May 19, 2022

During the 2016 Democratic primary Hillary Clinton began to enthusiastically deploy identitarian arguments against Bernie Sanders. Her media surrogates derided his supporters as straight white “brocialists”. Bernie Bros were guilty of “mansplaining” anti-capitalism to the nation’s minorities and aspiring young girlbosses. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”, Clinton asked on the stump.

In turn, Bernie supporters came to regard identity politics as a tool wielded by Democratic elites to deflect from their critiques of American capitalism and empire. One often heard variations of the joke that what the DNC really wanted was Cruise missiles painted with rainbow flags. Years later, that joke was made grimly literal in the viral “woke CIA” ad, in which an agency analyst announced “I am a woman of colour, I am a mom, I am a cisgender millennial who has been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder”. By that point, the only people around to laugh at it were conservatives and various marginal Twitter anons

That’s because the years from 2016 to 2020, and especially 2020 itself, were brutal to the socialist wing of this intra-party debate. The issue was not that the Democrats became more centrist or “neoliberal” over time — if anything, their centre of gravity has moved well to the Left since the Hillary campaign. It was that, in the pressure-cooker environment of the Trump years, every faction on the American Left had to either make its peace with identity politics or leave the organised Left. 

 

In part, the triumph of identity politics was the result of events, most notably the murder of George Floyd and the summer of riots and protests that followed it, which made progressive narratives about systemic racism and police brutality more plausible to larger numbers of people. In part it was because Trump, by railing against “political correctness” and devoting his considerable showman’s talent toward scandalising liberal sensibilities, had made even the most dyed-in-the-wool Marxist critiques of race and gender politics seem toxic by association with him. 

But mostly this victory was because, as Christopher Caldwell has observed, identity politics (or “civil rights, broadly understood”) had, by the Trump years, become the “reconciler-of-contradictions” within the Democratic coalition. In America’s emerging party alignment, identity politics is the “glue” holding together the New Economy oligarchs, white-collar professionals, disaffected graduate students, and minority voters that make up Team Blue. As long as Trump was in office, dissent from it would always appear, to the Left, as something akin to wartime treason.  

But with Trump gone — for now — we are beginning again to hear some grumblings. Facing the prospect of an electoral bloodbath in November and potential disaster in 2024, figures from the centre of the Democratic Party such as Ruy Teixeira, Jonathan Chait, and Matthew Yglesias have declared a more-or-less open war on the party’s activist-NGO Left wing, which they accuse of tarnishing the Democratic brand by associating it with a host of radical and unpopular positions.

Further to the Left, some socialist-minded writers such as the New York Times’s Jay Caspian Kang have resurfaced critiques of identity politics familiar from the pre-Trump era: that it inhibits cross-racial solidarity, that it erases class differences and complements rather than antagonises corporate power, and that it reflects the experiences and obsessions of elite-educated professionals whose material interests conflict with those of the masses for whom they claim to speak. 

A new book by the Nigerian-American philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), promises to be an entry into the latter genre. And judging by the book’s critical reception — including a flattering profile of the author in New York magazine — many are eager to hear someone with the appropriate demographic characteristics point out that much of what is written and said on the subject of identity in America is bogus. Táíwò has two other things going for him, neither of which should be underestimated in an aspiring public intellectual. One, he looks extremely cool. Two, he has a catchy title. “Elite capture.” You get the point without having to read the book. 

That’s good, because Táíwò’s central point — made in a 2020 essay in The Philosopher on which this book was clearly based — is a sensible one. In elite progressive circles, it has become common to hear calls to “listen to black voices” and “centre the marginalised”, a practice that Táíwò calls “deference politics” after the idea that oppressors should generally defer to the oppressed. But in these circles, who counts as “oppressed”?

Generally, it is not the homeless, refugees, or the global poor who live on less than a dollar a day, who are not part of these conversations to begin with. It is people like Táíwò, who is black, yes, but also is the son of middle-class Nigerian immigrants and a tenure-track faculty member at a prestigious American university. He is objectively “privileged”, and there is something arbitrary and faintly ridiculous about treating him as if he has some special insight into the demands of “justice”. As an alternative, Táíwò suggests “constructive politics”, which emphasises working across differences for “the pursuit of specific goals or results”. 

Unfortunately, expanded into book length, this sensible point barely gets further than what is contained in the title. Indeed, the subtitle itself is misleading, since we never actually get an account of how “the powerful took over identity politics”, only lamentations that this is what has happened, illustrated with examples such as the aforementioned CIA advertisement, the embrace of “Black Lives Matter” messaging by corporations and governments, and the fact that America’s governing class eventually abandoned draconian Covid-19 restrictions. Absurdly, given the class politics of Covid panic, Táíwò takes this last as evidence that elites “simply lose interest [in collective well-being] as soon as they feel their own security is assured”. 

Nor do readers ever get a non-tautological definition of elite capture, which Táíwò describes as what happens “when the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims”. It is “enabled” by “racial capitalism”, but it is also “symptomatic of social systems with unequal balances of power”. So elite capture is what happens when things are captured by elites, and it is both specific to capitalism and a general product of any society in which some have more influence than others. But of course, by saying that elite capture will only be solved once all hierarchies have been ground into dust, you are saying that it will never be solved at all.   

Ultimately, Táíwò’s aim is not to dispense with identity politics but to recover the allegedly more socialistic and solidaristic form of identity politics he attributes to the Combahee River Collective, the Seventies group of black lesbian feminists who introduced “identity politics” into American political discourse. In effect, his book is an attempt to make the race and gender politics of the post-Floyd Left compatible with the traditional aims of social-democratic, socialist, and Communist organising: the uplift of the working class and the abolition of capitalism. In theory, this is not an impossible task — different strands of the labor Left have long been anti-racist and anti-imperialist. But by failing to offer any real account of why identity politics evolved into its current form, all he is left with is the assertion that people should think and act differently than they do. 

The problem is that elite-dominated identity politics is not a result of bad arguments but of very real material incentives grounded in the American state and law. As authors such as Caldwell and Richard Hanania have persuasively argued, modern identity politics, or “wokeness”, is simply a downstream cultural effect of federal civil rights law as it has evolved since the Sixties, which has forced American corporations and universities to take ever-more elaborate steps to erase “unequal balances of power” between groups, often through elevating minority elites to positions of power (affirmative action) and prohibiting speech and behaviour that might make them uncomfortable (political correctness).

When one of Táíwò’s white university colleagues offers to defer to him on some racially charged topic or another, this is not merely the result of a flawed conception of social justice but also a reflection of the fact that, were Táíwò the litigious sort, he could use an insensitive or merely tone-deaf remark by a white colleague to sue their employer for creating a hostile work environment. It is no accident that “critical race theory”, as its defenders like to point out, emerged as a theory of legal interpretation.

Whether one thinks this arrangement is desirable is a matter of taste. It is undeniable that the American public — and, increasingly, the Left-wing commentariat — is fed up with the brand of identity politics that has flourished over the past several years, which, though often draped in radical language, ends up finding expression as a corporate-bureaucratic project catering to the petty grievances of the professional class. This may well be describable as a result of “elite capture”, but if so, the project was captured from the beginning. And as the radicals are fond of saying, you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.