Defending Identity Politics from the Ruling Class
Elite Capture , How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics ( And Everything Else), Olufemi O. Taiwo, Haymarket Books 2022
Very interesting book on Identity Politics and many other issues. Elite Capture is the idea that something was legitimate and was then taken over by elites/privileged players for their own interests. It is a useful concept that applies to oppositional struggle. Too often grass roots movements are coopted by middle class or ruling class elements. The result is that movements originally aimed at furthering the interests of ordinary people end up mostly or only favoring the interests of the bourgeoisie or at most the middle class. The author makes it clear that fighting against Elite Capture will be an ongoing project as long as we live in a class divided hierarchical society. Elite capture is not primarily a secret conspiracy. (10) Instead , it is the result of more advantaged groups asserting their interests, though actual conspiracy can be a part of Elite Capture.
The Democratic Party is excellent at this. It funnels struggle into elections where it is more easily contained. Electoralism was a factor in killing the George Floyd movement. Often the Democrats feign agreement and then channel movements in ways that help themselves. Defund the Police became in Democratic hands reforming the police with better training etc. Once the movement had died down in part due to nefarious intervention they came out fully against defunding.
“ The elites’ tactic of performing symbolic identity politics to pacify protestors without enacting material reforms;… In a stunningly clear summary of the first trend , the mayor of Washington D.C., had “Black Lives Matter” painted on the streets near the White House, atop which protestors continued to be brutalized”(4–5)
Another tactic is to “rebrand ( not replace) existing institutions, also using elements of identity politics.”(5)
The Civil Rights Movement ( CRM) achieved gains for ordinary people in dismantling Jim Crow. However, the main beneficiaries were the new Black middle class of professionals and politicians. It is indirectly in the interest of working class and poor if the upper classes are more integrated. However, the people who gain the most are the upper classes.
This insight is very important. Too many on the Left have either dismissed identity politics altogether or on the other hand, embraced it at the expense of class and economics. The author steers between these wrong approaches. He does not totally discount Identity Politics, but is opposed to its capture.:
“ many criticisms target ideas that aren’t essential to identity-based movements or misconstrue their basic goals entirely…. Identity politics has equipped people . with a new vocabulary…even if the substance of those political decisions are irrelevant or even counter to the interests of .marginalized people. But this is a , feature of how identity politics is being used , rather than what identity politics is at the core. It is “elite capture “ — not identity politics itself -that stands between us and transformative , non-sectarian , coalitional politics”(9)
While embracing radical uses of identity politics, the author indirectly criticizes the strategy of Black Capitalism:
“ The possibility of an insulated Black economy is a myth, while the immediate interests of a few well-positioned Black folk provide the true impetus.”(21)
Taiwo develops an important critique of some of the use of identity politics in progressive movements. Instead of primarily addressing internal procedures, movements should aim at producing material results. The author calls this “ constructive politics”.:. The author opposes this to the politics of deference:
“ the politics of deference : an etiquette that asks people to pass attention , resources and initiative to those perceived as more marginalized than themselves….A constructive approach would focus on the outcome over process: the pursuit of specific goals or results rather than mere avoidance of “ complicity” in injustice or promotion of purely moral or aesthetic principles”(12)
The author goes on to oppose “ centering specific groups or spokespeople who stand in for them.. It(constructive politics SL) would focus on ..redistributing social resources and power , rather than to intermediary goals cashed out in pedestals or symbolism” (12) He says that the politics of deference hurt both those who defer and those who are deferred to. Putting the full burden of coming up with strategies on the “representative” of an oppressed group is asking too much. It also reduces the need for critical thinking on the part of other people in the movement.
The politics of deference can actually help elites capture movements:
“ treating such elites’ interests as necessarily or even presumptively aligned with the broader group’s interests involves a political naivete we cannot afford”(74)
On the other hand, “ the fact that others have graver problems does not legitimate bigotry toward the relatively advantaged” (79)
Constructive politics centers on finding the most effective ways to change society at large rather than on symbolism within the movements. It also means trying to find the best approaches no matter who is proposing those approaches. It recognizes that all groups are divided in terms of class and politics. Being a member of an oppressed group does not necessarily yield the best politics:
“ “centering the most marginalized” …usually meant handing conversational authority..to whoever is already in the room and appears to fit …some form of oppression — regardless of what they have or have not actually experienced , or what they do or do not know about the matters at hand.” (70)
He further points out that often the very most marginalized are not in the meeting room discussing liberation or overcoming oppression:
“ “centering the most marginalized” would require a different approach, in a world where 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing … Such a stance would require , at a minimum , that one leave the room.”(70)
Taiwo gives a good example of the difference between constructive politics and the politics of deference and moralism. In talking about the Flint water crisis , he says:
“ What they needed was not for their oppression to be “celebrated”, “centered”…What Flint residents really needed , above all , was to get the lead out of the water.” (106)
The author agrees with the need for concrete reforms but he says that only fighting for reforms is “defeatist” ( 104)
He instead calls for us to “ make it possible to totally revamp our global social system — to rebuild the house we all live in together”(113)
The author makes a very important point about the connection of ideas to material conditions. The reason that people act in accordance with the structures of society is primarily that “ If I don’t play along with the emperor, something bad might happen to me.”(45) This underscores his strategy of constructive politics that focuses on changing material conditions. He furthers this by saying “ it is not beliefs that are being systematically organized, but behavior.”(44) His stress on changing material conditions is welcome. He does, however, underplay the degree to which the compulsion to conform affects the ideas of the person conforming. People tend to justify what they feel they must do. This means that changing ideas must be part of the strategy to change conditions.
Overall , this is an excellent, thought provoking contribution to the struggle for social change ! It is well worth reading . As useful as the concept of Elite Capture is, he stretches it too far. He says that neoliberalism allowed the capture of the government by the ruling class.(29)(57) This is a common idea on the left. In fact the ruling class dominated the government before the 1970s. The ruling class merely changed strategy in the mid-70s. Elite Capture is best used to analyze the takeover of oppositional movements rather than the continuation of capitalist domination of what have been essentially their states since the success of the bourgeois revolutions.
The author’s overall strategy is well summarized on the last page:
“ Though we start from different levels of privilege or advantage, this journey is not a matter of figuring out who should bow to whom, but simply one of figuring out how best to join forces.”(121)