You have no doubt heard the story of the emperor who had no clothes. Hans Christian Andersen began the tale with the following:
Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed. He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, going to the theatre, or going for a ride in his carriage, except to show off his new clothes.
Two swindlers, claiming to be weavers, came to town and said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. They were not only colorful, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.
The clothes hanger the emperor was handed held nothing at all, but that didn’t stop him from putting on the “garment” and walking around naked. Having heard that to point out the obvious would confirm one’s own incompetence and stupidity, none of his subjects dared to point out the obvious. The spell holds until a young child yells, “But he hasn’t got anything on.”
As I was reading a new book, this fable came to mind, but this time with new characters in each role.
Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) (2022) by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is a short but powerful work that examines the polarizing discourse of “identity politics” — from the campaign trail to the classroom — and how political, social, and economic elites have captured a phrase and political viewpoint for their own use. First articulated by radical Black feminists, identity politics was “grounded in their own position as Black lesbians with the explicit aim of building solidarity across lines of difference.” The elites, funded by billionaire libertarians, have weaponized the phrase “as a means of closing ranks around ever-narrower conceptions of group interests.”
In looking at how this capture and weaponization took place, Táíwò notes that the concept of elite capture originated in the study of developing countries to describe the way “socially advantaged people tend to gain control over financial benefits, especially foreign aid, meant for others.” The concept has also been “applied more generally to describe how political projects can be hijacked in principle or in effect by the well-positioned and resourced.” Táíwò notes that identity politics has come under the increasing domination of elite interests who control many aspects of our social system. Socially advantaged people “tend to gain control over benefits meant for everyone.” Often those who benefit the most are the ultra-wealthy, supported by enablers in politics and the media.
To respond, the author expresses a preference for outcomes over process.
We should respond to the problems of elite capture, and the racial capitalism that enables it, not with deference politics but with constructive politics. A constructive approach would focus on outcome over process: the pursuit of specific goals or results, rather than mere avoidance of “complicity” in injustice or promotion of purely moral or aesthetic principles.
The socially advantaged gain control not because they are necessarily smarter, but often because others refuse to call out the obvious, just like the emperor’s handlers and subjects. There are many examples that demonstrate why the fable fits so well in our current culture.
For instance, we have created a compensation system that has its foundations in the myth of America as a meritocracy and rewards the few at the cost of the many. Earlier this year, Apple’s shareholders approved a total compensation package that came to nearly $100 million for CEO Tim Cook. They did so despite a shareholder advisory firm recommending against the deal because it was so excessive.
Apple is certainly a thriving company, churning significant growth and rising shareholder value. Even so, it’s fair to ask whether Tim Cook was worth 1,447 times the median pay of Apple employees for that fiscal year, which is what he was ultimately awarded.
The short answer: he’s not.
As Amanda Marcotte wrote in Solon, perhaps we are finally beginning to see the negative impacts of such a corrupted belief system, getting the point that billionaires aren’t any smarter than other people and don’t deserve our praise. “Between Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Holmes,” she asks, “who still believes that money equals brains?” If you add in the false belief that money equals altruism, I will also name Rupert Murdock, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, and a host of others.
Are we beginning to see that the billionaire has no clothes?
Marcotte writes that it has long been evident that Elon Musk is a moron, at least to those willing to see it. * “For those of us who always thought Trump was a dingleberry, it may not seem readily apparent how much he’s really gotten a boost from the widespread assumption that wealth comes attached to inherent smarts.” ** In the cases of Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried “it should have been obvious that what they were selling to investors was pure nonsense.”
Even (Bill) Gates and (Steve) Jobs, who were unquestionably brilliant at developing and marketing innovative computer technology, have lost a little of their luster. Jobs, of course, died of cancer after convincing himself that he knew better than doctors how to treat it. Gates, meanwhile, blew up his marriage by acting like a garden variety jackass. Even genuinely smart people can be stupid sometimes. More importantly, a bunch of people who have tricked everyone into thinking that they’re geniuses are finally being revealed as the imposters they always were.
Táíwò’s work explains the complex process of elite capture and helps us move beyond a binary of “class” vs. “race.” Reminding his readers that the point is to change it, he works through ways to read the room we’re in, find ways to ensure that the marginalized are in the room, and — ultimately — to build a new house completely. By rejecting elitist identity politics that benefits billionaires in favor of a constructive politics of radical solidarity, he advances the possibility of organizing across our differences in the urgent struggle for a better world.”
It is time to recognize that the billionaires, and other elites, have no clothes. It is time to focus on building and rebuilding the rooms of democracy. Táíwò notes that it takes planning to create these places. The question the constructive program asks is: Will the plans be theirs or ours?
More to come…
*On the day my piece was posted, commentator Oliver Willis sent out an essay that read I Think Elon Musk is Just…Dumb. I have to agree.
**Marcotte adds this delicious takedown of the myth of Trump: “To be clear, I don’t think Trump’s a total imbecile. He’s a skillful criminal with a certain low cunning. He’s just bad at all the things his defenders wanted to believe he was good at: Business, governance, literacy.”
This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
The drawing of the Emperor by William A. Methven