Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò on Zoom

“Justice at the Necessary Scale” | An Interview with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Drift Editors

History is moving again. The past two years have felt like an avalanche of breaking news — from the onset of a world-altering pandemic, to a protest movement that upended the public conversation on race and the carceral system, to wildfires and larger-than-ever storms. Meanwhile, power and money continue their seemingly inexorable rise to the top, and the government (Democratic or Republican) advertises its bumbling incompetence on a near-daily basis. It’s hard to keep track, let alone know how to respond.

To think it all through, we talked to Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown, where he teaches social and political philosophy with an emphasis on climate justice, racial justice, and the Global South. His first book, Reconsidering Reparations, is out this month, and his second, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), will be published in May. 

Over Zoom, we asked Táíwò about the climate crisis, the Covid-19 response, the ruling class, woke capitalism, and what to expect from analytic philosophy. 

You use the concept of reparations in your work. Why is it the right way to think about climate change? 

This concept comes from the long history of activism for reparations. For centuries, people around the world who were enslaved, displaced, abused, exploited, and owned by the people and organizations at the top of the global social order have pushed for reparations. And many have put forth a vision of reparations that wasn’t just about transferring dollars from the wrongdoers to the wronged. It was also about a broader transformative vision for eliminating the kind of social system that would exploit people in the first place and building the kind of social system that was just and characterized by self-determination for everybody who lives in it. And that is the vision that we should have in the struggle for climate justice, because that is a vision of justice at the necessary scale.

In many ways, what is at least seemingly new about the climate crisis is that it cuts so cleanly and so extensively across the imaginary lines we’ve drawn on maps that supposedly divide us from each other. In a lot of ways, the ongoing central problems of climate politics have been about how to apportion responsibility and action across these imaginary lines, which capital has never had to respect, but people supposedly have. There’s not a lot of precedent for a self-consciously planetary-scale politics, but we find, at least, useful tools for developing them in the history of reparations activism. 

We also find them in the global anticolonial movement that followed the Second World War. Anticolonial activists were very self-consciously trying to build justice on a planetary scale. They wanted a new international economic order, they wanted broad redistribution to the looted parts of the world from the parts of the world where a lot of that wealth accumulated, and they wanted to forge new kinds of relationships across the lands and seas — among people who were in a position to determine their own destinies, and to relate to each other as neighbors and friends on the basis of solidarity, as opposed to a basis of domination. That worldview is alive today. It’s not something that any of us created; it’s much older than that. But it’s a team we can all be on, and should.

What would true climate justice entail? What should the role of powerful nations like the U.S. be, and what should the left push for?

Broadly speaking, we need all kinds of transitions. One about which a lot of ink has been spilled is, of course, the energy transition. Since we currently have a dirty, emitting form of producing and distributing energy on this planet, we need to shift in a massive way to renewables. That means, functionally, we need to destroy the fossil fuel industry. No other fancy gadgets that we come up with can possibly replace that uphill political battle in making sure that we have a livable and just future on this planet. Part and parcel of that energy transition is a political transition, away from the current paradigm in which the individuals and corporations who command the lion’s share of capital get to decide how things work — not just in the industries they control, but in the governments and communities around sites of extraction, and in the countries where the greatest extraction occurs.

That is a political structure, every bit as much as it is an economic structure. And it’s a political structure that is authoritarian, and one in which shareholders and executives make the major decisions about planetary resources and living conditions, and the only kinds of people that can challenge them are those who can buy and sell stocks at a massive scale. This political system needs to be replaced with a much more broadly democratic one, in which decisions about resources, about energy, and about social life in general are under the control of the people who have to live with the consequences of those decisions. 

A climate justice movement needs to push for more democracy and for a renewable energy transition, but we also need to take stock of what history adds to present conditions, both ecologically and politically. And that’s where the question of what rich countries have to do comes in. It’s one thing for rich countries to contribute to something that is, at least in dollars and cents, redistributive, such as the Green Climate Fund, which moves dollars from rich countries to the developing world to help finance green development. But we should still be asking a lot of questions about those dollars. For instance, do they create debts? Or are they taking the form of unconditional grants, in which case they neither create debts nor empower multinational corporations or rich countries to decide how the dollars get spent?

Broadly, I would say that climate justice is going to require widespread debt cancellation, especially the debt of developing countries. It’s going to require individual, unconditional cash transfers to the people most marginalized and oppressed by the systems of racial injustice that created our present world — Indigenous peoples, the descendants of the enslaved — and also to the countries and communities most ravaged by that same history: the Global South.

Two years in, how are you thinking about the government’s early (and continued) response to Covid-19? What does it tell us about how we’ll be able to deal with the escalating effects of climate change?

Nothing good. The government’s response to Covid is troubling — predictably troubling, but maybe that’s the most troubling aspect of it. Jen Psaki scoffed at the idea that the government could just provide things that people needed. And now we have a form of test provision that establishes private insurance companies as an intermediary. It’s this kind of public-private partnership that I think is increasingly taking hold in climate politics as well.

This is a path that leads down to the worst versions of how climate change could play out over the next decades, and the remainder of the century. If the powers that be want to put crucial questions about how social resources are going to be managed into the hands of investors, shareholders, and executives, then they are telling us one of two things: either they believe that a humane, rights-respecting, and dignity-respecting response to climate crisis is also going to be profitable — a suggestion which I find fantastic and utterly unbelievable — or they believe that the fact that it’s going to be profitable is the only thing that matters. In other words, it’s okay if the most vulnerable people, who have contributed least to the problem in the first place, are sacrificed to secure the profit margins and the standard of living of the people at the top of the global hierarchies. You’ll notice that, either way, profit is maintained: for the powers that be, there is no door where shareholder return gets sacrificed. So I’m less than reassured by the current trajectory of climate politics at the level of our formal decision-making bodies like the White House and Congress. But I am reassured by the climate activists who have demanded more, and who will continue to demand more. If there’s a way out of this, then that’s where it’s going to be.

What did the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 substantively change (and what didn’t they change)? 

I think that’s a hard question to answer at this stage. If we were evaluating now, we could at least say that defunding police, and challenging the structure of mass incarceration, is no longer a fringe issue that only activists know about. So at least the conditions for genuine changes to those structures have been put in place by the unprecedentedly large mobilization of people against racial injustice that happened that summer. Whether or not that will translate into lasting political changes, whether or not police departments are going to get their budgets significantly slashed in a permanent way or are going to be entirely disbanded, and whether or not there are going to be mass prison closures — it seems a bit too early to tell. These kinds of massive changes often unfold on large time scales. I don’t want to say I’m optimistic, but I think there’s a real possibility of serious change.

Tell us about elite capture. How do you use the term? 

The term originally comes from social science fields like economics and political science, where it’s usually used to describe situations where a country or province gets aid money, and a bunch of the aid money that’s supposed to be for everybody ends up in the hands of whoever’s the big guy on campus. In its broadest application, elite capture is what happens when resources in politics and social life are grabbed up by the people who are most advantaged. Sometimes the resource is dollars. Sometimes it’s attention.  

Often when we think about elite capture, we think of it as people at the top being greedy. That’s not irrelevant, but we have all kinds of ways of making sure (or failing to make sure) that money, wealth, attention, and so on get shared equitably, and that our political agendas take into account the most vulnerable and not just the people with the biggest microphones. When our political institutions fail, that’s when elite capture becomes a system behavior and not just the moral failings of the people who are the most advantaged.

How can we see elite capture at play in conversations about which voices are represented and who gets a seat at the table? 

Discrimination is bad, whether it happens to people who are well off or whether it happens to people who aren’t well off. Show me racial discrimination, I’ll show you something I oppose. But at the same time, we could ask how much of our social attention goes to the question of who’s in the boardroom or who’s going to elite colleges, and how much of it goes to the funding structure of higher education, or to our education system as a whole, including K-12.

How much of our attention goes to whether or not the actors in movies are from this or that demographic group, and how much of the attention goes to whether the crew who make movies get paid well or get basic protections? Or to the demographics of the people holding the cameras, putting makeup on people, and making the costumes? We see a lot of talk about representation in ways that presume that we should be talking about the most advantaged people and how they’re represented. That is part of the discussion we should be having, but not necessarily the entirety of it.

What is the ruling class? How can we understand the different kinds of power that dominate today?

I’ve been racking my brain about this — because I don’t know. 

This is going to be very strange: I don’t think there’s a ruling class in the sense of a shadowy room of people who get together and decide what’s going to happen to the rest of us. So if your guiding metaphor for thinking about the ruling class is the Illuminati, or a comic book villain in a swivel chair, petting a cat, there’s no ruling class in that sense. 

So what do we have instead? Well, we have a planet-sized social system that is accompanied by a spectrum of power. That system is very responsive to the decisions of some people, your Jeff Bezoses, your Donald Trumps, your Kristalina Georgievas at the International Monetary Fund, and very unresponsive to others: Indigenous people at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, black people at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, etc. 

The closest we can get to identifying a ruling class is by a kind of social scientific investigation of the top of the spectrum — the people and organizations whose decisions change the material, social, and political environment the most. There, you’re going to find a motley crew of different kinds of people and organizations. Some of them are asset managers like BlackRock and Vanguard, some of them are the ruling political elite of countries towards the top of the geopolitical hierarchy, maybe the upper echelons of CCP, the United States, and Russia. You’re going to find corporations like Amazon and Lockheed Martin. But the ruling class is just the highest level of the competition. It’s more like the NBA than it is a council of people.

Why do people often frame race and class as competing priorities? How should we move beyond the idea that they’re mutually exclusive?

I go back and forth on this myself. It’s one of those things that you understand less and less the more you stare at it. At least that’s the way it’s been for me. I can’t quite understand why it is that race and class get posed as alternatives to each other. 

At the end of the day, I think what we’re talking about is power. Whether we use the term race or class, we’re talking about stratifications of power. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has offered a really nice way of thinking about stratifications of power: she uses “vulnerability to premature death” as a metric, which I think is right. Elsewhere, I’ve tried calling it “material security.” Take the things that you need to live: housing, land, food, water, energy, security from interpersonal violence, and secure access to all of those things. Not only are there deep stratifications in who has access to those things and who doesn’t, but part of the reason why some do is the oppression of other people. And we can get very specific about that. For example, look at the wars of Native elimination that were responsible for settling much of the U.S. — and the continents on this side of the Atlantic — and what kind of labor regimes with enslaved Africans made those things possible, and what kind of terrorism and policing made those labor regimes possible. Whether you’re talking about the nineteenth century or today, if you look at the people who are most oppressed by class or race, you’ll find that they’re the ones who are most vulnerable, and have the fewest protections. 

I don’t see much of a point to yelling at each other about which words we prefer to describe those stratifications. Stratifications are there, and we can organize them in our heads however we like.

What do you make of the (right-wing, left-wing, and centrist) critiques of identity politics?

I get the sense that the center, maybe center-left, criticism of identity politics — the one that uses phrases like “the marketplace of ideas” — is something like an affirmation of previously hegemonic status quo cultural values: good old ideals like objectivity and academic work and journalism, a kind of superficial commitment to equality, and the sense that the norms that come with those ideals create a kind of license for anyone to have any view. 

On the right, there’s an understanding that identity politics is something that works against the kinds of privileges that they like and want to preserve, or extend, or even create. But it’s not clear to me that you have anything that I would call a principled criticism. To the extent that there is, it’s just equivalent to the centrist one, but more often, it’s just an internally incoherent set of oppositions. It’s pure opposition politics: identity politics is the thing the snowflake, avocado-toast-eating libs are up to, and we want to own the libs (and everything else too). And then there’s the left. As far as I can tell, the predominant left criticism of identity politics takes one of two forms. There’s the one that we could caricature as class reductionist, where one kind of identity is considered to be the most important — there is one thing about you that should inform your politics, and it’s whether or not you own the means of production. And if you’re trying to make other things about you seem as important as that, then you’re making a mistake. 

Then there’s a more tactically-minded flavor of criticism that’s just leaning on observations — for example, that racism and other forms of identity-based discrimination are things that are used to divide the working class. It’s not so much taking a stance on what is really most important about you, as it is taking a stance on what kind of identity we have an instrumental reason to take as important. If we take class identity as important, we might win something as a result of doing that.

At the end of the day, I think there’s something to most of these critiques, with the exception of the right version. But I also don’t think there’s any at least conceptually unresolvable tension between identity politics and these other political aims. There’s no reason why someone who thinks homophobia is bad and wants to organize around that politically shouldn’t also be a communist, or an anarchist, or whatever. There just isn’t a there there, from a conceptual perspective. Whether or not, in practice, you have to make a choice — I think that’s a complicated, very contextual question, but even there I’m a little bit dubious. I just think it’s a completely false, forced choice between identity politics and other, maybe more class-oriented ways of thinking about the world.

What is behind woke capitalism? Where’s it going next?

Actually, I think woke capitalism represents a substantive victory of the left and the forces of justice. Especially in the U.S., we on the left are primed for failure and even obsessed with it, for good reason, because we usually lose. But in this case, we just get to take the win. Since the end of the Second World War, there have been substantive victories against very explicit, very codified forms of racial domination and apartheid and patriarchy and homophobia. Ultimately what this all adds up to is a new global, moral consensus on whether or not those things are okay. And today, even the people who own the most material resources have to hew — at least in their P.R., at least cosmetically — to this new consensus. That’s not a total victory against all of the forces of injustice, and it’s not indicative that there’s no fight left to be had. But it is a major ideological victory, and we should accept it as such.

Has the discipline of philosophy become too insular? Is analytic philosophy, in particular, a dead end, or can it be useful for a progressive politics?

It’s strange that this is the question that I think is going to get me in trouble. I take that back. I do think analytic philosophy can be useful for change. I’m actually a little bit surprised that it hasn’t been more often. And the reason for that is that “analytic philosophy” really isn’t a thing. It’s three book clubs in a trench coat. It’s a bunch of people who kind of agree on their list of favorite philosophers and also agree on what kind of sentences are cool. But there’s no other real, substantive content to what analytic philosophy is, as a mode of reasoning or methodology, which means you can do anything with it. You could do the analytic philosophy of omelet-making. Nothing inherent to the discipline stops people from using it for, for good — or for evil, I should say. It’s all social norms all the way down. As far as I can tell, the field has largely been irrelevant to politics and the world. We have nothing to say for ourselves, right? I can’t imagine what a defense of that aspect of analytic philosophy would be. We can point out that there have been analytic philosophers who have done very cool, very influential work — arguably, computers exist because of analytic philosophy and early work done on logic — and these are the examples that analytic philosophers always bring up. But there’s nothing stopping us from doing more. Maybe that sounds like a cheery note on analytic philosophy, but it also means we don’t have any excuses.