Identity and Capitalism: A Cultural Materialist History

Marie Moran


This paper draws on the cultural materialist paradigm articulated by Raymond Williams to offer a radical historicisation of identity and identity politics in capitalist societies. A keywords analysis reveals surprisingly that identity, as it is elaborated in the familiar categories of personal and social identity, is a relatively recent concept in western thought, politics and culture, and that its emergence and evolution can only be understood in relation to the cultural political economy of the capitalist societies in which it came to prominence. The argument developed is that what we now routinely think of as ‘personal identity’ only emerged with the growth and influence of consumption in the late-twentieth century; and that what now think of as different social and political ‘identities’ only came to be framed as such with the emergence of new social movements in the ’60s and ’70s. The claim is not the standard one that people’s ‘identities’ became more apparent and significant in late capitalism, but that identity itself came to operate as a new and key mechanism for construing, shaping and narrating experiences of selfhood and grouphood in this period.

Ultimately this paper demonstrates the potential of cultural materialism to explain the prominence of identity concerns from the ‘organised capitalism’ of the mid-twentieth century, up to and including the neoliberal capitalism that prevails today. Furthermore, by viewing ‘identity’ as a culturally and historically specific way of thinking about and understanding selfhood and grouphood, rather than the effect of a particular form of subjectivisation or group formation, it offers a new point of entry into the debates that have dominated the social and political theory of identity, including whether identity should be viewed as essential or socially constructed, or as conducive or detrimental to progressive politics.

cultural materialism - capitalism - identity - identity politics - consumer society - social movements - Raymond Williams