Sunday, April 14, 2024

Review: Elite Capture by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

There is a grating tendency among anti-capitalist academic books that this effort manages to avoid, which is viewing the duty of the writer to be that of detachedly observing the system. Táíwò is present in his own narrative, using his perspective as a Black man raised in a Nigerian diaspora community to show some of the pitfalls and limitations of “deference politics”; deference to those who managed to make it to the “room where it happens” takes for granted that such rooms should exist rather than addressing the needs of all those who didn’t make it to the room. Táíwò also emphasizes the need for action over mere description of the world. Although Marx may have said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” many Marxist academics remain focused on interpretation. To be clear, I am grading Táíwò on a curve here; his passionate polemic on the need for constructive politics (over deference politics) is vague in implementation. But he does at least view the world as changeable, and addresses an audience that hopes to change the world—another distinguisher from many academic books, which seem aimed at other academics.

It’s perhaps a poor indicator that I opened this review with “Well, it’s a bit better than a lot of academic books.” There isn’t all that much to this book; it is short, but despite its brevity it is a padded version of his 2020 essay. The extra pages lightly touch on works by other writers and organizers (Jo Freeman’s essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness, Amilcar Cabral and Paulo Freire on liberation and self-government, Nick Estes on indigeneity and trauma, etc.) but his treatment of these other topics neither bolsters his own argument nor sheds insight into these other works. During the process of publishing the book, someone made the decision to change the title from the at least descriptive one the essay took ("Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference") to one that suggests a thorough historic analysis that the book doesn’t deliver on (“Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics”). Still, it’s an approachable book that brings up a number of important political questions, and could be a good springboard for a chatty book club.

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