The culture wars are back with a vengeance, if they ever actually left us. Throughout the world, right-wing populist regimes use widespread resentment against governing elites to stoke anger and fear of marginalized populations, cutbacks in public services and increased authoritarian repression, all while claiming the mantle of cultural authenticity. Much of this resentment is targeted by the political right at the ‘identity politics’ of the left. With Elite Capture, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has contributed an important and insightful critique of the successes and limitations of identity politics as currently practiced on the center-left and left. In short, Táíwò seeks to restore the sense of identity politics as originally formulated by the seminal Combahee River Collective.
Named after the Combahee River Raid led by Harriet Tubman to free slaves in South Carolina during the U.S. Civil War, the Collective was a group of radical Black lesbian feminists who had grown disenchanted with mainstream feminist organizations, including the National Black Feminist organizations, to recognize their own experiences and incorporate such an understanding into a program of action. Their Combahee River Statement includes the first use of the expression ‘identity politics,’ as well as the basic elements of the analysis of intersectionality. According to members of the Collective, identity politics was understood as a politics rooted in their own lived experiences and asserted the right to pursue their own emancipatory agenda, rather than just serving as adjuncts in the pursuit of the agenda of others. In short, they maintained that, given the existing social structure, the emancipation of black women would necessarily involve measures that would lead to the emancipation of all. Their politics was resolutely committed to building a necessary coalition and undergirded by a socialist analysis of capitalist political economy. According to Táíwò, however, that original understanding of identity politics was transformed in the following decades from a politics of construction grounded on coalitional politics to a politics of deference favoring the relatively advantaged within marginalized groups, and Elite Capture is a concise and discerning analysis of how that happened and continues to impede left politics.
According to Táíwò, elite capture is a pervasive phenomenon found within complex social systems in which ‘political projects can be hijacked by in principle or in effect by the well-positioned or well-resourced’ within a group in pursuit of its own interests, in such a way that ‘pubic resources such as knowledge, attention, and values become distorted and distributed by power structures.’ (10) As he further describes it, ‘elite capture happens when the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims.’ (22) This phenomenon can be discerned at all levels of global capitalism, from the university committee to the structure of global financial institutions such as the IMF.
The actual functioning of elite capture depends on the specific relations of power operating within the context it occurs, so that one who is a member of a disadvantaged group within the larger society might be relatively advantaged in relation to other members of that group. This disparity generates the practice of deference. Within the politics of identity as currently practiced, we defer to those who represent marginalized groups due to their lived experience of structural injustice. This makes perfectly good sense in terms of standpoint epistemology, which recognizes the socially situated character of knowledge and the advantage of marginalized populations in the acquisition through lived experience of certain forms of knowledge important for research programs. The goal of such a politics, however, all too often ends up being the avoidance of complicity in injustice rather than actual structural change.
As Táíwò points out, elite capture provides a compelling explanation of this result. First, both the incentives that govern our decision-making and the common ground of beliefs and understanding with which we approach the problems that confront us tend to lead us to outcomes that reinforce existing power structures rather than challenge them. In short, the rules of the game channel action away from radical change. Furthermore, those who are involved in decision-making according to those rules come to occupy that position as a result of processes of selection that actually work to exclude most persons. To pursue the metaphor Táíwò employs throughout the book, those who are in the room where the decisions are made tend to read the room in a way that reproduces the underlying structure of inequality. Thus, the call to ‘center the most marginalized’ ignores the basic fact that the most marginalized are not even in the room in the first place and so are unable to represent their own interests. An identity politics functioning through deference becomes a means of conferring ‘conversational authority’ and ‘attention goods’ on a relatively advantaged subgroup within a larger marginalized population.
None of this should be taken to suggest that members of this group have not experienced traumas of oppression, but it does serve to underscore the limitations of the current practice of identity politics, the spread of which has also coincided with the widespread imposition of a neoliberal agenda. In some ways, this is not surprising. At a purely conceptual level, patriarchy, white supremacy and heteronormativity are incompatible with the legal equality of persons within the market. With its understanding of equality as simply ‘equality of opportunity’ for individual advancement, rather than equality of opportunity in access to the resources needed for human dignity and flourishing, as well as full participation in social life, neoliberal ideology has proven to be an effective vehicle for the appropriation and distortion of the originally emancipatory vision of identity politics. Certainly, significant progress has been made on issues of reproductive freedoms, marriage equality, civil rights and the acceptance of the LGBTQ community, but these developments remain confined with the logic of capitalist political economy. Furthermore, the neoliberal assault on democratic politics has generated a reaction in the form of the authoritarian politics of far-right populist movements, which seek to reinstate racial and gender hierarchies as an alleged defense of traditional values.
None of this is inevitable, and Táíwò does an admirable job of incorporating accounts of persons and movements (most prominently, E. Franklin Frazier, Carter Woodson and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) as exemplary historical cases at various points throughout the work. As an alternative to the politics of deference that seeks to avoid complicity in injustice, Táíwò advocates a constructive approach to politics that ‘would focus on outcome over process’ (12) through the building of institutions and movements. How we treat others with whom we are organizing is of course critical in this approach, but the key is that we are organizing together to construct some larger institutional entity that seeks to change the surrounding society of which it is a part. We are essentially constructing a system within a system, and so we must pay attention to the relations between the two and focus on the desired outcome of structural change.
If we consider the historical development of capitalist political economy as racial capitalism, then rather than being incompatible with the legal equality of persons within the marketplace, capitalist political economy has actually presupposed such inequality. From this perspective, racism and patriarchy cannot be eradicated without eradicating capitalism itself. Elite capture is simply endemic to systems that feature significant disparities and inequalities of power, and as such, it is an ever-present possibility that must always be guarded against in the struggle for a radical democratic politics. As Táíwò points out, elite capture is always a risk, and there appears to be no surefire method for eradicating it short of eliminating the inequalities on which it is based, which is in fact the goal of progressive politics. However, awareness of the risks, the anti-elitist nature of his project and the demand for accountability to the most marginalized among us do provide some measure of defense against elite capture.
As an alternative to the current model of identity politics, Táíwò offers a vision of an egalitarian politics of collective agency organized along radical democratic principles to construct a just society. In the current global context, such an alternative to the far-right populism that seeks to dismantle democracy in order to reinscribe traditional hierarchies within national borders is desperately needed. With this concise and readable book, Táíwò makes an important and original contribution to this effort, one which fits quite naturally within a left populism that seeks to construct a counter-hegemony against the failing hegemony of neoliberalism, and further inquiry along these lines would prove quite fruitful.
Kevin E Dodson is Professor of Philosophy at Lamar University.