‘Difference’ without end

I recently finished the manuscript for a book on Marxism and human geography. In the course of writing it, I gave some thought to the question of difference and identity, which has been of huge interest to human geographers. Of particular interest is what it might throw up when viewed through a Marxist lens, and taking into account the impressive diversity of forms that it assumes. This is in contrast to the more orthodox approach, which has focused almost entirely on race, gender and Eurocentricity, and from a viewpoint which tends, in my view, to fetishize them; to see them as things apart, as in the recent interest in intersectionality. The view seems to be ‘yes’ to class, but race and gender cannot be subsumed under the logics of capital; they have their own. A Marxist with a totalizing view has to disagree and can do so without being, as the common charge has it, ‘reductionist.’

So first, the good news. As Ellen Meiksins Wood claimed (1988: 5), structurally capital has no interest in discriminating along lines of gender, race, or whatever. The only discrimination it is concerned with has to do with the extraction of surplus value: efficiency in the labor process and a willingness to subordinate to capitalist demands. In virtue of cost competition, it has to be indifferent. On the other hand, and as she continued, if oppressions of gender or race can, given contingent circumstance, help in cost competition, then so be it. South African gold could never have been profitable if advantage had not been take of imperial conceptions of race and what that implied for excluding Africans from the franchise (Cox 2016: 21-44.)

However, what Wood says about capital also applies to labor. As a class with interests diametrically opposed to capitalist rule, ‘difference’ has to be of absolutely no moment. Structurally the working class should have no interest in gender, race or whatever. This, of course, flies in the face of experience. As it is, it might seem that sectarianism, racism, anti-immigrant feeling, originate in the working class and are then turned to its own purpose by capital. So exactly why the working class appears to be so vulnerable in this regard is an important question; why it is, that white males still rule the roost, and particularly among the most working class of people?

Fundamentally, it cannot be a matter of racial or gender identities. Rather difference is secondary to something else. What is conceivably at stake are those things most valued in a capitalist society: wage labor vs non-wage, employment vs unemployment, mental vs manual, supervising vs supervised, salaries vs wages, and the bigger the better, and control of how money will be spent. These are an object of struggle. Pre-existing understandings of difference are drawn on, some of long standing, like gender, others from no further back than the age of empire. Still newer ones get constructed, like that in South Africa between native Africans and the numerous refugees from elsewhere in the sub-continent.

To be sure, what is valued reflects the material imperatives of a capitalist society, but in quite mediated ways. It is not just a matter of putting bread on the table. Accumulation means a flood of ever newer products that then have to be sold, which then requires a reworking of popular desire and hence the interest in promotion and more money. Unemployment is a necessary fact of life under capitalism: a means of disciplining working class pretension and a reservoir of labor power to be thrown into the breach when there are upticks in demand. That means providing them with some sort of transfer to keep body and soul together. But not too much. The hunger for wage work has to be maintained, and, therefore, to be unemployed has to be defined as somehow shameful. Can one imagine a capitalist society in which the status of being unemployed was otherwise? The same applies to the mental/manual distinction. Mental labor has to be accorded higher status since it is so significant to an accumulation process that is ever dependent on technological advance. For each and every member of the working class, the goal then is to monopolize wage labor, earnings, wealth, and employment: a struggle that tips over into the living place and attempts to ensure that privilege gets reproduced as in anxieties about local schools and property values.

This is not a complete answer, since once the mechanisms and conceptions of difference are in place, forces of a cumulative nature enter in; but it is the most fundamental piece of the puzzle. The struggle for status on capitalist terms, divides people, and the parts assume, literally ‘lives (and therefore geographies) of their own’ and an uneasy compromise papered over by a sub-culture of resistance. Gender divisions prior to the 1960s were a way of life, reflected in media representations and gendered hierarchies.[1] More recently the significance of a masculinist culture, based on gender stereotypes, has become evident: there have been notorious instances of this in American police and fire service stations. People try to construct a world of routine and familiarity to counter a world that is necessarily insecure and impersonal. These arguments become particularly powerful when one steps away from the standard fare of difference discourse. National difference, sometimes cemented by notions of hierarchy as a relic of empire, is a case in point. The ‘foreigners’ are a threat because they intrude on a way life with one that can be radically different; not that much different from the police and the firemen who want to protect a masculinist culture that they find comforting because familiar and secure, and so providing Christopher Lasch’s (1995) ‘haven in a heartless world.’

Social stratification is another and hugely important site of differentiation. There is, though, something singular about this case. In principle, gender and racial, religious and national difference can be flattened. What this would mean is that class relations would show no correlation with these particular sources of difference: if African-Americans comprise twenty percent of the population, then one can certainly anticipate a (capitalist) world in which they are twenty percent of all the lawyers, the university professors and, indeed of the janitors. Likewise for gender and national/immigrant distinctions. This explains the emphasis of the women’s movement and the non-racial movement on affirmative action. But differences in class relations, most significantly here, in social stratification cannot, by definition, be eliminated. Working class people can be upwardly mobile and those in the more affluent strata, downwardly so; but to abolish social stratification is to abolish capitalism. There have to be poorer people, including the unemployed, to act as a discipline on the wage demands of those immediately above them in the stratification system. There have to be the so-called improvident, the wasters, and the idlers if there is to be any meaning to the struggle to escape that world and be accepted into the values of the capitalist one: values of money, steady work, a home in the suburbs, one’s own car, foreign vacations and so on.

The recent history of the women’s movement and the nonracial movement might suggest that there can be progress and that capital’s structural logic of indifference to gender, race and so on can work, even while it might be slow. We should, though, be careful in drawing conclusions from this about the possibility of a difference-less world. It is not just that social stratification is not going to go away since capital’s own logics demand it. It is also that even while some differences can be flattened, new ones are going to appear. The structural position of the working class, the dominance of capitalist values, and the diversification of the working class in terms of the technical division of labor requires it. Some have to be subordinated, discriminated against, so that others can retain a modest position in the capitalist pecking order or even improve on it. In England, before the Indians, Pakistanis and West Indians arrived in the 1950s, it was the Irish. And before that, manual laborers were regarded as a race apart, possibly inheriting their supposed improvidence, drunkenness, and ignorance over generations. In apartheid South Africa, the more urbanized African held the rural counterpart in contempt; something overlooked by more conventional understandings of that regime. Post-apartheid, it is refugees from the rest of Africa who are the threat.

One has to be impressed by the way in which old differences can suddenly acquire enhanced significance. Capitalist urbanization has been a particularly important site. The way in which later arrivals in the city are superposed on earlier ones has been reproduced many times, often producing a sharp politics of difference. There are some quite remarkable parallels between the nationalisms of the Quebecois and the Afrikaners of South Africa (Cox 2002: 195-203): an anglophone urban population in the major cities, notably Montreal and Johannesburg; a backward countryside of French-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking peoples who had been there long before; and then an urban migration which puts them at the bottom of the ladder, confronting an occupational structure in which the linguistically alien are predominant. Organization around ‘difference’ was, in both instances, the way chosen to usurp those in the working class above them, and achieve the dominant capitalist values.

All this suggests that capital’s tendency to indifference to ‘difference’ has to be regarded as, indeed, ‘tendential’ to which will be opposed, as long as capitalism is around, that is, tendencies towards the creation of ever new ‘differences’: something inscribed in deeply held values of what it means to work in capitalist society and what life’s purposes should be. And to the extent that success is achieved, it is to be secured by kicking away the ladder of those underneath; while those standing lower down are trying to displace you, drawing on discourses of difference, of long standing oppression, as indeed in the cases of Quebecois and Afrikaner nationalism.


Cox K R (2016) Geographies, critical and Marxist, and lessons from South Africa. Human Geography 9, 9-26.

Cox K R (2002) Political Geography: Territory, State and Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wood E M (1988) Capitalism and human emancipation. New Left Review I/167, 1-20.

[1] It was perfectly fine for a woman to be the headmistress or principal of an elementary or primary school but not of a secondary school. Likewise, there might be room for a female mayor but not a female Prime Minister or President, to put the divisions at their starkest.

One thought on “‘Difference’ without end

  1. Very good and convincing points. It is helping me to organise my ideas on class and difference in capitalist societies. Thanks a lot, prof. Cox.


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