Capitalism, Identity, and Social Rights

Few questions of theory are as salient today as that of the relation between capitalism and social rights. Amid the rise of capitalism, during what became known as “the age of democratic revolution,” progressives placed primary upon constricting the arbitrary exercise of authority by defenders of “throne and altar” and the traditions associated with the ancien regime. Liberty became identified with the procurement of political rights freedom of religion, assembly, speech and the ability of individuals to act in any way they wished so long as it did not contradict the letter of the law. The logic was clear enough since it was precisely in the realm of civil society the economy, the family, educational institutions, and the myriad associations connected with everyday life — that individuals became who and what they were.

Basically it was a matter of keeping the state weak in order to make “civil society” strong. Especially in nations with weak states and weak labor movements, however, the bourgeoisie also began to insist that the freedom provided by the watchman state to “private” actors in civil society should be extended to capital itself and thus the demand arose to treat the corporation legally as an individual. But there was a problem. Freedom from state interference by such “individuals” or conflicting “private passions” produced tensions between the interests of working people in maximizing their wages and control over their “labor power” as against the interests of capital in maximizing its profits and maintaining control over its employees. Or, to put the matter a different way, the conflicts between private actors took an ever more decidedly social dimension. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, indeed, the growth of the labor movement and its increasing stridency for economic rights (like the “right to work” introduced by the socialist Louis Blanc in 1848) was known among the mainstream public as the “social question.”

Constraining the arbitrary power of economic institutions associated with the free market came to be understood as the answer to the social question. Nationalizing industry and welfare programs were hotly contested by the advocates of what Marx termed “the political economy of labor” and the “political economy of capital.” But this endemic conflict lost some of its meaning with a change in the meaning of capitalism that occurred amid the integration of social democracy into an establishmentarian republicanism, the rise of totalitarianism, and the creation of what Daniel Rousset called the “concentration camp universe” during the 1930s and 1940s. This view has grown ever stronger especially among academics with the rise of the “new social movements” and the new preoccupation with individual identity, democratic empowerment, and the commodity form. This complex of themes has changed the contemporary meaning of capitalism and, with it, of social rights. It demands a new and critical consideration in order to advance the progressive discourse.


Capitalism ultimately involves the transformation of objects into commodities that are bought and sold on the market. The commodity thus becomes the form under which not merely production and consumption, but all social interaction is defined. The extent to which previously non-commercial activities like religion and art, or “free” goods like air and water, become subordinate to the commodity form is the extent to which it is possible to speak about the progress of capitalism or what, today, is called “globalization”. According to this way of thinking, in short, capitalism is not merely the struggle between classes in an exploitative system but, rather, an overarching expression of a historical trajectory that has culminated in “modernity.” Implicated in the creation of capitalist modernity is science, bureaucracy, standardization, the division of labor, and the criteria of “efficiency” that all speak to a world of scarcity or what philosophers liked to call “the realm of necessity.” Common to all of this is the elimination of subjectivity and ethical qualities like solidarity in favor of objective determinations that speak to the capitalist production process.

Identity, personal responsibility, and even ideological differences thus lose their value. Quantity turns into quality and workers are increasingly rendered subject to “reification” or being treated as “things” as the division of labor takes hold and they succumb to the adage “time is money.” Workers become mere costs of production in the pursuit of profit. “Alienation” is intimately connected with this process. The freedom associated with the full employment of human powers is truncated, nature becomes an object for domination, and trust between individuals is lost. Alienation strips the individual of any organic connection to the world and other people or, according to the “young Marx,” turns workers into mere cogs of a machine that separates them from their comrades, the products of their labor, and their own potentiality as individuals. Capital ever more surely becomes the subject, and workers the object, of the commodity form — and what Hegel (not Marx) first termed an “inverted world” results. Creating capital becomes the all-consuming purpose of capitalism and, as a consequence, traditions fall by the wayside; social bonds vanish, and a form of what Emile Durkheim termed anomie arises in which the individual feels bereft and alone. Indeed, just as alienation produces a world in which the products of labor escape the control of their producers, reification renders these producers incapable or, better, unconcerned with subordinating their creations to their control.

Alienation and reification are usually (and mistakenly) been treated interchangeably. Both are expressions of the commodity form, but even more than that of a world beyond the control of those who created it. Both alienation and reification undermine solidarity, social identity, and the extension of democracy. That these concerns should have become so important in the aftermath of Auschwitz only makes sense given the denial of responsibility by those formerly in power and the transformation of the inmates into “things” identified with the numbers tattooed on their arms. What Theodor Adorno called the “totally administered society” or, better, a society totally administered according to the rationality of the commodity form— had emerged as the enemy of subjectivity tout court. The frightening image made sense in the context of Nazism, Stalinism, and a burgeoning McCarthyism in the United States. The aftermath of World War II produced a new cultural concern with individuality and identity. Jean-Paul Sartre insisted that individuals take responsibility for their “freedom” but also for their “situation.” He rendered these ideas concrete in Anti-Semite and Jew while Simone de Beauvoir did the same on a grander scale in The Second Sex. They also extended to issues of gender in Saint Genet, Sartre’s great work of existential psychoanalysis dealing with the great gay writer Jean Genet, and then issues of race and colonialism with the influence they exerted on figures like James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon.

All of these works spoke to the plight of excluded groups often held in contempt by mainstream advocates of the “system.” But the discrimination suffered by them was less related to capitalism than to the anthropological development of Western civilization. Pre-capitalist prejudices connected with patriarchy, religion, ethnocentrism, and colonial conquest now confronted the abstract and indeterminate individual that was the centerpiece of both liberal and market ideology. Enough progressive thinkers and activists now became less concerned with a historically determinate form of capitalist production than the repressive character of the entire ideological and institutional apparatus or, better, “the system” — connected with modernity. Insofar as universal and abstract political “rights” were part of this inheritance, what’s more, it became a matter of asserting the particular and concrete identity of a particular enfranchised group in order to make possible its recognition by “the system.”

The American Civil Rights Movement can thus be seen as a kind of transitional affair. This extra-parliamentary and mass based and grass roots organization, which never attempted to become a political party or present itself as an interest group, employed universal ideals, the liberal rule of law, religion, and the courts to enfranchise those subject to a tradition of discrimination and disenfranchisement. Among radical elements of the movement, however, concern with securing “rights” was misguided from the beginning. Rights were seen as guaranteeing not genuine empowerment but only equality under the law within an all-encompassing system of oppression in which the commodity form was constantly threatening to abolish individuality. Thus, in a way, the preoccupation with alienation obliterated the traditional primary accorded class in favor of articulating ever more specific identities and notions of solidarity based on ever more particular and unique experiences of reality.

Both race and gender can play important roles in capital accumulation. As identity politics took hold, however, it became ever less legitimate to invoke notions of universal or “class” solidarity let alone orthodox Marxist claims that the “liberation” of women or people of color must await the revolution. The new social movements forced radical theory, whether of the liberal or socialist persuasion, to address a set of what had basically been unacknowledged, yet obviously legitimate, grievances. These movements were revolutionary in the social, if not the political or economic sense. Their intellectual advocates made it apparent that human history was neither made by the canonical “dead white males” nor defined by the hegemonic institutions and assumptions of the “West.” Socialization was transformed and, “multiculturalism” provoked what in the 1980s were called the “culture wars.” The new social movements and attendant ideologies of identity posed an ethical challenge to a white society both mired in the residues of a racist past yet nonetheless attached to self-serving and traditional interpretations of its history. James Baldwin, the great black and gay novelist, put the matter well when he wrote that the reason why whites should learn about black culture and history is that this is the only way in which they can learn anything about themselves. It is, I think, exactly the same when the issue involves straight people dealing with gay life or the colonizers trying to “understand” the colonized.

Social rights speak to more than the economy or equality before the law. Integrating baseball in the United States serves as a case in point. It was not simply a matter of legal or formal equality, but of a much deeper symbolic transformation. What was understood by everyone as the “American pastime” was now no longer white. Jackie Robinson also generated what is today an almost unimaginable sense of pride for people of color, the traditional racial iconography of the culture industry began to totter, and ultimately new socializing ideals and values of tolerance were introduced. A first step was taken in what would become a new and still unfinished cosmopolitan approach to sports including the acceptance of women participating in sports. The integration of sports was just one example of the way in which the “public sphere” would become transformed and what were previously considered private issues became issues of public concern. Thus, for example, the women’s liberation movement contested patriarchal hegemony and social discrimination through the creation of consciousness raising groups, conferences, women’s books stores, health clinics, and the like. Spousal abuse, incest, and a host of other issues became matters of legislative and legal concern through the activities of diverse social movements. New problems of intolerance fragmentation were undoubtedly generated with the unleashing of identity politics. Nevertheless, the accomplishments of the new social movements were real: the world was made larger, the excluded and the disenfranchised took center stage, anti-imperialism took a social turn, and the preconditions emerged for what I have elsewhere termed a “cosmopolitan sensibility.”


Max Weber once said that ideology is not like a taxi-cab where the passenger can say to the driver stop at the corner I want to get off. The same is true of identity. Initial groups may be founded on general notions of a trans-class character like race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference. But there are a virtually infinite number of identities and organizations expressing them that can arise. The identity and experiences of a straight woman are different from those of a gay woman, those of a gay white woman are different those of a black woman, those of a black woman are different from those of a gay black woman, and those of a gay black woman are different from those of someone else. The point is that identity is not a static concept but rather retains a dynamic character that allows for its increasing specification through multiplication and “hybridity.” But there is a price for this. The existential emphasis upon an ever more precise subjectivity undermines both systemic concepts like capitalism and class as well as universal categories or dealing with the “other.” Competition for a finite set of resources also tended to intensify intolerance and, in order to legitimize claims, generated the desire among identity groups to appear as the “most” victimized. Indeed, speaking politically, by the 1980s the whole of the progressive citizenry had turned into less than the sum of its parts.

The consequence is clear: cultural and social progress has been coupled with economic and political regression. Legal and social equality, political rights and rights pertaining to the public sphere, have obviously grown for previously disenfranchised groups and social life has grown far more cosmopolitan since the 1980s. By the same token, however, an unprecedented roll back in social welfare programs has taken place along with an unrivalled upward shift in wealth — 1% of the population has garnered 75% of all wealth created from 2000-2008 — that has had a devastating impact. Workers become ever more dependent upon the unaccountable investment decisions of capitalists and this is the case not merely with what are usually considered “white” working people organized in unions, but working people in each of the identity groups or social movements that are politically in play.

Coming to grips with this situation, in the first instance, calls for reintroducing the idea of capitalism as a determinate system involving private control over the social production of wealth. Such is the relationship that “the state” wishes to enforce and preserving that “contradiction” marks the limit to any attempts at reform or the pursuit of social rights. Just as flexibility exists with respect to the quantity and quality of reforms that can be achieved, however, there is nothing fixed about the type of state that a capitalist economy requires. The capitalist state can take the form of a dictatorship or a representative democracy with each having many variants. To be sure, by definition, every capitalist state privileges the interests of capital. Each after its fashion seeks to insulate private investment decisions from public control. But social movements are most successful within a liberal democracy whose regime, relatively, veers to the “left.” The criterion of success involves the extent to which investment is directed to public rather than private purposes and public claims, or “social rights,” are levied against the private appropriation of social wealth: or, to put it another way, success can be defined by the ability to implement economic and social legislation like social security and national health insurance as well as welfare programs like food stamps that primarily benefit working people and the unemployed. The degree to which community groups and organizational representatives of working people are capable of bringing about such programs is the degree to which they are contesting the rule of the free market or the “political economy of capital” in the name of economic democracy and the “political economy of labor.”

Social rights can extend or diminish within the structural parameters of capitalist society. The state is already implicated in the workings of the “free market.” At issue is the character of its intervention and the priorities it will determine, whether (say) those of the defense industry or those pertaining to health, education and welfare. These choices should not be underestimated since they will have a pronounced influence on public life. It deserves to be noted that the capitalist state is capable of instituting reforms because, so long as general capitalist interests are met with regard to the accumulation process, other interests can be accommodated. When it comes to the political pursuit of their aims note here the importance of liberal democracy capitalist interests must often enter into coalitions with classes and groups having very different interests. In the same vein, competition between differing capitalist elites over policies (such as protection and free trade, high and low interest rates, and many other issues) create spaces for the intervention of working people and other groups in the political process of determining economic priorities. Lastly, capitalists understand that elemental conflicts exist within the system that they dominate. Seeking to preserve their hegemony over investment priorities and issues pertaining to the distribution of wealth, especially under turbulent circumstances, has thus often led them to make concessions in terms of social rights to workers who are viewed, in principle, as nothing more than a “cost of production.”

All of this has drastic political implications for the extension of social rights. Two points immediately become apparent with respect to the state: 1) the state plays an elemental role in securing the market and 2) it is the only institution capable of constraining the market. A serious contemporary strategy directed toward securing social rights for working people like that employed by the Civil Rights and the Poor Peoples’ Movement therefore cannot ignore the state in favor of decentralized units of workplace democracy like the original “soviets” or workers councils.

Only the state can control the market and only through the state is it possible to introduce reforms that might turn working people into something more than a mere cost of production. Cutting the work week and giving employees free time, raising wages and benefits, creating educational and travel programs that allow individuals to expand their experiences, and the like become ways of mitigating the impact of reification. It becomes a matter of breaking the dependency of working people upon capital and resisting “capitalism,” whatever the successes of identity politics, has not lost its importance. Rosa Luxemburg correctly spoke about the quest for reforms as a “labor of Sisyphus,” since reactionary capitalist interests are always on the lookout to roll them back, as the history of the United States since the Reagan Administration quite obviously demonstrates. But the truth of the matter is that the old labor movement is dead, along with its confidence of “inevitable victory,” and the choice is no longer between reform and revolution but between reform and reaction. The pursuit of reform is dramatically influenced by the liberal character or, better, the degree of accountability and transparency of the state and its institutions. Crackdowns on civil liberties and the creation of a “national security state” have a negative impact on the organizing capacities of working people and their allies. That is why defense of political liberty and the quest for social rights are flip sides of the same coin. Both require a sense of organizational and ideological unity among working people that has obviously eroded due to the integration of social democracy and the discrediting of communism. It is also undermined by the existence of racism, sexism, and the lack of recognition for the “other” whose increasingly particular concerns are represented by seemingly countless interest groups and movements.

All of this has made the ability to resist capitalism and assert the social rights of working people ever more difficult. It is an old story that the power of capital depends upon the degree not merely of organizational, but ideological, unity among working people. Insofar as structures of production and general organizing principles disappear from the standpoint of identity politics, on the most basic level capitalism turns into a metaphor rather than a determinate system of exploitation while “class” turns into one identity among others. There is no longer even a sense of what the target of resistance might be: the “corporations,” “corruption,” the “system” are all candidates. Most often it all comes down to discrete grievances and so, while coalitions among identity groups arise, they usually involve coalescing around a single issue. Once that issue is dealt with, either successfully or unsuccessfully, the coalition disassembles and it is necessary to start from scratch the next time a new issue arises. Based more on interest than on principle, transitory in their very conception, obvious incentives exist for participants in these coalitions to engage in what might be termed the “moral economy of the separate deal.” The class character of capitalism lacks a class response: resistance is usually envisioned as a mechanical formula the bureaucratic organizations representing race are added to those representing gender and those representing class without any sense that each interest group will privilege its own clientele at the expense of the others and prove capable of engaging in what might be called a moral economy of the separate deal. The question is how to think about conditions of unity, or resistance, in a new way.

Different strategies are required for the pursuit of different problems: it is one thing to secure the social rights of the excluded and disenfranchised, another thing to secure the environment or a single issue, and yet a third to secure the anti-capitalist interests of working people. There is little doubt that the discrimination leveled against any particular group requires mass action by that group or, if the abolitionists can be used as an example in the name of that group. History suggests that victims of discrimination must ultimately assert their rights themselves and that identity is an obvious ideological rallying cry. Consider only that the gay movement began in the response of its community to police repression during the “Stonewall” riots in New York City and the opening to The Second Sex where Simone de Beauvoir insisted that the first step in developing women’s consciousness is the use of the word “we.” In the same vein, where reforms of general salience are concerned, whether with regard to traffic pollution or demanding a street light at a corner, the aim is to create a coalition among all groups regardless of their political identification and ideology. With regard to class issues, however, both specific interests and ideology are of crucial importance.

Class interests become paramount when it becomes apparent that capitalists will bear the cost of reforms while workers will basically receive the benefits. Under pressure from capitalists, who can disinvest among other options, ideology will play a role given the need to unify workers primarily organized in terms of identity politics. If it is true that the power of capital depends upon the organizational and ideological unity of working people then it is necessary to conceptualize a stance that speaks to the interests of working people within each of the new social movements without privileging any. This I have termed the “class ideal.” Insofar as theory should be linked to practice that connection must become concrete with regard to specific legislative proposals that directly benefit the universal interests of the working class. Perhaps this means nothing other than reformulating the demand of a particular group in more universal class terms. Instead of speaking about radical health care only for AIDS victims, for example, it might be more efficacious to call for improved “catastrophic” health care for all. Other ways of meeting the universal concerns of workers appear when it comes to the shorter work week, retirement, vacation time, and single payer health insurance. Even if what can only be a utopian response to “alienation” is no longer on the table, given the failure of to invigorate the idea of direct control of production in the form soviets, such reforms temper reification by returning a degree of autonomy and sense of individual possibility to workers.

Identity politics, coalitions of interests, and use of the class ideal can reinforce one another of appear prove mutually exclusive. Which strategy assumes primacy depends upon, using the old jargon, the historical context. Very little then, from the standpoint of immediate practicality, can be stated in general terms or in advance. Articulating these diverse strategies remains important, however, because intellectual clarity about the possibilities of practice is an element of practice itself. Workers may no longer solely be organized in unions, but they are organized in the myriad community identity groups that dot the political landscape. Raising awareness of the way in which class penetrates these groups and beginning the intellectual work of coordinating interests is perhaps the crucial political question facing progressive activists.

Old verities have become unreliable. The industrial proletariat no longer stands center stage, its “dictatorship” has everywhere been a disaster, and claims concerning the “inevitability” of revolution are no longer credible. But this does not mean that the world has become a postmodern collage or that capitalism is now simply a metaphor. The basic contradiction between the social production and the private appropriation of wealth still exists. The working class still exists. Individuals still sell their “labor power” or, better, their time — in exchange for a check. “Reification” still exists along with conflicting policies that will either mitigate or intensify it. Other policies will determine the character of state intervention, the priorities of investment, and the distribution of wealth. Choosing among policies in capitalist society requires making sense of the ongoing conflict between “the political economy of labor” and the “political economy of capital.” For capitalism will accommodate social (and political) rights to the extent that social movements clear about their aims and purposes force it to do so. Or, to put it another way, the extent to which social (and political) rights are realizable under capitalism depends upon politics and ideology rather than economics and teleology. The past is the past: the “social question” must now find new answers and socialism, or its equivalent, yet another path to follow.

*STEPHEN ERIC BRONNER is Distinguished Professor (Professor II) of Political Science and Director of Global Relations: Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. The Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Cultur, his books include Socialism Unbound, Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists, and Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward A Politics of Radical Engagement.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1