Is It Worth It?

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò responds to John-Baptiste Oduor’s recent review of Elite Capture.

Protesters block an intersection in St Paul, Minnesota during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2015. (Fibonacci Blue / Wikimedia Commons)

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

New political terms are on the move. In some places, we’re more likely to be asked to “decolonize” than to “unionize,” to “abolish” an institution rather than to institute a people’s republic. A commitment to socialism does not fit easily or obviously into a discussion that starts here. What’s a socialist to do?

John-Baptiste Oduor’s recent review of my book Elite Capture exemplifies what I think of as a wrongheaded response. Consistently, Oduor confuses the absence of standard left terminology and other cosmetic differences for substantive, unbridgeable political differences with materialist thought. This is less reflective of the actual incompatibility of these ideas and more reflective of a kind of reflexive insularity rampant on the Left. We must overcome this if we are to succeed in putting redistribution or anything else on the political agenda.

Oduor concludes his review with the assertion that “[i]f socialist policies are able to put redistribution, spurred on by productive investment, back on the agenda, then the forms of identity politics that have come to dominate our politics may recede,” which I partially agree with. But, in the meantime, Oduor wonders whether “the painstaking work of engaging with the misconceptions of identitarians is worth the effort.”

But in advance of the class struggle that creates the conditions for widespread class consciousness, we are going to have to engage with someone’s misconceptions. After the recent Supreme Court ruling against abortion rights (alongside state efforts to politically review textbooks and instructors) does anyone truly believe that the kind of redistribution that is “spurred on by productive investment” will not have to share center stage with the very issues that “identitarians” are centrally motivated by and organized around? Even thinkers as famously hostile to dominant forms of identity politics as Adolph Reed concede that the right-wing “cultural” agenda is not just a “hustle” to distract from the regular business of class war, but also setting the political groundwork for a broader right-wing seizure of power.

Along the way to discussing Elite Capture, Oduor characterizes my earlier book Reconsidering Reparations as a work “in the tradition of liberal political philosophy.” It’s unclear why. I explicitly characterize myself as a materialist in the book and explain the book’s central concepts in terms of patterns of accumulation — an approach that is more Samir Amin than Sam Adams and with an accordingly long history in materialist thought.

It’s true that Reconsidering Reparations takes actual histories of trans-Atlantic slavery and colonial conquests as a starting point, and avoids jargon like “primitive accumulation” that materialists might find more familiar. On both counts, then, the book aesthetically resembles the kinds of stories told by “race reductionists.” But the kind of person averse to the “liberal abstractions” Oduor accuses me of relying on in his review should note that tracking the actual histories of accumulation of labor power, guns, and territory is a move in the direction of less abstraction, rather than more.

And as the substance goes: to point out that slavery, colonial conquest, and trade linkages on a planetary scale built capitalism and thereby the planetary social order we now live in is to make the same point that Marx and Lenin did — presumably not liberals by Oduor’s lights. After all, slave ships did not cross the Middle Passage to fill diversity quotas.

Oduor also misrepresents Elite Capture’s most central idea, saying that the book “encourages the conclusion that bad decisions and choices on the part of individuals are to blame.” The book could well be summarized as a book-length, explicit rejection of exactly this perspective. In the very first chapter: “Elite capture is not a conspiracy. It’s bigger than cynical appropriations, opportunism, or the moral successes or failures of any individual or group. It is a kind of system behavior—a phenomenon articulated at the population level.”

Oduor goes on to say that “Although reference is made to capitalism, Táíwò’s conception of agency relies on a view of constraining structures incompatible with the dull compulsion of the market.” To the extent that individual “agency” is discussed in the book, it is to point out that, regardless of the “dull compulsion of the market” — or, less abstractly, the pressure people get from their bosses — we can join collective efforts anyway. It is still possible to vote yes in a union election at your workplace, or to join the protest outside. Is this false? Should any Marxist or any other sort of materialist find this point objectionable? Even if so, unexplained references to “structuralism,” “voluntarism,” or even “agency” don’t do much to explain why.

Oduor again confuses cosmetic differences for substantive ones when he alleges that the book “jumps from discussions of capitalism to discussions of systems of affirmation and recognition,” displaying a “tendency to flatten the differences between social structures,” taking the book’s discussion of the Emperor’s New Clothes allegory as an example of this. But the book’s use of this allegory is making the exact opposite point: that “systems of affirmation and recognition” aren’t magically separate “social structures” that exist in some other causal universe from capitalism any more than a conversation between an emperor and a commoner about his nonexistent clothes exists in a world isolated from the empire they live in. This point should be eminently familiar to any Marxist. Perhaps Oduor might have recognized this extremely orthodox materialist position if I had referred to the empire using the term “base” and the communicative “systems of affirmation and recognition” using the term “superstructure.”

I would guess that these misreadings stem from Oduor’s frustrations about what my book does not say more so than what it does — that is, who the book is talking to. Perhaps the book would have been more legible to Oduor if it had been more cosmetically Marxist, using vocabulary that was more familiar to the initiated. But Elite Capture wouldn’t have said anything substantively different if I had.

We can return to Oduor’s own question: asking whether “the painstaking work of engaging with the misconceptions of identitarians is worth the effort.” The answer, as before, is that we are going to have to engage with someone’s misconceptions. How many of the 20 million people took the streets for racial justice in the summer of 2020 in the United States alone care whether I or anyone else uses the word “superstructure” when discussing police violence? How many of people marching in the streets for abortion access are waiting for an explanation of the dire political stakes that makes conspicuous use of terms like “surplus value”? And why should they? What could possibly be the case for a narrow focus on the vanishingly small percentage of people in the world who require a specific tradition of jargon to think about the material world?

A small handful of people are waging conflicts in left media over how to describe the social problems that loom over our futures, which strikes me as the petty social stakes of a self-satisfied book club. A much greater number of people are fighting to end them—that is, for their lives, and their children’s future. Addressing this larger group may be “painstaking work,” but it’s far more worthwhile than the alternative. The point after all, is not to describe the world, but to change it.

John-Baptiste Oduor

In his response to my review of his book Elite Capture, Olufemi Taiwo accuses me of searching for cosmetic signs of Marxism. His view of his own work is that it describes the same social dynamics and structures with which socialist theory has usually concerned itself. According to Taiwo, his work differs only by refusing the baggage of anachronistic and convoluted theoretical terms that, were it to employed, would have impressed me. I care very little about fidelity to the jargon of Marxist theory, so I find Taiwo’s accusation strange and baseless.

Taiwo also implies that I believeaccuses me of arguing that the right-wing cultural agenda is just a “hustle,”, a claim I do not make at any point in my review. What I suggested, instead, is that right-wing populism is committed to the same zero-sum game vision of politics as some sections of the Left because it insists that there is no possibility of increasing people’s living standards. Instead, the Rright espouses a politics concerned with redistributing a shrinking pie. I make no broader claims about right-wing anti-liberalism.

More relevant is my accusation that Taiwo’s book is abstract. What do I mean by this? Of course, throughout Elite Capture Taiwo evokes the existence of something called a social structure and the social practices which happen within it. But my issue is not that this talk of “structures” or,  “emperors” and “iinvisible clothes” would have been clearer if were he to have replaced it with talk of “bases” and “superstructures.” My point, rather, is a basic one: different structures across different periods work differently. To apply the philosophical metaphor of a game to understand social structures in the abstract skirts over these differences.

To use, as Taiwo does, historical analogies drawn from the Guinea-Bissauan independence movement to analyze deference politics within activist grouplets in the US skirts over these differences. What is needed is an analysis of the specific economic and political relations within the specific historic and geographical locations under discussion. This is not to deny the value of historical analogies, but instead to insist that where they are employed, grounds —which do not simply function as metaphors—should be given for the similarities between the cases.

(Some small questions: wouldn’t the global climate justice program which Taiwo seeks to defend in his book on reparations require the creation of class of technocrats and elected officials whose task it would be to plan a just transition? Wouldn’t such a supra-national project be seen, from the perspective of the vast majority of people who associate political sovereignty with the nation state, as an instance of elite capture? As such, wouldn’t it elicit the same populist hostility to similar supra-national projects often dismissed by Leftist more motivated by political ideals then attempts to build up the political institutions required to realize these ideals?)

So yes, in the abstract I agree with Taiwo that social structures determine the forms of communication that exist within them. But without an actual analysis of the social structures in question this point is meaningless. Moreover, the lack of concreteness in Taiwo’s response is what allows him to jump willy-nilly between historical analogies, leapfrogging between continents, movements and epochs. Through this analysis one learns little about the actual structure of any of the societies or institutions to which he refers.

One final point. Taiwo ends his response by drawing a contrast between those fighting to end social injustice and those seeking to describe it. He takes his book to offer an aide to the former. Perhaps at the barricades of tomorrow, revolutionaries will be clutching copies of Elite Capture. But, if they are, what will it tell them about the feasability of their demands, the constraints they face, the relative strength of their forces vis-à-vis those of their opposition? The whole history of Pan-Africanism, on which Taiwo draws for inspiration, is one of waves of lofty ambitions crashing against the rocks of a global capitalist market that made even the most well- formulated developmental plans impossible.

Such constraints cannot be overcome through simplification in the service of rallying the troops: “accurate intelligence of the enemy is worth more than bulletins to boost doubtful morale,.” as Perry Anderson once wrote. Or, misguided understandings of politics lead to misguided political action. Accurate description of the world is a necessity for, not an impediment to, changing it.