Do the Politics of Class and Race Stand in Tension?
Yascha Mounk and Olúfẹmi Táíwò discuss to what extent the ambition to redress past injustice can inspire a positive vision of the future.
Olúfẹmi Táíwò is a philosopher and an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. He is the author of Reconsidering Reparations, and his latest book is Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Olúfẹmi Táíwò discuss the difference between identifying the wrongs of the past and charting a road for progress, why we shouldn’t shy away from pursuing difficult political goals, and how we can better build movements around shared interests.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I was drawn to your writing by your idea of “elite capture.” What do you worry about with elite capture in general, and what do you worry about in particular at this moment in the United States?
Olúfẹmi Táíwò: With elite capture itself, I worry there's a kind of path dependency: the longer the more entrenched elite and top heavy social institutions exist, the harder it seems to reverse—barring some kind of weird cataclysm or accident of history. Once you start to lose the kinds of institutions that are designed to challenge elite control over everything (unions, strong social movements, etc.), I worry that even increased attention or understanding of social problems won't do anything. And then there's a worry about the kind of conversation around elite capture and identity politics, so-called “wokeism,” and cancel culture. I worry that people are going to get the impression that the problem is simply people believing the wrong things, or being swayed by the wrong norms, or that—according to a slightly more sophisticated version—we're developing the wrong habits because of social media. Broadly speaking, I think all of that is true. But those are more effects than causes; the real thing that's happening is the actual institutions where we develop habits, where we refine our ideas, are more and more owned by and responsive to a very small group of people. That, in and of itself, is the problem.
Mounk: As I understand it, your argument is that, since 2020, we’ve done a lot of diversity training, we’ve fretted about whether people of different identity groups can understand each other (which is part and parcel of standpoint epistemology) and we made sure that the boardrooms were more diverse. But the fundamental structures of society remain in place. Is that a problem?
Táíwò: I think that's right. The broad problem is pretty much as you put it: the kinds of solutions that occur to us, if we think it's simply that people believe the wrong things or have the wrong habits, are interventions that get us to think differently—diversity training, or even particular kinds of teaching or pedagogy, some of which might be good ideas in and of themselves. But I don't think any of those are going to address the thing that they're being called to address. If you really want, for example, a better culture in universities, I think you need a better university system in general—more like the California Master Plan, which provided substantial public funding to allow people to go to school for very cheap, and which naturally brought lots of different people from different backgrounds into the higher education system. It's that kind of intervention that is going to drive the changes that we're looking for, if we're worried about culture.
Mounk: I get a sense of why something like the California Master Plan might be really appealing. But I'm not sure that I yet see, from what you're saying, what the current framework fails to achieve.
Táíwò: Fair question. I'm trying to see what the current framework does achieve. What's the output of diversity training, in terms of political outcomes or social interactions? I think what I'm getting at is not just different modes of attacking the problem, but a different understanding of what the problem is in the first place. The cultural problems that we have around how people are talking about identity politics are more often red herrings. People lament polarization, and the kinds of discussions that folks have on social media and talk shows, but I don't think that's what’s actually driving people up the wall. That's just the place that we've located the culture war in this particular decade. But I think there's a sense that people feel powerless and disconnected, and there's a question of who and what to put the blame on. These kinds of cultural battles about who gets to play what sport and what gets taught in K-12 education just offer themselves up as a place to get purchase on those things. But I don't think there's any version of responding to that kind of diagnosis of the problem that would solve the thing that, it seems to me, people are worried about.
Mounk: Reading your work, I’m wondering to what extent your concerns are similar to what Adolph Reed, Jr., a recent guest on this podcast, calls “race reductionism.”
To what extent can we summarize the most important takeaway you offer us by saying: we keep thinking exclusively, primarily about race and identity, when we really should be thinking about economics and social class? How much does that capture, and how much important insight does it leave off the table?
Táíwò: I think there's something to that. There's definitely a way that people can talk about race that might distract us from a more complex understanding of what's going on, and that would include class and economics. But that's not a particular feature of race discourse. You could talk about anything in a close-minded, reductive sort of way. My particular perspective on this has as many bones to pick with class reductionism as it has with race reductionism. So I wouldn't describe the takeaway of this book as an attack on race reductionism in particular. Maybe it would be better to just describe it as an attack on reductionism.
Mounk: Let's see the flip side of it, which is class reductionism. We've heard some of your concerns earlier in this conversation about what happens when you try to solve the current problems of the United States through at least one particular kind of race reductionist framework. But if you say, “This is all about class. As long as we elect Bernie 2016—to caricature a little bit—and give lots of nice European-style welfare state benefits to poor people, all of these other problems will go away,” that perhaps would be a form of class reductionism (there are more and less radical versions of it).
What would that get wrong, both about the current state of America and how to fix what's wrong with the current state of America?
Táíwò: I think that version of class reductionism has a lot more going for it than most other versions of class reductionism. Maybe that would get somewhere: just give people a bunch of money, free healthcare, etc., and the rest will sort itself out. I don't think that's true. But I think it's worth pointing out the differences between a kind of class reductionism about how we should respond to social problems, versus a class reductionism about what those sorts of problems are in the first place. I think a lot of people move back and forth between those two kinds of class reductionism, and they're really different, at least to me. It just isn't true that mass incarceration is purely a problem of class. It has a lot more to do with class than people give it credit for, and the way that poor white people are policed is maybe not as different from the way that poor people of color are policed as people might guess, but it is measurably different. There's libraries of social science explaining why it's different. It just isn't true that the problems of toxic waste and environmental racism are entirely explained by class or the level of income of residents. There are measurable relationships between the demographics of a community and zoning decisions about industrial pollution. If you're looking at what our world is—how it decides who to make predator and who to make prey—there are just more things going on than class.
It might nevertheless be true that if you give people a bunch of money, they will be able to organize and defend their interests in a way that responds to the racially stratified political system. That might be true. I don't know. But I would love for us to try it and find out. And you could believe that without believing the class reductionist idea about what causes the social problems in the first place.
Mounk: I find that American discourse tends to be, in important ways, race reductionist; that all kinds of things which obviously have a class component are seen exclusively through the lens of race, even in social science, where people might see a correlation between two things and put it down entirely to race when a part of the effect is clearly driven by social class. And then I go to France, which tends to engage in class reductionism; it tends to see everything through the perspective of class to the exclusion of important ways in which race drives some of it.
Do humans generally, including philosophers and social scientists, just have trouble letting go of one master narrative? Are we just hardwired to want to see the world through one prism? As the saying goes, “If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It seems to me that, in so much of intellectual life, it ends up being true.
Táíwò: I don't think we're “hardwired” in any sense. I don't think we're looking at nature, because there have been eras where there was a much different relationship between these various narratives. This isn't talked about so much these days, but in the decades following the Second World War, there were a host of national independence movements in the third world. A lot of those folks were very flexibly moving between talk about race, class, and gender. Even in the United States—especially those who saw themselves in solidarity with international movements.
There have been, as a matter of fact, historical eras and epochs where people just seemed willing to accept, or respond to in friendly ways, different overlapping narratives about what the world was like, what was wrong with it, and what to do about it. I think what we're seeing in our time period is not the effect of some deep-seated human inability to move between different narratives of the world, but a manufactured kind of scarcity and competition between political narratives. Part of the manufacture of that has to do with the way that the platforms we use have been constructed. I think the better part of explaining that has to do with the kind of austerity moment that we're living in, where there's fewer and fewer parts of the economy where people can experience anything like economic security, which fosters a sense of competition between the people who have resources and the people who don't. I think those are the things that we should look at if we're trying to explain why people talk about politics, or many other things, in the ways that they do.
Mounk: I don't mean that it's inescapable. By “hardwired,” I guess what I meant is that there may be a tendency towards it, which speaks to parts of our nature. I found it quite convincing—this is partially just Miłosz’s explanation of the captive mind—that there is an intoxication in being able to waltz into any conversation and say, “Well, actually, that's all wrong. I have a vocabulary that I've learned—a certain form of Orthodox Marxism—that tells me that this is all about class and class relations in this particular kind of way, and not only does that make me feel like my life has meaning (because I'm a foot soldier in an important, transhistorical movement for justice), but also, I get to lord it over you a little bit, right? Once I've mastered it, I can go in and say, ‘Hey, you're an idiot.’”
It seems to me like some of our intellectual class today suffers from the same temptation, and can walk into any conversation saying, “Well, this is about white privilege and microaggressions.” You get to go into a conversation with people discussing other terms and dismiss them without having to think very hard. Do you think there's something to that parallel?
Táíwò: I think that's right. There's a few kinds of temptation going on. I agree that people want to be able to feel like they understand something, and potentially to lord that over people. They want to feel like they're part of something. They also don't want to feel like they don't understand: complexity is daunting and humbling in ways that not everybody accepts. I'm coming around to why you said “hardwired.” Find me a generation of people where those desires aren’t pushing at us, right? Maybe in different ways, responding to different history. But those temptations are going to be with us.
What's different to me about what's happening now is not those desires, but the relative absence of the checks on those desires. Decades ago, if you wanted to have the perspective that communism has figured out everything—i.e. ”Our intellectuals have the master narrative of what's good and what's bad, and they have created the singularly most important movement for justice in history”—one of the things you would have had to do is respond to a bunch of people saying, “Well, here's what the Soviet Union is actually doing. Here's what Mao's up to. Here's what's happening in Albania,” and you would have to position yourself in response to that. You may do that in a healthy and honest way, with integrity. You might fail to do that. But those are things that you would have to answer, and not just answer in an interpersonal way. There were real geopolitical stakes to those questions—intense state competition in the era of the Cold War between the First, Second, and Third World-aligned nations. You weren't just talking about your identity; you were talking in a real way about your position in a global struggle.
Now, in the age of the so-called “end of history” (maybe we won't want to describe it that way anymore), that's no longer the geopolitical situation. In the United States, there is a kind of hegemony of capitalism as the actual master narrative—regardless of whether we give it a thumbs up or thumbs down—that explains what happens in our lives. There's a functional hegemony of the core US political institutions, military and national security. Again, there are people who would give those institutions a thumbs down, but those institutions do not fear that they will not exist in a few years. So it just means a different thing to have any kind of opinion on political matters, master narrative or not. It means a different thing in our context to succumb to those desires, because there isn't any real political situation or set of institutions forcing you to have a “come-to-Jesus” moment about whether those desires should really be directing your behavior. There's none of the brakes or constraints that there might have been in particular, other eras—or less of them, maybe.
Mounk: I agree with much of that description. After all, what Fukuyama means by the end of history is that the absence of ideological competition is precisely at the core of “the end of history.” And I think in a certain kind of way, he's still right. Ideological competition has sort of gone. But I am nevertheless worried about the way in which authoritarian populists are able to effect a change of political regime without having to advertise that openly; what people like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán (and in a different way, Hugo Chavez) are up to: “The current elites are holding us back from having really democratic institutions, so we’ll sweep those aside.” Because they’re also anti-pluralist and unwilling to accept legitimate political opposition or the need for institutions like independent courts or a free press, they effectively attempt to build a dictatorship of a new kind. In some cases, they succeed.
I agree with you that that isn't exactly on the plane of competition that existed before 1989, and that Fukuyama had in mind, but I suppose you can actually get to radical political instability and a real move away from the core institutions without having that kind of ideological competition. I'd love to hear your response to that.
Táíwò: Yes, I think we're both worried about that. I might just contextualize it differently. There is a worry that the US might go in the direction of a kind of authoritarianism that wraps itself in the clothes of liberal democracy and that installs itself while wearing those clothes, like Turkey. I don't know how. Let me put it this way: as I see it, the danger isn't that we'll enter a new era where that will happen, but that that thing, which we've seen before, will continue. What you're describing to me sounds much like how many historians might describe the late 19th century US. The era of banana republics was a little more brazen. And there's the complications of the US and multinational companies as outside actors. But you might say there's a long history where there is, occasionally, some voting happening. And I think you and I would probably agree about that.
Yes, I too am worried about the way that things might go and the way that authoritarianism might install itself. I just don't think it has much to do with whether or not there's kind of a unique historical crisis with liberal democracy. I think the crisis is more general and geopolitical, especially as the climate crisis upsets the balance of power between corporations and the rest of us and between various states in the state system.
Mounk: I want to talk a little bit about the subject of your other book, which is reparations. There is a kind of philosophical rationale for reparations which is actually not especially controversial, which even libertarian philosophers like Robert Nozick would get on board with. To sketch his theory in the very broadest and most simplistic terms: justice consists of justice in acquisition, justice in transfer, and then the principle of rectification. As long as you acquire property in some legitimate way, moving onto some plot of land that nobody is using in any real way and farming that—not exactly how the colonization of the United States worked historically, but let's use that as an example—that’s perfectly appropriate.
But if I actually did go and steal somebody's land, if I did force somebody to sign a contract by the threat of violence, then the principle of rectification comes into play. They should be compensated for that injustice, which justifies something like reparations for slavery, which involved forcing people to do productive activities for the benefit of others in ways which are evidently unjust. That gives you a libertarian justification for reparations, and the moral force of it is relatively straightforward. Talk us through both why you think reparations are important and why that relatively straightforward justification of the need for them is wrong.
Táíwò: I actually quite like Nozick’s view, relative to lots of the other views on offer. I like Rawls’s view less. In general, the good thing about Nozick’s view is that it’s historical and process-based. If you want a rhetorical justification for reparations, it's a great tool. Some people prefer to use Locke's view of reparations, but I think Nozick’s is actually better if you want a plausible, philosophical view out there. But imagine actually believing Nozick’s view—believing that the justice of somebody's holdings, the stuff they have, depends in an important way on the facts and status of how those holdings were acquired.
Now, say you have a view of history that's anything like mine, where the thing that you mentioned—about how the US was actually colonized—is foregrounded; a view of history where the fact that we have a planet-sized social and economic system, and the process of creating that planet-sized system was colonialism and slavery on a planetary scale. Now, imagine trying to apply Nozick’s theory in general, and not just to the issue of reparations. It would be difficult to say, from that vantage point, which holdings are justified—including the holdings of the people who presumably should be getting reparations. It’s probably not going to work. You tell any historically serious story of how anybody owns anything, and you're telling a story that runs into some injustice. And so I think you need a different way of framing the basic issues of what reparations is and what it should accomplish. I call the view I prefer the “constructive view,” and it basically begins with the historical points I just mentioned. If we're talking about slavery and colonialism, we're talking about the construction process that built this world, which explains who has both good stuff like wealth, and bad stuff like pollution. The right way to think about reparations is to build something else that will distribute the costs and benefits of that construction process in a way that responds to yesterday's injustice.
Mounk: I get the criticism of Nozick. It does seem as though if you actually take seriously the history of the world—the complications in who acquired what and how—you end up in a situation where you might conclude that we have to rectify everything. It then becomes very difficult to know what the next steps are. But I'm trying to think through whether the paradigm shift you suggest—of approaching the world with the constructive view—gives us much more clarity about what to do now.
The recognition of the deep injustices in the past certainly seems relevant, but it does not seem to answer the question of what to do. If it turns out that keeping a version of current global capitalist institutions is, in fact, the thing that's going to allow India or Kenya to develop the best in the next 50 years, that seems like a pretty dispositive reason to do that. If it doesn't, then that seems like a pretty dispositive reason not to. To what extent are we just actually back in the good old fashioned land of disagreements about economic theory and the impact of different kinds of economic institutions?
Táíwò: I agree with much of that, so the helpful thing to say first might be to answer the initial question you posed. Accepting this view of reparations doesn't tell you much about what particular world we should be trying to build. It tells you that we should be trying to build a world that is just and it tells you that its success in being just will depend on responding in the right sort of way to yesterday's injustice, and building tomorrow's justice in the right sort of way. It tells you all that, but it doesn't tell you what institutions will get the job done. And part of the point of my developing this view was to say exactly that. There is a lot of scholarship that has a kind of rules-based—deontological, if you like—principles-based approach to racial justice that says, “We know for a fact that there was injustice in the past, and the responses to that are due,” and that doesn't look into the consequentialist question of, “Will this or that response actually change the world?” And I'm opposing that, among other things. It has to be part of your view that doing this or that will actually move the world in the direction of justice. Getting that done requires paying attention to empirical geopolitical realities.
I suspect that we may have different kinds of guesses about what institutions will be helpful to African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Kenyans or Nigerians. But I think we at least agree that it has to be true of whatever interventions we go for that they will make life, and the world, better.
Mounk: I guess the question is how much of the disagreement just turns on which policies and interventions are actually going to help. I wonder whether the topic of reparations, if it really got political traction, could just turn into another field for the culture war. I'm not at all instinctively opposed to reparations. What I worry about is whether it's possible to implement them in a way that is politically sustainable and actually helps people. Another really important question is, “Do we get our economic policies right?” Do we get the basic setup of national and global institutions right? That's going to determine, for example, how people in formerly colonized countries are going to fare in 25 or 50 years. Whether or not there's some form of reparations just seems like it's going to determine much less of the well-being of people in those countries than those other questions will.
Táíwò: All the action is happening in the word “right”—what's the right economic policy? You can see a view about reparations as an attempt to ask, “What are we trying to do by way of refining economic policies?” I think there is a kind of broader, politically fleshed out version of that in which we're trying to build economies, and worlds, of solidarity and self-determination, which increasing income certainly contributes to, but does not exhaust. But not even the technocratic version is, in my view, plausibly read as a goal of our current institutions—whether it's aid from rich countries, or the operations of the World Bank, the IMF, or the WTO. Don't get me wrong—I think there's a lot of honest individuals in those institutions who really want to make things better for people. But is the goal of the World Bank to increase the quality of life for Kenyans, even in the narrow economic sense? There's just no plausible sense in which it is. We all, for reasons of politeness, sit down in these groups and pretend like it is, because that's what their fucking reports say. But no one believes that. In that basic definitional sense of what the goal of any of this stuff even is, in refining our economic or economic and political institutions, reparations would be meaningfully politically different from the status quo, even if it's just because improving the lives and political conditions of black, indigenous, and formerly colonized people becomes an actual goal of the system. And currently, it plainly is not.
And it will be a culture war to get reparations passed, not because reparations—the word itself or even the particular conceptual moves on the terrain of world history—are intellectually anathema to the world, but because people just don't want to help other people; because the political elites in the rich countries of the world don't have, as one of their goals, making Kenyan or Trinidadian lives better, or even making their own black populations’ lives better. That's the source of opposition. Once you've taken a political stance that is trying to do that—it doesn't really matter what you call it—there's going to be political opposition. I think a lot of times people ask, “Well, you know, if you ask for reparations for racial justice, won't that be unpopular?” Yes, because people don't want it. That's just built into the nature of political struggle. It's one thing to understand real limitations as to what you can actually achieve, but it's another thing to build those limitations into what you want to achieve. Maybe we can't win, in this generation, this or that particular political demand, but that isn't a reason not to want it.
Mounk: That makes sense, and speaks to your thoughts about the nature of political struggle as a multi-generational enterprise; that the moral arc of the universe is so long that we should think of ourselves as the ancestors of those who might succeed.
I realize that it’s not primarily your job as a philosopher, but how do you think about what political language and rhetoric, or what form of political coalition, will be capable of moving the world towards adopting policies that will make it more just?
Táíwò: One of the ways I think about building coalitions, partnerships, and alliances is by thinking about the kinds of contingencies that come up when you're talking about something on the scale of world building. You can build the world in different ways, and some of those ways might narrowly serve some particular interests, and others might narrowly serve another set of particular interests. If we were imagining it in black and white—to use suggestive terminology—we can build a world in a way that would 100% help out black folks. We could at least conceive of doing that. We could also conceive of building the world in a way that would 100%, or close to completely, help out white folks. But there's all kinds of other options in between those extremes, and I think the work of coalition building is to find a way of building institutions, goals, and political structures that harmonize your goals with the goals of others.
The institution of the union is not only a historically good, but conceptually a good example of this: we could each individually try to win the best individual contract that we want by sitting down with the boss and saying, “I would like this much pay and this many benefits,” but some of us would do better than others. Or we could make a thing that allows us to bargain together, bargain collectively, and all do better. It's not as though there aren't differences between us. It's not as though we all become perfect people that experience perfect levels of altruism. Rather, we actually make it the case, by building a certain kind of political institutions, that what's in your interests is in my interests. That's not something that was built into the structure of political reality, and it’s not the only way that we could have come together, in a union. But it is a particular way of organizing ourselves, together, and a particular political possibility that we bring into existence by forming a union. That's the kind of thing that I think is going to work, in general.
It might not always be a union; it might be some other kind of coalition or social movement. But you have to actually make it true that your interests and other people's interests align. It's not required that everybody benefits in the exact same way or to the exact same extent. All that's required is that there's a connection between what's good for you and what's good for me, and we can actually build that and make that the case, and not just react to the particular incentives that are already built into the world as we find it.
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