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When Did the Ruling Class Get Woke?

A conversation with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò on his new book Elite Capture, which investigates the co-option of identity politics and the importance of coalitional organizing.

Part of the mural reading "Black Lives Matter" painted in June 2020,photo: Ted Eytan ( CC BY-SA 2.0)

The protest movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd is now regarded as the largest mass mobilization in the history of the United States, and, significantly, as the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò points out, was distinctly global in scope. From the old colonial capitals of Europe to cities across the Global South, people took to the streets to protest not only wanton police violence in the United States but also local appendages of the global machinery of white supremacy and state violence. As Táíwò puts it, people around the world were “fighting on their own front[s] in the same struggle.”

Of course, corporate America, always willing to appropriate the next big thing, got in on the action too. While those who took to the streets forged solidarities across difference and found new ways to care for their comrades, carrying extra masks and hand sanitizer along with bottled water and milk to soothe tear-gassed eyes, Silicon Valley tech giants, multinational banks, and purveyors of every conceivable consumer good co-opted the language of protest and justice to grotesque and absurd effect. Whether it was Amazon, Goldman Sachs, or Fox News, corporate America’s statements of apparent sympathy or feigned outrage belied its reliance on the very white supremacist structures that offer a ready supply of precarious Black and brown labor and that the 2020 uprising sought to dismantle.

In that moment, we saw the language of identity, and identity politics, sundered from material reality and tasked instead with casting multinational corporations as ever-reasonable, enlightened allies of the anti-racist left—a far cry from the Combahee River Collective’s original formulation of identity politics as a means of addressing identity-based exclusions in the social movements of the 1970s. For the Collective, identity politics was a principle of solidarity and a form of analysis meant to facilitate organizing and struggle around “interlocking” conditions of oppression across racial, sexual, gender, and class differences. Instead, identity politics became, at best, a hollow shibboleth and, at worst, a reputational cover for corporate and political elites.

For Táíwò, this represents a particularly glaring instance of the elite capture of identity politics: a process through which “political projects can be hijacked in principle or in effect by the well positioned and resourced,” while the fundamental structure of the social order—and its attendant inequalities—remains unchanged. Rather than redistribution, redress, or reparations, corporate America and the political elite alike embraced the language of identity to assure those making radical demands in the streets that political change might just come one chief diversity officer at a time.

In the face of such cynicism and intransigence, Táíwò proposes an alternative way forward: broad, coalitional political organizing in the tradition of the Combahee River Collective and the anti-colonial movements of the Global South with an explicitly redistributionist bent. In other words, to make the world anew. I spoke with Táíwò about elite capture, the promise of internationalism, and the political importance of a good plan. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Ishan Desai-Geller

ISHAN DESAI-GELLER: In the introduction to Elite Capture, you trace the transformation of the concept of identity politics from the Combahee River Collective’s radical, coalitional, and socialistic conception to today’s largely symbolic, elite-captured version, which you term “deference politics.” As a corrective, you propose a distinctly materialist “constructive politics” oriented toward collective political action. You describe this approach as a form of what the political theorist Adom Getachew calls “worldmaking.” Could you discuss how constructive politics works as a form of worldmaking, and how this differs from the conceptual underpinnings of deference politics?


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OLÚFẸ́MI O. TÁÍWÒ: The basic thing constructive politics emphasizes is that the way you change the world is by changing the world. I think there’s a tendency, especially by people who embrace deference politics, to add a step: challenging particular beliefs that explain why people fail to change the world, for example. This isn’t completely wrong or misguided. We absolutely should be engaging in political education and challenging bad ideas, but it shouldn’t take primacy over our actual ability right now to simply make things different. There are a variety of ways that we can change the decision-making environment for ourselves and for the people who will come after us. We can build lasting institutions; we can build communal practices; we can build political infrastructure—and those are all things that we have a very good precedent of doing. Labor unions are a tried-and-true example of this. The kind of work that [Amazon organizers] Chris Smalls and Derek Palmer are doing is exactly the kind of thing that we would need if we want a better version of identity politics.

IDG: I was struck by one of the book’s final lines, in which you write that “deference politics asks us to be less than we are.” What does that mean, and what does it tell us about identity politics?

OT: That line comes at the tail end of a discussion about trauma and the particular politics that have built up over the last decades about the political salience of trauma. The fact that trauma is now taken seriously [as a political question] is unquestionably a positive development. But the way that trauma has been wielded as a credential cheapens both it and us. One of the most important things about what trauma ends up meaning in someone’s life is the ways people respond to you when you tell them about trauma. Do you have relationships with people such that you could tell someone about your trauma? What kind of relationships do you have after trauma? Are they nurturing ones where you can demand respect, have respect demanded of you, and continue to participate as an adult equal? Those tend to be the kind of relationships that facilitate recovery.

Those are all environmental facts that aren’t about the trauma itself; they’re about the social world that you inhabit around the trauma. And deference politics takes the importance of trauma and wields it against itself—because if what’s important is the social ecology around trauma, we should be figuring out how to participate in meaningful ways with people who have been traumatized and not just giving trauma a microphone. Whether we’re talking about how we deal internally with our own trauma, or how we deal with trauma in people around us, I don’t think the deferential approach to trauma is a productive, helpful, or fair one.

OT: The deferential approach is a form of withdrawal. It says what trauma needs is prominence and a hearing, rather than the deep, relational, collaborative work that’s actually required.

IDG: A liberal theory of politics takes the individual citizen as the primary unit of analysis and tends to relegate political action to the realm of individual choice. You write that the result of the atomizing quality of deference politics ultimately pushes us to “realize that ‘coalitional politics’ (understood as struggle across difference) is, simply, politics.” What does this mean, and how does this inflect your view of politics?

OT: One of the things I see people do in discussions is search for differences. Somebody offers a statement about one group of people and sets off a conversation around finding groups of people within that first group that are left out. One of the things we have to decide are which commonalities are worth organizing, generalizing, and associating around. Different people answer that in different ways. But the logical conclusion of the quest for differences is to eventually answer that none of them are worth organizing or grouping together around.

That’s a clear advantage for the people at the top, who are very willing to organize across difference. The question really comes down to what role practicality plays in your politics. Everyone, in the abstract, is willing to work across some level of difference, even if people are arbitrary about the differences they’re willing to cross. Then you try to get people into a room, and it’s very difficult. But we should at least aspire to collaborate across difference. So many times I hear people express a principled hostility to coalitional politics. And I think, “OK, but you’re going to lose!”

IDG: What do you see motivating that rejection of coalitional politics?

OT: Ultimately, it’s the practical bit. The kinds of things that push you toward coalitional politics are, and should be, the stuff of principle. But practicality should also get you there if you plan to actually make good on political commitments. That’s not necessarily a thing that everyone’s trying to do. If you’re just trying to give voice to your hopes or resentments, you don’t need a lot of people. You only need a few Twitter followers.

IDG: The thinkers, movements, and revolutionaries you cite throughout the book—ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois and Amilcar Cabral to the Combahee River Collective and the Nigerian #EndSARS movement—not only span the Black radical tradition but are also often explicitly internationalist in orientation. Could you talk about the connection between internationalism and constructive politics?

OT: In a purely abstract sense, you could detach coalitional politics and constructive politics from internationalist politics. But it’s really tough to separate them. The political systems we’re dealing with cut across nation-state boundaries. No one in Afghanistan wonders whether or not US politics matter. It’s very difficult to hear [a rejection of internationalism] as anything other than the idea that people who don’t live where you do don’t matter.

IDG: To your point, that national liberation struggle also had an internationalist dimension in that it was being fought contemporaneously with a whole set of other anti-colonial struggles around the globe.

OT: All these things are causally linked. The independence of many Latin American countries happened shortly after the independence of Haiti. That wasn’t a coincidence: It’s because Haiti, on principle, sent military support to [Simón] Bolivar. The fact that these revolutions were being fought simultaneously was materially important. If the Portuguese Empire could have focused all of its forces in Guinea-Bissau, if it didn’t have to fight in Angola and Mozambique at the same time, then it’s not as clear that Cabral and his comrades would have won their struggle.

A lot of times, people pitch anti-coalitional politics as a kind of tough-minded realism. History gives us the opposite lesson: Justice somewhere is good for justice elsewhere. That’s not just a statement of principle. It’s literally the way our world is causally linked up politically.

IDG: At a meta level, I read Elite Capture as a commentary on the relation between critique and praxis. The concept of “elite capture” enables a materialist critique of identity politics that, in turn, points toward the worldmaking praxis of constructive politics. What is the critical purchase that the concept of elite capture delivers in general and vis-à-vis identity politics in particular?

OT: The biggest bit of purchase that elite capture has as a concept is that my description of elite capture is as a systems behavior. Elite capture intensifies when the gap between non-elites and elites intensifies, or when the power of institutions that would or could constrain elites erodes. It isn’t an account of why a particular generation of elites is particularly morally corrupt or why a particular ideology being wielded by elites is particularly ideologically corrupt. Those things may be true, but they’re neither here nor there as far as my characterization of elite capture. What we need to do is narrow the distance between elites and non-elites. Maybe we need cash transfers, reparations, huge taxation on top earners, or to build up institutions that can constrain elite excesses: media ecosystems on the left, labor unions, tenants’ unions, debtors’ unions. If we want a conversation about how to make identity politics better, it’s that one.

IDG: In a media landscape obsessed with conspiracy, a concept like elite capture surely runs the risk of misinterpretation or bad-faith appropriation. It strikes me that your emphasis on the language of systems—as opposed to focusing on nefarious individuals or shady cabals—distinguishes your critique from more conspiratorial thinking. Could you talk about the relationship between elite capture, systems thinking, and the idea of conspiracy?

OT: I definitely think the concept of elite capture can be co-opted—it’s really a question of to what extent it will be, and how quickly. You can’t ideology-proof a concept. But I do think the elite capture analysis I’m putting forth here is an attempt to supplant this kind of conspiracy thinking and its little cousin, which is straight-up moralizing.

There’s the analysis that whatever’s wrong with identity politics is what the bad people are doing. There’s the conspiracy version of this, where we take them to know what they’re doing, and there’s the moral version of this, where we just think they’re craven or morally negligent. But both of those take it that this huge trend in political history is primarily explainable by the moral successes and failures of a handful of well-placed institutional actors. I just don’t think that that’s true, because it treats as an explanation something that it ought to give an explanation of.

Why is it that this handful of people who are in, say, the DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] industry have this much outsize influence on how whole swaths of the world’s population talk about and digest identity issues? Surely their individual moral successes or failures don’t explain that. And that is infinitely more politically interesting and important than whatever they get right or wrong from there.

IDG: Citing the political scientist Jo Freeman, you note that the “status of ‘elite’” is not “a stable identity” but a “relationship, in a particular context, between a smaller group of people and a larger group of people.” Why do you frame the elite as a relationship rather than as a static, identifiable group?

OT: Part of the motivation for it was some of the discourses around authenticity, which seem to me to be related to the way that identity politics is mobilized. And also this earlier issue of trauma that we were talking about, where people acquire a platform [after] experienc[ing] marginalization and bigoted treatment. From there, it seems that some people are encouraged by the structures they’re confronted with to try to treat that as an identity unto itself. It’s very difficult to reconcile the parts of you that explain why you have the microphone to say how you feel about this or that political issue in academic journals or legacy media outlets with the kind of oppression that your personal anecdote might genuinely provide insight into. I have that in mind, not because I want to explain what those people are getting “wrong,” but because I think what it shows is a kind of unstable relationship between the ways that marginalization and oppression are discussed and the barriers to entry to discussing them in particular venues.

IDG: The question may also have a simpler answer: The composition of an elite is dynamic and fluid. There were no postcolonial elites until there were postcolonial nation-states. There was no comprador bourgeoisie in the colonies until there were colonies. Part of the answer is that the elite is always changing.

OT: That’s a really helpful way of putting it. There are whole categories of elites that owe their existence to particular schemes of colonialism and capitalism and particular developments in the history of capitalism. The elite, as a group, is a consequence of a political system and the behavior of that system. I will add that a particular elite is not only a consequence of the objective behavior of a given political system, but one’s position in an elite is the result of comparison and contrast [between groups].

IDG: Political imagination and education play crucial roles in the book, because if the goal of constructive politics is to build new, more just worlds, you show that we cannot afford to limit our struggles for justice to the terms set by an unjust social order dominated by elites.

Can you talk about the role of imagination and education in the process of identifying new political horizons and of challenging the prevailing political reality?

OT: I deliberately picked examples where political education was explicitly part of a broader liberation struggle, as opposed to making the point that “the secret is we just need to think better.”

I ended the book by talking about two people who’ve already thought [about] the role of getting this knowledge stuff right within a broader movement: Andaiye and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Both of them make out the problem and the solution in practical terms. Andaiye talks about how, as climate crisis impacts were accelerating in the Caribbean, people kept falling back on the International Monetary Fund’s models of build[ing] state capacity in the face of disaster. Not out of a deluded ideological belief that the IMF had turned a new leaf since the Washington Consensus, but because if the option you’d love isn’t practically available, then the IMF option wins by no-contest. That’s the pessimistic version.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about when groups who were opposed to mass incarceration, including a local of the United Farm Workers, fought off plans in California to build a prison by proposing alternate planning criteria—what Gilmore calls “grassroots planning.” The point isn’t that it’s a special thing to get things right politically, but that [political imagination and education] just play the role that every other step of a practical process does. As Gilmore puts it, “Planning creates places.” Planning is a step of the construction process. It’s just one step, but it is step. Somebody’s planning is going to create the changes from today’s world to tomorrow’s world. The political question is whether it’s going to be their plans or ours. And if it’s going to be ours, it would be helpful to have some. So I propose that we have some [plans].

IDG: You argue in your book, Reconsidering Reparations, that reparations for “global racial empire” must attend to climate justice and must, therefore, “remake the world.” Given the explicitly redistributionist bent of your notion of constructive politics in Elite Capture, how does a constructive politics connect to the project of climate-oriented reparations and worldmaking?

OT: In much the same way, but maybe with a shorter time frame and a more concrete orientation. A really helpful example is the issue of “climate adaptation.” What are the changes we need to make to the built environment that will be resilient against the coming climate impact? That is literally a design question: What are the storm drains going to be like, what kind of buildings should there be, what kind of institutions should decide what kinds of buildings there should be? Activists are asking these questions, so it’s a question of joining them—it’s not starting some new thing that didn’t happen before this book.

IDG: Finally, you describe constructive politics as a demanding practice, which asks of us a “moral and emotional discipline.” What does that entail?

OT: This goes back to the practical question, where I was saying the appeal of anti-coalitional politics is [as] a politics that has given up on winning. While it’s easy to make light of that in the abstract, I think it’s [a response] to the relentless, crushing nature of our institutions, which constantly endeavor to beat out of people the conviction that things can be meaningfully and substantively different. So, if you think the social structures can’t change, why not focus on whatever theory is going to play the best in your social circle or address your personal bugbear? What else would theory be for if we can’t win?

If we’re going to do [left organizing], it’s because we think winning is a serious possibility. This means that the gains I can make over my social rivals or the ways I can flatter whichever in-groups I take myself to be a part of can’t be the primary organizing principles of my politics.

But these are real motivators, and we have to acknowledge that people really do get something out of doing politics—like community, or friendship, or validation. It’s not easy to put those things on the back burner.

This is just another description of a social structure that treats us as atomized individuals, that undermines community, political organizing, and meaningful political participation. It’s going to [take] real cultural, interpersonal, and personal work to have a politics that doesn’t revolve around that. And I think it’s important to be honest about that. It’s not easy.

IDG: It sounds like this is where the famous Gramsci line comes in: Under the circumstances you’re describing, which so often leave us with a “pessimism of the intellect,” we really do need a corresponding “optimism of the will.” Cultivating an optimism of the will is a discipline.

OT: I’m all about that line. I think it’s just right.

Ishan Desai-Gelleris an assistant editor at The New Press.

Copyright c 2022 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.
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