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Identity politics in America: A review-essay

Ridhiman Balaji

Platypus Review 166 | May 2024

Nancy Leong, Identity Capitalists: The Powerful Insiders Who Exploit Diversity to Maintain Inequality (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022).

Touré F. Reed, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (London: Verso, 2020).

THE EXPRESSION “IDENTITY POLITICS” refers to a tendency among individuals who belong to a particular social group (religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) to build exclusive political alliances with members of the same social group, especially as a way of rectifying historical injustices. The origins of identity politics in the United States can be traced back to the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the mid-20th century; it has since become the dominant form of political organization across various countries. The emergence of identity-based movements represents a shift away from broad-based, class-driven politics and a move towards highlighting the unique experiences and injustices faced by specific marginalized communities. While identity-based movements do have the potential to raise awareness and rectify historical injustices, they can also be co-opted to reinforce systems of hierarchy. This essay examines three recent books on identity politics: Identity Capitalists (2021) by Nancy Leong, Elite Capture (2022) by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, and Toward Freedom (2020) by Touré F. Reed. These books shed light on how socio-political identities are manipulated by elites to perpetuate existing power structures and defend systems of hierarchies. Such manipulation skews the foundational goals of identity-based movements, undermining their pursuit of justice for historically marginalized communities.

After providing readers with a summary of the three books, this essay discusses each of their shortcomings, criticizing them within the framework of Marx’s materialist conception of history, or “historical materialism” (HM). HM is a framework for analyzing the evolution of socio-political and socio-economic arrangements in a society in relation to its underlying mode of production (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc.). The theory of HM posits that all elements of the societal superstructure are shaped by and correspond to the base, i.e., the underlying method of production in any given society. Examples of superstructural elements include tradition, religion, culture, ideology, state, family, education, legal system, etc., whereas the base is comprised of the forces of production (means of production plus relations of production). If “racism” is understood to be prejudiced attitudes and beliefs, it and other systems of oppression belong to the capitalist superstructure. Much like religious beliefs, beliefs about the superiority and inferiority of various “races” effectively serve as tools for social reproduction by justifying dominant social groups’ privileged positions. HM is a useful theoretical tool for analyzing identity formation because it can be used to uncover the underlying economic and class dynamics that shape identity groups and their political priorities. This in turn allows us to see identity formation as a dynamic, complex process that is interconnected with political economy. Moreover, recognizing that identities are historically contingent helps us to avoid essentialist thinking, which is somewhat prevalent in many identity-based movements. This form of thinking is problematic when attempting to rectify historical injustices because it homogenizes experiences and overlooks individual differences and diversity within marginalized groups. Furthermore, essentialist thinking fails to recognize how individuals from diverse social groups, such as different races or ethnicities, may share similar class positions, an oversight that undermines efforts to build multi-racial solidarity by obscuring common economic interests and struggles.

Nancy Leong, Identity Capitalists

Identity Capitalists begins by formalizing the concept of “identity capitalism.” Leong argues that whiteness confers countless advantages to individuals, one of which is the opportunity to benefit from non-white people. Leong argues that in-group members who profit from out-group identities are “identity capitalists,” suggesting that efforts to benefit from out-groups are not limited to individual behavior; institutions controlled by an in-group also benefit from individuals not part of the in-group.[1] Leong gives both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as examples of identity capitalists. On Sanders she writes, “He appears acutely uncomfortable when the topic of race arises, usually turning the conversation back to economic, rather than explicitly racial, justice.”[2] She adds, “Identity capitalism harms both individual members of outgroups and society as a whole in ways significant and serious.” And, “Perpetrating or tolerating identity capitalism gives the impression that everything is fine when it’s not, and that all of us are treated equally when we’re not.”[3] Leong also formalizes the idea of “identity entrepreneurs,” individuals who leverage their identity to their own advantage.[4] She gives the example of Diamond and Silk, two African-American women who openly support the Republican Party and reinforce stereotypes that are superficially harmless but are in fact damaging to a group’s equal status in society. Leong writes that “[i]dentity entrepreneurship helps individual members of outgroups, but it rarely helps the outgroup as a whole.”[5] She adds that the problem with diversity is not diversity in and of itself, rather that the emphasis on diversity leads to “an enhanced incentive for identity capitalism.”[6]

The book begins with a discussion of how identity capitalism is employed as a business strategy. Professing the value of diversity “helps to rehabilitate a company’s image at a time of negative publicity—the kind that often results when a company is sued. When accused of discrimination, a company generally turns to its professed values and existing numerical diversity as a way of defending itself in the media and in the marketplace.”[7] She also says that identity capitalism makes strategic business sense because it is a good way of attracting clients and employees: white people tend to exaggerate their relationships with non-white people. She cites a study which found that “[o]f white students, 92.4 percent reported having three or more close friends of other races, as compared to only 37.3 percent of black students, 29 percent of Latino/a students, and 53.4 percent of Asian American students.”[8] She ends the chapter by writing that while identity capitalism is not new, in recent years it has become more prevalent and less subtle.

The next chapter discusses how American history is drenched with identity capitalism. She gives examples of various individuals that resorted to it either to defend slavery, as in the case of Edward Williams Clay; or to posit that slavery was consistent with Christianity, for instance the Reverend Leander Ker; or to argue against racial integration because it would undermine black cultural traditions, as with Zora Neale Hurston. Leong also discusses female anti-suffragists: white, wealthy, female elites who argued that suffrage was undesirable because it would undermine the privileged status of women. Leong suggests such female anti-suffragists engaged in identity capitalism because they used their identity as women to argue against giving women the right to vote. Leong ends the chapter by writing that identity politics became more salient during the Trump presidency, as Trump used crude and crass forms of identity politics to affirm white Americans’ perception that their status was being threatened.

In the third chapter, Leong discusses how members of an in-group, such as white Americans, are constantly seeking absolution from bigotry. She writes that white Americans are deeply anxious and insecure about their relationship with those in the out-group. She discusses the idea of “social capital,” writing that in-group members typically invest in relationships with out-group members because they expect something in return. Leong argues that the desire for social capital explains why identity capitalists pursue the appearance of diversity through relationships and other affiliations. She also discusses the concept of “signaling.” To improve their status, members of an in-group tend to “signal” to out-group members, to demonstrate their egalitarian beliefs.

The fourth chapter discusses identity entrepreneurs such as Sarah Palin, who leveraged her identity as a woman during the 2008 presidential election to seek approval from other women. Leong differentiates between entrepreneurs and sell-outs. Entrepreneurs are individuals who leverage their identity for personal benefit, as opposed to sell-outs, whose actions disadvantage the interests of an entire group.

The fifth chapter discusses how identity capitalism is enabled by anti-discrimination law. Leong argues that anti-discrimination law is a poor bulwark against identity capitalism because it provides incentives for identity-capitalist behavior. She discusses how the appearance of racial diversity on panels is often used to rebut accusations of impropriety. She writes that companies often turn to identity capitalism, such as including members of an out-group in employment decisions, to persuade courts that no discrimination has taken place: “Even when courts do not explicitly say that the race of a supervisor helps to prove that there was no discrimination, they often gratuitously call attention to the identity characteristics of a supervisor to imply that there was no discrimination.”[9] She also writes that courts are inattentive to intersectionality. For example, a black woman can sue for discrimination either because she is black, or a woman, but not because she is a black woman. Leong suggests identity capitalists often try to escape liability by retroactively treating an out-group employee well:

The incentive to change course and treat an employee well as a defense encourages employers to engage in identity capitalism after the fact and in the face of litigation. It does nothing to reduce the likelihood of discrimination before it happens. It also creates incentives for employers to make such litigation more difficult in the first place—by implementing mandatory arbitration agreements, which have proliferated in workplaces despite legal challenges, with one study finding that the use of such agreements increased from 16.1 percent of employment contracts in 2012 to 42.7 percent of contracts in 2014.[10]

The sixth chapter discusses how identity capitalism affects the legal system beyond anti-discrimination law, including copyright law, constitutional law, and criminal law: “Identity capitalism affects the way cases are adjudicated from beginning to end, from litigation strategy to the writing of decisions. Identity capitalism infects the legal system writ large—both the law and the mechanisms for implementing it. It starts at the very beginning, with strategic selection of plaintiffs to bring particular claims.”[11] She gives the example of Students for Fair Admissions, the organization which sued Harvard University, claiming that its admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans.[12] Leong: “Identity capitalism in plaintiff selection allows white opponents of affirmative action to reframe their opposition as a racial justice issue. They no longer have to come out and say that they don’t like affirmative action because it threatens the racial status quo—specifically, a status quo that privileges white people. Here, identity capitalism is a way of obscuring true motives and obstructing honest conversations about race.”[13] She ends the chapter by writing that “Identity capitalism permeates both the substantive law—the statutes, regulations, and doctrines that govern us—and the legal process itself—the way the law is invoked, enforced, applied, and modified. But with identity capitalism rooted so deeply in law and legal process, the law itself is also a powerful tool for addressing identity capitalism.”[14]

The seventh chapter discusses Leong’s four principles for reforming society beyond the legal system: honesty, apology, education, and authenticity. She writes that people and businesses should be more honest and forthcoming with respect to their intentions, as opposed to broadcasting empty words and simply giving the appearance of diversity. For an apology to be effective, it has to be costly to the apologizer; simply expressing commitment to do better in the future is insufficient. Leong also says that more educative responses to racial screw-ups have the potential to undermine identity capitalism as a whole: “If every American institution were authentically diverse, people would have no motivation for identity capitalism. One way to avoid identity capitalism is to avoid the conditions that create its perceived necessity.”[15] And: “Authentic diversity and substantive attention to the interests of outgroups makes identity capitalism obsolete.”[16]

In the conclusion, Leong discusses how most people are complicit, one way or another, in enabling identity capitalism: “Virtually all of us are either identity capitalists or identity entrepreneurs. And because we all inhabit multiple identities, a lot of us are both.”[17] And: “The way we think about identity in America is profoundly broken. We feel anxious and resentful around people who are different from us.”[18] She suggests that ending identity capitalism is part of the process of repair, and that people should develop genuine relationships with those who are different.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture

Elite Capture starts with a discussion of how three police shootings of African Americans in the year 2020, in relatively quick succession — Breonna Taylor (March 13), George Floyd (May 25), and Tony McDade (May 27) — led to unprecedented protests across the US, with around twenty-six million individuals participating in one way or another.[19] Táíwò discusses how various institutions across the US quickly began exploiting these protests. For example, the CIA initialized its “Humans of CIA” recruitment program, which targeted various identity groups such as queer and indigenous people. Or, for example, Army and Marine recruitment ads that featured black and Latinx soldiers. He also discusses how by June 2021, various state legislatures across the U.S. started banning critical race theory. Táíwò discusses the origins of the term “identity politics.” He writes that the term was first popularized by the 1977 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of queer, black feminist socialists. Originally, Táíwò says, the point of the manifesto was to foster solidarity and build diverse coalitions, but “in the decades since the founding of the Combahee River Collective, instead of forging alliances across difference, some have chosen to close ranks—especially on social media—around ever-narrower conceptions of group interests.”[20] Táíwò writes that the idea of “elite capture” can help us understand how various groups effectively twisted and appropriated the original emancipatory understanding of “identity politics,” and that “It is this ‘elite capture’—not identity politics itself—that stands between us and a transformative, nonsectarian, coalitional politics.”[21] Táíwò adds, “Elite capture accounts for many of the common objections leveled against identity politics, including that it requires uncritical support for political figures based on their identities without regard for their politics and that it often reflects social preoccupations that are ‘really for rich white people.’”[22] Táíwò describes elite capture as “a kind of system behavior—a phenomenon articulated at the population level, an observable (predictable) pattern of actions involving individuals, groups, and subgroups, each of whom may be pursuing any number of different goals from their own narrow point of view.”[23] He goes on to write, “Elite capture is not limited to the scope of their intentions. The constant dynamic of individual and group interactions makes up a social system, and elite capture emerges out of that dynamic.”[24]

The first chapter discusses E. Franklin Frazier’s sociological study Black Bourgeoisie (1955),[25] which Táíwò characterizes as “a pioneering analysis of elite capture.”[26] Frazier argued that America’s black middle class had an “inferiority complex,” owing to the legacy of slavery and racial domination in the U.S., and that the African-American political class had no interest in improving the social standing of blacks as such, unless it directly affected them or improved their standing with white Americans.[27]

The second chapter discusses where and how elite capture shows up in our social conditions. Táíwò discusses Carter Woodson’s book The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). Woodson argued that white elites were able to exert a disproportionate level of influence in the U.S. system of education, and that the information presented to black students effectively reinforced racial hierarchies.

The third chapter discusses Táíwò’s notion of “deference politics.” Táíwò describes deference politics as a culture or etiquette which asks people to “pass attention, resources, and initiative to those perceived as more marginalized than themselves.”[28] For Táíwò, proponents of deference politics consider it a step toward justice to modify interpersonal interactions in compliance with the perceived wishes of the marginalized. In this sense, Táíwò describes standpoint epistemology, which emerged in feminist circles during the 1970s, as a type of deference politics. Táíwò argues that deference politics is not very helpful because it fuels elite capture of identity politics.

The fourth chapter discusses Táíwò’s alternative to deference politics, which he calls “constructive politics.” Táíwò writes that constructive politics focuses on the transformation of social structures as a whole, as opposed to the pursuit of intermediary goals through symbolic means. Constructive politics also focuses on outcomes rather than the process; it prioritizes specific goals or end results rather than avoiding complicity in injustice or promoting purely moral or aesthetic principles.[29]

The last chapter ends with Táíwò discussing the virtues of constructive politics over deference politics: “A constructive program does not ask us to ignore our own interpersonal, symbolic, or material needs, even though it does ask us to be disciplined in how we relate those to the needs of the struggle and of the scores of people and generations that are not immediately present.”[30] Táíwò also notes that the constructive-politics approach is demanding, and that it requires societies to deal with problems collectively.

Touré F. Reed, Toward Freedom

Toward Freedom starts with a discussion of the 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Reed writes that Hillary Clinton represented the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, as opposed to Bernie Sanders who “reaffirmed the public-good framework—established during the New Deal and carried through the postwar period—that was crucial to both the exponential growth of the American middle class and the modern civil rights movement.”[31] During the time of the New Deal (1933–38) American workers won a number of concessions from capital, including the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and other legislation such as: the right to collective bargaining; insulation from financial hardship wrought by termination, workplace injury, or the loss of a wage earner; a 40-hour work week; and increases in minimum wages. Reed: “In the same decade, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would create long-term mortgages, making homeownership possible for most white workers for the first time in the industrial era.”[32] This changed after the Second World War, as “by 1947, a combined Republican and Dixiecrat congressional supermajority swiftly rolled back workers’ rights and tamped down labor militancy,” and “The Taft-Hartley Act (1947)—which eliminated the closed shop, card check and sympathy strikes while placing restrictions on unions’, but not corporations’, political activities—was crucial to this project.”[33] He writes that the situation improved during the Keynesian consensus (1960s to mid-70s), but that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did away with the public-interest model of governance, and ushered in a new era of conservative neoliberal orthodoxy.

He characterizes Sanders as an outsider candidate, writing that his primary challenge led to a Left-identitarian backlash which revealed “a deeply rooted reactionary tendency in contemporary liberal discourse related to race and inequality.”[34] He goes on to write that many progressives, including African Americans, dismissed the utility of Sanders’s platform for black Americans (Medicare for All, College for All, etc.), while characterizing his agenda as “class-reductionist” and coalescing around Left-identitarian political formations. Moreover, in order to shore up support among black voters, the Clinton campaign grossly mischaracterized the implications of the policies put forward by Sanders, such as taxpayer-funded (“free”) higher education, and by “using identitarian constructs to deflect attention from the full implications of their commitment to market-friendly neoliberal policies.”[35] Furthermore, Clinton herself “deployed the language of structural racism and intersectionality to obscure the impact of her husband’s legislative agenda on disproportionately black voters.”[36] He gives the example of Clinton asserting that Sanders’s calls for banking regulations and redistributive policies were of little importance to black and brown Americans, and that such proposals would do nothing to end systemic racism. Instead, she claimed, mass incarceration was the root cause of the subprime mortgage crisis. This is despite the fact that African Americans have historically been overrepresented among victims of predatory mortgage lending, and that mass incarceration of African Americans has been a direct consequence of laws enacted by Bill Clinton. Reed correctly points out that regulation of the banking industry would do a lot to address racial disparities, with the potential of eliminating predatory lending altogether. He writes that other Democratic Party members such as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have also strategically used racial identity politics to shore up the support of black voters.

The first chapter discusses various social welfare programs that were enacted during the New Deal. Reed acknowledges that New Deal programs were marred by discrimination, but that “millions of African Americans benefited from New Deal initiatives—sometimes in greater proportion than their share of the general population, even if they were underrepresented in relation to their need.”[37] He gives the example of the Norris–La Guardia Act (1932) as well as the National Labor Relations Act (1935), both of which he argues “transformed not just the workplace but American democracy.”[38] He writes that such legislation “[encouraged] political militancy among black activists, who came to identify mass protest as a responsibility of citizenship.”[39] And he discusses how the Left-liberal politics which shaped the New Deal eventually culminated in A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement, which called on FDR to address discrimination against African Americans in the workplace.

In the second chapter, Reed discusses the concept of “ethnic pluralism,” and how it shaped post-WWII discussions on American democracy, black politics, and racial liberalism. Reed criticizes constructs like “underclass ideology,” and how they “displace class-based analyses of race and inequality by reifying culture—uncoupling social relations from their proximate environmental influences.”[40] He writes, “Underclass ideology roots poverty in the alleged cultural deficiencies of the poor; diversity-centered calls for access to employment and educational opportunities presume that members of underrepresented groups possess unique cultural traits that might add value to the workplace or classroom; and intersectional political analyses often presume that politics are informed by discrete identity-group affinities that operate independently of material circumstances.”[41] Reed argues that the postwar tendencies to divorce racial inequities from political economy and to place race or ethnicity at the center of discourse on inequality date back to the writings of Oscar Handlin and the Black Power movement. While ethnic pluralism explicitly rejects race science, it also disregards political-economic interpretations of inequality. He writes, “While New Deal-era Communists, socialists and labor-liberals situated both racism and racial discrimination within a larger context of capitalist labor and social relations, white liberals during and following World War II tended to treat racial inequality as a moral dilemma. In other words, liberals came to see racism—the belief in immutable biological group hierarchies—as contradictory to the nation’s fundamental commitment to the basic equality of individuals.”[42] Reed argues that ethnic pluralism is an essentialist framework that understates or ignores the influence of political, economic, and regional diversity over “black identity,” and that it overstates race/ethnicity’s efficacy as an organizing tool.

The third chapter discusses the Moynihan Report, authored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Assistant Secretary of Labor under Lyndon Johnson.[43] Reed writes that the report represented the Johnson administration’s embrace of culturalist conceptions of inequality, since the report argued that “rampant social pathology” among poor blacks was a product of structural inequities or the cultural deficiencies of the African American poor themselves. Reed argues that “Moynihan’s efforts to synthesize a cultural and structural analysis of poverty revealed a conception of structure rooted not in political economy but in ethnic pluralism.”[44] The Moynihan Report played a huge role shaping the Johnson administration’s “war on poverty” program. Reed argues that it embodied “institutional structuralism,” and that the main purpose of Johnson’s program was to address the character deficiencies of African Americans. He writes that Johnson rejected the kind of redistributive policies advocated by individuals such as Killingsworth, Harrington, Randolph, Rustin, and Keyserling, whom he identifies as “economic structuralists,” who viewed poverty through the lens of political economy, and therefore regarded redistributive programs such as public works and job training as the most effective weapons to address poverty.

The fourth chapter criticizes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and the Obama presidency.[45] Reed writes, “Rather than providing policy prescriptions that might redress the material sources of racial disparities, then, the race reductionism that informed Obama’s postracialism and informs Coates’s reparations agenda aids and abets a liberal politics that has been complicit in decades-long wage stagnation and the widening material gulf that separates the nation’s haves from its have-nots, whatever their race.”[46] Reed points out that Coates’s critique of the New Deal centers around two issues: (1) the exclusion of disproportionately black agricultural workers from the Social Security Act (SSA), and (2) the explicit exclusion of blacks from Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) mortgage policies. Reed argues that Coates’s first criticism is problematic because the majority of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, mixed-farm laborers, and domestic workers in the early 1930s were white. Although blacks were overrepresented, whites accounted for 74 percent of all workers excluded from SSA coverage. Reed argues that the SSA’s exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers reflected a convergence of political and economic issues rather than white prejudice as Coates suggests. On the FHA and VA mortgage policies, Reed acknowledges that the policies discriminated against blacks, but criticizes Coates for attributing housing discrimination to “white prejudice.” Reed argues that the desire to discriminate against blacks was driven by the postwar Keynesian consensus, supported by both the Democrats and Republicans to spur a construction boom and stimulate macroeconomic growth. Reed also argues that homeownership was presented to Americans as a passport to the petit bourgeoisie, in the sense that homeownership came to be identified with the ownership class. Finally, Reed writes that homeownership was viewed as a way of curtailing labor militancy and suppressing union activity.

In the conclusion, Reed discusses Left-identitarians’ embrace of race-reductionism during the Trump presidency: “If the Sanders insurgency galvanized centrist-Democrats to coalesce around fundamentally conservative race reductionist frameworks, Donald Trump’s victory over Secretary Clinton has encouraged mainstream Democrats to double down.”[47] He goes on to write that “race reductionists are not simply circumspect about the kind of redistributive politics that would benefit black and brown people disproportionately (though not uniquely)—they are dismissive of, if not outright antagonistic, to such policies.”[48] He criticizes both Obama and Coates for putting forward initiatives such as reparations, which complement neoliberalism’s market-friendly, anti-welfare state politics, “while offering poor and working-class African Americans cathartic symbolic or rhetorical wins as alternatives to substantive improvements in their material lives.”[49] Reed argues that “reified notions of race and racial attitudes are the basis of the appeal of politically infeasible and misguided projects like reparations, and what has generated the swell of provocatively reactionary thought pieces and tweets that seek to explain why the minimum wage, Social Security and ‘Medicare for all’ are supposedly racist.”[50] And, finally, Reed writes that “There is no question that too many Americans harbor racial prejudices; however, those of us who want to eliminate contemporary black poverty and inequality must insist on addressing the material sources of poor and even working-class African Americans’ disadvantage.”[51]

Historical materialism

Identity Capitalists is a thoughtful and well-written book, but Leong provides her readers with a racialist analysis which is divorced from political economy. She fails to explore how socio-political identities are conditioned by the societal mode of production. She neglects to discuss the class dimension of an individual’s identity, which is problematic because individuals who belong to the same racial category can experience starkly different realities based on their class position. The racialist logic in Leong’s analysis is further evident in her critique of the Bernie Sanders campaign: “Sanders has accomplished little of racial substance in the intervening fifty years leading up to the 2016 presidential contest.”[52] Leong’s commentary is strange because she overlooks how many of the policies advocated by Sanders would help non-white Americans. For instance, Sanders’s proposals to end predatory lending by capping the rate of interest on consumer loans and eliminating private credit-reporting agencies such as Equifax, and replacing them with public credit registries would disproportionately affect African Americans. Leong appears to be suggesting that only policies which target specific social groups will improve the well-being of such groups. Perhaps the most notable shortcoming of Leong’s analysis is her failure to acknowledge the existence of America’s liberal / pro-capitalist black political class, i.e. the faction of the African-American community which embraces identity politics, not merely as a strategy for social justice, but also as a way of preserving their own privileged positions within American capitalism.

A significant issue with Táíwò’s Elite Capture lies with his foundational concept, “elite capture,” which he uses to analyze how identity politics is co-opted. The concept struggles to fit within Marx’s theoretical apparatus, especially on questions about the dynamics of exploitation between elites and non-elites, and whether or not elites appropriate surplus-value in the manner Marx describes. The concept of “elite” comes up in conflict theory and the Italian school of elitism.[53] “Capture,” on the other hand, has its origins in capture theory, commonly studied in economics. Stigler famously applied capture theory to examine how regulatory agencies are captured by various special interest groups.[54] The framework is also used to explain corruption, political clientelism, and misallocation of public resources, such as how foreign aid is “captured” by powerful groups in developing countries. There are several issues with Táíwò’s usage of the term “elite capture.” First, the term “elite” is a class-neutral concept. Elites are typically thought of as individuals or groups who are high-status, the most powerful, the best-educated, and/or the best-trained group in a society. They act together to protect their own interests and tend to share a common culture. Elites possess the ability to determine the trajectory of the society, as well as the conditions under which members of that society exist and function. Non-elites include ordinary citizens: regular people who are less powerful, lower status, and/or not as wealthy as elites. An elite is not necessarily the same thing as what Marx describes as a “capitalist,” although they may share some features. A capitalist in Marx’s understanding is an individual that purchases workers’ labor-power and uses it to produce commodities. Strictly speaking, some workers can hypothetically be considered elites, while some capitalists may not qualify. Beyond the issue of alignment, Táíwò’s analysis suffers from similar issues as Leong’s, as Táíwò abstracts discussions of race and identity from capitalist production and political economy.

Reed presents a strong critique of the Obama-Clinton “corporate” wing of the Democratic Party in Toward Freedom. Reed is the only individual of the three who employs a historical-materialist analysis for his examination of identity politics. But he applies it to endorse Sanders over other candidates, a strategy which overlooks the inherent conservatism of electoral systems. Electoral systems by nature are designed to preserve the status quo, making radical societal change difficult. Perhaps electing certain politicians over others is more beneficial for workers, but there are several structural limitations which Reed fails to acknowledge. The most well-intentioned elected officials might find their political agendas stymied by vested interests or legislative deadlock. Moreover, electoral politics inherently requires compromise for appealing to a broad electorate. This often leads to candidates watering down their agendas to gain electoral viability, ultimately moving away from their radical objectives. Finally, elections often function in cycles, so the achievements of one administration can be easily overturned in the next if there is a major shift in power dynamics.

The policies advocated by Sanders deserve scrutiny in and of themselves. Relative to other candidates, many of the policies advocated by Sanders were far superior (Medicare for All, Green New Deal, etc.). But, as much as higher welfare spending and a robust welfare state is desirable, these policies do not fundamentally alter the way in which commodities are produced in capitalist societies. By relying on the state to redistribute wealth and provide services, such policies may inadvertently strengthen the capitalist framework they aim to critique. This is because they leave the capitalist production-relations intact, making the capitalist state appear as a benevolent caretaker, thus potentially entrenching capitalism further. Higher welfare spending also has the side effect of fostering class collaboration. Workers receive benefits that ease the hardships of capitalist exploitation, while the capitalist class consents to these concessions to maintain social peace and prevent more radical demands. Both classes work together within the capitalist system, delaying or preventing the development of proletarian class consciousness, which seeks to overturn the capitalist system altogether.

 The limits of the Sanders campaign were further evident in its inability to challenge the prevailing anti-China consensus in the U.S. Sanders was against normalizing trade relations with China, favoring higher tariffs instead. Tariffs on Chinese goods can boost employment in the U.S., but, since millions of workers in China are employed in export-oriented industries, higher tariffs from a major trading partner would inevitably result in massive job losses / wage cuts for Chinese workers, leading to decreases in their standard of living. It is also worth noting that Sanders often echoed Donald Trump by accusing China of “currency manipulation.” To suggest that such actions place China at an unfair trade advantage over the U.S. is very misleading because it presupposes that China holds a dominant position over the U.S. in global trade relations, when, in fact, the opposite is the truth.

Overall, an examination of the three books reveals many critics of identity politics fail to root their analysis in HM, and to the extent that they do, the analysis is used to defend politicians with an outwardly “socialist” orientation. Both Leong and Táíwò fail to historicize “whiteness” and “blackness,” providing their readers with trans-historic conceptualizations of these concepts. Reed on the other hand succeeds in applying the theory of HM to his analysis of racial identity politics. But, in defending the Sanders campaign, he overlooks ways in which Sanders reinforced capitalist production-relations and US primacy in the global arena. |P

[1] Leong, Identity Capitalists, 3.

[2] Ibid., 4–5.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 7–8.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 23–24.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Ibid., 113.

[10] Ibid., 127.

[11] Ibid., 137.

[12] A decision was made on June 29, 2023: the Supreme Court of the United States effectively overturned previous Supreme Court cases which upheld preferential treatment for minorities in college admissions.

[13] Leong, Identity Capitalists, 140.

[14] Ibid., 157.

[15] Ibid., 178.

[16] Ibid., 180.

[17] Ibid., 189.

[18] Ibid., 190.

[19] Táíwò, Elite Capture, 13.

[20] Ibid., 18–19.

[21] Ibid., 19.

[22] Ibid., 20.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 20–21.

[25] E. Franklin Frazier, Bourgeoisie noire (Paris: Plon, 1955).

[26] Táíwò, Elite Capture, 24.

[27] Ibid., 29.

[28] Ibid., 21.

[29] Ibid., 117.

[30] Ibid., 122.

[31] Reed, Toward Freedom, 1.

[32] Ibid., 3.

[33] Ibid., 4.

[34] Ibid., 7.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 8.

[37] Ibid., 19.

[38] Ibid., 21.

[39] Ibid., 22.

[40] Ibid., 50.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 54.

[43] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington: Office of Policy Planning and Research, United States Department of Labor, 1965).

[44] Reed, Toward Freedom, 80.

[45] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic 313, no. 5 (June 2014): 55–71.

[46] Reed, Toward Freedom, 103.

[47] Ibid., 160.

[48] Ibid., 161.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 165.

[51] Ibid., 171.

[52] Leong, Identity Capitalists, 4.

[53] Prominent theorists include C. Wright Mills, Robert Michels, Thorsten Veblen, and Vilfredo Pareto.

[54] See George Stigler, “The Theory of Economic Regulation,” The Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science 2, no. 1 (Spring 1971): 3–21.