Apex capitalism

The Apple Vision Pro represents the end of something. Or possibly the beginning. It’s an apex product from an apex economy.

Stylised front-on photo of Apple Vision Pro VR headset against a black background

(updated on 10 June with some new market valuations)

What we know about capitalism – liberal democracy, Western economic dominance – suggests some kind of discontinuity is coming, some kind of historic break or epochal crisis. A lot of people accept this. Meanwhile, the happy plateau we were expecting from the 21st Century never materialised and the steady growth in incomes and wellbeing we were promised stopped years ago.

The exception

Except in America. Since Covid and the economic shock of the Ukraine war the US economy has essentially entirely rebounded. Growth is up, jobs are up and inflation is close to the Fed’s 2% target. This is not, of course, to say that there’s anything ideal about the US economy or permanent about this upturn. And the paradoxes of US economic power – out-of-control poverty and precarity, healthcare and housing in permanent crisis and so on – are self-evident. The American economy, though, continues to have all sorts of advantages, advantages that compound over time and help us to explain, er, the Apple Vision Pro:

The USA is the largest producer and the largest exporter of both oil and gas. Until 2016 it was literally illegal to export oil from the USA – a remarkable, unprecedented change in direction that is probably the biggest single contribution to the economy’s current robustness. The irony of the fact that the US economy is switching to renewable energy more quickly than anyone anticipated and thus needs a lot less of this oil and gas domestically is, of course, profound.

The country has the largest agricultural sector in the world and is the largest exporter of food. Huge expanses of fertile land of many different kinds, intensive production methods and light regulation (and huge federal subsidies, natch) make food in the USA cheap and accessible. This is not secondary to America’s success. Cheap calories is the most elemental fuel for a booming economy.

The US stock market is vast and getting bigger. The S&P 500, the main index of American stocks, is worth 60% of the whole world’s market capitalisation. The numbers are bonkers. As of today (10 June 2024) the largest company in the American system (Microsoft) is worth substantially ($3.15T) more than the whole of the London stock exchange’s FTSE all-shares index ($2.43T). Every traded business in the UK added together gives you nearly one Microsoft (or one Apple, for that matter).

The country has a larger working-age population, as a proportion of the overall population, than any other developed economy and it’ll be like that for longer. There’ll be a population crunch in the USA but it’s a lot further off than it is in Europe or Asia. Flexible, available labour will continue to drive the American economy (Southern border crisis notwithstanding).

America’s domestic economy is enormous and essentially insulates the country from the vagaries of world trade. Even the biggest world economies depend much more on the continued health of all the other economies. It’s difficult to calculate the exclusively domestic component of the US economy but, in 2022, US households spent $2.39T on food in grocery stores and on eating out – roughly the GDP of Italy. 335 Million people organised into a single economy with a very high level of integration, high disposable incomes and frictionless internal trade – and now energy independence – turns out to be a big deal. The 20th Century logic of world trade is unravelling, mercantilism is making a comeback and economies are hardening their borders. The USA will hardly notice.

Lockheed Martin Tomahawk cruise missile from from below against a blue sky

The tech economy and the warfare economy. You don’t need me to tell you that the US tech sector dominates the world (see the top five stocks above – MSFT, AAPL, AMZN, NVDA, GOOGL) but the country’s military sector – manufacturing and contracting – is also vast and has the unique advantage of not really needing an export market. Plenty of F-35s and Hummers are sold worldwide but the American military buys more kit than all the other militaries put together. Since the Authorization for use of Military Force, passed by Congress a few days after 9/11 and never repealed, military manufacturing in the USA has been on a war footing, both legally and economically, an unending bonanza for the contractors and manufacturers – and for the US economy. The US defence budget for this year is $842B, somewhere between the GDP of Poland and Switzerland. If you add in export income from weapons sales, aid to other countries that returns to the USA in defence contracts and space you have an economic powerhouse unprecedented in world history – a shadow nation grounded in warfare.

And all this is essentially self-sustaining, an arrangement continually renewed by a thoroughly captured Congress: a perpetual motion money printer. If Raytheon never sold another Tomahawk missile abroad they’d barely notice. This cannot be said about other warfare-dependent nations, like the UK, where a constant stream of new beligerant dictatorships must be secured to sustain the industry. The American economy has a military economy – with investment and manufacturing on an amplified, war-footing cadence, on the scale of a large developed country – inside it. America cannot help but pull ahead of those nations lodged in the older model of a civil polity that steps up to war once or twice per century. In combination with that long list of advantages, the USA looks like the unassailable world-historical superpower to end all unassailable world-historical superpowers.

I don’t want to idealise the American economy. I really don’t. And even the most basic logic of reversion to the mean must, presumably, eventually apply. Can a single economy so enormously exceed the mean forever? A quarter of a century past the end of history – and well into the end of the end of history – can an economy expect to continue to add wealth and complexity at the same pace? Can a capitalist economy indefinitely resist collapse into a more primitive shape, a less productive form?

What’s this got to do with anything?

Well, now there’s the Vision Pro, a new product from Apple that seems to stand at the junction, right on the brink of the discontinuity. It’s evidently an extraordinary bit of kit and it has the potential to jar the matrix, change the way we think about computing, in the way the Mac did forty years ago. I haven’t even met one yet but it’s giving me the kind of tingles I got when I essentially bullied my dad into buying me a Mac Plus and when I got an iPod couriered from California before they were available in the UK.

But why all the numbers? Well, this new device is a creature of the American boom and of the spinning flywheel of the American tech innovation machine. It’s a condensation of all those advantages and all those crazy distortions. Not directly, of course – no pork bellies here, no space lasers – but the Vision Pro could not have been produced in any other economy. It combines breakthroughs in half a dozen areas. Not raw innovation – this is an Apple device after all – but brilliant integration of features developed elsewhere. And each one of these features – the gorgeous hi-res displays, the subtle and beautiful UI, the eye-tracking and gestures and all the rest – each one represents the very peak of an industrial discipline, of a software or hardware or project-management culture. There’s a level of integration and completeness that hardly any organisation could match and that really only an American organisation with access to essentially unlimited capital could fund.

In this sense, the Vision Pro seems in some way overdetermined, too richly-provisioned, too designed, too complete. And in this it really does seem like a creature of an economy at its apex, of a culture that cannot be further refined, of a state that has reached its organisational and economic peak.

But I should say that I thought this about previous Apple products too (and I have to remind you that I haven’t even seen one of these things yet so you’ll have to forgive me if when you buy yours it turns out to be a bit Russell Hobbs). I remember an uncanny feeling when I unpacked my first Mac and set it amongst all the junk on my desk in Camberwell. It seemed to possess an extra dimension of detail, of conceptual complexity. It made all the other bits of kit, even the lovely ones, like my Nikon and my Walkman, seem half-finished, barely thought-through. From another era.

On that Mac Plus I wrote my undergraduate dissertation. I’d found a quote from Jacques Derrida about nuclear war. He said that nuclear war, unlike previous kinds of conflict, would be ‘fabulously textual’, which was a phrase I loved. What he was describing was the complexity and technological density of modern weapons systems but also the layers of inscription and meaning embedded in them. I remember thinking my Mac, a product of the Silicon Valley outpost of what had already been the apex economy for decades, was definitely also fabulously textual.

  • The Vision Pro has competition and some devices – from Meta, for instance – have been around for years. They’re basically simpler and cheaper, they come from a little further back down the complexity curve and will mop up billions of dollars of business from the markets and users that can’t quite stomach the cost and complexity of the apex device.
  • Comparing market capitalisations is legit, obviously, but comparing a company’s market cap with the GDP of a country (something people do all the time because it’s kind of dramatic) less so. One is a stock and one is a flow. But, Will Davies says here, this is more appropriate than it used to be.
  • Over the long run, since the 1980s approximately, incomes in the most of the developed world have stagnated for working people. The USA is no exception.
  • This was really all triggered by an ep of the Vergecast. The breathless excitement about the Vision Pro launch was infectious (there was plenty of scepticism too) but what seemed really significant was something kind of hermetic about the discussion. I realised there was no discussion at all of the world beyond the USA (or beyond the product’s highly-paid, tech-literate customer base for that matter). I realised that, for these journalists, there was really no need to consider the world beyond at all. This extraordinary bit of kit, one of the most complex consumer devices ever launched, marrying half a dozen bleeding-edge technologies, will almost certainly produce big international sales but, to be honest, it doesn’t really need to.
  • Of course, when I linked the American warfare economy and the Apple Vision Pro it hadn’t occurred to me that there might be some more concrete connections.
  • Another trigger for this was an episode of the FT’s excellent Unhedged podcast.
  • Since the beginning of the year, Microsoft’s market cap has increased from $2.75T to $3.17T and currently stands at $3.15T – an increase of $400B, approximately the value of the top three UK businesses added together.
  • Since I published this post, Apple and Microsoft changed places at the top of the S&P more than once. Microsoft’s market cap is currently $130B larger than Apple’s. That difference is approximately today’s value of the FTSE’s third-biggest company HSBC. It’s as if non-US stock markets trade in the gaps between individual stocks on the S&P.