When considering the shifts in left thinking over the past fifteen years, it is hard to avoid some notion of displacement: the cultural displacing the material; identity politics displacing class; the politics of constitutional reform displacing the economics of equality. Difference, in particular, seems to have displaced inequality as the central concern of political and social theory. We ask ourselves how we can achieve equality while still recognizing difference, rather than how we can eliminate inequality. This rephrasing of the questions can be traced to a variety of sources, but one undoubted element is the shift from exclusively class analyses of inequality to alternatives that consider class on a continuum with inequalities of gender, ethnicity or race. Class inequality lent itself to a strategy of elimination: a notion that the inequalities will disappear when the differences have finally gone. Once attention shifted to other forms of group difference that were not so amenable to erasure, it became inappropriate to regard difference as always and inevitably a problem. Why should sexual equality depend on abolishing the distinction between women and men? Why should equality between ethnic cultures depend on each losing its distinctive features? The idea that equality is antithetical to difference has been extensively criticized by feminists,footnote1 and those theorizing the conditions for equal citizenship in societies that are multicultural and multi-ethnic.footnote2 For some, this remains a strategic point: that we cannot hope to achieve equality by ignoring differences, for all attempts to pretend difference away—not noticing whether someone is male or female, not noticing whether she is white or black—will end up reinforcing the dominance of already dominant groups. For others, it has a more celebratory dimension: that diversity should be regarded as a positive feature and actively embraced in our political initiatives. In either case, the emphasis is on heterogeneity rather than homogeneity, diversity rather than sameness, with the prior recognition of difference a crucial stage in the achievement of equality.

One example of this is the questioning of universal models of citizenship that expect all individuals to enjoy identical sets of rights or all groups to conform to the same constitutional arrangements.footnote3 Another is the increasingly influential tradition of deliberative democracy, which starts from the presumption of radical difference: not the differences of opinion that lead one person to vote Labour and another Conservative, nor indeed the differences of class location that place one group in conflict with another, but the seemingly intractable differences of experience, values or cultural practices that get in the way of our mutual comprehension.footnote4

Inequalities in power have figured largely in this tradition, and those who favour a more deliberative democracy often present it as a way of eliminating the power of vested interests or redressing the exclusion of minority perspectives. Yet here, too, there is a discernible shift from the economic to the cultural, a movement away from the economic conditions that have been considered necessary to democratic equality and towards the discursive interaction between groups that differ in their cultural values or moral beliefs. Marxism, par excellence, tended to see political equality as a deceptive achievement unless combined with substantive equalities in social and economic life. Indeed, even in the paradigm of equal citizenship that developed from T.H. Marshall’s essay on civil, political and social rights, we were encouraged to see political equality as requiring substantive social rights such as the right to education or employment. Contemporary debates, by contrast, focus more on securing political inclusion to groups that differ in their cultural or moral norms. In her introduction to a recent collection on Democracy and Difference, Seyla Benhabib notes that one or two of the contributors continue to stress economic and social rights as part of the substantive precondition for a successful deliberative democracy. But the main line of division is between those who defend a proceduralist or deliberative model that anticipates the possibility of political consensus, and those who develop an ‘agonistic model of democratic politics’ that views difference as inescapable and resolution an impossible dream.footnote5 The shift from inequality to difference is typically framed by the unequal power relations that have denied recognition to minority groups, but it often seems to divert attention away from economic aspects of inequality—and has remarkably little to say about specifically class inequality. In a recent article on the relationship between class and discourses of difference, Diana Coole argues that ‘economic inequality is bracketed out of discussion of difference.’footnote6 In extending the range of relevant differences to include those associated with gender, ethnicity or race, we may have left economic inequalities out of the picture.

Much of the impetus for this exclusion derived from well-rehearsed weaknesses in left politics: the deployment of class analysis against any politics associated with gender or ethnicity; the disdain for democracy that so often developed out of the stand-off between liberalism and socialism; the tendency to disparage the ‘merely’ cultural as of negligible significance in a world structured by economic exploitation. The primacy once accorded to class is no longer defensible. It is now all too apparent that the practice of an exclusively class politics overrode crucial differences of experience associated with gender, ethnicity, or race; in doing so, it left ‘class’ as an empty category, bereft of historical meaning, or else elided it with the experiences and interests of the dominant sex or dominant ethnic group. But where the first formulations of this critique still seemed compatible with a broadly materialist analysis of exploitation and oppression, later versions have proved more challenging. Much feminist work in the 1970s, for example, continued to work within a framework derived from Marx, building on his insights even while addressing his blind-spots about women’s oppression. Class was not so much ‘displaced’ as retheorized in its racialized and gendered complexity, while those who adopted a ‘dual systems’ approach to sexual and class oppression typically developed their theories of patriarchal relations on a model derived from the analysis of class. Such initiatives proved rather short-lived, however, and rapidly developed into a deeper questioning of the primacy attached to political economy per se. It was not just the dominance of class that had to be questioned. It was also the underlying hierarchy of causation that had distinguished an economic base from a political and cultural superstructure, or defined ‘real’ interests through location in economic relations.

One element in this rethinking was epistemological: the incoherence of conceiving of interests outside the discourses within which these are generated. Much of it was more directly political, for many of the struggles of the last twenty years have addressed forms of domination that cannot be captured by ‘material interest’: the viciousness of domestic violence or racial assaults, the demonization of Islam, the persistent devaluing of ‘deviant’ sexualities, the ‘crippling self-hatred’ that can be imposed on people whose cultural values are socially despised.footnote7 Despite valiant efforts over the years, these phenomena have continued to escape redescription as effects of economic inequality. None of them is entirely detached from relations of subordination in the economy: it would be perverse to seek to explain violence against women without any reference to women’s positioning in the social division of labour; or to explain racism in contemporary America without any reference to the legacy of a slave-owning economy. But neither the problems nor their solutions have fitted neatly into what has passed for materialist analysis, for the primacy attached to economic relations played down what was ‘merely’ cultural, while the invocation of ‘real’ or ‘essential’ interests seemed to query the authenticity of what people perceived as their most urgent concerns. It is only in dislodging the economic from its earlier theoretical dominance—what Ernesto Laclau has described as the ‘arbitrary dogma’footnote8 that attached a determining role to the development of the productive forces—that we have been better able to address the corrosive impact of cultural subordination or the crucial role of political and cultural struggle in contesting relations of exclusion.