🎭 How capitalism co-opted difference and why we need to take it back

We are living in a new era of diversity-friendly corporations. These corporations are co-opting difference to wash over the violences of capitalism. Olimpia Burchiellaro argues that only by reconnecting identity struggles to questions of economic justice will we engender democratic transformations

A new era of diversity-friendly capitalism

For decades, corporations have been guilty of the worst excesses of white, cisgender, heterosexual masculinity. After the 2008 financial crash, for example, many suggested that testosterone-fuelled trading floors and male groupthink were to blame for the near-total global economic collapse.

But over the past few years, the image of corporations as bastions of straight white male privilege has been waning.

Corporate websites are now replete with statements outlining the business benefits of diversity in the boardroom.

Meanwhile, corporations including weapons-producer BAE Systems and oil giant Shell have become major sponsors of Pride parades. Others regularly encourage women to ‘break glass ceilings’ and rush to assert their unwavering support for Black Lives whenever the police murder yet another unarmed Black person.

What started off as a valid critique of corporate power now seems to have been watered down and replaced by mere calls for more ‘diversity’.

What is the democratic and transformative potential of 'daring to be different' when capitalism is increasingly co-opting difference?

But what does diversity mean in a world saturated with inequality? And what is the democratic and transformative potential of ‘daring to be different’ – as Hans Asenbaum’s opening of this blog series invites us to consider – when capitalism is increasingly co-opting difference?

Corporations are not only unable to address the most pressing crises of our times, from a looming climate catastrophe to eye-watering income inequalities. They are, in fact, part of the problem.

This blog series invites us to consider enacting fundamental democratic societal transformations. Achieving this requires thinking about difference beyond such capital-centric logics.

How capitalism co-opts difference

In 2017, cosmetics brand L’Oréal hired Munroe Bergdorf as the first mixed-race transgender model to be the face of a new campaign championing diversity.

Yet, when Munroe's online statements about racism became public, the company quickly dropped the model. The comments, L’Oréal explained, were at odds with the company's values.

As Otamere Guobadia suggests, the incident shows that L’Oréal wanted only

Munroe’s transness, her blackness, her womanhood and all of the glory and the capital gain of her ‘diversity’ with none of the corollary activism and resistance that comes with her identity

the independent, 3 october 2018

In this way, corporations co-opt difference in order to silence activists.

But they also co-opt activists themselves. For example, some activists are leaving behind the more politicised language and ambitious goals of anti-racist, feminist and queer social movements to sell their services to corporations as diversity consultants.

Driven by the view that corporations can be reformed, such capitalist logics have led to a loss of political imagination. They have fed far-right anti-democratic discourses about leftist movements’ inability to address pressing economic issues.

Our attempts to democratically transform society through difference must reclaim diversity. But they must do so not as another good to be sold on the market, nor simply as an identitarian issue that is separate from economic struggles. Rather, they should be the grounds for anti-capitalist solidarity and politics.

Can capitalism be diversity-friendly?

While capitalism ethically rebrands itself as progressive, it sustains various forms of racialised, gendered and sexualised violence.

We are seeing cuts to social services and safety nets implemented in the name of ‘market efficiency’. Such cuts disproportionately affect women, who are asked to pick up the slack in the cracks left by the state.

Capitalism breeds material precarities, and these too make women and queer people more dependent on heteronormative/homophobic family structures for survival. In some cases, it is capitalist austerity policies that lay the ground for more queerphobia.

Capitalism also relies on the racialised and gendered construction of populations in the global South. These people are regarded as cheap, disposable and exploitable labour. They assemble the very commodities that brands produce as part of their diversity-friendly campaign – and that white global North feminists consume as evidence of their empowerment.

Corporations brand themselves as inclusive even when they pollute and commit human rights violations that make our world increasingly unfriendly, unliveable and less diverse

Meanwhile, corporations continue to brand themselves as inclusive even when (or perhaps precisely because) they continue to pollute and commit human rights violations that make our world increasingly unfriendly, unliveable and less diverse.

Yet not all is lost.

Activists around the world continue organising through, across and against diversity to challenge injustice. The Ogoni people in Nigeria are fighting against violences committed by proud Pride-sponsor Shell. Mexican maquiladora workers are challenging exploitation by some of the world’s biggest fashion brands. Kenyan agricultural employees of Del Monte are striking for better working conditions. (Ironically, the Human rights Campaign Foundation in 2022 recognised Del Monte among the Top 100 most inclusive employers.)

It is to these movements that we should turn to articulate a genuinely anti-capitalist form of diversity politics in the making of more liveable worlds.

Using diversity against capitalism

This capitalist politics of diversity co-opts difference in order to not make a difference. Against this, we can mobilise our differences as grounds for political action, solidarity and resistance.

In The Gentrification of Queer Activism, I suggest that one way to do this is to push for a ‘wonkier’ approach to difference. Such an approach resists easily-packageable versions of our differences. Instead, it commits to the twisted proliferation of diversity that cannot be reconciled with profit-oriented endeavours. This is the kind of diversity which one still finds – albeit under constant threat – in social movement spaces, in cities, and in the language of activists who organise beyond the corporate world.

Daring to be different in a wonkier way entails recognising that identity struggles are never only about culture. Rather, they are, fundamentally, about struggles for economic justice. It entails resisting the fantasy that we will find in corporate allies a kind of inclusion denied elsewhere.

Only by (re)connecting differences to a broader critique of capitalism can we enact the kind of systemic democratic transformations promised by the invitation to ‘be different’.

Second in a Loop series on 🎭 Democratic Transformations

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Olimpia Burchiellaro
Olimpia Burchiellaro
Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster

Olimpia is an anthropologist of gender/sexuality, queer politics and political economy.

She has published work in journals including Sexualities, Gender, Work & Organization and Organization Studies.

Personal website

She tweets @ph_dyke

The Gentrification of Queer Activism Diversity Politics and the Promise of Inclusion in London By Olimpia Burchiellaro

The Gentrification of Queer Activism
Bristol University Press, 2023

Offers a critique of the closure of queer spaces and the ways in which diversity politics works to gentrify queerness in London.

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