A review of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), (Chicago: Haymarket, 2022).
It’s a miracle! Nuanced and enlightening writing about identity politics. Who would have thought it possible? Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò wades through one of the new millennium’s most infected political debates with such ease that it’s hard to understand why it’s so difficult for anyone else? In his new book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), he criticizes aspects of what we today know as “identity politics” without ever getting close to feeding the reactionary trolls who use the term as a punching bag. By pointing at the limitations of identity politics, Táíwò rather opens up promising ways for transformative politics; based on bridges, not walls, to paraphrase one of the key passages in the final chapter, “The Point Is to Change It”. Political philosophy at its best.
The opening of the book couldn’t be more promising. Táíwò quotes the much neglected revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, an “activist-scholar” if there ever was one. It’s not the only Cabral quote in the book, and in chapter four, “Building a New House”, Táíwò dedicates several pages to the revolutionary experience of the “African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde” (PAIGC), of which Cabral was a central figure before being murdered by Portuguese agents in 1973. Táíwò also resuscitates other much neglected Third World revolutionaries such as the Guyanese Andaiye.
In tracing the roots of identity politics, Táíwò revisits the Combahee River Collective, which first used the term in the late 1970s, and explains how it got mixed up with “standpoint epistemology” and a “politics of deference”, essentially, the abandonment of one’s own responsibilities as a political being by referencing someone apparently better qualified to have an opinion because of their identity, all the while forgetting that people with the same identity don’t necessarily have the same opinion. There is also another problem. Táíwò’s writes:
“… ‘centering the most marginalized’ in my experience has usually meant handing conversational authority and attentional goods to whoever is already in the room and appears to fit a social category associated with some form of oppression – regardless of what they have or have not actually experienced, or what they do or do not actually know about the matter at hand. Even in rooms where stakes have been high – where potential researchers were discussing how to understand a social phenomenon, where activists were deciding what to target – the rules of deference have often meant that the conversation stayed in the room, while the people most affected by it stayed outside.”
In his study of identity politics, Táíwò ascribes the main problems to “elite capture”, which contains two main strategies: “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”.
To overcome deference politics, Táíwò argues for “constructive politics” and returns to the room metaphor when declaring that such politics “ask us … to be accountable and responsive to people who aren’t yet in the room”.
Besides its intellectual rigor, Elite Capture impresses with an author entering their own personal experience as a whole, not fragments of it. Táíwò speaks of privilege and trauma but places himself not on one end of the scale but at various places depending on context and comparison. Is this true intersectionality? In any case, it makes for compelling reading.
If you won’t have the time for the book, you can always take a look at Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s essay “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference”, which contains many of the book’s central ideas. Whatever your choice, you should read something by Táíwò, there’s nothing to lose and plenty to win. To get started, visit www.olufemiotaiwo.com.
(September 30, 2022)