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When Did the Ruling Class Get Woke?

The protest movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd is now regarded as the largest mass mobilization in the history of the United States, and, significantly, as the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò points out, was distinctly global in scope. From the old colonial capitals of Europe to cities across the Global South, people took to the streets to protest not only wanton police violence in the United States but also local appendages of the global machinery of white supremacy and state violence. As Táíwò puts it, people around the world were “fighting on their own front[s] in the same struggle.”

Of course, corporate America, always willing to appropriate the next big thing, got in on the action too. While those who took to the streets forged solidarities across difference and found new ways to care for their comrades, carrying extra masks and hand sanitizer along with bottled water and milk to soothe tear-gassed eyes, Silicon Valley tech giants, multinational banks, and purveyors of every conceivable consumer good co-opted the language of protest and justice to grotesque and absurd effect. Whether it was Amazon, Goldman Sachs, or Fox News, corporate America’s statements of apparent sympathy or feigned outrage belied its reliance on the very white supremacist structures that offer a ready supply of precarious Black and brown labor and that the 2020 uprising sought to dismantle.

In that moment, we saw the language of identity, and identity politics, sundered from material reality and tasked instead with casting multinational corporations as ever-reasonable, enlightened allies of the anti-racist left—a far cry from the Combahee River Collective’s original formulation of identity politics as a means of addressing identity-based exclusions in the social movements of the 1970s. For the Collective, identity politics was a principle of solidarity and a form of analysis meant to facilitate organizing and struggle around “interlocking” conditions of oppression across racial, sexual, gender, and class differences. Instead, identity politics became, at best, a hollow shibboleth and, at worst, a reputational cover for corporate and political elites.

For Táíwò, this represents a particularly glaring instance of the elite capture of identity politics: a process through which “political projects can be hijacked in principle or in effect by the well positioned and resourced,” while the fundamental structure of the social order—and its attendant inequalities—remains unchanged. Rather than redistribution, redress, or reparations, corporate America and the political elite alike embraced the language of identity to assure those making radical demands in the streets that political change might just come one chief diversity officer at a time.

In the face of such cynicism and intransigence, Táíwò proposes an alternative way forward: broad, coalitional political organizing in the tradition of the Combahee River Collective and the anti-colonial movements of the Global South with an explicitly redistributionist bent. In other words, to make the world anew. I spoke with Táíwò about elite capture, the promise of internationalism, and the political importance of a good plan. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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