Review: Carol Queon Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

The Sea That We Swim In

There is a tendency for the western left to think that we’re beyond liberalism, but I’m not so sure. Many of us talk about liberalism as if we’re exempt from it. Some of us fling the term around as an insult, without being clear about what they mean. Or we gesture that there are ‘worse liberals’ out there, who are selling out movements and upholding the state in more explicit and ignorant ways. How we talk about liberalism can often be reactive and dismissive, offering no principled process of critique or unlearning beyond the accusation.

Liberalism is a form of bourgeois nationalist consciousness, focused on the rights of the individual rather than the collective. While we may identify many people as behaving in a way that implies adherence (consciously or not) to a liberal status quo, there are also people who explicitly endorse the tenets of liberalism. They believe that governments should determine and ensure individuals’ civil rights and freedoms within a nation state framework, even if it oppresses various groups of marginalised people. They tend to emphasise gradual progress, meritocracy, and applaud symbolic and visible gestures of ‘inclusivity’⁠. In Australia, liberalism invests in the stability of the settler colonial and racial capitalist system through a progressive rhetorical facade, where the only ‘legitimate’ avenues for change are through advocating for institutional reform, legal regulation, and electoralism.

Western liberals like this effectively uphold a white supremacist and imperialist formation, by being willing to compromise with government and corporate elites⁠. The normalisation of this ideology enables the increased seizure of power by right-wing governments and their collaborators through the continued exploitation, extraction and death of people, lands and waters; it allows the elite to rebrand themselves via the counterinsurgent state media apparatus, whilst pushing fucked policies, narratives of nonviolence and pacifism in order to keep a deceitful ‘peace’. Liberalism paves the way for radical concepts to be usurped and gutted, manipulatively marketing to and selling our revolutionary desire back to us through the misuse of identity politics.

In this year’s federal election process for the Australian colony, this means that an ex-cop-turned-Labor politician can look cute, because he’s being introduced as a multilingual dolphin whisperer. Or a certain right-wing Chinese politician from the Liberal Party can be found handing out pre-election flyers at train stations in suburbs with large Asian migrant populations, posing as grassroots by asking people where they bought their groceries.

While liberalism as a general political and moral phenomenon is not explicitly noted (beyond discussions of liberal democracy) in Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), he does show tacitly how it takes shape across manifold examples. Táíwò argues that where identity politics has been co-opted, misrepresented and misused⁠ – from the Humans of CIA recruitment campaign to our own radical movements and organising spaces – its capture by ‘elites’ is what ‘stands between us and a transformative, nonsectarian, coalitional politics’.

It is worth rehearsing Táíwò’s definition of identity politics, as originally conceptualised by Combahee River Collective, a Black Marxist feminist organisation whose 1977 statement marked its purposes and potential for self-determination and coalition-building. Identity politics was developed to synthesise race, class and gender in a way that broader Marxist and feminist movements did not, in order to forge a political subjecthood for Black queer radicals. However, the concept has since been distorted and is now misrepresented as ‘divisive’ by a whole range of people across the political spectrum. The right thinks that identity politics is destroying the purported meritocracy of white governance, while class reductionist leftists object to identity politics in a similarly reactionary way, believing that it undermines working class solidarity. Táíwò explains that the issue is not identity politics itself, but how elite capture manipulates it towards sectarian purposes.

Defined as a ‘systems behaviour’, Táíwò argues that elite capture is broadly applicable to elites of any social group, to those who are positioned to control political resources or agendas because of their relative power to others around them. Táíwò cites Jo Freeman’s Tyranny of Structurelessness, an anarchist classic that also discusses elites in broad terms, but within the context of power relations and disorganisation within 1970s feminist movements. Freeman defines elites as: ‘a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent.’

The elite capture concept has an interesting history. Pranab Bardhan and Dilip Mookherjee trace its origin to primary documents from the United States’s founding fathers, specifically written to lobby for the adoption of a national constitution. Elite capture was first named explicitly when rich nations needed to justify their extractive policies to steal from agricultural producers and lands that they had colonised. Since the late twentieth century, elite capture has been used within development theory and international aid to characterise local elites as obstacles to economic development and social change because they are ‘more likely’ to capture and control resources. However, this usage ignores capture by foreign NGOs and donors, paving the way for top-down approaches and tight control on how resources are distributed. In this sense, elite capture can be deployed to conceal the arbitrary relations of dominance between development institutions and local communities.

Táíwò likely knows the etymological history of elite capture, however its top-down nature is not something he dwells on in the book. The implication here is that it is inevitable that elite capture will happen – regardless of efforts to oppose it – even as Táíwò himself seems to attempt mediating its top-down effects by counterposing various biographical details of exceptional people resisting the phenomenon.

Citing E. Franklin Frazier and Frantz Fanon, Táíwò discusses critiques of the Black bourgeoisie’s concern for economic and social opportunities in the US settler colony, and the role of African comprador classes in subverting the energy of anti-imperialist struggle. He tackles the myth of the separate Black economy⁠ – encapsulated by the ‘Buy Black’ phenomenon – and quotes Jared Ball on how it was ‘developed by the US government and business elites and maintained in implicit partnership with Black businesspeople and media elites.’ Táíwò acknowledges that we are most likely to talk about elite capture in relation to liberal democracy, where ‘actual decision-making structures rarely rely on actual democratic accountability.’ He breaks it down to the national level (e.g. Black elite collaboration with the US government on anti-drug laws), the corporate capital level (e.g. social media tech giants that control the world’s attention economy), and the multinational level (e.g. World Bank and IMF keeping Third World countries in debt, tying aid to foreign governing requirements), emphasising that it is these formal structures that perpetuate elite capture.

Unfortunately for us, elite capture is not limited to the macro spheres of life. Táíwò further elaborates on how this systems behaviour can happen in academia, unions, socialist organisations and other group settings. He reminds us carefully that while he’s used many examples particular to Black politics, the status of elite is not a stable identity but a relationship, as well as a ‘general political problem, not a special one faced by antiracist or identity politics alone’.

Why should we do something about this? In the second chapter, titled ‘Reading the Room’, Táíwò takes time to explain why people can sometimes behave in ways contradictory to what they think and say, through a familiar Danish folktale called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. In describing how the interactions between the townspeople and the naked emperor are fundamentally structured by power, he concludes vaguely: ‘It’s not the townspeople… it’s the town, it’s the empire!’ To make this metaphor more applicable to the reader’s everyday experiences, Táíwò speculates about the assumptions we make in communication, assumptions that come with the notion of standing on ‘common ground’. For some western philosophers of language, the common ground is a shared (and immensely idealistic) informational resource which we can ‘add to’ by using our words, in order to renew public understanding so there can be a different premise for public action.

At face value, this abstract idea has no class analysis, echoing Habermas’ ‘public sphere’ and utopian understandings of social media and the Internet. Táíwò agrees that the common ground is not that ‘common’, in the sense of a democratically governed resource. It’s not as if all information is easily accessible to all, despite lazy gestures to ‘Google it’. Nor does the common ground constitute shared political memory, where people can enter into a process of becoming critically conscious and act together based off having ‘info’ alone. This reminds me of what is taught at university, that your work can be worthwhile if you push even the slightest boundary of knowledge and new thought. But no, regardless of how much content we produce with the best of intentions, we’re still producing knowledge within certain confines. Liberalism means that we’re ideologically miseducated to struggle within these confines, whether we’re writing books and essays, placing faith in neoliberal unions, or debating endlessly on social media. As Táíwò argues with reference to Carter G. Woodson’s analysis of teacher reports of medical information about African American people, information added to common ground can support structural oppression.

Táíwò states that challenging the common ground means a fundamental change to our social environment, arguing: ‘The point was not just to change hearts and minds, but to change the common ground – to change what information was usable by people in their daily interactions.’ There isn’t anything wrong with this particular point, but it’s posed in a way that can be easily misunderstood and manipulated by liberal individualist tendencies, where people can try to change the common ground through setting up new projects, collectives, organisations and institutions, yet do so in self-interested, hierarchical, and unaccountable ways⁠.

At this point, the common ground is likened by Táíwò to a game environment that determines what is valuable to do, as a particular mechanism of capitalism and how property relations become further intensified. Here, C. Thi Nguyen’s concept of value capture is used to theorise how life becomes gamified through structures of reward and punishment, where in a game with clear decision-making rules, ‘that feeling that every move you make is crucial to your overall strategy of survival isn’t entirely different from what occurs in actual life.’ Giving a myriad of examples, from gig economy platforms and social media rating systems, to multinational corporations like Disney and Amazon that track worker productivity, Táíwò suggests these attention economy environments of simplified metrics and incentive affect our behaviour in the day-to-day. He explains:

It would be a mistake, however, to understand everything that happens on the platform as a process orchestrated by the elites. They are its results, like the platform’s unequal distribution of profit and attention itself. Elites do often make the environment worse and block solutions, but to blame the problem of elite capture entirely on their moral successes and failures is to confuse effect for cause. The true problem lies in the system itself, the built environment and rules of interaction that produced the elites in the first place.

Again, this repeats Táíwò’s diagnosis of the Emperor’s New Clothes and why people ‘play along’ for a short-term win or paycheck. Even as he provides the case of the Ogoni People’s struggle against Shell’s exploitation of natural resources in the Niger River Delta, elite capture⁠ – as a result of the rules of the game⁠ – means that Shell’s behaviour remains unchanged, and oil spills have increased. Indeed, people who are tethered to these structures of institutional employment are compelled to play along, because under racial capitalism, they need the material resources and social capital of the global poor and working class to maintain their own way of life. Yet the meaning of a ‘viable’ life is very different for the ruling and middle classes compared to – as Joy James would say⁠ – those forced into zones of terror.

Táíwò here seeks to challenge the common ground of public information, through changing the social environment, rather than the other way around. This is a simple and fine point but, again, seems to me palatable enough for any ‘progressive’ to do with it as they will.

Let me be more specific here: for purposes of the left in the Australian context, the ‘elite’ may constitute institutional and institution-adjacent spokespeople, and to list a few: politicians, higher-ups and middle managers in the non-profit industrial complex, union bureaucrats and paid organisers, academics, and entertainment and cultural workers including publishers, journalists, artists, writers and celebrity influencers. Not everyone listed here necessarily has a stable income in their trade, but what some of us do have is visibility, audiences, access to platforms and some ability to enter into public discourse. There are differing degrees of liberal expropriation that occurs. You may have self-instituted representatives of marginalised communities misappropriating funding, or perhaps transphobes who have climbed their way into political party leadership. Then there are smaller fish – identity entrepreneurs using the language of radical politics for their individual career pursuits, or where their work deploys identity politics to rebrand existing institutions. These segments are not accountable to a lumpen and working class base, but rather hold allegiance to an industry-level, work related ‘community’ (that is more like a clique) ideologically committed to capitalism, hence are more likely to act in their more immediate self-interest. Furthermore, any ‘progressive’ knows how to perform ‘doing stuff’: the standard is low for what counts as movement participation, and includes donating money, turning up at rallies, organising fundraiser events, supporting a few progressive slogans and calling it a day.

As a widespread political and moral philosophy, liberalism has an expanding conception of who is rational and worthy of entry into the system and whose labour must be exploited to serve the system. Class positioning of course plays an enormous role in developing this ideological stance, as it is often people of the professional-managerial and middle classes – those with petit bourgeois aspirations – who are drawn towards possessing similar material interests as the elite. While a working class single mum who’s a recent refugee may be brought into these beliefs through the settler immigration system, she does not hold the power to meaningfully benefit from liberalism, as others with access to citizenship, education, and social networks might. Liberalism is materially distinct when you’re running for elections in a multicultural party seeking to improve ‘Australian democracy’. Or if you teach cultural sensitivity training to corporate elites, and get awards from the state for your ‘anti-racism’.

Yet liberalism isn’t intrinsic to certain people, rather it is the sea that we swim in⁠ – as Táíwò seems similarly to suggest with reference to examples of colonial and mainstream miseducation systems. This isn’t to let people off the hook, but individualist, egoist, opportunist, and capitalist behaviours can be present in spite of professed radicalism, regardless of your class background and other experiences of marginalisation. Many radicals have had to unlearn liberalism – however this is not something that one can do alone, as it requires an ongoing process of collective critique and self-critique within a nurturing environment. For those of us on the left who want to shift how we do politics, we have to get clearer on what liberalism looks like, how it is rationalised, and how everyone is implicated, to differing degrees and effects. More than just ‘clarifying misconceptions’, we have to identify and unlearn the liberalism that runs through our lives.

To give a crucial example of how liberalism manifests in ‘progressive’ spaces through the misuse of identity politics, Táíwò introduces his critique of deference politics. In the US context, he observes the disposition and impulse to defer to others purely based on perceived and/or sacrosanct lived experience of marginalisation, whether with disingenuous or sincere motivations. Deference comes with the expectation to be led by the oppressed, and conflates lived experience with good political strategy.

While multiply marginalised folks should be taken seriously for their socially situated knowledge and their own analysis of their experience, Táíwò is specifically interested in how within certain ‘rooms’ – whether institutional or grassroots – deferring to those seen as marginalised works as a type of strategic essentialism that hinges on a moral and disciplinary framework. He grounds this discussion on the performance of deference politics in standpoint epistemology, a method overzealously adapted in left academic spaces, and the circulation of largely symbolic, attentional economies that sometimes results in material benefits for minorities in the room. The abuse of standpoint theory looks like deference and can have two negative effects: 1) undue pressure on and pedestalling of marginalised people to do things and 2) assuming that only people with privileged identities can cause harm.

Indeed, deference politics can lead to incoherent strategies for grassroots organisations. Táíwò says: ‘The same tactics of deference that insulate us from criticism and disagreement insulate us from connection and transformation. They prevent us from engaging empathetically and authentically with the struggles of other people – a prerequisite of coalitional politics.’ Here, deference politics looks like ‘staying in your lane’, not out of respect for your comrades but out of evading accountability to them. Or instead of developing one’s own principles and commitments to struggle, liberal allies stand by to uncritically ‘take instruction’ and ‘show up’. It can look like creating tokenistic positions for marginalised people, without identifying what is materially needed for marginalised people to want to join said organisation in the first place.

Táíwò softens his critique, proposing that deference responds to ‘real, morally weighty experiences of being put down, ignored, sidelined, silenced’. He acknowledges that we are all deserving of social capital that leads to material redistribution, however deference politics is a ‘centering’ that individualises and essentialises, and detracts from those who are not in the room. When weaponised as liberal identity politics, it can also be harmful to movement spaces – taking one’s individual lived experience at face value without deeper interrogation does not amount to a structural critique. In certain scenarios, allies can end up deferring to traumatised, unaccountable individuals who can still act deceptively and immorally in a newfound position of authority. Alternatively, rejecting identity politics wholesale can be a reactionary response to deference politics which, in a white-dominated western left, results in re-entrenched racial power dynamics.

Táíwò’s theorising around leftist group dynamics and the capture of identity politics is strong, but I’d like to challenge whether elite capture is truly inescapable. In the last two chapters, Táíwò proposes that the antidote to deference politics is a constructive politics that redistributes wealth and power – this involves concrete methods that build incentives into the world we want to invite others into. Táíwò’s constructivist approach aims to be materialist in how it benefits working people, and to link it back to Combahee River Collective, he suggests that while we can start with identity, we must end up at a politics of solidarity. He suggests that ‘a constructive political culture would focus on outcome over process – the pursuit of specific goals or end results rather than avoiding complicity in injustice or promoting purely moral or aesthetic principles.’ As an example, he talks about labour unionism enthusiastically as ‘tried-and-true engines of social progress’, telling us to ‘go beyond work’ (in the sense of going beyond workplace organising for wages and benefits) by giving examples of tenant and debtor unions.

Bolstered by quotations from Amilcar Cabral on culture as the collective expression and determination of a people’s sovereignty, Táíwò says that we should be evaluating cultural norms (such as deference) instrumentally, as part of how we get to doing politics differently. While I don’t disagree, it remains unclear how exactly this constructive political culture can come about. Sure, this book may not seek to be a how-to guide, but in skimming its case studies, there is a dearth of details on how to structurally prevent elite capture and strengthen collective accountability and coordination, whilst dealing with scabs, grifters, and abusers.

Conscientização aims at the opposite of elite capture. While both elite capture and conscientização bring elites and non-elites together, elite capture perpetuates and exploits the divide by conscripting non-elites into the service of elites’ interests; conscientização, on the other hand, aims to pursue the kind of mutually liberatory political project that would eliminate the distinction between elites and non-elites entirely.

Throughout the book, Táíwò places emphasis on the necessity of political education, which comes in many different forms – whether it’s storytelling that is passed down through generations, a worker’s study group, or written and publicly published critiques. I loved the story Táíwò tells of Lilica Boal, who became a revolutionary because she betrayed her class interests. The story goes: born to a merchant family in Cape Verde, Lilica grew up in close proximity to the Portuguese colonial administration and witnessed the famine that others around her experienced. Her family’s relationship with a white Portuguese family and their imprisoned antifascist son later brought more Portuguese radicals into Lilica’s life, leading her to her husband Manuel, and meetings with other Africans from various Portuguese colonies seeking to return to the source – the ‘flight to the fight’.

I also loved how Lilica’s story joined with Paolo Friere’s and Amilcar Cabral’s through the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), their collective struggle against the fascist Portuguese regime. Crucially, he points to the example of PAIGC’s organised political education for the masses, which is qualitatively different to the liberal forms of ‘public political education’ through panels and lectures that we see in arts and academia today. The deep detail around how they developed a militant political education program alongside an armed guerilla campaign and cultivated internationalist solidarity across borders was compelling. I wish that there was more reflection on the challenges of PAIGC’s organisational form, or details on how people took on education in non-passive ways – beyond how the party facilitated participation via village elders, designed sessions around the agricultural calendar, and involved women in councils. How did the masses shift their struggle in turn?

Through all the case studies, we can see that class status is a shifting thing. Each of the figures Táíwò spends time describing have some relationship or proximity to hardship, despite their access to educational institutions. It would be interesting to understand: how did Woodson, Cabral, Boal, and Freire all deal accountably with their ‘elite’ positions within their communities and organisations, beyond having critiques? Táíwò draws our attention to the manifold circumstances, including economic conditions and social divisions, that lead to the contemporary issues of both Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. He notes that Cape Verdeans not only occupied a disproportionate number of leadership positions in PAIGC, but that there was also a deeper resentment brewing due to Cape Verde’s middle-managerial role in colonial domination and preferential treatment by the Portuguese empire.

This led to a coup that ousted the Cape Verdean wing from the PAIGC, and since independence in 1975, the country has become ‘one of Africa’s most stable economies’ and ‘Africa’s most democratic nation’ (on the macro level, sure, but whether this is true for the majority of Cape Verdeans today who live off agriculture and have been experiencing drought since 2017, as well as those living in poverty, remains questionable). Táíwò notes the contrast with Guinea Bissau, which is now a centre of drug trade, with over 70 per cent of its population living in extreme poverty and with low education and literacy rates. His point here would be stronger if he could more definitively explain how the class and social divisions between PAIGC party leadership and membership might have contributed to the situation in both countries today. Why were the tensions unresolvable? What can we learn about how we structure our organisations, to shift the way we deal with formal and informal hierarchies entirely?

Anti-communist (and consequently anti-organisationalist) sentiments since the 1980s have been deeply harmful to radical left movements, partially due to western government propaganda and counterinsurgency, as well as understandable reactions to authoritarian communist models. Reading Elite Capture, I am left asking, what do we need in order to confront elite capture in all these different forms head on? How do we understand in precise terms the way right wing ideologies take a foothold in mainstream movements? With the many examples Táíwò wanted to share, the concept of elite capture had to be flexible. I get why Táíwò links so many examples; the mapping he does encourages readers to think in terms of solidarity across borders, and importantly towards the African continent and the Caribbean. However I am still unsure how to demonstrate in clear terms the process of elite capture, and don’t know how to apply it in a theoretically rigorous way to specific examples useful for organising. While on the surface it seems like we can only identify elite capture when it is already happening, I am interested in strategies of prevention.

How can the left stop ceding space to liberalism? To do this, we have to identify our enemies, whilst understanding that the issue of essentialising the enemy also requires essentialising ourselves. Táíwò claims: ‘Elites have to get involved – actually involved – but that involvement needs to resist elite capture of values and the gamification of political life.’ If he’s speaking to ‘progressive’ elites here, there needs to be a coherent basis in solidarity first, where elites are involved on the terms of lumpen and working class folks. So perhaps the task is not so much to ‘mobilise’ elites, but rather ‘demobilise’ them through drawing a firm line in the sand. Otherwise, how else do we begin to combat the real time liberalising and co-opting of our movements?

What is to be done? We really don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Jo Freeman lays out a strong organisationalist argument for formal, directly democratic decision-making structures within radical movements – indeed, how our ‘rooms’ are put together – in order to mitigate informal hierarchies that crop up depending on relationships, labour and clout. The case she made in the 1970s is relevant as ever today, as many existing political projects are still yet to deal meaningfully with internal power dynamics and liberal individualism. Many of us continue to make the same mistakes due to a lack of shared political memory, leading us to cycles of ego-driven conflict, clique formation, lack of accountability, and burnout. Rebuilding revolutionary capacity on the left today would require knowing these traps, and making sure future generations will not fall back into them.

More than just creating organisations that are built around the interests of ‘non-elites’ (since this is also a shifting relationship), we need organisations and structures that not only model a counter-power against genocidal and ecocidal states, but have the capacity to deal with internal power dynamics that emerge. This isn’t a call to join just any organisation; we need to consider the kinds of organisation that can deal meaningfully with all forms of structural hierarchy, and we need to refuse the obfuscation of political formations that lead to solidifying new elites. These organisationalist blueprints exist most presciently through past and existing anarchist communist formations around the world. It is worth studying the historical contradictions of past movements and traditions, so we can apply strategies for our present context, whilst aligning with and drawing from other existing lineages of political resistance – our very own, those of the lands we live on, and those of global Black, Indigenous, and Third World liberation.

From what I can see, Táíwò is explaining two types of liberalisms in his book: one is formal, and the other is informal. Both, with their implicit commitment to the individual over the collective, enable a structural need to define and enact an unequal status quo. We don’t want the entrenched liberalism of intersectional empire, nor do we want the unaccountable liberal behaviours that everyone can partake in. More than ever, we cannot conflate and capitulate to the two. The antidote to both of them is how we deal with the power imbalance, through the right kinds of organisation.