“But this, in my view, has little to do with people being overly sensitive and much more to with the very economic system that conservative critics of cancel culture regularly prop up.”
Gina Carano from the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, as well as writers such as ancel culture seems to be, once again, at the forefront of the public discourse. This comes in the wake of several high-profile firings like that of actress and former wrestler Donald G. McNeil and Andy Mills from The New York Times resigning under pressure. In all of these cases, the firings and resignations seem to be unrelated to the individuals’ job performances and, instead, appear related to “politically incorrect” behavior elsewhere. It is most clear in Carano’s case, as she was let go amid a string of controversial social media posts.
This has given conservatives a renewed chance to decry their victimized position in today’s culture. Shortly after Carano’s firing was made public, it was announced that she would be starring in a movie (subject to be announced) produced by Ben Shapiro. The firings were also denounced by Marni Soupcoff in a recent essay for the National Post, one of Canada’s leading right-leaning newspapers.
There are several issues that could be raised by all of these events. Emily VanDerWerff, at Vox, has argued that making the case that Carano was fired for being a conservative amounts to acknowledging that conservatism and bigotry are one and the same. The reason is that some of her more controversial social media posts were anti-Semitic, among other things. One post highly trivialized the Holocaust, and previous ones had included anti-Semitic tropes, such as suggesting that Jews rule the world behind the scenes. Another issue is whether it even makes sense to talk about cancel culture, given that her termination from Disney+ directly led to her landing a leading role in an upcoming film.
But I want, instead, to take the premise of cancel culture, as exemplified by some of these cases, at face value and argue that cancel culture, the kind that conservatives most often denounce, is a necessary feature of “late capitalism.” This is, of course, somewhat ironic given that many of cancel culture’s most ardent critics on the Right, such as the aforementioned Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson, are also enthusiastic supporters of the capitalist system. A common argument put forward, however, is that firings such as Carano’s are simply the free market at work. While I agree with this, I want to go beyond just that; the argument I am trying to make should make it clear why the market economy leads to outcomes like cancel culture.
This requires at least working definitions of capitalism and of late capitalism, among other concepts. Markets by themselves are not a sufficient condition for an economic system to be a capitalist system. Markets, of course, have been around since the dawn of civilization. A barter system relies on markets, yet I am sure that most people (whether they support or oppose capitalism) would agree that capitalism only came into existence in the early modern period. Then, it really took off during the Industrial Revolution. Of course, defining capitalism could be an entire field of study, so to be clear, here is what I understand by it: Capitalism is an economic system in which economic transactions are carried out in the market under a system of private ownership of capital and in which success is measured by the accumulation of capital.
If cancel culture truly is a form of culture, then it is a clear product of the totalizing nature of late capitalism.
Late capitalism, on the other hand, refers to the specific mode of capitalism that has been predominant since the post-war era. While, again, a proper definition has to be a separate endeavor, some elements of a working definition should suffice. Here, I borrow mostly from Frederic Jameson in his 1991 work Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. Some common elements in their views concern the post-industrial nature of modern society, the prevalence of the media and information, and the seemingly totalizing nature of the economic system—a central theme, and the reason for the title in Fisher’s book. I think an interesting way to see whether this is correct is to seek to understand what constitutes capital in the different stages of capitalism. The phrase “capital stock” was seen sporadically since at least the 16th century. Yet it starts to become increasingly common around the late 18th century, that is, at the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and it reaches its peak during the early 20th century. This is consistent with the working definition of capitalism laid out earlier. Now, if Fisher’s and Jameson’s insights are correct, we should see the definition of capital expand into territory not previously considered to be a part of capital. Consistent with this, we can see that the phrases “human capital” and “social capital” increase their use exponentially after 1950, reaching their peak in the early 2000s.
The use of certain words and phrases is merely an approximation of actual social dynamics, and, as I stated previously, a proper definition of “late capitalism” requires more than this. However, hopefully—along with Fisher’s and Jameson’s insights—it suffices as evidence of real social dynamics. The specific dynamic that I have in mind is the transformation of—among other things—humans and social relations into capital stock. Traditionally, human beings were part of the labor side of the labor-capital dichotomy, and social relations were simply that. Of course, people still perform labor; however, from the point of view of an economic agent such as a firm, people are also the assets that make up human capital. In the same way, relationships become an additional form of capital. Both people and relationships create value other than the labor they perform.
When thinking about the value of human capital, one obvious choice is education. People create value through labor, but individuals with high educational credentials can also create value, for example, through prestige. As an example, certain law firms will only hire graduates from specific law schools. It is likely that there are graduates from other schools that could do the work just as well (or maybe even better than the ones they will hire), but this means that labor is not the only value these firms care about; they also prioritize the value of the human capital in itself.
Here we can finally come back to cancel culture. One common complaint leveled against firings such as Gina Carano’s is that actions unrelated to the work itself should be off-limits as grounds for firing someone, especially if these attitudes do not impact the work. I wholeheartedly agree with this point of view, but this is where the logic of late capitalism makes it impossible.
If success is defined as the generation of value through the accumulation of capital, then clearly the value of all capital ought to be imputed into this calculation. An easy example from a more industrially-oriented economy is the value of old machinery, for example. Even if a firm is nominally creating profits, old machinery will decrease in function and, thus, in value. This means that it will eventually need replacement with newer, more expensive machinery. With that said, if enough time passes, the value of the old machinery might be so low that it will be impossible to replace it with newer machinery without essentially eliminating the entirety of the profits from sales.
The earlier example is an easy way to see how the value of capital itself—in that case, machines—needs to be counted as part of the value that is created through the economic process. Yet, as more and more aspects of life are transformed into capital—like people—their value (however it is that we account for it) becomes an essential part of the total value created.
In a sense, critics of cancel culture might be correct to point out that—in an earlier time—Gina Carano (or anyone else’s) behavior might not have led to her firing. But this, in my view, has little to do with people being overly sensitive and much more to do with the very economic system that conservative critics of cancel culture regularly prop up.
The point is that an actor, for example, no longer adds value solely by his or her acting skills. Actors, themselves, are a part of capital, which is a direct consequence of the dynamics of late capitalism and its totalizing nature. As such, their perceived value becomes completely intertwined with the value of the production as a whole. In this case, as human and social capital, the value depends on how actors are perceived by the audience, including how the audience judges actors’ moral character.
I do not consider myself a Marxist, yet I believe Marx’s argument in The German Ideology, that culture is a kind of byproduct of the base, the economic system, is fundamentally correct. It is rarely clearer than in this case. If cancel culture truly is a form of culture, then it is a clear product of the totalizing nature of late capitalism. Sure, we can always ask people to be less sensitive or more tolerant towards different political attitudes; however, so long as this form of capitalism remains dominant, I see little hope that something like cancel culture can be left behind.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.