Identity politics gets a bad rap these days. Critics on the right portray it as grievance politics. Centrist critics worry that it serves to divide instead of to unify. Critics on the left claim that it misidentifies the real underlying cause of structural injustice: class-based oppression. Erstwhile comrades are pointing fingers across familiar battle lines.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s Elite Capture offers a defense of identity politics from the left. His thesis is that the problem lies not with identity politics, per se, but with the structural forces that shape it. The titular concept of “elite capture” describes “how political projects,” such as decolonization, anti-racism, feminism, or gay liberation, “can be hijacked in principle or in effect by the well positioned and resourced” (10). Just as it would be a mistake to dismiss claims to self-rule and equal rights simply because they fell prey to elite capture by entrenched interests, it would be a mistake to dismiss identity politics.
The form of Táíwò’s argument should be familiar to both the old and new guards. He applies tools of Marxist analysis to the subject matter of political organizing and activity. He aims to help us strategize about how to build a better world, and the structures that concern him are those responsible for shaping “what room the discussion is happening in” and who is allowed to be there (64). Some of the argument’s content, however, is sure to raise eyebrows. For example, Táíwò is working with an expansive conception of power, one that lumps together “knowledge, attention, and values” with “material wealth and political power” (23). And the label he uses for the oppressive system confronting us is “racial capitalism” (12). Táíwò may be an unrepentant leftist, but his politics aren’t our grandparents’ Marxism.
Táíwò’s slim 157-page volume gives us a lot to think about and is in many ways an admirable work of public philosophy. Put out by a press that has published a number of important leftist thinkers, it expands on two earlier pieces written for a general readership (Táíwò 2020a and 2020c) and largely succeeds in shedding light on a topic—identity politics—that is central to the current culture wars. But Táíwò is not interested in merely interpreting the world; he wants, in the words of Karl Marx, to change it. It’s not clear, though, how the details of his approach to politics, which he calls “constructive” and contrasts with “deference” politics, are supposed to fit the story he tells about where we are and how we got here.
This isn’t mere quibbling. My worry is that Táíwò’s adherence to a familiar leftist theme—the primacy of the structural and systemic over the individual and psychological—threatens to undermine his political program. He deploys depersonalized metaphors, such as “the rooms history has built for us” (84) and argues against appeals to beliefs and in favor of appeals to “stuff built into the social environment” (60). In each case, and echoing the theme, a bloodless structure replaces individuals and their psychologies. My complaint, in brief, is that to abstract away from the historical details about who built the rooms and why undercuts our ability to identify effective agents of change, using the past as guide.
Two Kinds of Politics
Táíwò defines elite capture as what happens “when the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims” (22). Three main claims are embedded in this definition. First, we live in a world marked by inequality. There are the haves and the have-nots, the elites and the masses. Second, what’s important are resources and institutions, the structural features that shape the contexts in which we think, decide, and act—not the attitudes in our heads. Elites don’t have to capture minds; they can shape how we behave by manipulating the incentive structures that reward and punish us for what we do. Third, elites, whether intentionally or not, mold these incentive structures in their own image and to serve their own interests. They control resources and shape institutions in ways that incentivize reproducing the systems that support their privilege. Elite capture describes the process by which everyone ends up serving elite values; the left is no exception, as Táíwò’s aims to show. He also seeks to demonstrate that identity politics isn’t to blame.
As Táíwò recounts, the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement—a proclamation by a group of Black feminist lesbian intellectuals and organizers active in Boston in the 1970s—is typically credited with popularizing the label “identity politics.” In its original sense, it meant political organizing based in oppressed, often intersecting identities by those who embody them—for instance, queer Black women advocating for their own interests, which had been traditionally silenced or ignored. But this radical political project has, especially recently, become warped due to its co-optation by elites. On the one hand, there are (sometimes well-intentioned) efforts that amount to, as Táíwò puts it, “symbolic identity politics” (4). For example, the city of Washington,D.C., which has a long, proud history of Black leadership, prominently painted “Black Lives Matter” in 35-feet-tall capital letters on 16th Street NW next to Lafayette Square, where protesters rallied in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police. Yet the message rang hollow, as authorities later cracked down on protesters, including a brutal assault to enable President Donald Trump to stand for photos outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. At about the same time, efforts to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory began to ramp up in states such as Texas, where I teach for a public university, and recent polls suggest that those who identify as white believe they are being oppressed by efforts toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. Appeals to identity politics may look very different on the right than on the left, but the important point is that neither continues the original project of organizing by the oppressed to amplify their own political voices.
Táíwò’s analysis of what’s wrong with the current state of leftist politics operates largely on the basis of the metaphor of the room where it happens, borrowing from a popular song in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical Hamilton. Political organizing and discussion occur behind closed doors, and the shape, size, and guest lists of these rooms steer the course of history. Put another way, the incentive structures relevant to Táíwò’s subject matter are aptly conceived of in terms of actual structures, and the elites he’s concerned with are cast as those with seats at the table.
His diagnosis of what’s gone wrong with identity politics is that it has morphed into a politics of “deference.” Standpoint epistemology has taught us, Táíwò argues, that direct (“lived”) experience shapes what one can know, and as a consequence, those living on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy have things to teach elites. Well-intentioned efforts to respect and heed these truths have led, however, to the acceptance of a norm of uncritically deferring to those already in the room who are taken to represent various marginalized identities. The trouble is that in a hierarchical world, if one is in the room, one is likely already an elite, and so one cannot possess the knowledge that comes from non-elite lived experience. (Táíwò addresses this problem nicely in one of the source articles for the book [Táíwò 2020a].) This problem remains despite the existence of intersecting and complex identities. One may be an elite non-elite, so to speak—a well-positioned representative of an otherwise marginalized group. As an elite, you lack access to at least some of what the marginalized know, so you can’t fully represent the standpoints you’re taken to represent. Couple this with the mechanisms of elite capture, and the result is counterproductive: “Deference as a default political orientation can work counter to marginalized groups’ interests” (72).
Táíwò contrasts “deference politics” with “constructive politics.” He calls for us to “fix the social structure itself” (74) and asks that we “be accountable and responsive to people who aren’t yet in the room, and that we build the kinds of rooms in which we can sit together, rather than seek to navigate more gracefully the rooms history has built for us” (84). He is demanding a shift in focus. Rather than seeking to amplify the voices of those representatives of marginalized identities already visible in spaces where decisions are made, we need to restructure those spaces so that they include those who are fully excluded.
Táíwò’s diagnosis of the problem with leftist politics is sound: elite capture is real and problematic. And I agree with his intervention in today’s discourse. The problem isn’t with identity politics, but rather with the way it has been operationalized in response to and in the service of elite values. But he loses me when he turns to his proposed solutions—and not just because I tire of his insistence on the construction metaphor. (As if the point needed driving home, his “Building a New House” chapter contains a section titled “Getting Out the Hammers.”) More importantly, his commitment to embedding these issues so thoroughly inside this metaphor blinds him to some tensions between his view of the problem and his solutions. These tensions are worth teasing out, not just because the problem deserves a solution, but also because some of the more tenuous claims echo well-entrenched ideas on the left. My hope is that carefully attending to problems with Táíwò’s proposal can uncover some more general barriers to effective political action.
The Power of Narratives
The most poignant parts of Elite Capture are those in which Táíwò deftly relates the stories of those who’ve labored and succeeded at genuine social change. Take, for instance, the story he uses to frame his discussion of radical choice and action, the kind that challenges and undermines existing power structures by breaking the rules and revealing new possibilities. The protagonist of this particular section of the book is Lilica Boal. Born in 1934 on Cape Verde to a middle-class family, she witnessed the horrors of Portuguese colonial rule. Eventually, she befriended a Portuguese family whose antifascist son was imprisoned in her hometown, completed her education in Portugal, and joined the movement to liberate her home country through leftist student groups in Lisbon. Her 1961 return to Africa, along with her husband Manuel and fellow comrades, was a fraught journey. They had to leave their young daughter with her grandmother and at one point spent time in a Spanish prison. Boal eventually took up the cause of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde and came to direct its school in Guinea. In this role, she developed a curriculum that better reflected the students’ lived reality and worked to help the next generation study abroad in countries like Cuba, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. Boal served in several high-level positions in the educational systems in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, shaped the party’s approach to international relations, and was the first woman elected to the National Assembly of Cape Verde.
Boal’s story shows that we need not take existing social structures as fixed. We can, perhaps at great personal cost, act in ways the system is designed to prevent. And sometimes such courage can result in real change—such as the birth of new curriculums shaping the minds of those steering new countries with different ways of operating internally and on the world stage. “Activist and revolutionary Lilica Boal understood the difference between the rules that tell us who we are supposed to be and the actual choices we have when we act,” Táíwò writes. “After all, she was the sort of person who occasionally went off script, and who went into rooms she was not supposed to be in” (63). Boal’s tale is a wonderful example of how we can learn from history and an exemplary means of providing us with rich, narrative resources that can aide in our imagining ourselves as agents of change. Knowing the stories of those who’ve tried their hands at building better rooms means we have guides as we walk the progressive path in our own moment. Táíwò tells many such stories of predecessors to the contemporary radical cause, including those of E. Franklin Frazier, Carter G. Woodson, Paulo Freire, and Andaiye.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to internalize all the lessons of his tours through history. After so nicely detailing the story of how Boal bucked the system, Táíwò gives us abstract, depersonalized descriptions of how the system came to be what it was (and is). He tells us that “history” and “the powers that be” have built the rooms we live in. We’re left to wonder who wrote that history and sat in those seats of power.
This move from personalized historical narrative to depersonalized description of the current state of affairs is something Táíwò’s book shares with the writing of one of the authors who blurbs it. In How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi tells a detailed history of “racist power,” in which he names relevant individuals and provides dates and context, and then defines racism as systemic and structural and recommends an antiracist program that insists “racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people” (Kendi 2019, 231). In both cases, these authors seem to be torn between the realization that there are structural and systemic forces in play and the fact that history is human-made.
Two different lessons may be drawn from the structural story. On the one hand, it does appear that once a system is in place, it may not need individuals who believe in its goals or intend its ends. It may be enough that people perform functions within the structural constraints they’re thrown into. You and I don’t need to believe in the hierarchies purported to justify racial capitalism or intend to contribute to their maintenance in order for our consumption patterns to have this effect. It’s enough that we go about our business in this context. On the other hand, though, the very histories that Táíwò and Kendi, among others, relate are enough to show that the system evolves, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Racial capitalism didn’t build itself; it was birthed from what came before, at least in part, by the choices and actions of various people over time. The same will be true of whatever comes next. As Táíwò is keen to persuade us, the system won’t bring itself down; we need to break out the hammers and remodel the rooms in which to strategize about how to do so ourselves.
You might be convinced that good history needs heroes and villains and yet still see no reason to detail what’s in their heads. As Barbara J. Fields, whom Táíwò cites approvingly, puts it in an influential essay: “Someday the reification of conduct and demeanor in ‘attitudes’ will seem as quaint and archaic as their reification in bodily ‘humors’—phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic, sanguine—do now” (Fields 1990, 110). Judging from his analysis of the Hans Christian Andersen fable of the emperor with no clothes, Táíwò would seem to agree.
Táíwò uses the fable to introduce a distinction between acting from the belief that something’s true and acting as if it’s true. A merchant in the town square may play along when the naked emperor parades by, not because he believes that the emperor is clothed, but because he’s incentivized to act as if he believes this.
This adjustment [in our interpretation of the merchant’s behavior] might seem slight, but it clarifies one reason to be dissatisfied with the kinds of explanations that involve beliefs and attitudes and culture: in taking the formal justification for hierarchical interactions a little too seriously, they risk deeply misunderstanding what’s really happening between people, especially when it comes to abusive interactions (45).
It’s certainly unwise to assume that the minds of the oppressed are so thoroughly colonized that they can’t see things for what they are. But there’s a lot of room between the claim that someone might be acting as if something’s true, while not actually believing that it is, and the claim that we can explain their behavior without appealing to beliefs and attitudes at all. While the merchant may not believe that the emperor has clothes on, he surely believes that it’s in his best interest to act as if the emperor has clothes on. How are we supposed to make sense of the merchant being responsive to the incentive structure without appealing to his beliefs about those very incentives?
Even if there are general rejoinders to this plea for psychological explanations of human conduct, they don’t seem open to Táíwò. In the most praxis-oriented chapter of the book, “Building a New House,” he claims that there’s “a clear sense in which all of this world building and policing [by elites] fails to constrain us” (101). “We can, to some extent at will, ignore what social structures have told us to do” (102). Though he doesn’t elaborate much on this point, Táíwò appears here to claim that we have the power to act freely. And theories free action, though varied, tend to agree that explanations of this robust form of agency run through the head and its contents.
Here I’m not trying to pigeonhole Táíwò into one side or the other of the free will debate— whether he’s a compatibilist or an incompatibilist is irrelevant. Nor am I trying to saddle him with some or other interpretation of the concept of autonomy. (Elsewhere [Táíwò 2020b], he argues for the importance of material security to freedom, but his claims about lack of constraints suggest that’s not what he has in mind here.) My point is that there’s a well-established distinction between free action and mere behavior. And the various sides of the debate agree that the former involves attitudes (even if there’s disagreement about which attitudes), while the latter need not. To take a well-worn example, the difference between the action of raising your hand to ask a question and the mere behavior of raising it because of a seizure is that the action flows from the attitudes that constitute your will. Unless Táíwò thinks that the conduct of people who buck the system is akin to a seizure, he should rethink his dissatisfaction with psychological explanations.
The Solidarity of Individuals
If Táíwò’s political vision falls short, what should take its place? If the structural focus so well-entrenched on the left isn’t the best way to go about making change, what is? There are no easy answers. I wouldn’t presume to know who the leaders of the revolution should be, nor what, precisely, they should have in mind. But I do think the cause needs leaders; the rooms in which a successful radical vision will be hashed out need to be built by someone. And it seems to me that the past can provide us with some excellent resources by which to help identify who those leaders might be.
One virtue of Táíwò’s book, even if imperfect, is that its rich engagement with how the rot of racial capitalism continues to pervert our relations with each other lays the groundwork for a better path forward. I’ll close by suggesting two ways that engaging with some recent philosophical work may help to chart that course.
First, recent work on attitudes—the attitude of belief, in particular—may help resolve long-standing worries about psychological explanations of human conduct. Táíwò is evidently working with a conception of belief as mental representation. (This doesn’t so much come out in the book as it does in another one of the source articles [Táíwò 2018].) On this view, it appears to make sense to cleave beliefs apart from behavior. There does seem to be a gap between what I represent to myself as true and how I conduct myself. Appeals to incentives and other structural features of the contexts in which we think and act are means of closing the gap.
Other accounts, however, tie attitudes and behavior much closer together. For example, Eric Schwitzgebel develops an approach that he summarizes in terms of the motto: “To have an attitude is, at root, to live a certain way” (Schwitzgebel 2013, 76). On this view, to possess an attitude is to be disposed to think, feel, and act in ways that are generally recognizable as conforming to the stereotype of someone who has that attitude. For example, someone who believes that the emperor has the power to lock them up in the dungeon would tend to sincerely assert this in discussions of the risks of not playing along when he parades by naked, would tend to feel scared at the possibility, and would tend to avoid doing things that would trigger this consequence. The clear-eyed believer in the emperor’s power would live in a manner that’s sensitive to it, including behaving as if the emperor’s false claims are true.
As I argued previously, Táíwò was too hasty in concluding we shouldn’t appeal to attitudes to make sense of the merchant’s behavior in front of the nude emperor. But even if my rationale wasn’t persuasive, Táíwò has another reason not to eschew psychological explanations. At best, his arguments show that we shouldn’t appeal to attitudes conceived of as mere mental representations. Those interested in trying to make sense of human agency in light of our embeddedness in particular social, historical, and material contexts need not abandon psychological explanation altogether—at least, not just yet. It’s worth exploring the possibility that the fault is in our conception of what a belief is, not our appeal to the attitude of belief.
Second, Táíwò’s use of activists’ life stories, such as Boal’s, demonstrates the power of individual narratives as guides to memory and imagination in service of social change. They allow us to imaginatively place ourselves in the struggle and equip us with lessons from the past as we plough forward. These are strategic benefits of thinking in terms of individual agency in relation to structural hegemony. It’s worth considering whether there are analytical benefits as well.
In contrast to a framework that gives primacy to the structural, we might consider the potential merits of one that gives analytical pride of place to the individual. Jorge L. A. Garcia, for example, conceives of institutional racism in terms of “infection” (Garcia 1996). On Garcia’s view, an institution comes to be racist when the racist attitudes of certain individuals, such as those in the boardroom, infect its rules, policies, procedures, and so on. Though he does not do so himself, one might take Kendi’s historical narratives as substantiating this sort of view.
Crucially, this shift in perspective need not be total. We can opt for a pluralistic analysis, one that neither reduces the structural to the personal, nor vice versa. For example, we might consider if and how elites’ attitudes infect political decision-making by shaping the rooms that get built, the guest lists that determine entry, the decisions that result, and the ensuing incentive structures. And we might consider that, if attitudes can infect institutions, perhaps they can also cure them. The lessons we learn from studying how individuals and their psychologies shaped present structures may also help us grasp how to begin dismantling them. We can use the past as a guide for identifying who is well-placed to make radical change, both in terms of their social position and their psychological make-up; we can learn from past successes and failures how to build spaces in which to nurture radical consciousness.
Táíwò concludes his book by reiterating his call to abandon deference politics—an approach that rightly recognizes but wrongly valorizes the traumas that come with lived experience—in favor of constructive politics. But he’s clear that the task ahead is demanding.
The constructive approach … asks us to be planners and designers, to be accountable and responsive to people who aren’t yet in the room. In addition to being architects, it asks us to become builders and construction workers: to actually build the kinds of rooms we could sit in together, rather than idly speculate about which rooms would be nice. (118)
I appreciate the emphasis on rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. But I wish Táíwò’s call to action better recognized the agency of people. Future progress will depend on individuals banding together in solidarity to achieve a goal we all have in mind: making a better tomorrow possible. That’s the hope, anyway.
Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)
By Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
157 pages, Haymarket Books, 2022
Fields, Barbara J. “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review I, 181 (May – June 1990), pp. 95-118.
Garcia, Jorge L.A. “The Heart of Racism,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 27 (1996), pp. 5–46.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. (New York: One World, 2019).
Schwitzgebel, Eric. “A Dispositional Approach to Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box.” In New Essays on Belief: Constitution, Content and Structure, edited by Nikolaj Nottelman, 75-99 (Basingstroke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi O. “The Empire Has No Clothes,” Disputatio vol. X, no. 51 (2018), pp. 305-330.
Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi O. “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Difference,” The Philosopher vol. 108, no. 4 (2020a).
Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi O. “On Liberty, Security, and Our System of Racial Capitalism,” Aeon (2020b).
Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi O. “Identity Politics and Elite Capture,” Boston Review (2020c).
Note: The author would like to thank Tom Meagher for helpful comments on an early draft.