In his new book, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Olúfẹmi O. Táíwò outlines a theory of power and resistance, and the ways in which resistance can be co-opted through “elite capture.”
The concept of elite capture originated in the post-colonial context around concerns that international development aid was being used to serve the interests of local elites at the expense of less powerful groups. Táíwò repurposes this concept to describe a much broader phenomenon: the ways in which our social and political environments are built in order to funnel public goods and resources into the hands of elites. Through an elliptical style that weaves together philosophy, fiction, and history, he theorizes the structural arrangements through which powerful interests capture material goods – like infrastructure or marked up government contracts – as well as more abstract goods like knowledge, values, social prestige, and even political projects. For Táíwò, elite capture describes the corruption of every aspect of our lives by the rich and powerful.
While attempting to address elite capture in general, Táíwò’s book focuses in particular on the elite capture of a specific political project: identity politics. He argues that the idea of identity politics (first popularized by the 1977 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of queer, black feminist socialists) was initially a political strategy with true emancipatory potential and which aimed at fostering solidarity and collaboration. Today, Táíwò argues, identity politics has become a strategy used by isolated individuals to deflect responsibility and turn collective traumas into matters of personal injury; as identity politics was captured and mutilated to serve elite interests, it transformed into what Táíwò pejoratively calls “deference politics.”
Deference politics shares three assumptions with identity politics as it was originally conceived: “1) knowledge is socially situated, 2) marginalized people have advantages in gaining some forms of knowledge, and 3) research programs (and other areas of human activity) ought to reflect these facts.” Táíwò argues that this epistemic approach has been co-opted by the rising professional managerial classes in the past several decades because it allowed them to signal virtue and enact symbolic change without fundamentally changing the structure of the system itself. The problem, Táíwò argues, is not the core ideas of deference politics, but rather the ways in which these ideas are converted into practice.
Elites create the structures in which we live: the academic, financial, political, and media institutions that limit our horizons of possibility. Táíwò argues that deference politics seeks to operate wholly within the already existing institutions (or “rooms” as Táíwò refers to them throughout the book) without altering their underlying structure. The call to “center the most marginalized” turns into a call to center the voices of people already in the room (elites) who symbolically represent a particular group; regardless of whether those individuals actually share relevant lived experiences with the group, or, more importantly, whether they substantively represent the group’s interests. An idea that originally aimed to use the knowledge and experience of marginalized people to challenge capitalism and oppression became a tool of the elites, giving power to elite members of marginalized groups through the already existing channels of power, while thwarting attempts to dismantle or work around those channels. As the elite capture of identity politics occurred, the original communal orientation was increasingly discarded in favor of an individualism compatible with the market logic of neoliberalism.
Táíwò argues that appointing the elites of marginalized groups to positions of power within the existing system is not cause for celebration if they fail to represent the interests of the group, and neither are symbolic victories which direct attention away from the underlying political issues. As Táíwò points out, painting “Black Lives Matter” on the streets near the White House did nothing to stop the police from brutalizing protestors; if anything, it was an attempt to deflect attention away from substantive demands. Identity politics has changed what power looks like, but not what power is.
According to Táíwò, identity politics is right about the importance of paying attention to lived experiences and to difference, but it fails to apply these principles in a constructive manner. Instead of locally and symbolically elevating the voices of those already in the room, Táíwò advocates a “constructive politics” which seeks to tear down oppressive institutions while building up life-giving institutions – to “build and rebuild rooms rather than regulate traffic between them” (112). While deference politics identifies the main problem as a lack of black female CEOs, constructive politics critiques the very existence of a CEO class.
Táíwò uses historical narrative to construct his theory of elite capture and of the constructive politics which has risen up to challenge it throughout history. His history traverses continents and centuries following a series of thinkers, revolutionaries, and activists whose work pointed out the trap of elite capture or demonstrated the potential of “constructive politics.” His protagonists include early 20th century black intellectuals in the United States and North Africa, mid century Guyanese and Cape Verdean revolutionaries, and contemporary trade union, racial justice, and debt cancelation movements. History and theory isn’t abstract and bloodless for Táíwò; it is immediate and personal; he writes history from the perspective of the individuals who lived it, and who tried to change it.
Táíwò weaves in and out of different narratives; he begins a point only to weave in a new element and return to the point several pages later. His theory is elucidated through continuous and interweaving narratives and lines of thought; this contrapuntal style makes the book engaging, but it can also become confusing at times, leaving the reader without a clear sense of the purpose of a section until later. It is an exciting and immersive book on the first read, but the main lines of argument only become clear on the second read.
The book follows three threads: a general theory of elite capture, a critique of the captured form of identity politics (“deference politics”) summarized above, and a proposal of a “constructive politics” that, unlike “deference politics,” is able to avoid elite capture. However, the relationship between these three ideas is at times unclear, in part because the phenomenon of elite capture is never fully elucidated. Táíwò understands elite capture in a very broad sense, referring, at times, to the system of power itself (capitalism, according to Táíwò, is the elite capture of the means of production), and at other times to the process by which material and immaterial goods produced outside or on the margins of that system are integrated into it, and captured by elites at the top. The book suggests a broad theory of power which understands elite capture as a system and as a particular process occurring within the system, operating in material as well as immaterial realms. But Táíwò only elaborates the concept in the context of identity politics, and ultimately fails to deliver a unifying conceptual framework which would crystallize elite capture as a new analytic category and clarify its relationship to deference politics and constructive politics.
The book provides a new and insightful framework through which to understand power. It introduces many suggestive trains of thought, but sometimes fails to tie them together. The power of Táíwò’s writing is also its weakness – his expansive vision suggests many fruitful lines of inquiry, but these lines of inquiry extend into regions that the reader will have to navigate on their own.