How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)
By Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò
Published by Haymarket Books
In Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else), Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò sets out to tackle the fraught discourse around identity politics by exposing the much deeper dynamics shaping politics and knowledge in society. This he achieves skillfully by delving into the structures that shape our behaviors, the kinds of rooms we inhabit in our daily lives and more importantly, the rooms we are prevented from accessing or hearing from. Along the way, Táíwò provides the historical guideposts and strategic clarity necessary for a highly effective theoretical intervention.
In an age where true left-wing intellectuals and persuasive theoretical writers have all but disappeared from public life, Táíwò’s style and commitment is both refreshing and edifying. The bulk of Táíwò’s citations are to scholar-activists: Amílcar Cabral, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Jo Freeman, Barbara Smith, Micah Herskind, etc. The book thus participates artfully in the long-needed rebuilding of an independent left-wing public sphere.
Each chapter is laced with stories, such as biographical strands from anticolonial movements or the terrible choices confronted by enslaved people. Historical and biographical reference points are integrated seamlessly with the argument, providing both concrete illustration and useful capsule histories of, for example, key themes in the Guinea-Bissau anticolonial movement or the relation of Paulo Freire’s upbringing to his radical pedagogy. Combined with the brevity and directness of the argument, these threads add up to a splendid and provocative book.
Táíwò makes two main arguments in Elite Capture. The first is about a social and political phenomenon that Táíwò, borrowing an analytic concept from the sphere of international aid, describes as “elite capture.” Most pressingly, the term refers to capital’s co-optation of social movements for its own ends, but it also applies to much of contemporary life beyond social movements. The second argument made forcefully in the book is a critique of “deference politics,” or “an etiquette that asks people to pass attention, resources, and initiative to those perceived as more marginalized than themselves.” Not everything in identity politics can be described as deference politics, and Táíwò makes it clear how the radical origins of identity politics itself have been captured by elites and transformed into something new, an ultimately self-sabotaging politics of deference and passivity.
Following Jo Freeman, Táíwò defines “elite” relationally. It is a context-specific term to describe the relationship between a smaller group of people and a larger group, and becomes relevant here via the actions of the advantaged “elite” who often “steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims.” Elite capture describes how “political projects can be hijacked in principle or in effect by the well positioned and resourced.”
Readers may recognize the phenomenon of elite capture by another name: co-optation. Against the conspiratorial implications of that latter term, however, Táíwò is clear that the process of elite capture is not a conspiracy, and has to do with the structure of society rather than the intentions of particular elites. System-preserving outcomes do not have to be (and often are not) orchestrated by elites. In fact, while sufficiently powerful people and organizations are able to change or ignore the rules of the system (capitalism, colonialism, or any other), these elites are themselves products of those rules in the first place.
Elite capture happens on the local, national, and international levels. Beyond social movements, many things have been “captured” by elites: universities, liberal democracy, media, various liberation struggles, values, regulations, the list goes on. Indeed “almost everything in our social world has a tendency to fall prey to elite capture.”
Unsurprisingly, Táíwò is describing the rules of the game of capitalism. In other words, the market dominates all social relationships and interactions under capitalism, shaping them in profound and intimate ways.
In the best tradition of the critique of ideology, Táíwò makes clear (via a deconstruction of the fable of the emperor with no clothes) that none of this operates on the level of belief or ideas alone. The townspeople cheer the naked emperor not because they are duped, but quite simply because if they don’t, bad things can happen to them. The threat is a real feature of the empire, or the society they live in, not necessarily a deeply held belief. Much like Marx and Engels pointed out, the ruling ideas in a society are the ideas of the ruling class. The multifarious constraints, compulsions, and incentives of surviving under capitalism work to ensure that behaviors conform to those ruling ideas, whether they are believed or not.
Understanding the dynamics of elite capture is thus an essential aspect of understanding how society works and, hopefully, of changing it.
The exhortation to “center the most marginalized” in a given conversation, on its face, is an organizer’s common sense. We’re here to liberate all of us after all, and if that doesn’t start with those at the bottom, then history shows the most marginalized will be erased as the campaigns move along. The critique of “deference politics” offered by Táíwò isn’t designed to reorient toward the privileged, but rather to ask whether we can be complacent centering the most marginalized in a given room while the oppressed outside of that room continue to be ignored.
Táíwò argues that deference politics can actually impede “centering” or “even hearing from the most marginalized, since it focuses us on the interactions inside the rooms we occupy, rather than calling us to account for the interactions we needn’t and typically don’t have.”
What Táíwò refers to as “deference politics” is often motivated from a genuine desire on the part of organizers and activists to navigate a social landscape profoundly shaped by settler colonialism, structural racism, and their downstream but violently real interpersonal effects.
The most glaring example here is a modern incarnation of identity politics. But identity politics were not always associated with deference. Identity politics, as described and practiced by the Combahee River Collective, is a necessary starting point for building movements based upon mutual respect and material solidarity.
An imposed “universalism,” especially when imposed from an imperial metropole or position of relative privilege, is at best a projection of mythical organizing conditions, and at worst a call for the erasure of oppressed voices and demands. Only a concrete universalism, rooted in the self-defined needs and aspirations of all exploited and oppressed people, can provide a lasting foundation for a movement to overthrow capitalism and free everyone from its thousandfold dehumanizations.
Over the course of the last several decades, this revolutionary conception of identity politics has partially faded away, especially on the US left. In its place, a hollow corporate imitation has arisen, parroting the language of liberation but offering only cosmetic fixes and representational adjustments while burying the possibility of materially redistributing resources. It is easiest to recognize the hack job done to identity politics in pride-themed corporate logos or diversity/equity/inclusion trainings at Lockheed Martin, but it has also had far-reaching consequences even in left-wing organizing spaces.
The consequences, Táíwò argues, manifest through a shrinking of the activists’ world. The coordinates of activist campaigns shift from global solidarity to progressive representation within the organizing space. Where material aid for and political guidance from the incarcerated was once practiced as a robust form of solidarity, now organizer visibility is determined by the length of the list of discrete oppressions they face. From a politics of concrete universal emancipation, the neoliberal sift has yielded a politics of deference to the most marginalized person in the room, but no further.
The key problem with deference, Táíwò contends, is that
it focuses the very capacity that we have to reconstruct the whole house to the specific rooms that have already been built for us. It advertises itself as deferring to marginalized voices and perspectives, but in conceding so much creative space to the blueprint of society, it is perhaps better understood as deference to the built structure of society.
The critique of such political practices of deference is not new. Unfortunately, most socialist critiques of deference politics revert to a framework that hasn’t incorporated the necessary and revolutionary insights of Combahee-style materialism. As a result, the alternatives presented in such critiques amount to a flattening (and rather toxically masculine) exhortation to “suck it up.”
Thankfully, Táíwò is able to rise far above such superficial rejections and take seriously the (widespread) effects of trauma and oppression on the human beings who are attempting to organize themselves for the fights ahead. Táíwò fully owns the moral dimensions of politics and rather than rejecting emotional responses as apolitical, calls for diverse kinds of “emotional discipline” as an essential part of “constructive politics.”
A Valuable Provocation
The combination of the arguments around elite capture and deference politics is not accidental, but rather seems calculated to provoke two apparently opposed but intimately connected wings of the left. On the one hand, the economic reductionist and electoralist crowd will deride the book because it presents the reality of complex social movements as independent forces, even if the potential for their co-optation exists. These critics do not believe in elite capture as a phenomenon because they do not believe social movements are real or have a vitality and validity of their own outside of being useful props for politicians. In this view, there is nothing to “co-opt,” and social movements challenging racial oppression like the uprisings of 2020 represent elite projects from the beginning, albeit with millions of duped people blithely following along.
On the other hand, many (primarily online) activists whose main form of political engagement consists of outrage performance and holier-than-thou denunciations of the insufficiently pure-of-politics will also spurn this book. These critics believe that “deference politics,” far from narrowing political horizons, actually represent the lived practice of antiracism or antisexism, etc. For them, any critique of the passive politics of deference to the most marginalized voice in any particular room can only come from the right, and any claim otherwise has suspicious, usually surreptitiously racist motives. For this crowd, complicity with oppression must be avoided, even at the cost of accepting the existing rules of the game.
So Elite Capture is bound to piss off a lot of people. It’s bold—and that’s what makes it so insightful.
Theory, History, and Strategy
Some social democratic critics have taken issue with Elite Capture on the grounds that its concepts are allegedly not rigorous enough or that it doesn’t adhere to sanctioned Marxist definitions. Social theory in a strict sense, at least in Marxist terms, refers to an explanation of how different parts of a system interlock and move together. Theory is the blueprint or schemata that strips down the overwhelming social-political formation to its most essential parts and shows the mechanisms by which changes in one area result in changes in another, until patterns emerge and predictions are possible.
Theories such as those presented in Marx’s Capital vol. 1 are absolutely essential for radicals, because mainstream or liberal explanations usually start their explanations of the world by ignoring or redefining the class relations that drive social reproduction and therefore yield completely idealist and individualist frameworks for understanding the world. Good theory cuts through these myriad mystifications by pulling back the curtain and showing the moving parts of the machine.
But theory is like algebra; you’re working with placeholders and at the highest level of abstraction. A good theory can explain the majority of social dynamics, but it is not actually dealing with the real people or relations it is representing. To understand that realm, the realm in which we actually live, we need to add layers of concreteness to the gray abstractions of theory: attributes of time and place, context-specific categorizations like race and gender, and the complex series of events that have produced certain social landscapes rather than others. In a word, you need history. History progresses not through algebraic rules, but through contingent circumstances and human beings acting within and on those circumstances.
Why is this relevant? Because if you can only confront our present reality by convincing yourself you have the all-purpose master key of theory, you are not able to deal with real history or real people. Those people can and will present challenges, resources, and dreams that do not fit with the bare-bones abstractions of the theory. If you cannot recognize the independent validity of these needs and aspirations when they present themselves, such as in the summer of 2020, then you will not be able to organize anything durable or powerful. Táíwò’s theoretical underpinnings are impeccable, but his emphasis on the necessity of concreteness provides a compelling texture and urgency to Elite Capture that books of pure theory, pure history, or pure strategy lack.
Insights for Organizing
In its argument and its style, Elite Capture thus presents piercing ramifications for organizing. Whether building campaigns, coalitions, or organizations, different models and processes are required for collective action. But Táíwò’s alternative to deference politics is specific: “We should calibrate our program directly to the task of redistributing social resources and power rather than to pedestals, attention, or symbolism.”
Such a constructive approach is, as Táíwò acknowledges, extremely demanding. “It asks us to be planners and designers, to be accountable and responsive to people who aren’t yet in the room.” Most importantly, it demands that we then do something to address this separation and the material deprivation shaping our conversations. “We also have to decide collectively where we’re going, and then we have to do what it takes to get there.” This process can only happen collectively, by joining forces in coalitions that respect each participant.
You can create processes that are tested and highly likely to maintain healthy organizing, but ultimately, the implementation of those processes and the perspicacity to change the rules when necessary will only come from the people themselves doing the organizing together. That’s why trust, multidimensional relationships, and compassion are not optional extras in the fight to defeat predatory neighborhood developers or imperialist armies; they are the building blocks of solidarity, our side’s only real weapon.
If we cannot outsource all the work of organizing to a perfect theory, we have to take responsibility for our own political education, we have to talk to each other, and we have to practice accountability to one another.
The book concludes with an insistence that, despite the daunting power of inherited historical circumstances, people do indeed make their own history. For rekindling the left’s ambition, Elite Capture is the right intervention at the right time. Read it and heed its advice.