By Dominy Gallo
Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Pluto Press, 2022
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Oxford University Press, 2022
‘What does it mean,’ asked Audre Lorde at a feminist conference at New York University, ‘when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?’ Her audience stunned, she answered herself: ‘It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.’
The year was 1979, and the ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ was outraged to have been invited, by way of two cursory and last-minute phone calls, to serve on ‘the only panel at this conference where the input of Black feminists and lesbians [was] represented’. It was with a ‘particular academic arrogance’, as Lorde termed it, that the organizers of the event had neutralized wealth, whiteness and heterosexuality in the women’s cause by presuming that any serious engagement with feminist theory could proceed ‘without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians’. The talk Lorde went on to deliver would include the line so heavily quoted in feminist and anti-racist circles it has taken on the quality of gospel. But ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ is more than a metaphor; it’s a call to action: develop new tools and build a new house.
Lorde’s negative syntax belies the generative possibilities of her affirmative claim – and its invitation to be radically imaginative. Many critics of various American abolitionist movements – of prison, of police, and of the immigration enforcement agency ICE – relentlessly miss this point. They think only of the house dismantled, not of the new one we might build in its place. It is telling, for example, that Angela Davis described the limitations of her ideological opponents’ worldviews as a failure of imagination when she wrote that the persistence of efforts to reform rather than eliminate prisons ‘is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.’
But imagine we must. And for Davis, as for Lorde, behind the language of negation lies a politics of promise. For ‘an abolitionist approach’, she writes, ‘would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions … [P]ositing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment.’
These revolutionary thinkers insist we see beyond the absence syntactically foregrounded by critique to focus, instead, on the creative demands of structural change. Their tradition comes alive in the writing of the Georgetown philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, whose two recent publications have taken activist circles in America by storm. Indeed, it is likely no accident that, in Reconsidering Reparations, his January debut, and Elite Capture, released this May, Táíwò adopted Lorde’s extended metaphor in terming his project one of ‘world-building’ and his politics ‘constructive’. ‘I’m encouraged by the work people are doing to build things,’ Táíwò told Claire Schwartz in an interview for Jewish Currents: ‘workers building unions, people building resilient food systems outside the control of corporations, communities building non-carceral strategies for preventing and responding to harm.’
The ‘master’s house’ that Táíwò invites us to dismantle and replace is the world order shaped by the forces of ‘global racial empire’. This structure’s foundations are old and ossified: they date to the time of Columbus. To uproot them, his debut publication insists, will require a far more involved imaginative project than the restorations implied by ‘repair’. He writes with clarity that transfixes as it excites: ‘If slavery and colonialism built the world and its current basic scheme of social injustice, the proper task of social justice is no smaller; it is, quite literally, to remake the world’.
In its power not only to shape the present moment but to direct past and future resources across time and space, the architecture of global racial empire is closer to an aqueduct than to a house. Táíwò’s variations on Lorde’s structural theme render his first book a philosophy of motion; it is as interested in the forces moving our politics today as in the momentums we’ve gathered from our past. ‘When we understand the structure of the world as the pattern of its motion,’ he writes, ‘we can discern where these invisible currents we get caught in are coming from, and where they are going.’ Reconsidering Reparations applies this logic to demonstrate how the structures of global empire saddle today’s most marginalized with the historic weight of bondage, exploitation and displacement.
The debut work boldly revises reparations to account for the scale at which the architectures of injustice operate and the extent of their rot. ‘Global Racial Empire, and its history of slavery and colonial domination,’ he writes, ‘will be fully conquered only when their effects on the accumulation of advantages and disadvantages are also conquered.’ These are effects enshrined in the anatomy of our global economy in the form of racial capitalism, as Cedric Robinson forcefully argued in his 1980 work Black Marxism. Given that, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore put it, ‘capitalism requires inequality, and racism enshrines it’, Táíwò calls on us to reimagine the very definition of the word ‘reparations’ from a narrow calculus of financial compensation within ex-slave economies to a global reconstruction of the ‘house’ we all inhabit.
The view Táíwò defends, therefore, is anything but symbolic. It calls on us all to evaluate our responsibility for the systems in which we live and to do what we can to change them at a structural level. The gestural politics of the elite, he argues in Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), do little to achieve this goal. After 2020’s unprecedentedly widespread protests against police terror and anti-Black racism, ‘Two strategic trends in the response quickly became clear: the elites’ tactic of performing symbolic identity politics to pacify protestors without enacting material reforms; and their efforts to rebrand (not replace) existing institutions, also using elements of identity politics.’ But the concept Elite Capture seeks to reclaim has deep and radical roots among a coalition of ‘queer, Black feminist socialists’ known as the Combahee River Collective, of which Lorde herself was a member.
As Barbara Smith, one of the collective’s founders, put it, this was a political philosophy that insisted, from its inception, that ‘as black women, we actually had a right to create political priorities and agendas and actions and solutions based in our experiences’. It is a touchstone example of ‘elite capture’ – which Táíwò concisely defined to the editors of The Drift as ‘what happens when resources in politics and social life are grabbed up by the people who are most advantaged’ – that such a revolutionary ethic should be co-opted and perverted by the ruling class to neutralize dissent.
Elite Capture argues that the way in which identity politics have been deployed by the elite to shield institutions from enacting structural change – as evidenced by the exemplary pastiche of police brutalizing protestors on a road across which the mayor had painted ‘Black Lives Matter’ – is ‘a feature of how identity politics is being used, rather than what identity politics is at its core’. Táíwò insists we shed the performative politics of elite spaces governed by an ‘etiquette’ of ‘deference politics’. He described ‘the limits of catchall identity categories’ to New York Magazine through an anecdote: of a time when ‘his family cruised past beggars with the car windows up and their jewelry glinting’ on a visit to his parents’ homeland, Nigeria. If, in an elite room, someone were to ‘pass the mic’ to Táíwò as a Nigerian-American, he said that it would be ‘misleading’ to suggest that ‘I was somehow representative of all of those people.’ Instead, Elite Capture posits an activist worldview concerned with building just institutions that focus on praxis rather than spectacle, on ‘outcome over process: the pursuit of specific goals or results, rather than mere avoidance of “complicity” in injustice’.
For example, in 2014, after the state of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality covered up the severity of the public health crisis caused by the city’s switch in water source to the highly polluted Flint River, a coalition of Flint residents took matters into their own hands. The citizen science campaign they launched elevated the water crisis to the status of a national scandal, but still they struggled to transform national outrage into action. What Flint residents really needed was not what they initially received: ‘a mix of platitudes and mockery from the ruling elite’. ‘What Flint residents really needed, above all’, Táíwò writes, ‘was to get the lead out of their water’. Still, as of May, the growing coalition has won a $600 million settlement from the state and is ‘pushing the project to replace dangerous water service lines to its final stage’. This is constructive politics at work.
Reconsidering Reparations concludes with something of a manifesto. Here, Táíwò insists on a rigorous commitment to justice, ‘which directs us to evaluate social structures and arrangements, and to do so holistically’. The book centres global racial empire in the standards it establishes for an effective constructive-reparative project, and offers a straightforward framework: ‘Reparations for global racial empire,’ he writes, ‘should make tangible differences in the material conditions of people’s lives … should address the core moral wrongs of trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism, to the extent possible … and should discriminate: should distribute benefits and burdens based on the different relationships of persons and institutions to the core moral wrongs.’
A vital intervention Táíwò makes in his debut is to integrate reparations with climate justice. ‘In our era,’ he writes, ‘climate justice and reparations are the same project: climate crisis arises from the same political history as racial injustice and presents a challenge of the same scale and scope.’ Táíwò contends that the climate crisis exacerbates inequalities ‘between those advantaged enough to buy or coerce security from climate impacts and those who cannot’. Although ecology, in part, distributes climate impacts, the constructive view must centre how the overlap between changing ecological systems and political structures of violence limit people’s capabilities – that is, ‘what lives they are or are not empowered to live’. Mortality rates attributed to pollution, for example, correlate to historical colonial status, as does overall vulnerability to climate change. The numbers demonstrate a ‘dramatic, structural difference in historically accumulated climate vulnerability between countries with different colonial histories’.
We cannot, Táíwò shows, adopt a world-making project to restructure the rusted channels of global racial empire without addressing the climate crisis. In a refreshingly prescriptive moment, Táíwò enumerates several ‘tactics’ (strategies for collective action) and ‘targets’ (goals we should set in the process of worldmaking) to guide this work. Unconditional cash transfers, global climate funding, abolition of tax havens, community control of essential resources, divesting from fossil fuels, investing in communities, making knowledge accessible and distributing power to the people unmediated by representatives are a few key strategies he outlines. The burdens of world-building should fall on ‘the racially advantaged’, he writes, because of the relationship their advantages hold to the history of global racial empire. The book concludes with an exhortation to ‘act like an ancestor’ and think about the future that our children will inherit with ‘revolutionary patience’.
These are concrete invitations to help build something new, a blueprint the movement must animate with imaginative purpose. Lorde’s extended metaphor returns, in Elite Capture, through Táíwò’s critique of the rooms in which this planning happens. He argues that deference politics in elite spaces, for example, stop at ‘handing conversational authority and attentional goods to whoever is already in the room’ without considering whether ‘the rooms we interact in, and the house they make up’ might be unjust themselves. When the Michigan organizers, in 2014, ‘put Flint residents and activists in active collaboration with scientists who had the laboratories to run the relevant tests and prove MDEQ’s report was fraudulent’, what they were doing was so exemplary because, in the course of it, ‘[t]hey built a new room’.
What does this mean, then, for activism that takes place in old rooms? Is it a perversion or a proof of Lorde’s ethic to forge radical politics in the crucible of historically violent institutions? Táíwò enumerates the injustices in his own university affiliations, for example, by confronting the paradox of radical politics in the academy. In Reconsidering Reparations, Táíwò relates a grim institutional history of Georgetown, the university at which he works. Yet access to that same institution’s ‘financial, social, and intellectual resources’ has allowed him to undertake his radical project: his affiliation ‘explain[s] both why a publisher would take on this book project and also the working conditions under which [he] was able to complete it.’ What is Georgetown but such an old room? What is Oxford, home to the press which published his first book and this magazine reviewing it?
Somewhere in the interstices between dismantling the master’s house and building a new world lies the liberation of radical intellectuals like Táíwò from material ties to unjust institutions. Until then, the very fact that these texts have passed through so many such rooms to deliver their invitation to revolt is evidence, thinking back to Lorde, that their work remains unfinished. Movements built through elite channels will always, Táíwò tells us, be limited. But this is the powerful potential of this thinker’s latest works: they function as visions unfinished, as invitations to imagine, as ideas to bring into the real world. For to truly orient a constructive political around ‘the most marginalized’
would require a different approach entirely, 'in a world where 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing (slum conditions), and 100 million are unhoused, a full third of the human population does not have reliable drinking water, and the intersections of food, energy, and water insecurity with the climate crisis have already displaced 8.5 million people in South Asia alone, while threatening to displace tens of millions more. Such a stance would require, at a minimum, that one leave the room.
DOMINY GALLO is a visiting student reading History and English at Lady Margaret Hall. She is far better at setting deadlines than she is at meeting them.
Art by Ben Beechener