Identity Politics and Elite Capture with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
Joining Laborwave is Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, to discuss his piece on Identity Politics and Elite Capture published by the Boston Review.
"If elite capture boils down to the way power and resources tend to be distributed within groups, and not simply across groups, then it is a fully general problem of politics in a world that distributes power and resources unjustly and unequally. Elites get outsize control over the ideas in circulation about identities by, more or less, the same methods and for the same reasons that they get control over everything else."
We discuss how elite capture is on display in the op-eds of Andrew Yang and calls for better representation within mainstream media, its manifestations in current discourse around "cancel culture," and the prospects for revamped social movements, especially in organized labor, to elevate politics to a level that transcends the capture of elites.
Music: Damaged Bug- Sold America
Transcript [edited for clarity]
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: This kind of hope for representational politics is a strong contribution to how identity politics works. I think how we should read that is as indicative of a fairly total defeat of the left in the United States, where the only kind of outside, the only kind of alternative reality that most people can imagine as being a possibility close enough to reality to be worth discussing, is changing the race of the person whose boot is on your neck.
What I think ultimately we need is just to rebuild the kind of organizational basis for serious politics. And so I'm encouraged by how many people are on the streets doing just that right now. They're forcing real crises of power and mounting genuine courageous resistance against injustice. And that's a beginning that is worth building on.
LR: Today on Laborwave, we speak with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, about his piece published in the Boston Review, titled Identity Politics and Elite Capture. We have an expansive conversation over these ideas ranging from op-eds published by Andrew Yang, to the projects of historical figures like Booker T. Washington. We also discussed the ways that elite capture manifests itself in conversations around cancel culture and current calls for better representation in both media and political governing structures. And we finally round out our conversation with ways that we can build a politics that overcomes elite capture through militant unionism and bargaining for the common good, as well as other socialist political programs. All of our content on Laborwave is available for free at laborwaveradio.com. Most of our episodes are transcribed and we're continuing to aspire to transcribe all of our episodes, even our backlog ones. And you can help us reach some of our goals and sustain our show by becoming a patron of Laborwave at patreon.com/laborwave.
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LR: I thought it was a really good and well-put beginning to start your article with the Washington op-ed post by Andrew Yang, where he was encouraging Asian-Americans to step up to dispel racial hostility in the midst of COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that represents what you describe as the elite capture of identity politics?
OT: When I was writing this article, I was trying to think of which example to use, because it seems like there are a lot of instances, at least to me, that seem emblematic of elite capture as a force guiding how identity politics gets mobilized, who identity politics gets mobilized for. And what I found compelling about the example of Andrew Yang was that it just seemed to me to be an especially sharp example of elite capture. Because normally what I think happens is there's some overlap between the version of the identity struggle that elites of the group face and the version of the identity struggle that non-elites of the group face.
And the story about identity capture is more about how we rank those issues of overlap in order of importance, right? So a classic example is something like representation, right? I'm sure it's important in some sense, perhaps a psychological sense, perhaps a spiritual sense, for groups to be able to see themselves represented in media. And not just represented, but represented well in media, representative in nuanced and sophisticated ways, I think that's a legitimate area of concern. But the elite capture is the extent to which that concern kind of dominates other concerns, which are arguably more important, which tie in a more direct way to people's wellbeing, ability to survive, those sorts of things.
But that's not really what's going on in the Andrew Yang example. It just seems like Yang has a completely different goal than what I imagine most Asian Americans have. Most Asian Americans, I would guess, are not trying to, you know, survive both the pandemic itself and to the racist response to the pandemic in a way that is maximally comfortable for the white Americans around them. So in this case, Andrew Yang just has a goal that, by my perception, just completely divergence with the group's goal.
So it's just a really kind of sharp example of how different it is for elites than the non-elites of their group.
LR: Yeah. I think it's interesting too, with Andrew Yang--I guess I don't want to be too moralistic or ascribe too much value judgment to it--but you could kind of like have this moral judgment against him for just really cynically utilizing identity politics, just for his own specific advantages. That's what it seems like to me at least in his op-ed. But what I like about your piece is, you go back a little bit in the history of some of these debates and arguments and you highlight Booker T. Washington's project of racial uplift and how he really felt like economic power was a pathway towards Black liberation. I wouldn't necessarily say that Booker T. Washington was just trying to like become part of the bourgeoisie necessarily--maybe to some degree--but that seems to be a more honest and well-intentioned effort that still manifested in elite capture of these kinds of politics. Could you talk a little bit more about that? Like what Booker T. Washington was trying to do and how that represents elite capture?
OT: So I kind of liked the pivot that you made there. I think there's a lot to be said for just not having any grand unified psychological theory of elite capture, because at least as I explain it, elite capture isn't at bottom a psychological phenomenon, right? What causes elite capture is the fact that things in fact are different for elites. And some of the differences that being an elite makes are psychological, some of them are ideological, some of them are in terms of one's class interests, some of them are in terms of one's other interests, politically speaking.
And depending on the historical example, you know, we might be moved towards one kind of explanation or other, but if we just focus on the differences, the various kinds of differences between elites and non-elites, I think we're going to be flexible in the right kinds of ways to the differences in these phenomena. And yeah, I mean, one read of what Yang is doing is just the cynical kind of ploy. But another one is, you know, the more false consciousness kind of explanation, maybe Yang is just so used to playing the game, the political game at that level, that he really just believes that that's what would be good for people like him and just genuinely take Asian-Americans as a group to be in a position like his, where it really matters in a concrete way, how comfortable the potentially racist people around you are with your level of assimilation, and that matters more than dignity and self-respect in other forms that you could possibly pursue.
And that's what I find interesting about Booker T. Washington, because exactly as you say, I totally agree. I think Booker T. Washington, you know, my interpretation of him, my read of him is that he was completely genuinely invested in Black uplift and the National Negro Business League. And in general, that kind of approach to racial politics wasn't a cynical attempt to exploit Black people, although perhaps that's true for some of the hangers-on, but from Booker T. Washington's perspective it comes from the sort of racial realism.
And so the idea is if you have a kind of realpolitik going, you think--and not even just a racial realism, but a racial realism, that's particularly congenial to, you know, a kind of Marxist or otherwise materialist way of looking, right? The thing that moves the world is money, in some sense. Maybe Booker T. Washington is thinking less about the circulation of money and commodities and maybe more about profit in a different sort of way, but money is power. If we get money, we can make white people's opinions of us irrelevant.
So in a way, he kind of anticipates the things that Kwame Ture ends up saying later about black power, right? And so let's just get power on the terms that power is doled out in a capitalist society, money and economic leverage, that requires businesses. Let's do that. And why this is misguided, according to E. Franklin Frazier and his telling of it, isn't a story about motivations. It's a story about differing kinds of conceptions about what's possible given the economic structure of the United States, given black people's buying power and given the state of labor organizing.
And Frazier just doesn't see a way to bootstrap black people from their thorough economic marginalization through opening some businesses to any kind of real leverage, any kind of historically consequential leverage over the rest of the United States. The rest of the United States is too large, it's too monied, those will be stumbling blocks, so on and so forth. Frazier has something of the benefit of hindsight, right? He's living on the other side of a time of quite a bit of racial strife, destruction of Black Wall Street ,so on and so forth, right?
Booker T. Washington started the National Negro Business League in 1900, but he's also writing from a different ideological perspective that is very purposely responding to problems of elite capture, right? One story you can tell about why Booker T. Washington comes to this conclusion is because Booker T. Washington is in the group of people for whom it really is possible to get personally, at the level of you and your family and maybe even your community, it is possible to amass enough money to at least check back against some levels of white racism.
You know, there are Madam C.J. Walkers, right? There are people who develop some personal wealth, and that is meaningful. And one story to tell is just that they confuse their economic position with the broader economic position of the group. And it's not because they're evil. It's not because they're trying to get it wrong. It's because they don't recognize the structural difference between their position in society and the position of the larger group. And so that way of telling the story, isn't really about intentions, you know, as you were saying, right, it's fully compatible with that story that Booker T.
Washington truly meant to help, but it's nevertheless delusional. And I use the word delusional coming out of how Frazier describes the black middle-class in this book. So lumpen bourgeoisie that lives in a world of make-believe, has fundamentally detached itself from reality. And, you know, Frazier is being a little bit of an asshole about it, but it's not clear that he's wrong, right? If you buy the story I just told, that kind of deep mistake about the structure of the political world you live in really does involve a deep kind of un-tethering from how the world actually operates.
LR: I can't recall specifically the figure that you quoted in your piece, but you did mention that that group of folks with Booker T. Washington, their collective wealth put together didn't equal that of a small bank in the United States at that time. So like, what you're saying is their misdiagnosis was really imaginary about how much possibility they really had to like integrate themselves into a middle or upper class with power.
OT: It's actually worse than that, unfortunately. Frazier is talking about--the stat that you're referencing, Frazier is referencing all the Black-owned banks in the nation by 1955, when he's writing. All of them combined didn't represent the amount of capital of the average local bank of a small white city. The situation was even more dire in Booker T. Washington's time. If you combine all of the net worth of the original attendees of the National Negro Business League meeting, it was in the six figures, right? It didn't amount to even a million dollars.
So, this is Frazier's way of saying just on the face of it, this is absolutely delusional. And there's no reason any of these people should have believed that this was the strategy, but there's a complicated set of stories we could tell from there about why they were delusional, but Frazier takes it that it's just obvious that they weren't.
LR: But nevertheless, that strategy has continued.
OT: Yeah. (Laughs)
LR: Yeah. Not to completely denigrate it, but I mean, Frazier has a lot of, as you point out, scathing criticism of the Black press for perpetuating this strategy. I'm wondering if you can maybe update the story to today, why has this continued and how does elite capture particularly manifest itself in conversations around identity politics?
OT: Yeah, let me, let me take the first one. We're a similar distance away from E. Franklin Frazier, and this book about the Black bourgeoisie, as E. Franklin Frazier was from Booker T. Washington, right? Booker T. Washington starts the National Negro Business League in the turn of the century around 1900, Black Bourgeoisie comes out in 1955, 55 years later, something like 65 years later, here we are. And you see some of the same stuff. I don't know if I would say that Black business, I don't know how to quantify this, I'm not sure whether or not it's as prevalent, less prevalent, or equally prevalent now, but as you said, the ideas is still around that we're going to Black business, Black bank our way from here to freedom.
And I have to step out of recounting what Frazier says and just say myself, I in 2020, think this is delusional, right? I'll have Frazier's book to stand behind, you know, Frazier is no longer with us, but to my knowledge, by my point of view, I think that is a delusional enterprise. There's the combined weight of the United States--just the United States, we're not even talking globally yet--but just the United States commitment to violent control, within its own borders and outside of its own borders, is well north of a trillion dollars.
If we had a thousand Jay-Zs and a thousand Oprahs, it would still be delusional--I think--to think that, you know, you're going to small business, micro finance, your way out of that kind of political arrangement. One, just the size and scale of the commitment to prisons, police, military, border patrol. And two, the political state of affairs,that explains why those things can get so many resources. The commitments of various aspects of the ruling elite to making sure that those things are well-funded, well-protected by institutions and regulations, to bending the courts to the will of this, to the point where we have infants defending themselves legally in deportation proceedings.
The amount of ruling elite buy-in to this form of social control is so dense that the money is the tip of the iceberg of the problem. And given how large the tip of that iceberg is, that says a little bit about the rest of the iceberg, right?
If anything, it's hard to compare with 1955, you know, Cold War, post-World War II boom, and US power and exceptionalism. I think it would be fair to say that it's just as delusional now as in 1955, perhaps more so. LR: Well, and it seems like with identity politics specifically, the way that I would describe elite capture as manifesting is the notion that better diverse representation of the ruling class is the path forward towards collective liberation. Is that what Andrew Yang is kind of putting forward, or is that type of identity politics being expressed in like media and popular culture today?
OT: This is certainly a load bearing wall of the kind of elite capture of identity politics that we have now. It'd be tough not to put representation in the story. And I do think, you know, a lot of people hope that if the right people are in charge of the system, the people who look like us are part and parcel of the governing structure, that the governing structure is going to do different things than it has done. And it's surprising to me, the extent to which this has survived the Obama administration. And even, in fairness to the liberals among us, I mean, it's not as though the Obama administration achieved nothing.
You know, the Affordable Care Act met immense opposition, which shows you the extent to which right wing politics is unusually powerful in the United States. So in the face of that kind of opposition, there are some legitimate, progressive victories that you can attribute to the Obama administration, but by no means was it a radical break from the politics of the past. Drones strikes, continued deportations, continued the other erosion of the protections of social security and safety nets for the working class and the increase of precarity of various kinds, whether from insecurity from police violence, insecurity from job loss, on stages other than healthcare, all of those trends continued under Obama.
There was no indication, there was no reason coming out of the Obama administration to believe that having the guy at the top look like you was going to fundamentally, rather than incrementally, change the character of US government. And, you know, depending on where in the country you live, there is no reason that you would have needed to wait for the Obama administration to make a conclusion of that kind. There's been plenty of parts of the country where Black people have for decades been integrated into the Democratic Party machinery. Again, perhaps better than some other ruling elites that might've been in place.
Perhaps they've done a better job on this or that issue. But again, there is no reason to think that putting Black people, having Black faces in high places as Cornell West might say, there's absolutely no reason to believe that that represents in and of itself a radical break with anything. And even just the fact that this is still an open kind of question in US politics that is viewed hypothetically, is just strange given that the end of a system of racial exclusion from formal apparatuses of power is not by any means a new thing in world history that happened after the 1960s as the civil rights movement.
The Haitian rebellion was in the 18th century, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was happening at the same time as decolonization movements worldwide.
And we could just empirically ask the question, what does it change to change who the ruling elite is? And if we were willing to look at the vast amount of examples in the Third World--or the global South as I guess you're supposed to say now, whatever--but you know, there's absolutely no reason this should be a hypothetical question, right? We could look at governance in Jamaica. We could look at governance in Nigeria. We could look at governance in Mozambique, and just empirically ask this question. What kinds of differences does it make? And we would find a very mixed record of results. And we would, I think come to the conclusion that other things matter other than what race is in the ruling elite.
I do think this kind of hope for representational politics is a strong contribution to how identity politics works. But I think perhaps more to the point, perhaps more, I think how we should read that is as indicative of a fairly total defeat of the left in the United States, right? Where the only kind of opposition to the current ruling class and ruling structure that the majority of Americans, the vast majority of Americans--because let's be serious about how large left is, the genuine left--the only kind of outside, the only kind of alternative reality that most people can imagine as being a possibility close enough to reality to be worth discussing is changing the race of the person whose boot is on your neck.
That's not the case everywhere. And ultimately I think the explanation of why it's the case here has to be one historically rooted in the incredibly violent anti-communism and anti-radicalism of the sixties and seventies. It has to be rooted in the erosion of union density that followed Right to Work legislation. It has to be rooted in the full court press that the right and the neoliberal center collaborated on, on the left here, and the unabashed success of that campaign. LR: It's hard not to agree, which is depressing.
There's a quote in the piece that I wanted to share, because I like how it, I think, very succinctly defines elite capture. And maybe I can read this and then we can follow up with what you were just saying. Cause what you're saying about the defeat of the left, I think is really important. So you write, "If elite capture boils down to the way power and resources tend to be distributed within groups and not simply across groups, then it is a fully general problem of politics in a world that distributes power and resources unjustly and unequally. Elites get outsized control over the ideas in circulation about identities by more or less the same methods and for the same reasons that they get control over everything else."
So I was originally going to ask you to expand on that quote, to explain more about the tendencies of elite capture to keep reproducing itself. And I think what you just did was provide that explanation. So maybe we can talk more about how has the defeat of the left allowed identity politics to be kind of subverted and take into the path that it's commonly understood in the discourse today, which is distinct from like the identity politics of socialists, like the Combahee River Collective.
OT: Maybe I'll say a bit on the theory behind the quote and then spring from there and to answering the question that you just put it as. So I like to think of capitalism, and I like to think of the system we have, in terms of racial capitalism, which is the short hand for a theory pioneered by people like Cedric Robinson and Oliver Cox. But basically the idea is yeah, capitalism, the mode of production that we have is something that embeds inequality and embeds injustice in ways that were pretty well described by, you know, a lot of the European socialist traditions, you know, Marx, Proudhon, and all those people.
But you know, if you're describing this from a point of view of the people enslaved and their descendants, the people colonized and their descendants, you would have noticed that it didn't just, you know, they didn't just come and say, "by the way, you're going to make surplus value now." You know, there were other things that came along part and parcel with the control over the globe that made globalizing the capitalist mode of production possible. It came with cultural baggage, some presumptions and pressures towards full kinds of social organization and not just organization over economic production.
And these forms of social organization came from the place that the drive for capitalist production came from. It came out of European politics and the particular kinds of social organization that colonizers brought with them when they colonized other places, how they present and organize the world. So, you know, if you start from there, you get this idea that the groups that we're parceled into and what those groups mean, socially speaking, comes from the same place, the same historical events, that the fact that we're all producing according to the capitalist mode of production came from.
And hey look at that, races. Right?
So the idea of racial organization came from the particular things that were going on in Europe. It's not some universal phenomenon it's been made universal by colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. And so there's a tie historically speaking between the kinds of social organizations we have, which explain the fact of race and other things, and the capitalist mode of production, which explains how we produce the things that we need. How we meet our material needs. And that's why people like Cabral in the African Marxist tradition say it's an act of culture to get control over the news production. Because that's part and parcel of our domination under a global capitalist system.
So production is obviously important. That's a thing Marxists are used to talking about, but you would also notice at this point that there's this distributive thing. So how do we distribute power? How do we distribute political responsibilities? Where do the advantages end up and where do the disadvantages end up? And it turns out that part of this social organization that proliferated is that those things too are patterned in the way that capitalists ending up with all the surplus value is patterned and built into the kind of system that we have. So this is the thing that I'm alluding to.
These are the sort of big thoughts I'm alluding to in the quote that you pick out, and that I'm trying to kind of say without saying.
LR: It's hard to explain the origins of capitalism in a piece for the Boston Review.
OT: Yeah (laughs) you know, you've only got so many words. You know, you can't make necessarily the same assumptions about your audience that you would in other venues, right. But that's what I'm talking about in the quote. I'll just read it again too. So just because I've been talking for awhile. "If elite capture boils down to the way power and resources tend to be distributed within groups and not simply across groups, then it is a fully general problem of politics in a world that distributes power and resources unjustly and unequally." So the basic thought here is that look, broad strokes races are going to more or less correspond to distributed groups, right? Whites are going to get the most Black and Indigenous peoples are going to get the least, non-Black people of color are going to get somewhere in the middle.
It's more or less the patterns, whether we're talking about continents or whether we're talking about families within a community, it's more or less a pattern that repeats fairly reliably. But a problem with trying to just work off that pattern and then build a view of the world that says, okay, white people, most advantaged, most privileged, Black people, least advantage, least privileged. So on, so forth is that that same kind of analysis is going to be true within groups. And so if you ask which people of the oppressed groups are going to get the mic, right?
Which of them are going to get to do the research at fancy universities? Which of them are going to have the media outlets that E. Franklin Frazier was talking about? You could ask the same kinds of questions about them that you would ask about overall advantaged people, right? So in the same way that you might ask, should we be generalizing about white people when we decide whether or not the U S is a real democracy, something like that. You could ask, you know, should we be generalizing from middle-class Black academics when we describe what's happening to black people? The same kinds of inequality that make white people a bad place to generalize from when we're trying to characterize the world system or the United States or whatever it is, because there are elites, because they get more, is going to be true within groups.
And so that complicates the identity politics. So finally, to answer your question on why is it that the defeat of the left leads to the rise of this and identitarian movements, is that one possible trajectory, you know, one way the world can move is that the people who would naturally have the mic for the oppressed groups, the people most proximate to the kinds of power, whether it's over political institutions or over money or over media outlets, one way things can go is that they can join the people below them in political struggle--below them, social position-speaking--and engage in a politics that requires them to pay attention to what's going on below them and is less vulnerable to elite capture than the alternative.
The other way things can go of course, is they can join with the people above them, right? And much of the struggle for injustice just boils down to which of those wins out, given the relevant kind of historical conditions and material conditions and so on and so forth. And the defeat of the left means that door number two wins by default, right? If there is no anti-colonial struggle, there is no place for elites to go other than intentional or unintentional kind of sycophancy for the current political struggle. So unlike the Cabrals and the Nkrumahs and the Ambedkars who were, you know, relative elites to the colonized populations that they were fighting with, but to join up and struggle--you can argue about how successfully they did that--but they joined with the other non-elites of their group.
They did that because it was possible to, and it was possible to because the wars of extermination that the capitalist powers that be, and the CIA's, and the MI5s, and all those people waged against them, hadn't been fought and won yet, but now that's gone.
LR: What I really like about the piece too, is that your articulation of elite capture, and how capitalism and power under capitalism works, I think helps kind of push against this more prevailing condemnation of identity politics, internal to the left. Like I hear leftists, it's not shared, but there tends to be this like desire to just say the problem is identity politics in and of itself, that's fracturing this and that's the problem. But I think you highlighting how elite capture works really pushes against that, because your point really is that this is a problem with politics in general, not identity politics per se.
And you even highlight in the queer liberation movements, we've seen similar patterns, and other social movements as well. I'm kind of wondering, this is maybe a tangent, but in the conversation around cancel culture I wonder if we're actually seeing a similar phenomenon because my knowledge of cancel culture initially came from conversations around transformative justice and disposability and how human beings aren't disposable. And now I don't even know if I understand what the conversation is anymore, because JK Rowling is suddenly crying about it.
OT: Yeah, I think this is a classic situation of elites, either cynically or just confusedly, trying to generalize from the dynamics of their social position and just falling on their face. I have a colleague Liam Kofi Bright who tweeted something funny about this, I'm going to butcher it because I don't remember the exact words he said, but it was something like, you know, "My working theory of the cancel culture debate is that there were a bunch of 19 year olds who really meant that they didn't want to read Aristotle or anyone else, and everyone else's position is being defined by their reaction to those 19 year olds."
But, but I really genuinely think that that's what's happening. You know, the people who are closest to the editorial board of the New York times just have only been told to shut up in the context of mean tweets, and on the basis of that, just have a view of what it is to be treated as disposable and what it is to not be free to speak that is just completely unmoored from reality. Just completely unmoored from reality. Like what's more authoritarian than the corporate workplace? Do middle managers at Exxon get to speak their mind with respect to climate change, right?