Movement Challenges

Against the Current, No. 222, January/February 2023

Owólabi Aboyade

Elite Capture
By Olúfémi O. Táíwò
Haymarket Books, 2022, 168 pages, $16.95 paper.

Elite Capture by Olúfémi O. Táíwò makes critical, controversial, interventions into today’s progressive politics. The author is an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and writes from the framework of the Black radical tradition.

Seeking to engage in today’s social movements, the book is worthy of intergenerational discussion from the grassroots to the halls of today’s intelligentsia.

Elite Capture uses the folk tale of the “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as a central metaphor to investigate the ways in which people, like most citizens in the fable, capitulate to power. Why were they motivated to cheer and encourage the naked ruler?

It is, Táíwò argues, the strength and confidence of the elite to overpower others, even influencing them to act in ways contrary to their core belief system. Perhaps the cheering citizens were afraid of punishment; maybe they had business interests to protect or wanted to advance their political connections. Perhaps some felt the pressure to remain silent in the cheering crowd.

Captured by Elites

Táíwò defines “elite capture” as the phenomena by which political or social projects can be “hijacked in principle or in effect by the well positioned and resourced.” (10) Readers of this magazine know that organizations can shift over time to cater to the needs of philanthropic funders, the leadership of middle-class staff, the trends in social media or the priorities of the Democratic Party. Demands of family, health and personal stability can in?uence radical youth to moderate their public activities.

As slogans with progressive potential such as “Black Lives Matter” become popular, we see forces that are well positioned with media resources or institutional power assimilate them. They provide a version of these movements that is more palatable to mainstream taste.

Mayors, congresspeople and even corporations have proclaimed “Black Lives Matter.” Its power as a slogan of resistance is transformed with each instance of elite capture.

Táíwò is critical about today’s popular modes of politics, especially as they depend on identity politics. He’s critical of “politics of deference,” which he sees as capturing and transforming identity politics.

Identity politics began as a way of creating space for peoples of multiple marginalized identities, to enable them to participate fully in broad political projects such as socialism or nationalisms. Now, at its weakest, it is empty of ideology, merely encouraging the group to follow the leadership of the “most oppressed identity” in each space.

The book is not just a criticism of the mechanisms of assimilation or appropriation. Táíwò calls for a principled and “constructive politics” that can bring about change by intentionally working towards “redistributing social resources and power rather than pursuing intermediary goals cashed out in symbols.” (84)

The author places his analysis in the context of the “decline of liberal democracy” taking place globally as political institutions have been increasingly forced into the logic of the corporation.

Advancing for almost half a century, this process has led to the privatization of public services, to “public-private partnerships” to ?nance infrastructure, mega tax breaks, structural adjustment and debt service. Such measures are rarely debated, and in fact are often celebrated as achievements.

Instead, Táíwò argues, struggling collectively for material gains would help activists understand this shifting global landscape, the landscape in which we all work and survive.

This book calls for movement activists to develop a culture in opposition to the mechanisms of power we experience. These mechanisms facilitate buying and selling — rather than liberation, self-actualization, authentic relationships, or spiritual expressions. Táíwò argues that “value capture” is another mechanism dominant systems use to accumulate participation.

It’s one thing to go along with these mechanisms of power and come home and laugh (or cry) at it all. But they are dangerous when they come to replace in our own minds more complex sets of values.

In capitalist society we may be too tired, too overworked, too stressed, or in a few cases positively incentivized, to undertake rich processes of self-evaluation, so we may measure effectiveness by the number of likes or clicks we get or the number of stars we get on evaluation sheets.

“This kind of process is always a possible result of social interaction, but the distortions to our values are sharpest in social systems and environments where this simplicity is built into the structures of reward and punishment…. Even outside of work, social media features such as likes, shares, and retweets play the role of points in games.” (52-53)

Especially for a generation that calls coping skills “life hacks,” processes of incentive creation and use of such shorthand can lead to both changes in behaviors as well as subtle shifts in values for the users.

For Táíwò, a constructive politics is one that produces improvements in the material conditions of peoples’ lives with the long-term goal of changing patterns of domination. He uses examples from the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and their anti-colonial organizing to posit how an organization with strong revolutionary principles can include some people of privilege who can make significant contributions.

Elite Capture warns against not just violent and blatant coercion, but also hegemonic and subtle signals that define and then normalizes how the “game” of life should be played. The author quotes PAIGC leader Amílcal Cabral as saying “imperialism domination… for its own security requires cultural oppression.”

Constructive politics for Táíwò includes institution building, cultural work guided by transformational principles and struggling collectively to meet the material needs of the people. According to him, the latter is too frequently missing from popular identity politics. He links this directly to elite capture of today’s radicalism.

Táíwò sees much of today’s radicalism is about changing patterns of domination via how we interact with each other and symbolic victories. Thus, he suggests the need for “deference” may be overstated in some political circles today.

Applications to Today’s Contexts

I agree with the criticism that the politics of deference assumes all oppressed people are a monolith. If white activists are encouraged to “listen to the Black voices in the (coalition) room” then they usually aren’t encouraged to question “which Black voices should we follow?”

Táíwò points out that often too few “minority voices” are gathered. Categories of oppression can come to trump political experience or even an organization’s mission.

I don’t think Táíwò states clearly enough that social class has too often been eliminated from the list of identities that progressives ?ght over. The almost invisible weakening of democratic practices means that market principles have snuck into our daily interactions.

The constructive politics that Táíwò is yearning for needs a class analysis about how low-income, subsistence-income and no-income folks are pushed out of the institutions of this pro?t-based society — or given shoddy and detrimental versions of these institutions. Again, Táíwò points in this direction with his criticism about prioritizing “how we treat each other in the room,” but fails explicitly to note that the identity of economic class is often left out. Isn’t that a perfect example of “elite capture”?

I find this book particularly valuable because there is a legacy of grassroots organizing in Detroit that has much in common with Táíwò’s call for “constructive politics.” Detroit’s movements have been rooted in collective struggles for the basics of life: water, housing, food, education, electoral and communal power. For a generation or two, I believe younger activists’ identity has influenced their organizing goals and methods more than the local organizing that which preceded them.

Environmental Justice Politics

I think Táíwò’s description of constructive politics can be pushed further, especially in how he distinguishes it from deferential or identity politics. As someone who spent over a decade in environmental justice (EJ) struggles in and around Detroit, I was struck by his reference to the Flint water crisis. Here I want to raise two important criticisms of his approach, but ones that I think will add nuance to his concept of constructive politics.

First, the author fails to mention that Flint is a majority Black city (54%). Nor does he note the history punitive policies the city has endured. They have the effect of what Walter Rodney would call the “underdevelopment” of these socio-political spaces. Instead Táíwò uses terms such as “the people” or “residents and activists,” implying that Flint’s situation is generalizable to any other American city.

Táíwò does acknowledge that Flint’s struggle for justice is incomplete. But considering the history of Environmental Justice struggles, that gap between what is ideal and what is accomplished is far from random.

https://jimwestphoto.com

When we compare EJ “victories,” we most often we find differences clearly based on race. One local example is when Detroit-based Marathon Oil expanded in the 48217 zip code area (the most polluted in the state); white homeowners were bought out while Black residents fought for a decade afterwards for compensation. (See https://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html)

While uplifting community organizing, Táíwò fails to mention that in the United States there is another level of organizing that must take place. Asking the question of “who is at the table” is not about mere symbolic recognition.

In the racist United States of America those who are closer to the ideal of white, middle class and propertied are more likely to be recognized and compensated in material ways. Usually after victory is declared and the news cameras have left, Black and Brown folks must keep struggling.

Merely calling Flint an “incomplete victory” after the children have suffered from lead poisoning that can’t be undone fails to place the Flint water crisis in the appropriate context of ongoing attacks on our well-being when we live in racialized/colonized communities.

Second, Táíwò writes of Flint: “The alliance of residents and scientists won” (106). Again another layer of organizing is missing from his brief picture. Scientists, public health workers, journalists, academics are in these struggles as related to their careers and chosen professions. They are often “playing a different game” than parents and family members who are seeing their neighbors and loved ones get sick and die.

This is not to say that there is not overlap. There are professionals who grow up, live and work in EJ communities. The reality, however, is that professionals have more opportunities to monetize their findings and build a “name” or career on the successes of these initiatives (and the sufferings of local communities). Professionals usually control the grant funding and resource generation connected to this work; professionals may even be prohibited by their employer from working on an issue if it con?icts with its institutional or corporate aims.

In EJ struggles I’ve witnessed people’s lives damaged from the stress of media coverage and having their personal lives become a symbol of a “social issue.” Yes, the resources that professionals like scientists bring can have positive results. But what it takes to make a successful and constructive politics must recognize that people come to the table with different vulnerabilities and incentives. In some ways this is further application of Táíwò’s elite capture — these professionals are vulnerable to specific forms of capture that can undermine the constructive politics Táíwò envisions.

In Environmental Justice organizing the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing are a tool that is used to bridge this gap in a principled way.

This short list of six transformative values has been used for organizing situations where differences of class, institutional access and profession threatens to derail or deform coalition organizing. With tools like the Jemez Principles, we can use the lens of identity politics to recognize potential ?ssures in a coalition and move towards possibilities of shared revolutionary principles.

Concluding Thoughts

What do we lose when political discourse discusses race much more easily than class? Perhaps the way to constructive politics is obscured and a kind of “elite capture” takes place. Police shootings are seen as a “Black issue” but the way that racial capitalism functions in thousands of smaller, ubiquitous, still brutal ways remains hidden.

What about hunger, medical negligence, housing insecurity and many other ways in which Táíwò’s constructive politics points towards revolutionary politics?

Even the shorthand acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) can function as value capture for the settler state. It covers over the fact that both Indigenous Nations and Afrikan peoples are struggling for sovereignty as a part of liberation. This is different than racial oppression as “non-white peoples.”

If we don’t foreground this struggle, both the politics of deference and the author’s constructive politics will ignore the operation of the settler state. Institutional patterns of control will not be swept away even if “radically transformed” or “liberated.”

It’s profound that the author’s historical examples from Guinea and Cape Verde seek both liberation from a colonizing force and transformation of institutions and communities. But the present-day examples speak only to the institutional status quo and community transformation. Missing is the need to dismantle the settler USA along with the work to transform institutions, policies and our communities.

Elite Capture would also be a valuable engagement for feminist abolitionists. I think they would push his criticism and analysis forward. He quotes abolitionists such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Micah Herskind. Yet very often abolitionism today looks to intersectional feminism and Black feminisms as a foundation.

I think stronger and more principled organizing would come from engaging with his criticisms of politics of deference and common uses of identity politics. I imagine that part of the problem is not found in abolitionist theory or practice itself. It’s an example of elite capture — how power works — that any political ideology if popularized past the point of organizing infrastructure and political education will be vulnerable to assimilating into less powerful and less transformational versions.

Elite Capture is a valuable book to the extent that it can be discussed intergenerationally and in diverse organizing contexts. While elite capture takes place wherever there are power differentials, the prevalence of social media, the loss of the job economy and rise of the hustle economy, as well as the spread of non-profts as employers and social agents make Táíwò‘s cautions about “playing the game” extremely relevant.

Activists today must tune into how our reliance on corporate social media communications helps to popularize concepts and memes way past the capacity for political education. Engaging and discussing “elite capture” is urgent in today’s globalized, vulnerable, violent world.

January-February 2023, ATC 222

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