Poster for Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Purple and black poster with a black and white photograph of protestors and the text "The Fight for freedom ... is at home."

Protest poster by the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, 1970. Image credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and author of Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else), joined Cresa Pugh and Julie Beth Napolin at The New School in December 2023, for a conversation on racial capital in university life, the New School strike, protesting for justice in Palestine, and the possibility of political organizing across identity differences.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Julie Napolin: What does it mean to build a more just and transformative university? Building is a central term in Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s masterful texts, including his latest book, Elite Capture. “If we follow the constructivist approach that I am advocating for in these pages,” Táíwò writes, “we recognize that the way we treat each other in organizing spaces matters primarily in terms of how it relates us to the rest of the world after all, most of the world, and thus most of the structures we are trying to change are outside of the particular rooms in which we build alliances and refine our politics.” Dr. Táíwò is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown. His theoretical work draws liberally from the Black Radical tradition, anti-colonial thought, German transcendental philosophy, contemporary philosophy of language, contemporary social science, and histories of activism and activist thinkers. He will be joined in conversation with Dr. Cresa Pugh, who is an assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies and sociology at NSSR. Her research investigates the social and political legacies of imperialism, cultural heritage and museums and violence in post-colonial Africa and Southeast Asia.

Cresa Pugh: Elite capture is a concept that’s been around for several decades. You cite E. Franklin Frazier’s seminal text Black Bourgeoisie as one of the early theoretical examinations of this concept, and you also refer to various historical moments of elite capture within Black America. For instance, the elite capture of Black studies in the Congressional Black Caucus’s support of Reagan’s war on drugs in the 1980s. What motivated you to revisit the concept of elite capture? How has it, both as a theoretical and an empirical framework, changed since Frazier was writing about it, roughly 70 years ago?

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: In organizing spaces, I was seeing a lot of stuff that I perceived as kind of internally focused. There was a lot of energy around who should be organizing and who should have political leadership, and from my perspective those things were taking precedence over questions about whether we would win the campaigns we were doing, which I thought should be taking center stage in our discussions. And I was seeing a lot of criticism of trends in organizing, but directed not so much at that problem squarely but at ideological trends, which I think people were blaming those kinds of tactics on. So, most squarely, the idea of identity politics. 

I think there are a lot of people who were critical of identity politics and who thought that there were a lot of problems in organizing, maybe particularly campus organizing, NGO organizing, and politics on the Left, such as it is. And they’re laying a number of negative trends at the feet of identity politics, which they think that we should abandon, some in favor of what you could characterize as class reductionist politics, or some in favor of another kind of radical approach that centers something else. What the elite capture concept that I make use of in the book says is that elite capture is actually the thing that’s going wrong. It’s not that identity politics is impossible to use in a productive way, it’s just that the way people use identity politics is influenced by this phenomenon of elite capture. And by the way, so is the rest of politics. It isn’t a special problem with identity politics: elite capture is a very general problem with politics writ large.

Pugh: Our own AAUP chapter here at The New School had to reckon with some divisive internal racial politics during the part-time faculty strike last year. Many understood our then president to be politically anti-union, but he was also a minoritized individual. Essentially, an important player in the university’s own story of elite capture. Some members of the community read the critiques of his institutional politics to be personal attacks, or at least inattentive to the ways in which these critiques could be read as anti-Black or homophobic. 

How can we achieve what you refer to in the book as a “politics of solidarity” when some understand labor to be the ultimate struggle, while others see their own identities as central to the struggle?

Táíwò: I think it’s important to distinguish between principled criticisms and non-principled criticisms. We shouldn’t indulge racism even when it’s directed at the bosses, or sexism even when it’s directed at the bosses, and so forth. But even if we suppose that the gender justice struggle, or the racial justice struggle, or the caste struggle, or the religion struggle is primary, and the worker-boss division is secondary, there’s a lot more women on the workers’ side than people who would potentially be the president of a university or the president of the United States, right? And I think the idea that there’s some kind of conflict between a political perspective that favors the workers’ side of the worker-boss dispute and taking identity-based injustice seriously is a failure to count. Pick your identity group: more of them are on the workers’ side than the boss’s side, more of them are not rich than are rich, fewer of them are elected officials than hold public office. So whatever “the masses” means to you, I think you still should end up on the workers’ side of the ledger, and we don’t actually have to resolve these deep questions about what the principal struggle is.

Pugh: Over the last couple of months we’ve witnessed university and college campuses become sites of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic unrest. We’ve also seen them become hostile, if not violent, environments for pro-Palestinian organizing. Here at The New School the administration threatened students engaged in peaceful protests with university sanctions under the student code of conduct. Elsewhere we’ve seen organizations ban students who’ve had job offers rescinded, or block students and faculty who’ve been doxed and assaulted on account of their support for a ceasefire. Yet at the end of the day, these are struggles that are ultimately taking place within the ivory tower. I’m wondering how you understand this reality in the context of elite capture?

Táíwò: I think there’s an ongoing attempt to enforce a fake consensus. I don’t remember ever there being this much outspoken skepticism about the morality of being allied with Israel, about the nature of IDF offenses. I don’t remember people talking out loud this much at any other point in history. I would describe both what people are trying to accomplish by way of repression of student protest and the likely sociological story about how they’re justifying this to themselves, and to their political allies, as elite capture. In particular, there’s a concept I use throughout the book, this idea of “being in the room privilege,” where the kinds of things that can get a hearing in a social environment can get a hearing because of which people are literally there. If Palestinians can’t participate in the conversation that the board of trustees are having amongst themselves, but members of the board do have social ties to people in Israel, who are going through a tough time, there’s going to be more plausibility, in that room, to claims about how dangerous and harmful pro-Palestinian protests are than in a room of randomly chosen people in Ramallah, for example. 

But regardless of what [those with “in the room privilege”] actually think or believe, what they are trying to do is prevent people from communicating to others that the possibility exists to organize around justice in Palestine. That’s another phenomenon the book talks about. It’s not actually what people believe that organizes society, but it’s what beliefs people are allowed socially to act on. And that is the point of repression, that’s the point of control over the media and you see a knowledge of that at play in the actions of Zionists and their allies. 

Pugh: You just had a conversation that was published in Hammer and Hope, with a representative from a Palestinian Legal Aid Association and an organizer with the Palestinian youth movement named Mohammed [Nabulsi]. One of Mohammed’s quotes really struck me: he said, “The fate of Palestine is the fate of the Left in this country.” How do you understand the movement for Palestine’s relationship to other movements on the Left, such as the labor struggles here at The New School?

Táíwò: I gotta say I’m with Mohammed. It’s tricky, I always want to say we should stand with other people on principle, there doesn’t need to be something in it for us. But that said, there’s something in it for us if we stand in solidarity with Palestine. I don’t think the people wanting to repress student protests in solidarity with Palestine are people with pristine principles about free speech, who are just making an exception for the case of Palestine. I think they are people who do not believe in the project of academic freedom, and I think that this repression is of a piece with more general forms of repression that that we’re already seeing around sexuality and gender and the response to critical race theory. I don’t think these people are committed to the project of freedom, and, especially as funding for higher ed and education in general fails to keep pace with the rest of the economy, whatever inroads they make on rolling back the freedoms we have in this messed up world are not going to stop at Gaza or the West Bank. 

Pugh: In the chapter that you just read, you quote Andaiye: “Old foundations are crumbling and new ones are not yet being imagined.” What do you feel? Are the old foundations that must be or are currently being undone? What kinds of structures, systems, organizations, bodies do we need to be imagining? What are the current obstacles to such forms of imagination and what sorts of moral and emotional demands are required of us all in order to gauge and engage in this type of imaginative work?

Táíwò: I think a lot of old foundations are crumbling. A big example is the state system: we did have one of those for a while, but now we are increasingly living in the United States of Black Rock, and that’s a trend that a few researchers, activists, and a handful of policy people are trying to wrap their heads around. But the ability of these huge conglomerates to directly shape what the world is like in the most concrete ways, like deciding where roads are going to go and where hospitals are going to go, is a major shift relative to a twentieth century that was defined largely by state competition between the emerging independent states of the anti-colonial revolutions, the USSR in the Second World War and the US in the First World War. I think that paradigm is crumbling, and it invites the question of what struggle the planetary scale means in an age where neocolonialism is ascendant. It is not even clear what gains we can make based on the fact that formal colonialism was rolled back and many of the state-building projects that followed successful anti-colonial struggles could be seen as failures in some sense. I think that is a prime instance of the kind of thing Andaiye is talking about on a world historical level. 

And if we think less sweepingly at the level of countries and relationships between countries and military politics, and more about specific domains of human work and inquiry? We have AI replacing jobs. How many jobs? Which jobs? Who knows? The erosion of local news and the replacement of it with whatever tweets Elon Musk likes the most as a primary organization of who gets what source of information—that is, the crumbling of a previous information-architecture that revolved around media conglomerates. And what will replace those? There’s some people hard at work imagining what the new information architecture will be, and it’s the Cambridge Analyticas and the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. And maybe it will involve “legs” at some point, but whether or not it will involve anything like democracy is anyone’s guess. So whether we’re thinking about specific domains of interaction like journalism and news media, or we’re thinking about the whole, there’s a lot of qualitatively different stuff happening this century than in the last one, and fighting against it is going to be weirder than we think.

Julie Beth Napolin is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.

Cresa Pugh is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University.