Assuming the Perspective of the Ancestor

Philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò on building constructive, future-oriented politics, at scale.

Claire Schwartz
May 3, 2022
Headshot by Jared Rodríguez

There is a moment in each of his two books when the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò turns to address the reader directly. In Elite Capture: How The Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), out today from Haymarket, Táíwò writes, “How did you and I get to be here, interacting across this page?”—and he proceeds to consider the social structures that likely underpin this encounter. But even without these instances of explicit engagement, Táíwò’s prose has the quality of address. As he moves through layered histories and nuanced ideas, the writing remains lucid. The poet Solmaz Sharif writes, “language is we realized,” and reading Táíwò, I have the feeling that it matters to him that he reaches the person who picks up his book so that they are neither shut out from nor passively enrolled in a collective, but offered sufficient traction to join the struggle over social meaning in their own right.

Táíwò, who is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, has written two books that critically reappraise flashpoint terms in contemporary conversations about justice. In his first, Reconsidering Reparations, published in January by Oxford University Press, Táíwò binds thinking about reparations to conversations about climate justice. This makes sense: The uneven distribution of the harms of climate change largely follows the racial scripts set out in the 18th and 19th centuries; wealthy, white communities and wealthy, white nations are the primary drivers of environmental catastrophe while offloading the toxic consequences to communities of color and the Global South. Further, Táíwò argues that because the contemporary order of “global racial empire” is underwritten by the world-making projects of slavery and colonialism, reparations must operate on a commensurate scale and attend to the world-making environmental forces already structuring our futures. This means that reparations, which holds as its moral center “the past and present treatment of enslaved people and their descendants” must itself be “forward-looking”—not something that can be carried out through a one-time transfer of resources, but a project that would help to finish what anti-colonial and anti-racist liberation projects of the mid-20th century started: a radical rebuilding of the structures that determine the flow of resources and distribution of risks.

In his new book, Elite Capture, Táíwò similarly deploys an economic concept—“elite capture” describes the phenomenon where a small, powerful subset of a group siphons off resources intended for the majorityto think about the uses and misuses of identity politics. The term “identity politics,” Táíwò notes, was coined in the 1970s by The Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian feminist group, who explained their commitment to the concept in terms of an appraisal of social structures more broadly: “We might use our position at the bottom . . . to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” But where Combahee set out a vision of mobilizing identity as a social position to contest structures of power, Táíwò illustrates how contemporary uses of the term frequently invert this original formulation: It is often used to describe a marginalized group mobilizing behind an elite—a state official, a celebrity—who shares their identity but relates to power in ways not representative of the group. Orbiting a constellation of historical figures who understood identity not as an endpoint in itself but as a way of charting solidarities to upend structures of oppression, Táíwò argues for an identity politics attentive to global structures of power.

While on the face of it, Táíwò’s books may seem only disparately related, they are united by a call to what he terms “a constructive approach,” which, as he explains in Elite Capture, “[combines] a set of goals unbound by whatever passes for common sense today with [in the words of political theorist Michael Dawson] ‘hardheaded political realism capable of finding the strategies and tactics needed to shift common sense and the world underneath it.’” Insisting that we must calibrate our sense of the work at hand to the world we need to build, Táíwò exposes the sleight of hand by which symbols of progress are offered in place of material gains, and offers a lens to keep us focused on the latter. I spoke with Táíwò about the world-building impulse of a constructive approach, the importance of thinking globally when struggling for social change, and what hope means for movement work. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Claire Schwartz: In Reconsidering Reparations, you write: “Our discourse about how to change [our current] social reality tends to offer ‘solutions’ that are hopelessly out of scale to the size of the challenge.” Why did it feel important to begin with a discussion of scale in general—which you do in both books—and by noting your insistence on thinking globally in particular?

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: There’s a philosophical problem that scale presents. There are issues that only show up when you’re looking at a certain scale. There are solutions that only work at a certain scale. This is not solely about politics; it’s true in general. If you want to put out a campfire, you might be able to do that with a Super Soaker. If you want to put out a forest fire, you will need something larger. When we go about the business of doing things in the world, we’re rarely confused about this. The firefighters never show up to a forest fire carrying Super Soakers. But when we make theoretical abstractions, we often lose track of these kinds of points.

What I’m trying to get us to see in both books is this: The forces that are keeping us from the world we want are global. I don’t mean this conceptually. I’m not saying, for instance, that there are resonances between the kinds of things happening in Turkey and the kinds of things happening in the United States. I mean it in the most literal sense. The investment capital that corporate landlords raise to buy up housing and drive up the cost of your rent comes from all around the world. The police forces that suppress the people who are fighting for change are trained by people in global networks of policing and military. They are equipped by global networks of arms production. That is the basic reality of the structures we’re trying to change, whether we care about the other side of the planet or not.

CS: If the global is the appropriate scale, why do these conversations about the elite capture of identity politics so often seem to happen at the scale of the nation? How should we relate to a form of governance that, in its liberal presentation at least, gains its legitimacy through the promise of representation?

OT: One place the elite capture of identity politics is particularly visible is in a fairly recent trend in global politics: the representation of marginalized people in formal state systems. It’s only relatively recently that there have been lots of Black mayors and legislators in the United States, that people in much of Asia and Africa have had representation in the United Nations as sovereign states rather than as protectorates. That is progress of a sort. But it could lead to a narrow vision of what’s politically possible if we see this as some end goal, the state as the ultimate unit of governance. So while we shouldn’t ignore what the state can do for good and for ill, we also shouldn’t ignore what can be accomplished outside of the state system. We could look, for example, to the Zapatistas [a decentralized militant group that seeks Indigenous control over land and other resources and that positions itself as at war with the Mexican state] or to the Landless Workers’ Movement [a mass social movement in Brazil, which aims to ensure that poor workers have full access to land for their own sustenance]. There are things that you can do other than trying to get people who share your identity characteristics into the formal trappings of state power. Those aren’t opportunities we should ignore, even given the allure of representation.

CS: What does thinking on the scale of the state render invisible?

OT: A peculiar ideological aspect of the state system is that the governments that claim territory enclosed within borders that we call a state not only pretend to deserve sovereignty over what happens within those borders, but also pretend to actually have it. This might read as a pedantic point in the Global North because in parts of the world with highly resourced states, state governments do exert significant control in places other than, for example, the capital cities—though even in the US and Canada, it’s something of a mixed claim. There are Indigenous nations. There are underworlds that have political structures that avoid or subvert the law. Still, in the Global South, it’s clearer that the state’s claim to governance is contestable. The so-called Islamic State–West Africa Province lays claim to much of the territory that is presumably governed by West African states. Something similar is happening in Mozambique. Part of what the state system obscures, then, is who actually controls things in different parts of the world. And so we needn’t—and perhaps shouldn’t—buy into the idea of state sovereignty, but it is worth considering how the state functions as an important site for allocating resources, one that we can challenge.

CS: In Elite Capture you borrow from the political scientist Jo Freeman, who defines the “elite” as “a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent.” I tend to think of “elite” as primarily signifying a disconnect from a broader group, but Freeman’s framework emphasizes that a sense of shared identity with “non-elites” is in fact a critical component. This helps me to think about “elite” in contrast not to a common identity but to “a common problem,” which is how Barbara Smith, a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, discussed the impetus for the group’s articulation of identity politics. Can you talk a bit about the constellation of identity, elite, and commonness?

OT: Eliteness is a relative position. It’s hard to even say what an elite is until you’ve established some kind of comparison, and how we make this comparison has political implications. If we’re in a room in the fancy school I teach at and we’re talking about being racially marginalized, then I might become the spokesperson of what it is to be racially marginalized. This makes sense. Relative to the other professors in the room, most of whom are white, maybe I am the person who is most racially marginalized. But if we’re comparing me to Black people in general, I am very solidly part of the Black elite. So if we think about it in that way, it’s not as clear what to conclude about race and racism in general from what I could tell you.

Identity isn’t like that. No matter what room I walk into, I am Black. That is static. It is not inherently bad or misleading to frame politics in terms of something invariant across all of these different kinds of interactions—in fact, the Combahee River Collective formed because they were attentive to the interplay between identity and structures of relation—but you can see how a concept centered around static identity categories could travel in ways that’s ignorant of those critical dynamic questions: Who’s not in the room? How representative is this particular marginalized person of that category of marginalization in general?

CS: There is a temporal reappraisal in both of your books. This is most straightforward in Reconsidering Reparations, where you turn away from the dominant framework of reparations as a mode of adjudicating past wrongs and think about reparations instead as future-oriented—a way of building the world we want to live in. In Elite Capture, the structure of the book itself plays with time. It is not chronological in any total sense, but your theorizing is interspersed with these mini-biographies, chronological narratives of the lives of revolutionary figures; the result is a kind of counterpoint between narrative history and theory that can’t be fully rendered in either those terms. What does time mean to you in these texts?

OT: One thing that’s important to me about time is possibility. If you look back, you can see how the power relationships that structure our world today developed over time. And what I am trying to do in both of these books is to show that it is only in a very circumscribed temporal sense that identities are even identities at all. In reality, identities are more like positions. Blackness was invented as a social position, as a global position, as a planetary scale structure of accumulation and dispossession. There was a time before that; there could be a time after that. What is important to me is not whether this race or that gender or even that class position will apply as categories at some future moment, but that we do not take these categories that we impose in order to structure the world to be either inevitable or wholly explanatory. We must understand our world as it exists now as the result of actions and circumstances. The world is put together by our actions and the actions of the wind and the rain and the buffalo—all the causal things that make reality what it is. It does not just plod along mechanically. That means we can improve things, and that means things can get worse.

But it’s not simply that you do the right thing, and then the good thing happens. Even the models that I celebrate in Elite Capture—the national liberation movements throughout Africa—are not uniformly good stories. It’s not as though everything went perfectly after independence. We need to understand that the identity categories we use to make sense of the struggles that we have with each other can’t adequately account for the practical causal obstacles we’re facing. It is true that the onset and developments of global racial empire and climate change are tightly linked historically and conceptually, but the fact that the world is hotter and it is harder to get food are also plainly political obstacles. Figuring out the moral story about who should feel guilty about slavery yesterday is not responsive in any straightforward way to the fact that we have to deal with the effects of climate crisis. There is a kind of covert moralism that people build into the causal structure of the universe that justifies overly focusing on being the right kind of person, objecting to the right kinds of things, centering the right sorts of people. This amounts to a refusal to look forward, I think—a refusal to take seriously the practical obstacles to tomorrow’s flourishing as practical obstacles and not just gestures in our moral tugs of war.

CS: You call us to reach toward tomorrow’s flourishing by engaging in a “constructive politics” that “pursues specific goals or end results rather than aiming to avoid ‘complicity’ in injustices that we assume will mostly persist anyway.” As a framework of “avoiding ‘complicity’” centers the moral position of the individual, it is not necessarily responsive to the requisite work of material redistribution on a social level. What is the role of protest in this kind of world-building that you call for?

OT: I’ve been to god knows how many protests and I will go to god knows how many more. We protest to challenge the hold this world has on the world of future possibilities. But I think there is a conceivable attitude that the new, future, just, good world will emerge from the success of enough protests. The older I get, the less I think that’s true. The setup of a protest is this: There are people who have the power to do something; they’re not doing it, or they’ve done something we wish they hadn’t done; and we express displeasure. Maybe if the protest is especially rowdy, we exert costs. That has clear value as a tactic. But it doesn’t in any way model what it would be to build a new future, except in the bare, strategic sense that we might have to do it to be in a position to build something different. What I’m trying to get at with constructive politics—the prescriptive thing that I say in both books—is that I don’t think we can protest our way to a better social structure. I don’t think we can critique our way to better ideas. I don’t think we can destroy our way to a better world. I’m encouraged by the work people are doing to build things: workers building unions, people building resilient food systems outside the control of corporations, communities building non-carceral strategies for preventing and responding to harm.

CS: Constructive politics avoids investing in the symbolic at the expense of the material. In both books, you favor a materialist analysis that considers how structures of power incentivize or disincentivize a given set of actions because, as you point out, a given belief may or may not animate a particular set of behaviors. For example, a worker might praise a bad idea their boss lays out not because they’ve internalized a sense of their boss’s genius, but because staying in the good graces of their boss might mean they’re less likely to be fired. Or, a person living in the US might believe that we should radically redistribute resources but hoard their own wealth for fear of the consequences of a medical emergency in a country where medical debt routinely throws people into financial ruin. I was interested to note that a lot of the historical figures whose lives and work you engaged in Elite Capture—[the Bissau-Guinean revolutionary organizer] Amílcar Cabral, [the African American historian] Carter Woodson, [the Cape Verdean anti-facist activist, philosopher, and educator] Lilical Boal—were involved in education, which from one angle, can be thought of as conditioning a set of beliefs. What does education mean for you in terms of building the kind of world we want to live in?

OT: I teach philosophy, so maybe at the end of the day, I am a person who only has a hammer and sees nails everywhere. But the best I have to say for myself and this preoccupation of mine is akin to feminist arguments around reproductive labor: What is it that you’re doing when you care for children? You’re doing the intergenerational work of building culture. Instructing kids is not just teaching them that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. If it were, the right wing wouldn’t be fighting so hard to make sure that trans kids can’t feel safe at school or that no kid learns about race in a way that’s remotely honest. You’re creating the social and political conditions for doing this all over again tomorrow, which is what struggle is, which is what life is, and which is what it takes, if you want life to be different tomorrow than it was today. We don’t have to fetishize learning to appreciate its key roles in political struggle: It affects what aspects of our society we identify as problems, which alliances we make to address them, and perhaps most crucially, whether we care enough to do something with whatever information and other resources we have.

CS: At the end of Reconsidering Reparations, you draw on your Yoruba inheritance to suggest that assuming “the moral perspective of the ancestor” might fortify us to face the immensity of building a new world and addressing climate justice. Capitalism orients us toward the quick fix and toward an understanding of ourselves as the teleological conclusion of our ancestors’ work and dreams, which risks positioning our living as a dead end. To think of ourselves as “future ancestors,” on the other hand, as you do, is to at once take seriously the urgency of the task at hand and to imagine our work as taking place on a historical continuum so that, though we may not solve everything, it matters that we do what we can. This feels to me like a kind of hope. Does it feel that way for you?

OT: To think of myself as a future ancestor helps me reconcile the sober analytical horse race-betting part of me that is looking at how bad things are and is appropriately disappointed and depressed, with the part of me that feels on the hook for things going well. At the end of the day, this is not a horse race. I am not commenting on the probability of a good outcome in an activity that I am not myself participating in. We all live in the world, whether we like it or not, and those of us who are organizers have decided to try to be part of the explanation of why tomorrow’s world is the way that it is. To be engaged in the work—fighting, struggling, organizing, doing things in search of an outcome—presupposes that we think there’s something to achieve by doing it. From that perspective, hope sounds entirely appropriate to me. Or if we like, we could also say “resolve.”

And when we are as generous with the scale of time as internationalism calls us to be with the scale of space, my sense of what’s possible grows exponentially. And my sense of what’s possible grows exponentially because of my historical sense of what’s actual. Before the 19th century, there had been hundreds of years of bondage—thousands if we’re talking about all the forms of slavery. And in that century, many parts of the world abolished slavery. The Haitians fought a revolution and eliminated it from their island. Revolts in Brazil encouraged the government there to do away with it. A general strike of enslaved people in the United States broke the back of the Confederacy. For hundreds of years, much of the world had been under the colonial domination of European empires. My parents were born colonial subjects of the British empire. And my generation, myself and my siblings, was born after. Things can change on a planetary scale because they have. With respect to that question, I’m not guessing at all. I’m not even predicting. I’m simply recognizing something that is demonstrably true. And that seems like a better psychological place from which to engage the scale of the challenge in front of us.

Claire Schwartz is the author of the poetry collection Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the culture editor of Jewish Currents.