Cover image: Haymarket Books

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. He teaches social and political philosophy with an emphasis on climate justice, racial justice, and the Global South. Táíwò joined Matene over Zoom to discuss his latest book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) how the ruling class has captured identity politics, an emancipatory project created by the Combahee River Collective. Táíwò also details how elite capture operates in our everyday lives and locate the ways in which it operates on a global scale. In addition, he discusses the fundamental differences between deference politics and constructive politics and lays a powerful argument for why constructive politics is the better approach to topple oppressive social systems.

Matene Toure [MT]: Why don’t you begin with why you decided to write a book about the concept of elite capture?

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò [OT]: What brought me to thinking about elite capture was stuff that was happening in the organizing spaces that I was in. There were a lot of people around me who were also committed to identity politics, which is a way of thinking about politics that I subscribe to. But they were using it in ways that didn’t jibe with how I was thinking about the world and the problems we were trying to organize around.

MT: How do you define elite capture?

OT: Elite capture is a description of system behavior, first and foremost, right? It is what happens when, over time, a social system disproportionately, or even totally, responds to the most advantaged members of a group. For me, elite capture is just a description of how social systems operate under conditions of extreme inequality. How it will be defined if you are looking at economics journals or academic studies is in relation to aid distribution: elite capture happens when the most aid dollars end up in the most advantaged households.

In a more extended version of the concept, elite capture also applies to situations where the agenda of political movement drifts towards the kinds of things that are important to the most advantaged members of that movement. What I’m trying to do is to find a way of thinking that encompasses all these different scenarios.

MT: How can we locate elite capture in our everyday lives?

OT: Elite capture is the kind of thing that expresses itself as the answer to a series of “why” questions. A lot of people who are interested in issues of justice might find themselves working in the nonprofit sector, or for governmental institutions that are supposed to be providing public services. The questions to ask in either of those contexts are: Why is it that our behavior, our institution, our activity, the stuff that we’re up to, is organized in this way? Who or what lends out if we organize it this way as opposed to the many ways that could be?

In the corporate context, there’s a clear answer to that question. Corporations just tell you, “Well, we’re trying to make a profit. We’re trying to deliver value to our shareholders and some other stuff happens along the way, but that’s what we’re about.”

It’s primarily in other contexts, the university, government, national, state, local, nonprofit, philanthropy, where institutions might not wear their intentions on their sleeve in the same way. It might involve a little bit more detective work. There are clear winners from the success or failure of different government programs. There are clear winners from the success or failure of different philanthropic organizations and from the various parts of them. Who wins out and why? What is this institution made to protect and advance and why?

Those are the kinds of questions that will lead us to think about elite capture and seeing it in particular places.

MT: In your personal experiences as an academic, are there any examples where you’ve encountered this?

OT: You’re trying to get me in trouble today! Let me lead with self-criticism. Here’s an example of elite capture that I feel like I participated in, and it is one of the situations that got me thinking about the concept. I study philosophy and within philosophy, I think about social and political issues, and issues that have to do with race, and I’m Black. Lots of things are different for me in the world, but one thing isn’t different. People are fucking racists. It’s just true, right? I have lots of stories about encountering racism in one guise or another.

When I first started studying philosophy, I was just naturally of the opinion that if I investigate and rally people to oppose the kinds of aspects of racism that showed up in my life as a grad student, that will advance the cause of opposing racism. It’s not like the experiences I had weren’t actually experiences of racism or that they weren’t worth opposing—for example, the content of the syllabi in my classes. I recall being super angry about that.

All those things have to do with racism, but you know what else does? Prisons, immigration law, the IMF. But a few years ago, if you had asked me to give a list of pressing issues from the perspective of the study of racism, I would’ve been more likely to talk to you about the content of my graduate school courses than anything else. I was steering the conversation in this very elite space towards the kind of stuff that I related to.

That’s not an accident. That’s the conversation that was easy to have because of the structure of the entire university and the ecology of the place I was at. It’s about the whole ecologies, the whole set of institutions, the whole environment that we’ve built for asking and answering questions, including philosophical questions about racism that explained why I was asking the questions I was asking and why I was in a position to find the answers I was in a position to find. I suspect I’m not the only person who has faced that kind of a predicament.

MT: In the book, you talk a lot about how games can inform our real-life social environments and programming. Can you talk about that connection?

OT: A colleague of mine, Thi Nguyen, wrote this book about games as agency. If you think about what games are, what you’re doing is just building a little pocket world inside the actual world. That pocket world has different rules. It has different roles, and that’s not so different from, say, building an institution. When I go to school, there are particular rules to follow that I don’t necessarily follow everywhere else. When I’m at home with my family, I might just talk. If I’m at school, I might raise my hand to talk. Why? Well, because in that little corner of the world, there’s a different set of norms.

If we think about games and building games, Nguyen suggests something that tells us quite a lot about the world in general. It tells us how the design of game worlds, like the design of social worlds in general, really helps explain the things that people do. One feature of game design that Nguyen discusses as important in games and in the world is “value clarity.” In other words, in games, there are often clear ways that the game designers signal to you that you’re doing a good job, you have points or levels or ranks.

If I’m playing basketball, it’s very easy to tell whether I’m winning or losing but in the social world, there are all these complex things that we have to keep track of. Do I have enough money? Are my relationships with my parents and my partners and my friends going well? Am I supporting the right causes? There’s a lot more that we want to pay attention to in the real world than in game worlds. Sometimes people can structure parts of the real social world in a gamified way, making things seem clearer than they are. Companies like Disney, Uber, and Amazon give workers badges or have point systems doing all the things that game designers do to try to herd people into the behavior that they want.

Sometimes it’s not any explicit architect deciding, “I’m going to make artificial value clarity. I’m going to gamify this part of social life.” Sometimes we just stop paying attention to the rich, complex things that we should be paying attention to, or we just talk on platforms that have been responding to the interests of corporations. Twitter has built a favorite button, not really trying to control politics but trying to control ad revenue. As a result, they’ve also done something that’s politically meaningful.

MT: How does identity politics tie into this idea that we’re living in a gamified social environment?

OT: One way that you can get excess value clarity is a designer just saying, “Pay attention to these things and not to other things.” If you look at the most advantaged people in any given social group, there are typically people who have fewer problems than others in the full social group. In my world, people are racist, and you know what? Georgetown’s checks clear, so I just don’t think about it in the same way a racist corrections officer might impose racism on somebody working the plantations at Angola Prison. That is to say that I face a simpler social environment with respect to racism than the hypothetical incarcerated person. A social system that responds disproportionately to what racism means to me instead of the hypothetical person I just mentioned is a system that, over time, evolves in the direction of value clarity in relation to racism.

Over time, the system adjusts itself in response to the people at the top. That just means that it’s going to move in the direction of simpler takes on identity politics and anything else. As I emphasize in the book, it’s not to deny that there are problems with how identity politics is being used. But as far as I can tell, people aren’t pointing out anything about identity politics that isn’t true about politics in general. Perhaps just as importantly, the things that would solve this problem with identity politics aren’t different from the things that we need to do to solve the other political problems.

MT: Can you discuss the connections between elite capture and deference politics, and how that has undermined identity politics—or the idea of what identity politics is supposed to be?

OT: Deference politics is the idea that identity politics and related ideas, like standpoint epistemology, and what we should do with the understanding that oppression, is important. Marginalized people have a set of perspectives that we should not ignore. Some people, I think, overcorrect. They move from the accurate observation that the world tends to ignore marginalized perspectives and we should stop doing that, to an inaccurate perspective, which is that the right way to take into account marginalized perspectives and marginalized people, is to find one and just do what they say. People don’t actually mean that, but they do it, particularly on issues that are related to gender or race or sexuality.

One of the things that this gets wrong is symptomatic of the value clarity problem. It just isn’t true that the only problem that confronts people who are trying to learn the truth about their social system is that they haven’t talked to enough people who have less money than them, or a more marginalized racial or gender identity. That’s among the problems, but the problem is much deeper and has many more dimensions.

Another thing it gets wrong is that it imagines that the only thing that is relevant for defeating unjust systems is the knowledge of what it’s like to be oppressed by them. That’s one of the things we should consider when we’re thinking about the world and how to change it.

But I do want to clarify: I’m not against acts of deference. Sometimes you should just take people at their word. I remember Christopher Hitchens was really skeptical that waterboarding was torture, and a bunch of people were like, “Waterboarding is torture.” He’s like, “No, it’s not.” Then they waterboarded him and then he was like, “Oh, okay, well, that’s torture.”

So, that’s silly. You can take people’s word for whether or not waterboarding is torture. There’s a danger of overcorrection too. We shouldn’t take any given person’s perspective to be the unmitigated truth, but it’s also an error to think that what it means to be a responsible person and to believe things responsibly is to only consider my own reasoning and my own experience. Sometimes when I tell people I’m against deference politics, all I’m opposing is the idea of deferring to marginalized people.

MT: You talk a little bit about how showcasing and using oppressed people’s traumas illuminates this problem. I do too—but can you tell us what a better approach is, a more constructive politics?

OT: The idea that we’re going to derive an important aesthetic and politics from people’s trauma involves treating both trauma and people who have experienced it in ways that aren’t good for anybody. It’s really a betrayal to people who’ve experienced trauma. Constructive politics is an attempt to both think about those things and the general problem of what it means to make a good world out of a bad one. Constructive politics doesn’t take the orientation to oppression that deference politics does. It doesn’t say “the way that we respond to this is by finding the right marginalized people and doing what they say.”

What oppression is, at the end of the day, is a world that has been built in a bad way, like the way that really bad player behavior in a game might be explained by how the game was designed. If we’re thinking ecologically and environmentally about the problem we’re responding to, then we can think ecologically and environmentally about the solutions too. What kind of people do we want our world to produce? What kind of thinking do we want our world to produce? I think those are environmental questions. They are about how our institutions are set up, what people are rewarded for, what people are punished for, what kinds of things are easy to do with the resources and culture in place.

If we set up the environment to make helping people easy to do and hurting people hard to do, and if we set up the environment to make pro-social ways of getting respect and money and shelter and food easy, then maybe people will be less likely to try to get those things by hurting people. It’s slapping a label on things that I think abolitionists have been good at talking about for years. Abolition is, if you ask people like Ruthie Gilmore, erasing the kinds of conditions that would make us think about safety by caging people. It’s about erasing the kinds of conditions that put people in a position to want or even need to harm other people in the first place, rather than keeping the discussion about what to do after harm has happened. It’s about building institutions where life is precious and is structurally thought of that way and defended that way.

That means comprehensive social support. That’s what I think constructive politics is.

MT: What are some past revolutionary struggles or movements that utilized constructive politics and how we can look to those examples in our own modern-day struggles for abolition and climate change?

OT: One era that I looked to and highlighted in the book was the actions of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Amílcar Cabral was a member of this movement and I found it so inspiring the way that they took this to heart, even in the middle of conflict. I think it would’ve been tempting to make everything about getting rid of the Portuguese and getting revenge on the Portuguese Empire.

God knows, they had reasons to have that perspective. The Portuguese Empire is like the OGs of fucking global racism, but in the middle of the war for independence they tried to build the political and social institutions that would be building blocks for justice and self-determination for the people that came after them. Building schools, challenging patriarchy, building democratic forms of self-organization, doing all of that from an ethical core.

As a result of their success, they defeated the Portuguese Empire in this war. It didn’t just end that form of colonialism in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau and their comrades in arms in Angola and Mozambique. It didn’t just win the fights on the continent, but also Portugal ousted its fascist leader as a direct result of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa. I think that’s something to learn from. They didn’t do it by themselves. They had support from all across the world and their success reverberated all across the world. We have that same opportunity in our time.

We can build things, not just to oppose today’s injustice, but to build tomorrow’s justice. If we succeed in that and if we support everybody else who’s trying to do that, there’s something in it for everybody in that process.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. He teaches social and political philosophy with an emphasis on climate justice, racial justice, and the Global South.

Matene Toure is a writer and freelance journalist in the Critical Journalism and Creative Publishing MA Program at The New School for Social Research.