Did Elites Really Take Over Identity Politics?
In his new book, Elite Capture, Olúfémi Táíwò argues that elites have hijacked identity politics — but what if it belonged to them all along?
Across the political spectrum, it has become difficult to engage in any discussion without running into the subject of identity politics. Its definition and its value — progressive force or enemy of egalitarianism — are hotly contested. What were previously niche academic debates have now become mainstream talking points. Somehow millions now seem to have a view on critical race theory, wokeness, and the 1619 Project.
Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else) by Olúfémi Táíwò, a political philosopher at Georgetown University, is his second book-length intervention in these debates. The first, Reconsidering Reparations, published by Oxford University Press in January, provided a sweeping defense of reparations, reinterpreted as climate justice. Working within the tradition of liberal political philosophy, Táíwò advanced a critique of liberalism’s nationalistic assumptions.
By focusing on distributive justice within idealized closed communities, theorists working within the tradition of the American political philosopher John Rawls fail to think globally about the relationship between nation-states and historically about the causes of inequalities, Táíwò argued. The result of this shortsightedness is that Rawlsianism is incapable of developing a theory of justice that seeks to address historical wrongdoing across borders. As an alternative, Táíwò proposed what he termed a “constructive” theory of reparations, the aim of which was to organize a political project seeking to create a more just world order rather than simply distribute cash or goods to victims of oppression. An attentive look at history, he showed, reveals a picture too complex for identarian blame games. The most urgent goal of this project is nothing less than a global coordinated response to climate change, targeting the world’s poorest nations.
Unlike mainstream philosophy, largely bogged down in provincial puzzles, Táíwò’s work has always been characterized by an engagement with history and the social sciences. Though idiosyncratic and selective in its focus, his attention to postcolonial movements has put some meat on what are often abstract discussions about concepts like justice. The aim of Reconsidering Reparations is constructive — offering an account of what Táíwò calls a world-making project. In his second book, Táíwò attempts to outline the practical hurdles to accomplishing this task.
Táíwò’s chief explanation for the weakness of coalitions in favor of redistribution and against oppression is what he calls elite capture. The generality of this term is, in his view, its strength. Where Táíwò seeks to distinguish his essay from previous criticisms of identity politics is by attempting to show that the supposed conservative turn in identity politics is not unique to it but rather a subspecies of a more general phenomenon. This is a compelling line of argument. But Elite Capture does not deliver on its promise. Instead, Táíwò’s essay describes a series of problems without providing a plausible explanation of their cause.
Who Are the Elites?
Divided into five sections, Elite Capture outlines its title concept and then attempts to apply it to a series of cases — focusing largely on weaponization of marginal status by certain identarians. At the heart of the book are three chapters, all structured around an architectural metaphor: “Reading the Room,” “Being in the Room,” “Building a New House.” In these sections he applies a conceptual framework largely taken from the philosophy of language, which sees social structures as governed by rules of communication, to the institutions that he sees as falling victim to elite capture.
Whereas mainstream liberal understandings of social structures interpret society as, to quote Rawls, a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” Táíwò’s more critical variant recognizes that societies structured around relations of oppression are anything but. In this respect, his work develops on a line of argument advanced most notably by the late Charles Mills, a former Marxist who felt that liberalism offered better resources for addressing racialized and gendered forms of oppression than his old ideology. Similarly, Táíwò’s aim is “to change the common ground — to change what information [is] usable by people in their daily interactions.”
His understanding of this common ground or social system is decidedly vague; so too is his conception of an elite. The latter he defines as a small group of people who have power over a larger group. Crucial to this definition is that the concept of an elite is nonessentialist: there is nothing about a specific racial or ethnic group that classifies it as an elite. This is a good corrective to the excesses of identity politics, which encourage an obsession with combating the dangers of “whiteness” and men, heterosexual or otherwise. It is, nevertheless, hard to avoid asking the question: Where does this broad notion of an elite leave the Marxist definition of capitalists, defined by control over the means of production?
In providing an account of elite capture, Táíwò relies on a number of theoretical approaches, some of which are liberal and others Marxist. Undoubtedly, pluralism can be a virtue, but it is unclear exactly in what mechanism he locates the cause of elite capture.
Is it, as Wolfgang Streeck, who he makes references to suggests, that decades of slow growth have hollowed out the capacity of liberal states, providing them with no means of ensuring profitability to capitalists other than by directly distributing resources to them via tax cuts and other forms of corporate welfare? Is elite capture a contingent phenomenon, resulting from the continued existence of predemocratic institutions within democratic states who seize power during moments of crisis, as another of Táíwò’s sources suggests? Is elite capture another term for antidemocratic tendencies and institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, which Táíwò blames for the indebtedness of nations in the Global South? Or is elite capture a cultural phenomenon, referring to the ways the formerly radical movements for queer or minority liberation have been defanged by conservatives?
Táíwò answer is, dubiously, all of the above. Elite capture is a general term that describes these disparate phenomena. Yet the effects of any of these processes would be felt so differently that comparison only serves to obscure what distinguishes the mechanisms underlying global stagnation or the continued existence of predemocratic institutions. The aim of social theory should be to home in on differences, producing as conceptually rich a picture of reality as possible, rather than to provide general terms for describing at times unrelated phenomena.
Carrying forward this nebulous definition of elite capture into the essay’s main sections, Táíwò then seeks to lay out tools that activists can use to check if elite capture is happening and to combat it. His arguments in these sections are informed by a combination of structuralism and voluntarism. In everything from social media to “capitalism” — understood as just another system among others — elites structure what is and is not acceptable to do or say. Táíwò makes this point through an extended “Emperor’s New Clothes” metaphor, where he tells us that “perhaps [the citizens can] see the emperor’s ass quite clearly — but change their behavior anyway because their livelihoods depend on it.” Similarly, social media influencers “structure which topics are trending” so that when “the rest of us make choices about what to watch or read or respond to, we’re mostly making choices in an environment shaped by elites.”
The idea here is that social interactions are organized around rules, similar to a game. “The game objective may be viscerally and irreducibly personal for each player,” Táíwò tells us; its goals may be “self-esteem, security, life itself — but the rules and the context that determine which actions make sense have been created by others who benefit from the outcome of those rigged systems.” Again, broadness of definition and generality of application make it difficult to assess the value of these insights. What is gained by comparing the “game” that social media users play for esteem with the “game” that workers “play” on entering the labor market?
Much of Táíwò’s discussion speaks to an activist milieu in which using perceived microaggressions as currency for social advantage has become an acceptable form of intraorganizational politics. Diplomatically, he seeks to disabuse his readers of the belief that they ought to kowtow to the platitudes built on standpoint epistemology. The theory, which draws attention to the subjective origin of knowledge claims, is one that Táíwò takes to be justified but often overextended.
Deference to perceived minorities or marginal groups can, Táíwò argues, serve to further social oppression. “Centering the most marginalized” in practice usually means “handing conversational authority” and what he, referring to esteem and recognition, strangely calls “attentional goods,” “to whoever is already in the room and appears to fit a social category associated with some form of oppression — regardless of what they have or have not actually experienced.”
These prescriptions serve as helpful guides for activists negotiating many left-wing spaces in which working-class members are few in number. Their primary aim is to draw the attention of “thought leaders” and “change makers” away from a politics that will further entrench the marginality of these organizations. The world of Elite Capture is, like our own, one in which the popular classes have been thoroughly expunged from the political stage. Subsequently, the task which Táíwò sets himself is to provide a way of pushing back against anti-majoritarian tendencies given this political climate. In this regard, Táíwò’s arguments are well taken and should prove useful to the social cohort to which they are directed, well-meaning activists easily led astray by the latest identarian fashions.
More broadly, however, one may wonder if the painstaking work of engaging with the misconceptions of identitarians is worth the effort. The pathologies of these forms of politics — well observed by Táíwò — result from their marginality. It is, as he makes clear, because these organizations do not have a foothold in any popular constituency that they allow themselves to be held hostage by deference politics and other elite fads. Without a proper analysis of the social and economic structures that have locked the working class out of power, Táíwò’s theory comes across as one-sided.
A tendency to flatten the differences between social structures, itself a hallmark of liberal political theory, runs through Táíwò’s essay. This explains why he can so easily jump from discussions of capitalism to discussions of systems of affirmation and recognition. Ontological pluralism of this kind is ill-suited to adjudicating which social structure has priority over another, a problem that comes to the fore when one enquires into the ultimate cause of elite capture.
The malleable understanding of social structures presumed throughout Táíwò’s analysis encourages the conclusion that bad decisions and choices on the part of individuals are to blame. Although reference is made to capitalism, Táíwò’s conception of agency relies on a view of constraining structures incompatible with the dull compulsion of the market. In the essay’s concluding sections he writes:
Creatures like us have a special power. Despite all our social programming, we can just do things. We can ignore the sidewalk and walk in the street; we can carry the bag with handles from its underside. We can do the thing that will be punished; we can ignore the potential reward, choose the smaller prize. Moreover, we can accept the rewards and the punishments without accepting the “lessons” they are meant to teach us about who and what is worthy. . . .
This power is one of the many that helps explain why our social systems are not fixed — even ones as complicated as our current global system of capitalism.
As with many of Táíwò’s claims, it is hard to disagree with them, made as they are at such a high level of abstraction.
Changing the Subject
More important, from the perspective of socialists today, is how to understand the emergence of the outlook and set of problems to which Táíwò wishes to respond. His own theory is too unreflexive to answer this question. This shortcoming is not a unique feature of his work. Over the past few years, a number of books have sought to figure out what’s wrong with, or what has happened to, identity politics.
Predominantly written by authors on the Left, these outpourings have all taken as their starting point a recognition of separate forms of oppression. Often, this position has been used to then problematize the assumptions of mainstream liberalism, as is the case in Táíwò’s work. However, the fact that this set of issues have come to concern the Left in the first place is worthy of explanation.
A plausible explanation of this phenomena is that politics, at least in the lifetime of most of the pro–Bernie Sanders left, has existed in conditions of economic stagnation after the end of what Adolph Reed has termed “growth liberalism.” Within the context of slow growth, the redistribution of an ever-increasing pie — the economic model on which social democracy was dependent — is harder for progressive forces to ensure. In place of a politics of growth-based redistribution, what exists is one concerned with the allocation of ever-decreasing resources to specific sections of society.
On the Right, attacks on citizenship, subsidies for unproductive small businesses, and tariffs, are policies created to direct resources to a Republican base without a growth model of its own. The Democrats have also advanced their own redistributive agenda, supporting a wave of neoliberal initiatives aimed at different parts of their voting base. Identity politics has come under criticism not because it is some key to unlocking a new socialist movement — as some of its more sanguine defenders allege — but because it has been the means through which the Democratic Party has sought to maintain its legitimacy.
In this context, the excesses of identity politics should not be understood, as Táíwò suggests, as an error in need of correction. A politics that seeks to redistribute resources and power to minority groups, defined in increasingly arbitrary ways, is a rational response to a world plagued by stagnation and the defeat of class solutions to social inequality. If there is no way to put out the fire inside of a burning house, the second-best thing to do is get out.
Yet there is still, though increasingly distant, hope for a different sort of politics. If socialist policies are able to put redistribution, spurred on by productive investment, back on the agenda, then the forms of identity politics that have come to dominate our politics may recede. This will at least give us something else to talk about, and a new, more promising battleground on which fight.