Discussions of ‘cultural appropriation’ in popular culture suffer from an inherited politics of authenticity and ownership originating in a liberal legal–ethical framework. Using Raymond Williams’s and Stuart Hall’s cultural theory, this paper pinpoints the place at which cultural-appropriation discourse goes wrong – an essentialist and anti-historical notion of colonial encounters. We can overcome these limits through Marxist cultural and historical analysis. Outrage about colonial violence which most often roots appropriation discourse is better understood within the context of an account of the transition to capitalism beginning with the Low Countries and its eastern colonies. Furthermore, the Marxist idea of the cosmopolitan cultures of both capital and labour offers a productive path for the history of culture rooted in the same colonial encounter.