Elites Stole Identity Politics From the Left — Olúfémi Táíwò Wants Them Back

Astra Taylor interviews the philosopher and author of "Elite Capture"

By Astra Taylor

A blue toned picture of Olufemi Taiwo

In just a few weeks, the tiny death cult of the Supreme Court transformed the United States. Conservative justices constrained the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gases. They overturned New York’s ability to regulate handguns. They narrowed tribal sovereignty. And of course, they ended federal protections for abortion.

To counter this wave of destruction, the result of a decades-long project orchestrated by right-wing interests, the American left desperately needs a coherent strategy — and crucially, says philosopher and Georgetown professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a way for people with different identities to build it together. In his new book, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Táíwò mounts a defense of identity politics and proposes what he calls a “constructive politics” as one way forward. But first, he argues, we must recognize and deal with what he calls “elite capture.” 

Identity politics, as first defined by the legendary Combahee River Collective in 1974, was a way of using identity to analyze the world (for example, members of the Black lesbian socialist collective looked at how they were oppressed by the intersection of capitalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia). It provided a map for building bridges with groups that shared common interests. “The inclusiveness of our politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the lives of women, Third World and working people,” they wrote at the time. “We might, for example, become involved in workplace organizing at a factory that employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting back on already inadequate heath care to a Third World community, or set up a rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood.” They stood against racism in the women’s movement, and against sexism in the Black liberation movement.

Journalists and activists rarely describe identity politics in this way today, instead using the phrase to describe how the left has fragmented into small groups. Táíwò blames this in part on a phenomenon he calls “elite capture.” The phrase, Táíwò writes in his book, “originated in the study of developing countries to describe the way socially advantaged people tend to gain control over financial benefits, especially foreign aid, meant for others.” He expands the term’s use to include how social movements can be captured by elites who then redirect them toward their own narrow interests. For example, the formerly radical gay liberation movement has been captured by elites who prefer to focus on marriage and the orderly transfer of property. Black studies departments, originally created by radical activists, are now a means for a small swathe of academics to get tenure. A glance at corporate advertising during Pride tells you everything you need to know about how identity politics has, indeed, been captured.

Lots of people have tried to recognize and change the power dynamics within their particular organizations (whether left-wing or corporate), and these efforts account for the huge popularity of books like White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, designed to teach privileged people to shut up once in a while. Another strategy is what Táíwò calls “deference politics,” which means just following the lead of whoever in the room seems most oppressed. He argues that this approach entails abandoning one’s own responsibility to articulate a point of view and help figure out political problems. He also argues, citing his own experience of trauma, that while someone’s experience may offer them insight, “oppression is not a prep school.” It places an absurd burden on people to expect that their pain will be magically transformed into an unassailable political strategy. 

Táíwò’s alternative is “constructive politics,” or the creation of a common vision that we can all work toward together. Political work isn’t about carefully rearranging hierarchies within small rooms, but building a new house: “The way we treat each other in organizing spaces matters primarily in terms of how it relates us to the rest of the world.” He imagines old and new institutions, from labor unions to the Debt Collective, which organizes people on the basis of their debt (medical, student, etc.), coming together in a productive left ecosystem. Astra Taylor, one of the founders of the Debt Collective and author of many essays on political organizing, called Táíwò to discuss the future of identity politics. —Lux

Astra Taylor What is identity politics and how has it been captured?

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò I take identity politics to be an explicit way of connecting one’s politics to one’s social position: race gender, class, nationality, religion, all those things. I also follow the Combahee River Collective in saying that your social identity should contribute to figuring out your agenda and your priorities. You can’t do everything, so we have to make decisions and identity politics is one way of working through those decisions. 

What it takes to organize and sustain movements around anything are resources, tools, weapons, hours, dollars. And among any group of people, including oppressed and marginalized groups of people, those resources are unequally distributed. The people who are most advantaged are in the best position to get other people to go along with their vision of politics, whether by persuasion or by literally paying people to do stuff. In this sense, identity politics is just the same as other kinds of politics, whether we’re talking about the labor movement, socialist politics, or capitalist politics.

AT Who is an elite? Is it a relational category? Is it contingent on which example or situation we’re talking about?

OT An elite is inherently a comparison. There are, of course, the kinds of people who are going to end up on the advantaged side of things regardless of who they are compared to — the Bill Gates and Elon Musks of the world. But for most every other person and every other category, it depends on who you’re comparing them to. An example I use a lot is myself in the context of Black politics, and then in the context of tenure-track politics at Georgetown. I’m a one percenter as far as Black people go worldwide, and even in the U.S. But there are plenty of people who outrank me at my particular institution. So being an elite is just being on the advantaged end of a particular hierarchy.

AT There is a class strata of people who have basically unfathomable access to capital and power, and the ability to perpetuate violence and make undemocratic decisions as a result. But they aren’t the only elites. Is your point that power is more multi-faceted and contextually specific than that?

OT Yes, part of what I’m bucking against is the attempt to shoehorn every kind of power into one sort of power. I’m sure Tucker Carlson owns plenty of shares in companies, but if the only tool you have in your toolbox is to describe the ruling elite as “being capitalist,” then I think you’re going to miss a lot about the kind of power that Carlson wields. And the same is true of Nancy Pelosi or Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. 

The idea of an elite [in my work] is not supposed to replace an analysis of class, or an analysis of race, or gender, or whatever it might be. I’m just trying to get us to be as attentive to power dynamics within groups as we are to power dynamics between them.

For example, the sense in which tenured academics wield power in left social spaces is not very similar to how Jeff Bezos rules or wields power. An analysis of the ruling class within capitalism is just not going to tell you about dynamics between people who are advantaged in the sense of making high five figures or low six figures a year and being able to write books and existing in the professional managerial class, or whatever we want to call it. 

AT We’re talking a few days after the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and I’ve been thinking about books that were influential in the nineties and early aughts, like my friend Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Todd Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams. They led the liberal charge against identity politics and “culture war” issues and argued that the focus on gender, race, and gay rights was a distraction from bread-and-butter economic issues. Banning abortion, they said, was just a talking point to froth up the Christian base that would never actually be delivered on — silly feminists, being so hysterical over it. They failed to comprehend how so-called identity issues are, indeed, material issues with material consequences. This perspective persists in some quarters of the left today. Will the court’s decision at least mean people with this bad take will finally shut up, or will the economic reductionist zombie live on?

OT Unfortunately, especially in a country like the United States, which had something like four-plus centuries of very explicit racial apartheid, minority rule racism, domination over women, anti-LGBTQ policies, laws and patterns of police enforcement… I mean, if that history hasn’t dissuaded people from this view, I’m not sure anything will. I expect some percentage of people will maintain that position, and maybe be just a bit quieter about it given how the social tide has shifted. How many people will genuinely read the writing on the wall — that’s the wild card for me.

AT What does that writing say?

OT It is now apparent that limiting what particular segments of oppressed people can do and expect is a significant part of the right-wing agenda. That is a political reality that now is obvious to even the most intransigent class reductionist people, or at least ought to be obvious. They actually mean to roll back abortion access, they actually mean to demonize and prosecute trans kids and their families. They are actually doing those things, whatever else you might think they secretly want to do. That is part of our political reality. The question is: Can we, in a properly dialectical fashion, respond to this development.

AT Putting my organizer hat on, it’s tough. We’re trying to organize people who live in the United States of America, where there are two corporate parties, one of which is openly flirting with fascism. Through voter suppression and the structure of our electoral system the Republicans have had decades of affirmative action at the ballot box, and now they’re like, it’s not enough, let’s further impose minority rule while invoking the “working class.” Then you have the Democrats, who are also a corporate party and won’t talk about class, even in a cynical way. Instead, the version of racial and gender justice they present envisions a rainbow oligarchy — let’s narrow the racial wealth gap, not close the wealth gap. Trying to short-circuit these two frameworks, especially given the left’s dearth of resources, is tough.

OT That’s true. But it’s not a new problem. This is an instance in which internationalism might help, because there are places with actual labor parties, whether we’re talking about left coalitions in India, Brazil, or wherever else. It’s certainly not endemic to electoral politics that appeals to identity must have a pro-corporate character. 

AT You tweeted some stuff in the aftermath of the Roe decision which sparked a discussion that might be worth digging into. Basically, people were parsing who will be most affected by abortion bans and who might be potential allies in the fight to repeal them. It is Twitter, so everything should be taken with a grain of salt, but there were some blunt statements to the effect of: Rich white ladies are going to be fine. Which I don’t believe is totally accurate. Absolutely, there will be important differential impacts that track along predictable race and class lines, but the negative effects will also be wide-reaching, which I see as an opportunity to build solidarity. This is an opportunity to radicalize a subset of women, and men, and show them the limits of a certain kind of liberal feminist politics, and to invite them to go beyond that. But there was some pushback on the idea of coalition-building.

OT I think it helps to separate in practice what often gets milled together in theory. “I don’t want to work with this kind of person because they’re irritating” is different from “it is strategically impossible or unwise to work with that kind of person [in the pursuit of reproductive freedom].” The first is about me and my expectations. The second is about having a strategy and building a coalition. 

I find it symptomatic of deeper issues that people try to explain what’s politically impossible in terms of the moral strengths or weaknesses of other people. In another political era, where struggles were more obviously the stuff of geopolitics and the stuff of wars, there was an understanding that there are layers of working together and maybe we only get as far as, you’re shooting at the people I’m shooting at. The Union Army wasn’t a perfect group of enlightened antiracist people, but it was a group of people fighting the Confederacy, and people who were enslaved in the South were like, that will work. It’s sufficient. It’s exploitable. It’s usable.

As you said earlier, at least in some sense this is the situation we’re facing in our country, which is teetering towards minority rule. So all these responses about whether this or that demographic of people are good people or genuine allies just seems like changing the subject. And all this is before we’ve even talked about how solidarity can be mutually transformative. 

AT It feels like we’re in this game of sorting each other and making more radical-than-thou pronouncements because the strategic questions are actually so daunting, and we are so out-mobilized and figuratively and literally out-gunned. I’m thinking about the day-to-day organizing I do with the Debt Collective. We are trying to change people’s understanding of their lived experience and their identity. The vast majority of debtors are not socialists; they are not even for debt cancellation. But nonetheless, we’re trying to meet people where they are, at the point of their debt, and invite them to consider the possibility of adopting a different set of perspectives and commitments. Because “debtor” is a new identity for most people, it really shows how identity is malleable, and stops you from looking at people as though they are frozen artifacts.

OT Yeah, and I think the question is whether we use identity or social position as factors to keep track of when we’re analyzing the world or whether we use them as substitutes for analyzing the world. At the end of the day, it is just extremely difficult for me to accept a mode of analysis that presents [former CIA director] Gina Haspel, Nancy Pelosi, and the students at the neighborhood yoga class as being in the same kind of political position [because they are white women]. 

As soon as you start to distinguish between these people, and as soon as you explain why you’re doing so, then you begin to destabilize the kinds of assumptions involved in saying “none of those people are organizable, none of those people are worth working with.” Maybe they are not. Again, I have the position on identity politics that I do because I’m not actually that invested in convincing every individual person that they should be willing to work with every other individual person. But I do think the thing worth fighting for and arguing about and struggling over is how we’re going to make the decision about who’s potentially in and who’s potentially out, and that requires some basic honesty about how power actually works.

AT It seems to me that people want guidance on how to act. My go-to advice is always the same: Join an organization. But part of the appeal of popular books about whiteness, for example, is that they are etiquette guides of a sort. So, let’s say someone who wants to be attentive to power dynamics finds themselves in a room where they are in a position of relative power. What is your advice? 

OT I guess there are two pieces of advice that occur to me. One is to join an organization or a campaign that is trying to change something. Implement a law, tear down a building, build a building, make some appreciable change to the world. 

After that, I would advise paying attention to what actually moves you closer to or further from success in that effort. Does it actually come down to who hogs speaking time in the group? What relation does that have to whether or not the jail gets closed down?

When I started organizing, I had something very much like the deference view of politics, wherein I was ready to just go in and take direction from the right kind of person. And it was [doing the organizing work] that eventually made me reconsider that commitment. 

But also more importantly, by trying to do something you can learn in a way that isn’t just about learning for learning’s sake. You can actually participate in moving all of our collective work forward. Because ultimately, it’s not about whether or not you can spot elite capture; elite capture is a problem because it stands between us and justice, it stands between us and a world that actually works for the people and the creatures that live in it. And building that is the point.

AT It’s tough because if you hand the group over to the really eager person, who is likely a guy, who just talks too damn much, he’s going to chase people away and your group is not going to be able to close the prison because that dude is fucking annoying. I am not the leader, but I am a steward of the Debt Collective, and what I have learned is that it is strategic to make space for people so that they feel seen and heard, and so that they can manifest their talents and find new capacities and transform themselves and the world. But we also have to keep our eyes on the prize of actually doing what we say we’re trying to do, which is building power to get people’s debts cancelled, to close prisons, to get socialists selected, help people access abortions and gender-affirming therapy, and so on. We’re not just here to listen to the sound of our own voices; if we were, hopefully we’d be singing beautiful songs or reading poetry instead of yelling at each other on Twitter.

OT I five thousand percent agree with that. I think one of the things that I learned from veteran organizers was just how much of getting things done is practical stuff, right? We have all these arguments online about the proper way to interpret the economic policy in post-1917 Russia or whatever. But the stuff of keeping a group together is more often like, did you remember to bring chips? Or, did you call people to remind them that a meeting is happening?

AT And are you nice to people?

OT Yes, are you nice to people? Do they want to be here? Do you want to be here? And so much of that comes down to having the discipline to do a particular kind of work rather than engaging with these deep questions of who is really the right kind of person or who has the right kind of experience. Like, I don’t know if I am [the right kind of person], but I’m going to bring chips and be respectful and take notes and clean up afterwards and hope for the best. And I think that’s actually a lot of it.

AT You talk about the left needing a “constructive politics.” What do you mean by that?

OT By constructive politics. I’m referring to a politics of building things. I’m trying to move things away from what I see as an excessively moralistic direction towards a more practical and materially oriented direction. 

I’m also trying to use a practical turn that is ecological. And I mean ecological both in the sense of actual ecology — we have to figure out food and energy systems that are less destructive — but also in the sense that we need systems and networks of practice and organizing and working together that will make a difference. I don’t think the answer will necessarily come from any one organization with the correct line, or any particular vanguard party. I think multiple cells and centers and nodes of power will feed off each other and work together. It would be good for workers’ movements, I would guess, if initiatives like the Debt Collective succeed. It’s good for tenants’ rights organizations if workers’ organizations are powerful. 

All of these organizing efforts are ways of moving power away from the top of the financial and political and military hierarchies that try to hoard it. If we take this kind of ecological view, I think we’ll be more likely to start winning fights on the ground.

Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and political organizer. She is the director of multiple documentaries including What Is Democracy? and her latest book is Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions (Haymarket, 2021).

Illustration by Chloe Scheffe. Original photo by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.