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Never Gonna Give You Up

Can progressive movements be taken back from the elite?

Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) by Olúfémi Táíwò. Haymarket Books, 150 pages.

Many white progressives—virtually all the white progressives I know—have, for fear of being thought racist or at least insufficiently anti-racist, abdicated the attempt to formulate or sustain any coherent idea of race. It was fine to insist race was just a social construct when being marked as of a given race was mostly pejorative, calling into question one’s inherent value, abilities, motivations, or right to attain to certain social or professional spheres. But the growing emphasis on “lived experience,” “uplifting voices,” “centering,” and all the other nebulous claptrap that asserts the impossibility of person A ever understanding person B has incentivized the hardening of race into an irreducible aspect of “racialized subjects,” existentially if not biologically inevitable. Where once public figures might have argued against the idea of race as a violation of the basic truth of common humanity, increasingly, thinkers on the nominal left view race as a source of insights inaccessible except through it. And because whiteness is seen as an almost insurmountable barrier to grasping them, the job of the white progressive becomes to “step back and listen.”

This imperative can only be sound if racial experience is uniform and if all subjects belonging to a given race possess the same fidelity in their accounts of their experience. No sane person believes either of these is true. And yet, because so much white progressivism is craven, more concerned with being seen as virtuous than with doing anyone any good, it rarely bothers to try and grasp the diversity of racial experience and the conflicts it gives rise to, let alone vetting those who rely on their racial identity to bolster their ethical or political claims. Instead, what is “centered” are politically amenable perspectives, those easily digested by a value system that heavily favors the symbolic gesture over pragmatic changes that might require real work or compromise. The beneficiaries of this centering are not, by and large, the poor, the imprisoned, or the chronically ill, though race frequently plays a role in such people’s plight; and virtually no one seems to be arguing for a greater role for black conservatives or others unwilling to toe the progressive line.

The winners here are the institution-adjacent: the famous people, writers, “activists,” and professors who feel representative to white progressives even when their views are at odds with those of the majority of blacks (exemplary here is the breach between progressive vanguard support for defunding the police and numerous polls showing most black Americans favor a strong, if reformed, police presence in their communities). Unsurprisingly, this anointment tends to reinforce these figureheads’ wealth and standing in institutional hierarchies.

This is nothing new. The intersectional critique of liberationist thinking has long pointed to the dangers of privileged groups’ annexation of the benefits of broad-based struggles. As Amia Srinivasan writes in The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, “The central insight of intersectionality is that any liberation movement—feminism, anti-racism, the labor movement—that focuses only on what all members of the relevant group (women, people of color, the working class) have in common is a movement that will best serve those members of the group who are least oppressed.”

No one who’s achieved the status of thought leader will readily abandon it on the grounds that their wealth and fame have made them lose touch with those whose cause they claim to advance.

The problem is intractable for a number of reasons: first, on average, white people don’t know many people of a different race, and tend to rely on stereotypes shaped by media images filtered through their preexisting political inclinations; second, the asymmetry between the high psychological and social costs of being perceived as racist and the low ones of mouthing support for radical policies that appeal to fellow progressives has led white liberals by and large to abandon scrutiny with respect to minority thinkers, ceding this ground to the increasingly hysterical American right, whose invidious attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” transgender individuals, and other bugbears only further disincline skeptics to proffer more measured critiques; finally, being a spokesperson is profitable, as Sean Kevin Campbell has shown in a series of articles for New York magazine about the finances of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. No one who’s achieved the status of thought leader will readily abandon it on the grounds that their wealth and fame have made them lose touch with those whose cause they claim to advance.

For all these reasons, there’s a need for an earnest critique of the elite appropriation of progressive struggles and its distortionary effects: how elite ends deviate from and are often contrary to the needs of ordinary people. In May of 2020, there was a hint that such a thing would come to be when Olúfémi Taíwò, author of Reconsidering Reparations and a professor at Georgetown University, published his essay “Identity Politics and Elite Capture” in the Boston Review. Taiwò opened with a gibe at former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who had shortly before published an editorial in the Washington Post with vague proposals encouraging Asian-Americans, then suffering a surge of racial prejudice related to the spread of Covid-19, to “demonstrate that we are part of the solution.” Taiwò writes:

The appeal is an example of identity politics, though not of the sort that the terms calls to mind for most people. Identity politics is usually thought of as advocacy on behalf of a group, rooted in the group’s collective victimization. But often, whether by accident or design, identity politics serves a narrower set of interests, such as the electoral goals of a Democratic candidate. Yang’s argument, for instance, tasks the very group targeted by racism with proving itself worthy of being American, while at the same time asking little of the country’s non-Asian majority, whose votes his political future depends upon.

After the de rigueur hat tip to the Combahee River Collective’s original conception of identity politics––which in a number of recent books seems to have taken on the status of an origin myth from which to disparage later uses of the term––Taiwò turns his sights on those who “have chosen to weaponize identity politics, closing ranks—especially on social media—around ever-narrower conceptions of group interests rather than building solidarity.” 

To characterize such people, he resorts to the term “elite capture,” a concept from the literature of development studies that describes the way small and well-connected groups arrogate goods or political power, particularly natural resources, their proceeds, and the foreign aid on which many poor countries depend. For Taiwò, the cultural capital overtaken by progressive elites can prove an impediment to the goals progressive politics visualizes. After citing such recent pieces on the subject as Shannon Keating’s “You Wanted Same-Sex Marriage? Now You Have Pete Buttigeig” and The New York Times Magazine’s inadvertently Candide-esque exposé on working conditions at “women’s utopia” The Wing, he calls for the cultivation of the “right kind” of political culture, a politics that takes “shared oppression as a bridge to unite people across difference,” encouraging sympathetic elites to get involved––but “actually involved”––in a way that avoids monopolizing values and sidesteps whatever he means by “the gamification of political life.”

One could blame the essay’s inadequacies on the format––a few thousand words can’t suffice to describe the problems Taiwò addresses, let alone sketch out solutions––and so it was encouraging to imagine these matters would be expanded upon in the book-length essay Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else). Lamentably, this never quite happens.

It is one thing for Taiwò’s sympathies to be on the side of identity politics, and his affirmation that “the increasing domination of elite interests and control over aspects of our social system” is universal, and not a specific malady of left-wing politics, is important at a moment when the hobgoblin of “coastal elites” has become canonical in American conservative thought.

But his book barely touches on its alleged central theme. Instead, a good half of its pages are devoted to a kind of 2022 Profiles in Courage, with capsule biographies of Paulo Freire, black sociologist Edward Franklin Frazier, Amílcar Cabral, and Cape Verdean activist Lilica Boal. There is a tendentious account of the liberation of Portugal’s African colonies, with barely a mention of their struggles’ place in the proxy wars between the Soviet Union and the United States that enveloped much of the African continent in the 1960s and 1970s; a convoluted series of speculations about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” that arrives at the unhelpful conclusion that “the problem, it turns out, isn’t the emperor’s townspeople at all, or even the emperor. It’s the town. It’s the empire”; a riff on C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency as Art, in which we are told on the one hand that games “fail to capture the complications and precarities of daily life” and on the other that game environments are “not so different from the real world as it might seem”; and so on.

An exception to this general diffuseness comes in Taiwò’s critique of deference politics, “which considers it a step toward justice to then modify interpersonal interactions in compliance with the perceived wishes of the marginalized.” His ambivalence with the prioritizing of suppressed or marginalized voices arises from the contexts where these acts of deference take place, which tend to be sites of privilege very difficult to access. Over a billion people in the world are inadequately sheltered, a hundred million are homeless, over two billion lack ready access to clean drinking water, and few if any of these individuals find themselves in the boardrooms or universities where such practices as “progressive stacking” are instituted. Even if those selected (or self-selected) as stand-ins for the oppressed do have experience of oppression or marginalization, they rarely have the power to influence the unjust systems that help create the settings where these enlightened conversations take place.

Taiwò observes trenchantly that “deference to figures from oppressed communities is a performance that sanitizes, apologizes for, or simply distracts from the fact that the deferrer has enough ‘in the room’ privilege for their ‘lifting up’ of a perspective to be of consequence—to reflect well on them.” But then he seems quickly to wish to backtrack for fear of stepping on progressives’ toes. I found myself drawing a question mark in the margins when he presumes that practitioners of standpoint epistemology engage in it “for the right reasons,” and refuses to “attribute bad faith to all or even most of those who practice deferential politics.” Why shouldn’t we assume bad faith? Why should we suppose anyone does things for “the right reasons”? Simply because their beliefs and stated goals nominally align with our own? These questions become doubly salient when he quotes Barack Obama to describe what bottom-up change might look like: Obama, who let off the bankers in 2008, who oversaw an unprecedented concentration of power in tech and retail, and who has spent his retirement years kite-surfing with Richard Branson and exchanging bromides with fellow millionaire Bruce Springsteen on their podcast Renegades.

Anyone who’s ever tried to get a remotely heterogeneous group to agree on pizza toppings will doubt how far consensus politics can take us.

As Elite Capture nears its conclusions, readers may feel exasperated by the contrast between the examples its author proffers as models for progress and his immense vision of which struggles must be waged and how. He belittles the “Whac-A-Mole” approach to injustice embodied by reformism in favor of “a world-making project aimed at building and rebuilding actual structures of social connection and movement,” but his illustrations of how this is to be done hardly transcend the anecdotal. He is inspired by citizen action on the water crisis in Flint but ignores the role of official bodies, the government, and even private donations in addressing it, and paints as an unmitigated success what was in fact a protracted scandal capped by the decision of Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, to drop all criminal charges in the matter. He praises the Rolling Jubilee campaign for raising money to pay off $30 million in debt but offers no clue how that might be scaled up to deal with the $15.6 trillion American households owe. Admitting that Guinea-Bissau has collapsed into a narco-state since achieving independence, he still credits the revolution with raising the country’s literacy rate to “as high as 60 percent” among the young, but this is not especially high for sub-Saharan Africa, and mirrors similar gains in places with wildly dissimilar circumstances.

I would not wish to discredit Taiwò for trying to piece together reasons for hope. But the dissymmetry between the accomplishments of the forces of reaction and of progressivism is such as to call deeply into question the belief that solidarity and collective action are the keys. In their study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page quantified what most of us in our hearts already know: politicians are responsive to the wealthy and special interest groups, while “average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” To suppose we have arrived at this circumstance because the activists and thinkers of the past just didn’t try hard enough is at once to discredit their achievements and to severely underrate the power of elites––not the minor elites who’ve attained to modest fame and fortune purveying wokeness, censuring white fragility, and selling racial sensitivity training workshops, but the politicians and magnates who actually shape policy.

Paradoxically, the belief that acting in coalition––slow, imperfect, often futile––remains the best political option requires not a retreat to reformism, but a raising of the stakes beyond all probability, and so, rather than examining a few areas that might be susceptible to change, Taiwò’s “world-making” project grows to encompass climate change, sovereign debt, and private ownership of housing. This kind of big-picture approach can be stirring, and perhaps some readers will take encouragement from the motivational titles scattered through Elite Capture (“Rebuild the House,” “The Point is to Change It,” “We’ve Got This”), but anyone who’s ever tried to get a remotely heterogeneous group to agree on pizza toppings will doubt how far consensus politics can take us. Magnifying the issue is that Taiwò’s book is itself the product of a professor at an elite university, and that its readership is unlikely to stretch far beyond the college-educated “political hobbyists” Eitan Hersh excoriates for mistaking news-watching and debate for political action.

Then again, the United States itself stands in an elite position vis-à-vis much of the rest of the world: it’s the biggest consumer, the second biggest polluter, the biggest military power, a record-setter in fomenting regime change. If the American voter’s sulky alternation between its two leading parties expresses anything, it’s less solidarity with those who suffer from its supremacy than a desire to maintain that supremacy at any cost. To address the country’s elites in the language of elites about the urgency of ending elite capture just doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that will work.