How the Elite Captured Identity Politics
It is not because you are listened to that you are heard
How do you tell the difference between a tool and a weapon? In his recent book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Seized Identity PoliticsGeorgetown scholar and philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò wrestles with the battering ram of identity politics, from its theoretical origins as defined by the Combahee River Collective to its contemporary bastardizations. The elites are amorphous moving targets for leftist and conservative critics who routinely shift much of their own anxieties onto those perched at the top of the economic pile – as well as those languishing at the bottom. The elites become the beacon children of unearned status and venal opportunism. Stitched across the wonky political spectrum, they’re the comic book villains of newspaper columns, talk radio, and top-selling polemics. According to Táíwò, a society’s elites are those who accumulate the greatest concentration of its resources, political and discursive power, agency, and epistemic authority.
By fleshing out his theory of elite capture – a concept rooted in development theory – Táíwò tackles the morbid addictions that arise when elites “capture our conversations…for the same reasons and in the same way as they capture everything else”. Reaching into 20th century philosophy, game theory and anti-colonial struggles, the elite capture of mass consciousness described by Táíwò has parallels in Fanon’s scathing critiques of the national bourgeoisie and in the Walter Rodney’s analysis of “poor quality, imitation, absence-“. the lustrous comprador class of Africa and the Caribbean, who controlled the spread of information (and were, at least in Rodney’s eyes, devoid of any basic sense of noblesse oblige). When illustrating the capture of the elite, Táíwò highlights the cloistered, increasingly multiracial managerial classes that dominate the self-oiling machines of knowledge and cultural production. “When the rest of us make choices about what to watch or read or respond to,” he explains, “we mostly make choices in an environment shaped by the elites.”
Drawing on the lives and intellectual contributions of Carter G. Woodson, Lilica Boal, Paulo Freire, and Amilcar Cabral, among others, Táíwò presents the fight against elite capture as a struggle that spans centuries, from the militant, anti-imperial underground of Cape Verde to the educational battles waged by black organic intellectuals in America’s progressive era. Táíwò is openly internationalist in its analysis. In his introduction, he situates the George Floyd uprisings within a larger matrix of police violence ranging from Brazil – where black men account for more than three-quarters of those killed by Rio’s law enforcement over the past decade – to the Nigerian government’s brutal crackdown on anti-SARS protesters. But if the cultural logics of Anglosphere elites are felt and exported disproportionately around the world, their uneven diffusion has its limits. The politics of the South, with its animating and impoverishing consequences, is not largely concerned with the mediation of language and offense, nor with the identity consecration of trauma. By sliding too far, Táíwò risks getting lost in translation.
“We are surrounded,” he writes, “with a discourse that locates attentional injustice in the selection of spokespersons and book lists taken to represent the marginalized, rather than focusing on corporate actions and algorithms that distribute attention much more powerfully.” There are well-intentioned motivations that further entrench elite capture, rather than undermine its mechanical reproduction. Chief among them being the “politics of deference”: the moral authority and political astuteness attributed to marginalized individuals found in the rooms where power congregates. In its crudest form, the politics of deference demands that we solemnly listen to the marginalized and focus their concerns. For Táíwò it is ‘overeating[d] moral cowardice”, an “abdication of responsibility” on the part of those who are too unwilling, too consumed by an almost psychosexual need for penance, to think and act for themselves. More urgently, the politics of deference can be cynically instrumentalized by a ruling class that can handpick the marginalized voices that least threaten their interests. Black women in particular occupy a totemic role in the psychic drama of the politics of deference, one that smothers us in an airless cage of political mammification. But it is not because we listen to you that we hear you. Or that you’ll always be welcome if you start saying the wrong things. Despite the underlying good intentions behind the policy of deference, which Táíwò generously acknowledges, such a policy is disciplinary in its action, trapping appointed representatives of the marginalized in a “hero class” in order to assuage the guilt of all others. . Centering others while libidinally keeping everything about you is a sleight of hand that has unnervingly unified the language and priorities of activist and corporate cultures. Today, the centering resembles the wave of lucrative jobs in the media, advocacy and nonprofit sectors, and cultural industries that are opening up in the wake of the latest high-profile spate of killings. state-sanctioned police. Some perish, and others publish. Personal advantage is political. The Black Death cottage industry continues.
In his 1959 essay “Engagement in politics”, EP Thompson defined the history of the English working class as a struggle between competing moralities. The bourgeois fantasy of the working class underestimates the tensions and conflicts of working-class life, emphasizing “the absolute autonomy of cultural phenomena without reference to the context of class power”. Thompson offers us a quick way to name the politics of deference for what is often: shameful evasion. Where criticism is most scathing is often where it is most needed, where conflict can generate clarity of vision and organization. This kind of critical work carries a terrible responsibility, as it did for guerrilla intellectuals like Rodney who, to paraphrase Immanuel Wallerstein’s assessment of his legacy, lived through these critical implications and was murdered because of them.
Elite Capture shines best in the chapter “Reading the Play”, where Táíwò’s central analogy of the play is stretched out from different angles; “History has built the plays around us; we find ourselves in places, and with people, resources and incentives, that we did not choose. White House Situation Room. Writing. Conference room. Who populates these halls of authority and excessive influence? Who speaks in them, even in protest? Táíwò draws our attention to absences hidden in plain sight: “From a structural point of view”, he writes, “the rooms we don’t enter, the experiences we don’t have (and the reasons why we are able to avoid them), may have more to teach us about the world and our place in it than anything said in it”.
Mapping his own intellectual genealogy, Táíwò takes us back in time, beginning with his Nigerian parents’ move to the United States—made possible by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act’s preference for skilled labor—where they joined an immigrant community that enjoyed considerable success in their adopted country. Advanced placement and high school classes would follow, along with the later path to higher education where his initial thoughts on elite capture would first be published as an article in Philosopher. Far from being a smothering nod to lien checking, such accounting has a useful mirror effect: you begin to interrogate the history of the rooms you have frequented and those to which you have remained strangers. Like me, you might even wonder how you ended up with Táíwò’s book in your hands. Allow me to retrace my own steps. A bookish childhood spent in terrible schools, and supplemented by the help of formerly lower-middle-class Somali parents coping with the vertigo of refugee-induced downward social mobility while still being cushioned by the education their old class status afforded them. Youth development programs run by literary activists; mentors; graduate studies; social circles that estranged me from my neighborhood peers even as they provided me with many lessons in code-switching and professionalization. All of these steps were crucial to becoming the kind of person who writes a book review for an arts publication.
People are not stupid. They know when they are written as empty abstractions. They know when they’re not really welcome in the room, even when they are the subject of his conversations. For readers who have never been ideally placed to exploit the worst forms of identity politics, who are not skilled players in the games of cultural mystification, who cannot smoothly market their abjection, for those who are already outside the room, Elite Capture will confirm more than it disputes. For everyone else, Táíwò’s contribution is an encouraging step towards a “constructive politics” that aims to free us collectively from the violent overdetermination of our lives.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Seized Identity Politics is published by Pluto Press