Identity Politics and Elite Capture
May 8, 2020 1:32 PM   Subscribe

"The black feminist Combahee River Collective manifesto and E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie share the diagnosis that the wealthy and powerful will take every opportunity to hijack activist energies for their own ends."

On the origins of identity politics with black feminist activists:
The term “identity politics” was first popularized by the 1977 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of black feminist activists. In a recent interview with the Root and in an op-ed at the Guardian, Barbara Smith, a founding member of the collective, addresses common misconceptions about the term. The manifesto, she explains, was written by black women claiming the right to set their own political agendas. They weren’t establishing themselves as a moral aristocracy—they were building a political viewpoint out of common experience to work toward “common problems.” As such, they were strongly in favor of diverse people working in coalition, an approach that for Smith was exemplified by the Bernie Sanders campaign’s grassroots approach and its focus on social issues that people of many identities face, especially “basic needs of food, housing and healthcare.” According to Smith, today’s uses of the concept are often “very different than what we intended.” “We absolutely did not mean that we would work with people who were only identical to ourselves,” she insists. “We strongly believed in coalitions and working with people across various identities on common problems.”
On the concept of elite capture:
The concept of elite capture originated in the study of developing countries to describe the way socially advantaged people tend to gain control over financial benefits meant for everyone, especially foreign aid. But the concept has also been applied more generally to describe how political projects can be hijacked—in principle or in effect—by the well positioned and resourced, as Yang’s “step up” demand exemplifies. The idea also helps to explain how public resources such as knowledge, attention, and values get distorted and distributed by our power structures. And it is precisely what stands between us and Smith’s urgent vision of coalitional politics.
On the concept of value capture:
To better understand the broader dynamic, we can look to philosopher C. Thi Nguyen’s work on games. As he explains in his new book Games: Agency as Art (2020), confusing the real world with the carefully incentivized structure of game worlds can lead to a phenomenon he calls “value capture,” a process by which we begin with rich and subtle values, encounter simplified versions of them in social life, and then revise our values in the direction of simplicity. Nguyen is careful to point out that value capture doesn’t require anyone’s deliberate or calculated intervention, only an environment or incentive structure that encourages excess value clarity.

Nguyen stops short of noting that another risk of gamifying values is the unequal distribution of power across participants. But outside of the world of games, power differentials do shape outcomes. Value capture is managed by elites, on purpose or not. In other words, elites don’t simply participate in our community; their decisions help to structure it, much in the way that game designers structure the world of games. After all, elites face a simpler version of oppression than non-elites do: whereas working-class black folk are pressed by racial slights and degradation alongside economic problems that might require “socialized medicine” to solve, elites’s economic position makes them comfortable enough to focus on their own status and cultural power—often at the expense of non-elites.
On a telling example of value capture:
The Congressional Black Caucus’s cosponsorship of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act helped supercharge mass incarceration by establishing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and adding $1.7 billion toward the drug war while welfare programs were cut. This legislation solved the problem for the black elites of the CBC of how to seem involved with respect to the crack cocaine epidemic. But with the law’s passage, working-class African Americans went from dealing with one very complex problem to weathering two interlocking ones: the drug epidemic itself—unsolved by this draconian measure—and the surge of discriminatory law enforcement the legislation unleashed.
On other forms of elite capture:
Elite capture is not unique to black politics; it is a general feature of politics, anywhere and everywhere. I could just as easily have focused on the world of elite universities. In Philosophy of African American Studies (2015), for example, Stephen Ferguson II makes a similar argument about the elite capture of black studies, which owes its existence to the radical student movements of the 1960s and ’70s but has since been “turned into a bureaucratic cog in the academic wheel controlled by administrators, with virtually no democratic input from students or the black working-class community.” I could also have kept the general perspective but reversed the role of race and class. In socialist organizations, for example, we might find that white people likewise tend to capture the group’s politics.

Or we could look away from race to a different set of identity characteristics altogether. In the Buzzfeed article “You Wanted Same-Sex Marriage? Now You Have Pete Buttigieg,” Shannon Keating laments the trajectory of mainstream queer politics away from the more radical elements dramatically on display in the Stonewall riot of 1969 and ACT UP. Or take how The Wing, a coworking space touting itself as a “women’s utopia,” exploits the women who work for it.
On what co-optation looks like outside the United States:
And, of course, elite abuse of identity politics isn’t limited to the United States. It is also a particularly salient problem in Global South politics, where national, ethnic, and caste identities are shaped by an unstable mix of indigenous and colonial history. Peace studies scholar Camilla Orjuela argues that, from Sri Lanka to Kenya, politics in multiethnic Global South societies easily fall into cycles of expecting elites to allocate resources along blatantly ethnic and regional lines. After all, the thinking going, the elites of every other ethnic group will do the same when they’re in power. Journalist John Githongo describes such ethnic elites as “creatures of patronage and . . . influence peddling” who treat the state as a ladder to their own goals rather than an institution of collective responsibility. These conceptual strands are vividly illustrated by the history of the U.S.-backed Haitian dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The Duvaliers cynically used tropes drawn from the Vodou religion, popular with the country’s poor, to intimidate the citizenry while enriching themselves. At the same time, they unleashed unspeakable violence upon actual Vodou practitioners, fearing the revolutionary potential of the religion, which was instrumental in ending slavery on the island.
On a more hopeful final note:
As the Combahee River Collective acknowledged, simply participating in activism is no guarantee that we will develop the right kind of political culture; its founding members were veterans of important radical political movements that nevertheless made crucial oversights along the way. Elites have to get involved—actually involved—but that involvement needs to resist elite capture of values and the gamification of political life.

We have our work cut out for us, but fortunately we aren’t starting from scratch: there’s a rich history to draw from. In the 1960s, feminists held regular group meetings, in houses and apartments, to discuss gender injustice in ways that would have been taboo in mixed company. A set of such “consciousness raising” guidelines by Barbara Smith and fellow activists Tia Cross, Freada Klein, and Beverly Smith provides an example of identity politics work as the Combahee River Collective envisioned it. The exercise starts by asking participants to examine their own shortcomings (“When did you first notice yourself treating people of color in a different way?”), but ends by asking how they can use an element of shared oppression as a bridge to unite people across difference (“In what ways can shared lesbian oppression be used to build connections between white women and women of color?”). Because, in the end, we’re in it together—and, from the point of view of identity politics, that is the whole point.
Previously on the co-optation of identity for elite capture.

And previously on identity politics in general.
posted by Ouverture (2 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this, it was a good read.

I really like the use of game analogies for a lot of social interaction because it makes it easy to see the way that those interactions, which we ordinarily see as 'natural' or just 'how things work', are in fact often contrived or engineered situations with largely predetermined power dynamics and outcomes.
posted by ropeladder at 5:26 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

This is a very clear, concise and well explained description of this dynamic, a really great read.

To be honest, since the Dem primary started in the US the endless online back and forth of leftists making this point (not nearly as well as this does) and being accused of racist class reductionism by their liberal opponents has been endlessly annoying and irritating.

So besides being a good read, it's a good tool to educate people on what the actual issue in question is, at least for the minority of people making those arguments genuinely. And from sources very likely to be believed by them as well.
posted by Infracanophile at 11:36 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

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