
As I’ve noticed more and more of these essays appearing across the internet, on everything from Sweetgreen salads to puffer jackets, I’ve found myself wondering: What is the point?
Still, Petersen breathlessly details how Equal Parts’ cookware and text service (“not unlike having a mom-like figure . . . only without the baggage of actually texting with your mom”) appeals to a growing need among millennials for something called “domestic cozy,” and how “cooking just to cook” can be an “antidote, or at the very least, a form of resistance to the feeling that everything you do in your life should be optimized”—even when that “coziness” will set you back $449, the cost of Equal Parts’ “complete kitchen” set. She acknowledges that reminding wealthy young people to make dinner for themselves is a “bougie solution to a bougie problem” but stresses that the company’s philosophy is that “bougieness doesn’t obviate problem-ness.” For millennials, she argues, a company like Pattern may actually be part of the answer to the pressing question of: “How can we actually change the patterns of our lives—in a way that accommodates their current complexities without capitulating to them?” Optimization, here, is assumed not to be optional. Rather than an active choice some young people make to get ahead, it’s presented as something everyone must endure. The idea that, instead of cheerfully channeling their anxiety into home-cooking, millennials should (or even could) reduce life’s “complexities” by refusing to engage with the quest to joylessly gamify everything, is not discussed. Instead, paying somebody to text you about your dinner plans and buying some nice kitchen knives becomes a “form of resistance.”
Patagonia, known for its focus on sustainability, is often the recipient of similarly glowing coverage. A September 2019 profile in Time magazine argued that the company is “reimagining capitalism.” But, as is detailed in the piece, Patagonia makes new and upgraded products every year; offers deals like free shipping to encourage more online shopping; and markets its products heavily. It has reportedly made around $1 billion in annual revenue in recent years. The relatively high price point of their products—a standard fleece starts at about $100—may discourage over-consumption, but it also fosters exclusivity that lends the brand additional cachet. In what way is this helping to reimagine a competitive, market-based economic system?
Projecting radicalism onto brands because of superficial differences in their business strategy, like harder-wearing products, or a slightly more relaxed corporate culture, steers the conversation away from what genuine change might look like. The ability that individuals have to change their own patterns of consumption is minimized, too. Instead of buying secondhand, or (god forbid) spending a stretch of time without buying anything new at all, the reevaluation of consumer habits these essays tend to suggest is buying nicer things. And usually more expensive things, at that.
In a recent example of the “enlightened products journey” essay, The Atlantic writer Amanda Mull headed to the Goop store to spend $1,279 on whatever she wanted. Her mission? To see whether Goop products “really could improve my life.” Predictably, her purchases mostly fell flat. A $249 hair dryer did not give her the “hair of an Instagram influencer,” expensive face oil ended up all over the floor, and a luxury bath bomb turned the water brown. “As the experiment went on, I began to suspect that the health company I had been promised would never quite materialize. I tried to take every vitamin sachet and dose of Goop-branded melatonin with the sincere belief that I might just be one day away from feeling better than I ever knew I could,” she mused, as if anyone on earth, let alone a journalist on the consumerism beat, approaches lifestyle accessories with this level of sincerity.
The piece concludes on an indictment of the luxury wellness industry, as Mull explains that “buying the most luxurious version of a thing you don’t really need doesn’t make it more useful” and argues that companies like Goop take advantage of women not well-served by traditional medicine (a point made in these pages by Jessa Crispin in 2018). But Goop, by now, is known less as a wellness brand and more as an object of ridicule, particularly since a viral 2018 profile in the The New York Times Magazine exposed issues in the company’s approach to fact-checking. It’s not likely that many of Goop’s customers are unaware of this Times-revealed scandal. They know the secrets; they know the jokes; they buy Goop anyway. Like all high-end lifestyle brands, Goop does not sell the promise of health so much as the ability to tastefully advertise that one has the money and taste to shop at a place like Goop. Women aren’t, by and large, being tricked by Goop’s marketing; they’re making a choice to align themselves with its brand statement.
A similar essay in Vox saw the writer Rebecca Jennings try the nicest and most expensive wardrobe and lifestyle basics from “disruptive” companies like Everlane, Casper, Quip, and Care/of. She ends the weeklong experiment devastated to discover that “the products, despite being worth thousands of dollars, have not managed to neutralize my bodily functions or my laziness about cleaning or the lingering guilt of ghosting.” Again: Are young professionals really conned into buying luxury products in the belief that they will “neutralize their bodily functions”? Presenting the pursuit of status objects as the result of an earnest desire for a rich inner life obscures the uncomfortable truth that these objects are often a way of signaling, to ourselves as well as others, that we have made it.
It is true that, in the era of hyper-targeted digital adverts, marketing is more omnipresent than ever. Using Instagram and Twitter (or even Facebook, if you’re that way inclined) can feel like working for free, making data for these companies to sell to other companies, who then sell us back a fragmented, incomplete, yet perfected version of ourselves in the form of aspirational lifestyle ads. And yet, there’s something insidiously disempowering about resigning ourselves to the idea that this deluge of marketing must work in exactly the way advertisers want it to. People are more complicated than their search history and likes. However manipulative their tactics, companies don’t, as these essays frame it, make people buy things.
A 2019 essay on the puffer jacket as a symbol of late capitalism argued that “under [its] terms . . . anything that streamlines day-to-day tasks that are only peripherally necessary for its functioning—eating, commuting, and, yes, dressing—is to be encouraged, rewarded, and, of course, sold back to us.” The author goes on to explain that “our clothing choices have been shaped by the demands of optimization. Time spent layering knitwear, scarves, and overcoats is time not spent answering emails or online shopping” . . . as if nobody has ever worn both a puffer jacket and a scarf. Even by the standards of “this thing is late capitalism” essays, positing that puffer jackets are part of a conspiracy to make people work more is pretty out there. Yet this is the logical end point of a line of thinking that doesn’t really hold anybody responsible for anything. Even the people buying $1,000 Canada Goose jackets live at the mercy of the system! What can any of us really do, apart from answer emails and online shop?
Take the many pieces that have been written railing against the twee women’s networking club The Wing, with its apparently feminist ethos but exclusively high price. Few have made any of the women who choose to the join The Wing the subject of their ire. One essay describes how the club’s brightly colored, floral-patterned spaces demonstrate how “the radical potential of ‘playful’ and ‘zany’ aesthetics can be appropriated to mask a capitalist logic”—as though the workings of capitalism are “masked” for those women who can afford to pay The Wing’s $2,350 single location yearly fee. Writer Eloise Hendy continues: “The Wing offer[s] women luxurious ‘treats’ while profiting from their desire to escape or reform society’s ills.” But The Wing serves primarily as a space for professional women to meet and advance their careers; it is not a forum for people campaigning against homelessness or poverty. Are Wing members being unwittingly used by a deceptive and exploitative company, or are they willing contributors to a system that is working pretty well for them already?
It is easy to complain about our collective helplessness, and convenient to flatten all experiences of the capitalist demand for productivity.
Another essay, on the makeup brand Glossier, deconstructs the way its marketing cunningly ensnares well-educated, millennial women who are smart enough to see the trap it sets, yet powerless to resist all the same. A fake pink rooftop set up in the Glossier store is, of course, the “logical result of late capitalism.” The project is cynical, a “store pretending it isn’t a store”; the brand “seeks to optimize pleasure for the buyer to the point of erasing the customer-brand distinction entirely.” And yet, the piece concludes, what choice do these smart young women have but to buy Glossier’s products? “Glossier understands that you can hate what you want, feel bad for wanting what you want, but want it anyway, without being reduced to a fool.” You can be smart, this piece stresses, very smart, and still your choice to place an order on “boy brow” is not up to you. Not really.
These essays all borrow from more substantive and radical criticisms of marketing made decades ago, like in Naomi Klein’s No Logo, or the countercultural magazine Adbusters. But most of them come to conclusions that feel curiously flat. While these earlier works advocated boycotts and protesting, “this thing is late capitalism” essays end instead on a note of knowing resignation. They point out that brands are insidious, and capitalism is oppressive, but conclude that, though awareness of this may be widespread, our power to act on it is minimal. These writers are right, of course, to argue that individual change won’t bring about the end to capitalism. But that doesn’t mean that choice does not exist.
Ultimately, linking a brand or cultural trend to “late capitalism” is an undemanding way to affect profundity and a kind of superficial universality. It is easy to complain about our collective helplessness, and convenient to flatten all experiences of the capitalist demand for productivity, as if an honest parallel can be made between the self-imposed short lunch breaks of an upwardly mobile urban millennial with two degrees and the timed bathroom breaks of an Amazon factory worker. All workers experience exploitation of some sort under capitalism, but it’s not an act of solidarity to obscure the very uneven way this manifests. No Logo was just as engaged with the conditions of marginalized workers in sweatshops as it was with brand saturation, but such considerations are conspicuously absent from “this thing is late capitalism” discourse.
Every brand and company and product is, of course, an instrument of capitalism. It isn’t sharp or perceptive to point this out; it’s stating the obvious. These essays do a lot of work, but that work is less about identifying an under-reported phenomenon, or illuminating a new way of thinking about life under capitalism, and more about absolving readers of their participation, however active or enthusiastic, in it. At what point does participation cross over from subjugation and become, instead, complicity? At what point does complicity become propagation? I don’t really know the answer, but my guess is: a few pay grades below purchasing Equal Parts’ cooking coach subscription service.