Marketing itself is a practice based on differences, and the more differences that are given, the more marketing strategies can develop. Ever more hybrid and differentiated populations present a proliferating number of “target markets” that can each be addressed by specific marketing strategies—one for gay Latino males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, another for Chinese-American teenage girls, and so forth. Postmodern marketing recognizes the difference of each commodity and each segment of the population, fashioning its strategies accordingly. Every difference is an opportunity…
When one looks closely at U.S. corporate ideology (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, at U.S. corporate practice), it is clear that corporations do not operate simply by excluding the gendered and/or racialized Other. In fact, the old modernist forms of racist and sexist theory are the explicit enemies of this new corporate culture. The corporations seek to include difference within their realm and thus aim to maximize creativity, free play, and diversity in the corporate workplace. People of all different races, sexes, and sexual orientations should potentially be included in the corporation; the daily routine of the workplace should be rejuvenated with unexpected changes and an atmosphere of fun. Break down the old boundaries and let one hundred flowers bloom! The task of the boss, subsequently, is to organize these energies and differences in the interests of profit. This project is aptly called ‘‘diversity management.’’ In this light, the corporations appear not only ‘‘progressive’’ but also ‘‘postmodernist,’’ as leaders in a very real politics of difference.
— Hardt & Negri, Empire, pp. 152-3
In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse develops the concept of “repressive desublimation” as a critique of the consumerist politics of desire: In its consumerist phase, capital no longer operates primarily through the denial and repression of desire, but through the satisfaction of desires that it itself produces, thus preventing rebellion and ensuring the reproduction of the capitalist system with a fully closed circuit of desire and consumption. There is a disciplinary machinery at work within the supposed free play of desire: one’s desire must always lead back to capital. One must want only what capitalism offers, and increasingly one must not refuse to want it. As Zizek claims, increasingly “the permissive ‘You May!’ [turns] into the prescriptive ‘You Must!’… permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment” (The Superego and the Act) but this enjoyment is strictly regulated: “you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous.” (Passion In The Era of Decaffeinated Belief) There is, therefore, an unsatisfying banality to consumerist gratification:
“Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization dominates modern society the world over, even where the more advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly multiplied the variety of roles and objects to choose from… life in this particular world remains repressive and offers nothing but pseudo-gratifications.” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle)
* I have substantial disagreements, however with Marcuse’s historical thesis and his account of desire: there was never a purely libidinally repressive capitalism with which to compare modern permissive capitalism, while at the same time the immiseration of previous “phases” continues to coexist with consumerist abundance which confounds any notion of historical rupture in this regard.
Thus is the ambivalence of capitalist “freedom”. Who, after all, would want to return from “repressive desublimation” to repression simpliciter?* And yet there is, if anything, a more profound alienation associated with the capitalism that gives us what we want: alienation at the point of production – that is, the alien presence of capital within us, appropriating our will and intent – is generalised to the whole of social life – capital lives within us as desire – the desiring-production of capital.
I wish to propose a similar (and somewhat related) concept in relation to the (postmodern) capitalist politics of difference: that of “homogenising differentiation”.
In its postmodern phase, capital encourages – indeed in certain senses relies upon – the free proliferation of difference across the social world, both as a necessary correlate of the deconstruction of national boundaries, as a field of opportunity for marketing and consumption, and as a source of productive creativity.† But capital also must impose certain limits on the emergence of new subjectivities to ensure they continue to feed into the production and consumption of commodities, and must continually reterritorialise all escapes. “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” capital says, but in blooming one must remain a flower: you can have whatever identity you like, as long as it is capable of functioning as a marketplace and a workshop for commodity consumption/production. The immanent logic of capitalist pluralism is thus to homogenise the very difference it pursues, to circumscribe and constrain the field of possibilities it simultaneously opens, to reterritorialise with one hand what it deterritorialises with the other.
† Of course, as Hardt & Negri point out, this “global politics of difference established by the world market is defined not by free play and equality, but by the imposition of new hierarchies, or really by a constant process of hierarchization” (Empire, p.154) Capital, even at its most utopian, retains and develops an alliance with patriarchal, heteronormative and racist biopolitical regimes, but this is not our primary insterest here.
This is not at all a matter of opposing a virtual or superficial difference to a real underlying sameness, as if gender, race etc. are merely the surface phenomena of a universal worker-consumer, nor is it a matter of opposing (universal) form to (particular) content. Rather it is the operation of a material process of subjection, universal in scope but particular in application, that organises the subject to produce a certain set of functions, potentials, imperatives, without reducing it to merely another copy of the same. Many different machines can plug into the universal machine of capital, so long as they can manifest certain features: i.e. can speak the universal language of money, submit to work-discipline, produce value, desire commodities, gaze upon the spectacle. In other words, we do not discover a universal figure of the worker-consumer beneath particular articulations of race, gender etc., and thus reassert the political/ontological primacy of class; there is no sub- or super- structure here, but a multiplicity of processes of interpellation that structure a common material.
Put simply: capitalist diversity is internally contradictory, not simply because it relies on the perpetuation of structural racism, sexism, homophobia and the like for its reproduction, but because the logic of (even, or perhaps especially) those capitalist processes that Hardt & Negri claim “have long been postmodernist, avant la lettre” (Empire, p.151) requires that it must continually ward off the emergence of a truly radical otherness that it cannot recuperate.
Official (state and corporate) multiculturalism takes this form. The racial/cultural other is officially embraced so long as that otherness never exceeds the implicit bounds set by the state and the market. “We love your exotic foods and dances, your spiritualism, your ecologically sound approach to nature,” multiculturalism says, but in the same breath this incitement to diversity is also a proscription: “this is to be the content of your difference”, which must never exceed the bounds of good citizenship and of enthusiastic neoliberal subjectivity. The celebration and incorporation of “good diversity” is in the same moment the abjection and suppression of “bad diversity”: “Muslims yes! Political Islam no!”
Similarly, the “progressive” corporations are pro-gay but virulently anti-queer. Increasingly, capital heroically champions the rights and inclusion of same-sex couples but on its terms. It is interested precisely and only in those wishing to opt-in to heteronormative kinship structures and associated consumer practices, and thus “[t]he sphere of legitimate intimate alliance is established through producing and intensifying regions of illegitimacy” (Judith Butler, Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?). Pride is gradually stripped of its political content and instead becomes just another celebration of consumer culture, and the movement began with a demand for liberation – that is, to open new spaces of livability, to push the horizons of experience, and to resist the disciplinary violence of society – becomes “just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, obscuring the exploitation at the heart of their operation.”
According to many on the Left, this is precisely the sort of thing that postmodernism, identity politics, and intersectionality are incapable of seeing. Focusing myopically on a set of disconnected particulars, so the argument goes, those who pursue a radical politics of difference fail to see the trap that is identity. Capital has outflanked us by incorporating the very politics of difference we seek to deploy against it within its marketing strategies, management practices, modes of biopolitical governance, etc., leaving the postmodern left chasing the ghost of a modernist capitalism that no longer exists. What is needed, therefore, is a return to macro theories with global applicability, and the recomposition of a universal historical (class) subject.
What this perspective is missing is an understanding of the immanent tension of a bourgeois politics of difference, the inescabable insufficiency of capitalist inclusiveness, and thus the tendency of a radical politics of difference to exceed what capital is able to deliver. After all, the space of consumer flavours does not exhaust the potential of human life, and capital must continually frustrate our becomings, blocking paths, recoding and redirecting renegade desires. We should not abandon the postmodern pursuit of difference to the capitalist apparatus of capture, but rather relentlessly push at the boundaries of experiential possibility to pursue a radical difference that capitalism is inherently incapable of realising: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process'” (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp.239-40) – an accelerationist identity politics, not technological and productivist, but experiential, subjective. A transversal politics continually shifting focus between structure and intersection to discover possibilities for insurrection – a revolutionary intersectionality that exceeds the individuating and identitarian bureacracy of liberal thought.