Elite Capture and the Retrograde of Social Justice: A Dialogue with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is the author of two books: Reconsidering Reparations, published by Oxford University Press, and Elite Capture, published by Haymarket Books. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. He completed his PhD at University of California, Los Angeles. Before that, he completed his BAs in Philosophy and Political Science at Indiana University. His theoretical work draws liberally from the Black radical tradition, contemporary philosophy of language, contemporary social science, German transcendental philosophy, materialist thought, histories of activism and activist thinkers. Reconsidering Reparations considers a “constructive” philosophical argument for reparations and explores links with environmental justice. He also is committed to public engagement and is publishing articles in popular outlets with general readership (e.g. The Nation, Boston Review, Slate, Pacific Standard) exploring intersections between climate justice and colonialism.
BY ÌDÒWÚ O̩DẸ́YẸMÍ
This conversation took place between Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria, and Washington DC, USA, via email.
Ìdòwú: Thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I’d like to start by asking about your family, being a Nigerian immigrant, and Cincinnati. Tell me about growing up in America, not just as a black person, but as an African, too.
Olúfẹ́mi: Hey Ìdòwú, Thanks again! My parents immigrated to the States with my brother in the early 80s for graduate school. My sister and I were born in the Bay, but soon after I came along we moved to the Cincinnati suburbs. When I was a kid, there was a decently sized community of Nigerian immigrants in the greater Cincinnati area. So I grew up with a social situation of stark contrasts: a nearly entirely white school and church on Sundays and an entirely Black African Bible Study group and social scene outside of those (mostly Nigerians, but there were some other African immigrants around as well). On top of all that, my mom did some organizing with groups like the Urban League, and I sometimes spent summers doing programs downtown with African-American kids.
I had a strong core friend group amongst the fellow first-gen Nigerian-American kids but beyond that, I didn’t really seem to fit in anywhere, and being fat and a huge nerd didn’t help much. Plus, this was middle America — bigotry was in general a lot more overt and in your face than I think is the norm on the coasts. So the early years were a little bit difficult: the social rules that applied to one room were the last thing I should do in the next, and there was a pretty constant stream of adjustment. It took me a while to figure myself out, and that process took a lot of trying to figure the worlds around me out. I think some of the core questions I was asking then are still foundational for me: why do people act the way that they do? How much is explained by circumstances and how much by values? How much do you actually need the understanding, recognition, and care of other people, and to what extent can you do without it?
Ìdòwú: I think these questions are also central to the thesis of your 2018 dissertation, Autobiography. You asked, “How can we be free?” and you further probed, in an attempt to describe our complex social worlds, “How can you and I both be free, at the same time, and in the same place?” These questions are central to the tenets of existentialism, and I think what leads to these questions of human freedom within a social world might be different for White and Black people. Do you think you ask these questions as a result of your experiences of being in the world as a Black person?
Olúfẹ́mi: I definitely think that being Black has everything to do with what leads to asking the question. One thing I’ve been struck by over the years is the effects of race and racism on trust in social institutions — and, maybe more importantly, the ability to balance mistrust of those institutions with going on about the business of living in a world structured by them. Mistrust of the powers that be has long been a big part of Black politics, but has had a more intermittent history for white folks, it would seem: every now and again there’s a counter-cultural or populist moment, after which those cultural tides recede. There’s probably a good research project somewhere in there.
Ìdòwú: Your new book, Elite Capture, is an eye-opener. One of the loudest (and strongest) voices in the book is the criticism of neocolonialism, the silent or backstage Western infiltration of post-colonial African realities — economic, social, cultural and political. What was your thought process while writing this book? Why was it important to write as well as frame it within historical contexts?
“In my view, elite capture is a consequence of unequal social systems in and of themselves — built into the terrain on which we interact, rather than primarily in the choices we make once we do interact. So, all else being equal, elite capture grows and recedes as inequality does the same.“
Olúfẹ́mi: Much about today’s world, politically speaking, is unprecedented. Among the central intellectual tasks for our generation is to bring yesterday’s lessons onto a present that is quite different from the past, but also its product.
Today’s era is a product of a sort of dissonant double movement over the 20th century. There’s been an advance for the left on the plane of ideology and culture – capitalists and political elites are not ‘woke’ or egalitarian in the deep ways, but mere decades ago they didn’t have to do much pretending about it. Explicit racial apartheid is in living memory of millions upon millions of people, much as some like to pretend we’re talking about ancient history! But those wins have come at the same time as losses elsewhere, against transnational worker organizing and against many a left government: the era of neocolonialism.
These scattered wins and losses are happening in the same era that ‘identity politics’ as an approach is getting popularized. So is identity politics to credit for what wins we have? To blame for the things we’ve lost? Merely a symptom of either or both? The book is an attempt to sort through the cultural noise as we think about that question.
Ìdòwú: Yes. The subtitle of that book centers identity politics and how the powerful took over it. You conceptualized this well enough to show the origin of identity politics to the Combahee River Collective. You argued that rather than the division we see now, identity politics originally functioned as a principle of unity. I think I agree with you. Every time I think of how the 2020 Nigerian EndSARS protest was hijacked by Nigerian elites, identity politics comes to mind. The criticism of that protest “aren’t essential to identity-based” goals of the frustrated youth. Also, I think when we talk about identity politics, we mean the oppressed class. But how can the oppressed and frustrated majority who have the power to resist political repression, who have the economic, political, social and military power to fight against this new norm of elites infiltration and constriction of the goals of a group of people or society?
Olúfẹ́mi: I don’t think it’s new, or that it’s best explained by intentional cooptation by elites! In my view, elite capture is a consequence of unequal social systems in and of themselves — built into the terrain on which we interact, rather than primarily in the choices we make once we do interact. So, all else being equal, elite capture grows and recedes as inequality does the same. The ways to restrain or contain its excesses are simply forms of balancing the distribution of power between elites and non-elites. One obvious way to do so is to create organizations that are built around the interests of non-elites: both in terms of the governance structure of the organizations and in terms of what they fight for.
At their best, unions are an obvious example of the kind of organization you might form to even up the balance of power between elites and non-elites. But there are plenty of others: political parties directed at workers and/or other oppressed groups, movement journalism, co-operatives, and religious or other social organizations campaigning for specific goals. There needs to be more and/or stronger organizations of these kinds, and they need to be designed in the right way.
Why does it matter how they’re designed? Well, internally, all of these kinds of organizations or activities can face the same basic problem with elite capture faced at the outset: the union might form to contest the control corporations have over their working conditions, but internally, within any given union, there might be problematic hierarchies of a different sort — a different set of elites relative to this new context.
The possibility of overcoming potential capture of union politics by a ‘labor aristocracy’ also often has a lot to do with the basic features of how the union is organized. That has long been noticed by union organizers, who have worked to institute “one member, one vote” voting systems, to oppose two-tiered wage systems that advantage some workers over others, to oppose race and gender exclusion from union members and cultural forms of bigotry that preference the needs of some workers over others along the usual lines of race, gender, nationality, ability, or religion in integrated unions. The point isn’t to equate these inequalities with the kind of inequality that exists between capital and labor, but to note that the problems and solutions are similar in a particular respect: they come down to structural features of how these activities are organized, what the rules are for organizing production or union shops and who’s empowered to do these things.
Ìdòwú: Bernie Sanders’s grassroot campaign, like you pointed out in Elite Capture, tried to balance the power between elites and non-elites by focusing on those issues endemic to marginalized and oppressed people in the society. This makes me wonder if you don’t trust capitalism to bridge the power imbalance between these two classes. What do you think of (democratic) socialism, too?
Olúfẹ́mi: I think we can do better and worse with respect to elite capture within capitalism or any other mode of production. But capitalism itself is built on a particular kind of elite advantage where the means of production — the things we can’t live without — are under the control of a private few. Capitalists are just the name of the elites who have that particular kind of leverage in a system where production is organized in that way. Put another way: capitalism is fundamentally built and premised upon a particularly pernicious kind of consolidation of elite powers and interests, and it’s hard to see how any version of it could possibly tame elite capture. From that vantage point, socialism is a pretty obvious step forward. There’s other things you need to do besides socializing the means of production, but it’s hard to see how you could succeed at any of them without breaking that particular kind of leverage.
Ìdòwú: The book is immersed in social and political concepts, from identity politics to deference politics, to redistribution of social resources, wokeness and political correctness, history, Black struggle, neocolonialism, among others. What was the research and writing process like? Was the point, like Marx observed, “to only interpret the world” or to affect social consciousness (through individuals) in order to change it?
Olúfẹ́mi: The point has to be to change the world! If we are content with how things are, most of us don’t need to think much about them. Institutions, social norms, and technocrats already are here and quite willing to do our thinking for us. But I’m not content with how things are, I don’t know many people that are, and I certainly don’t think anyone should be. So I did some reading and talking to people who have successfully changed things, drawing particular inspiration from the linked African revolts against the Portuguese empire. I think that era is worth a lot of study. I was fortunate to have access to writing from people who have been studying it for years.
Ìdòwú: What do you think of the recent political attacks on critical race theory and how identity theory as a tool of division by the elites come into play here? For instance, in a Washington post article, ‘The Danger of Critical Race Theory’, White American historian Allen Guelzo was quoted: “in CRT, all White people are instinctively white supremacists…” That is a shift from the initial goals (or teachings) of CRT.
Olúfẹ́mi: I think there’s been a deliberate attempt from the right wing to obfuscate and demonize CRT and any scholarship on race they’re able to associate with it. At its best, CRT and race scholarship in general can and do fit into broad, potentially emancipatory patterns of political action. I wouldn’t call what I do CRT, but I’m not interested in running away from that label any more than I’m interested in running away from the term ‘identity politics’. Both deserve defense against some various different kinds of opportunism, whether it’s coming from the right or the center-left.
Ìdòwú: In your conversation with Transnational Institute, alongside the prominent Achille Mbembe, Mbembe conceptualized two forms of violence while he was explaining coercive state power: machinic violence and “slow” violence. The former is immediate, and the latter, by implication of its terminology, is gradual and less perceptible. I want to know your view on this differentiation as I see you did not make explicit comments about it during that conversation. Mbembe referenced the killing of George Floyd when he spoke about machinic state violence. But isn’t that sort of explicit violence rooted in a less visible systematized racism?
Olúfẹ́mi: I don’t want to speak for him, but it sounds like the distinction is about time — both forms of violence are rooted in the same structure and simply reflect different ways that structure manifests violently.
Ìdòwú: Your dissertation, books, and essays fuse storytelling and philosophical rigor. What do you aim to achieve with this style, and which authors influenced you?
Olúfẹ́mi: I’m very preoccupied with narrative, both philosophically and in general. I think it can help to see how things fit together across time — ideas, processes, arguments. Toni Morrison’s novels and Frederick Douglass and Du Bois’ autobiographies were big influences to me on this point; they really seemed to expand my ideas of what one could do via and while telling a story.
Ìdòwú: As James Baldwin will have it: slavery and colonialism built the world we know. In Reconsidering Reparations, you write about centuries of forced Black labor, slavery, and colonialism — three concepts justifications for reparation rest on. In that book, using the philosophical tool constructivism, you styled reparation as “world making”. Also, you argued that a politically serious project for reparations must focus on climate justice. Yet, you write: “Since the injustice that reparations responds to is global and distributive, the construction view helps explain what reparations needs to accomplish: building a just distribution.” You gave a moral perspective to this distributive form of justice, which on a theoretical level is a beautiful position. But given the world order or structure — economic, social and political — of rendering and exposing the most vulnerable to injustice (be it climate injustice, human rights injustice, state violence, etc.), don’t you agree that on a practical level distributive justice will ever remain elusive? Beyond elites prescriptions, what do you think a vulnerable society of people can do to avoid climate injustice?
Olúfẹ́mi: Yes, absolutely — the distributions we have now aren’t an accident. I think it’s a game of balance of power: without organizations that are primarily responsive to non-elite interests, we’re stuck in the zone of making moral appeals to the powers that be. Many around the world aren’t even interested in the optics of pretending to care about such appeals, and of course they aren’t all that effective a constraint even where there’s an interest in appearing to support values. So I think it’s a question of building the kinds of alliances that can speak to power in terms it understands: whether that’s leveraging worker power, a coalition of states (say, the G77), or finding crafty ways to pit factions of the ruling class against each other (e.g. corporations invested in renewables against fossil capital) without simply trading an old boss for an equivalent new boss. I don’t think there’s much to say here at the level of theory, other than that statement itself: it’s going to be about what works, and that puts us squarely up against the limits of what can be accomplished by way of argument.
Ìdòwú: African philosophy and African American studies sprouted as a reaction to western insinuations that Africans have no high cultures and as such lack the mental capacity necessary for complex reasoning. Often, being black means the conscious or subconscious effort to be extraordinary in order to be ordinary. How does this shape your attitude to philosophy and writing generally?
Olúfẹ́mi: It’s certainly true that African philosophy and African American studies have often consciously or subconsciously strived to disprove racist ideas about what Black people are capable of doing and thinking. I think of this, primarily, as a problem. It’s hard to imagine what success at this would look like. We can spend all day trying to correct what non-Black people think of us, but my impression is that they mostly don’t. So why, for the precious few of us with access to the resources and time to generate important and potentially helpful knowledge, do we spend so much mental, emotional, and spiritual energy responding to the delusions of people who aren’t intellectually or otherwise interested, and who likely would not be swayed by our arguments if they were? Amilcar Cabral once said that being free culturally would require responding to the outside world “without complexes” – with a healthy appreciation of your own cultural “upward paths”, but without the distortions introduced by trying to treat theory as therapy.
Ìdòwú: Please recommend some books to me and our readers. Preferably nonfiction/essays?
Olúfẹ́mi: Strongly recommended background reading: Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, a collection of Andaiye’s essays The Point is to Change the World, edited by Alissa Trotz.
More contemporary writing on our evolving political moment: Ndongo Samba Sylla and Fanny Pigeaud’s Africa’s Last Colonial Currency, Harsha Walia’s Border and Rule, and Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal.
Ìdòwú: This brings us to the the end of our conversation, Professor Olúfẹ́mi. Thank you for answering my questions.
Photo credit for featured image of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: Jared Rodríguez.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.
Ìdòwú O̩dẹ́yẹmí is a PhD Student at the University of Colorado Boulder, a poet and essayist and has published and presented his works in Brittle Paper, Icefloe Press, The Nation, the 2022 Ida B. Wells Conference at the University of Memphis, and many others. A few notable awards that Ìdòwú has received are the Ekiti State Prize for Literature and the Merak Magazine (Liverpool, UK) Recognition Award. He was shortlisted for the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize in 2018. His works underscore how existentialism can offer a joint critique of the persistence of social issues such as sexism, racism, expansionism, and classism. His current research centers on social theory, existentialism, and the philosophy of race. As such, he is conceptualizing “soft decolonization” as against its traditional radical form and how African and Black existentialism poses liberation from the arms of neocolonialism and institutionalized racism.