In their controversial 2013 opus The Undercommons, radicals Fred Moten and Stefano Harney detail the eponymous academic-activist ferment to which they owe their radicality. The undercommons is located in the university—more generally, in the swarm of relations and systems we could call “academia” or “intellectual life”—but is not a physical place; rather, it is a “downlow lowdown maroon community of the university … where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”
The undercommons is defined both by a particular kind of community and a particular kind of work. Who makes up this community? Those who “steal” from the university: those who do their work while eliding—working alongside, underneath, without much concern or attention to, or with an eye toward gaming—the structures of professionalization, profit-chasing, respectability politics, solipsistic individualism and statism that many see as entrenched within modern academia. The undercommons, in other words, is the set of social relationships that interlinks academics and intellectuals who steal paychecks, lecturing positions, office space and so on in order to do work the university would rather they not do.
What, then, is this work? It is the work Adrian Piper accomplishes when, fed up with the obsessive professionalism and bad faith of the system of academic publishing, she releases her magnum opus for free online, where it circulates to this day. It is the work Edward Said accomplishes when he is photographed throwing a stone across the Israel-Lebanon Blue Line, two years after his documentary detailing the atrocities of Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine is blacklisted from American broadcasting. This is the work of adjunct lecturers when they secretly change their syllabi after handing them over to administrations for university censorship in order to teach Cedric Robinson in Texas in 2022, and the work of department secretaries when they shadow-book a thesis room for their local abolitionist collective to meet and plot mutual-aid tactics. In the near-empty halls of anti-colonial film conferences, in after-hours drinks in Women, Gender and Sexuality department lounges, in the loosely rolled joints passed between overworked graduate students, in office hours hosted by untenured black Marxists, we flex and make manifest radical consciousness and activity.
Moten and Harney insist that this is radical work: work that aims at, and helps achieve, the abolition of the structures of evil that organize the university, and the modern world more generally. The undercommons aspires both to their abolition and the construction of new and more loving forms of life.
But how is this possible? Can Black Marxism reading groups within universities, secret department meetings within universities and anti-university screeds circulated within universities, by university professors, abolish the university as it currently stands?
After all, the university is a system: a massive network of social relations, ideological norms, monetary transfers, regulative mandates and physical institutions. And like all systems, it is nigh impossible to escape, and larger than any individual or any group of individuals within it. What can those within it do to end it?
This is not merely a problem for university abolitionism, but is one for any system-focused radical politics. The modern left is united by, if nothing else, precisely such a focus. And perhaps this is why, as philosopher Liam Kofi Bright suggests, modern leftists are possessed by an exhausting pessimism. What can the undercommons fugitive—what can any of us—do to fight systems that do not require our consent, or anyone’s consent, to proceed in their grotesque machinations? What can David do against Goliath, when Goliath is no mere foe but the very air David must breathe to vocalize his declarations of war? Indeed, it might seem as though all the undercommons has to offer us are declarations: screeds and manifestos and reading groups and open-access journals. If David’s stone cannot fell Goliath, what good are his words?
Georgetown philosophy professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s 2022 book, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), seeks to help us change the world. In doing so, Elite Capture has its feet planted firmly on the ground. Táíwò has crafted a political book. It is a work aimed first and foremost at providing communicable and actionable diagnoses of political realities and strategies for their alteration—down to the final chapter, which takes its title from Marx’s oft-cited proclamation “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
Elite Capture is the rare book that earns this quotation, and it is a wake-up call: a sober and nonantagonistic explication of the ways in which our politics, often through no fault of our own, often despite our own best intentions, become waylaid en route to their promised land. To change the world we must, in Táíwò’s words, work toward a constructive politics. As he defines it, this kind of politics would “focus on outcome over process: the pursuit of specific goals or results, rather than mere avoidance of ‘complicity’ in injustice or promotion of purely moral or aesthetic principles.”
We’ve become more concerned with the state of our souls than the state of the world. Corporate antiracist training promises to sanctify white folks; cancellations purport (but usually fail) to excise the morally compromised from our communities, lest their impurity infect us. In short, the current age is simultaneously defined by the ubiquity of political discourse and an increasing lack of interest in doing anything to change the status quo. Táíwò argues that this is the result of the phenomenon of “elite capture.” Elite Capture is focused on the way this co-optation occurs in a particular social domain—identity politics—although Táíwò’s commitment to constructive politics extends beyond it.
The dilemma of identity politics, as Táíwò sees it, is that it hampers, rather than helps, constructive political projects. This is a complaint that various leftists, particularly the most class-obsessed among us, have long made. What distinguishes Elite Capture from other, often whinier criticisms of identity politics—whether from the right or the left—is Táíwò’s diagnosis of the seduction of identity politics: why it’s happening, where it’s coming from and what it looks like. Táíwò makes it abundantly clear throughout the book that identity politics—when simply understood as the construction of political agendas based on interests that accrue to particular social identities, and an attention to those identities as a way to access those interests—could be a genuinely constructive political project.
The problem, on his view, is that identity politics has been twisted by elite capture—a process where “the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims.” If this description sounds exceedingly generalizable, that’s because it is. Elite capture is a way of describing how elitism—the possession of disproportionate power and influence—functions. And it is, of course, everywhere. As Táíwò puts it, “it’s not just that wokeness is too white. It’s that everything is.” Identity politics doesn’t fail because it is somehow inherently anti-radical; it fails because we live in a world structured to make it fail.
What Táíwò is after is something more than just an analysis of the way the world works, or a fiery polemic against bad actors and evil reactionaries. Elite Capture is characterized by a rare honesty, the kind that makes it possible for us to figure out what needs to be done and how to get down to doing it. If leftists like myself read it with a growing sense of embarrassment, that’s on us. The point is not to wallow in that shame, but to direct it toward productive action, toward the world beyond us.
That world is organized by systems crafted by and for elite interests. Those with power have, throughout centuries, developed institutions and infrastructures—of governance, of knowledge circulation, of resource distribution and more—that ensure that they retain power. Of course, such disproportionate power is usually attained by brutalizing those without it. Such brutalizing systems are, ultimately, what makes the world run as it does. Systems—not people, and not even powerful people. As such, if one removes the powerful people, or replaces them, or reorganizes them, and the systems still remain, then the world continues as it is.
The existence of such structures is supposedly generally accepted. “Systemic racism” has become an inescapable mantra, often even among reactionary political camps. And yet, Táíwò argues, this supposedly systemic orientation has failed to bring about an actual emphasis on systematic political activity. Instead, our focus has become increasingly centered on certain individuals’ moral and psychological security. Antiracist trainings don’t teach the Wall Street elites they pander to how to annihilate the evils of global racial capitalism; they teach them how to pronounce non-Western names correctly, how to funnel money to scholarships for top-tier private universities, how to avoid making their black CEO (currently raking in a seven-digit salary) feel awkward about their hair texture.
Identity politics, Táíwò acknowledges, has no special immunity to elite capture, and one form this kind of manipulation has taken within identity politics is in the emergence of what he calls “deference politics.” Deference is currently ubiquitous; it’s there in every demand that white leftists “sit down and shut up” when black people begin talking, that television executives hire queer people to tell queer stories, that first-generation college students run seminar discussions on Marx. In such a politics, we “defer” to people who appear “to fit a social category associated with some form of oppression” on the assumption that they have some sort of privileged experience of that oppression and thus have privileged access to correct diagnoses of, and good strategies for dismantling, the evils in question.
Táíwò is cautious, but not wholly pessimistic, about the usefulness of such deference, which might work better if we took more care to defer to the right people. But, Táíwò argues, the settings in which this kind of politics take place are structurally weighted against our ever doing so. This is because these settings are invariably subject to elite capture. As he puts it in a particularly sharp passage:
In my experience as an academic and organizer, when people have said they needed to “listen to the most affected,” it wasn’t usually because they intended to set up Skype calls to refugee camps or to collaborate with houseless people. Acting on this conception of “centering the most marginalized” would require a different approach entirely, in a world where 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing (slum conditions) and 100 million are unhoused, a full third of the human population does not have reliable drinking water, and the intersections of food, energy, and water insecurity with the climate crisis have already displaced 8.5 million people in South Asia alone, while threatening to displace tens of millions more.
Call it a killjoy. But Táíwò is right here, and I’m tempted to say that it would take a heady blend of narcissism and naïveté to suggest otherwise.
If marginalized elites—elites like me and Táíwò—are the ones given deference, then even if we respond with the purest and most earnest of intentions, the “politics of deference” will emphasize “the consequences that are likeliest to show up in rooms where elites do most of their interacting.” Radical leftism becomes centered on the evils that manifest themselves most in the lives of people like Táíwò and myself, and thus becomes concerned with the political activities that address those evils: activities like citational justice, equitable artistic and symbolic representation, rituals of bereavement and apologia, just tenure practices, fair rates for freelance critics and so on. Meanwhile, as Táíwò reminds us, citational justice isn’t what got folks in Flint, Michigan clean water; nor will such elite-centered political activities give them any reason to recultivate trust in their governing institutions. The point is not that these activities are never worth doing; they are, when they are aimed at eradicating evil in the world. It’s just that a constructive politics—a comprehensive politics, one that works to eradicate all evil, not just that which afflicts the powerful—requires something more.
Táíwò’s own rendition of this story is much less stodgy than my own. Elite Capture is brisk and focused, moving swiftly through its analysis without spending much time on necessary and sufficient conditions and the definitions of terms. This is not just for the sake of a vague gesture at “accessibility,” whatever that means. (Táíwò would surely balk at the notion that a book generally out of reach for the vast majority of the global population can be called “accessible.”) Elite Capture has different ambitions. Its sentences—pointed, frank and clipped, almost curt—read like staccato bursts of insight from an organizer, not an academic. Its gaze is firmly locked outside itself, away from Táíwò, away from the self-serving moral and intellectual tics of its readers, and squarely at the fucked-up world we have and the different one we can build.
This pragmatic focus manifests not only in Elite Capture’s form, but in its near-obsessive attention to structures, structures, structures. Systematicity—the very systematicity I summoned in order to fret over the undercommons fugitive—has become subsumed by elite capture by way of a languid nihilism, a doomed fixation on the impossibility of moral activity from within evil systems, a warped causal picture of the world according to which human behavior has no power in the face of the Lovecraftian behemoths we call social structures.
Táíwò wants us to see that structures do things. Inasmuch as it is possible—and he repeatedly admits that the possibility may be limited—any radical project must therefore do things to structures (abolish them, or transform them, or build new ones). What may send orthodox leftists muttering is that Táíwò is quite secure in insisting that we—human beings, individuals—can do things to structures—perhaps not abolish or rewire them with a snap of the fingers, but do the infinitely more grim and infinitely more productive work of chipping away at them, transforming them at the minutest levels, using the materials, the human connections, the epistemic heuristics and on-the-fly strategies that lay directly in front of us. He has no time for nihilism.
Perhaps this is why Táíwò’s portraits of individual activists throughout the book never feel anti-systematic. He writes of anti-colonial liberation fighters like Paulo Freire and Lilica Boal, whose work in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau included the creation of genuine live alternatives to the colonial and elite educational system their communities inherited. Táíwò focuses on the ways Boal and Freire, and their many comrades, worked to ensure that the schools they opened evaded elite capture: by focusing on educating children displaced by colonial violence and anti-colonial resistance, ensuring that their basic needs were met, circulating education resources to the broader community, organizing school schedules and practices around the local communities’ needs and norms, pursuing full gender parity, and so on. Such accounts do not read as paeans to the primacy of the individual, but as clear-eyed strategies toward structural transformation.
One review of Táíwò’s book has accused it of suggesting that “bad decisions and choices on the part of individuals are to blame” for elite capture. This is odd, when Táíwò writes, over and over again, that “to blame the problems of elite capture entirely on [elites’] moral success and failures is to confuse effect for cause.” This misreading is demonstrative of the way systematicity has become a leftist bogeyman, summoned to scare straight naïve radicals itching to do something about the world (and inadvertently convincing them that there’s nothing they can do). In such a misreading, the necessary cohesion of systematic analysis and individual action is erased by a rewired, now fatalistic, causal story. The work of world-building becomes a theoretical null space. Táíwò’s book, if attended to, is an opportunity for modern leftists to unlearn this entrenched pessimism, with what the philosopher William Paris might call a hope beyond optimism: a hope built not on scientific predictions or heaven-sent faith, but on a dogged persistence in the relentless, everyday work of getting shit done.
To be sure, this kind of hope lacks the sweeping grandiosity of leftist dogma. Very well. Grandiosity, Táíwò would remind us, is not the litmus test of a political strategy. Its usefulness is what matters.
Does the undercommons satisfy this test? How can studying, thinking, reading and writing change the world?
This is no mere academic question. After all, Elite Capture itself is undercommons work. It is the project of a fugitive intellectual, one unwilling to accept the mode of study called “knowledge production” and one invested in a radical politics ostensibly unacceptable to the systems within which he resides. But, like Moten and Harney themselves, Táíwò’s fugitive work remains dangerously close to the very systems that worry him. A university professor and professional philosopher, Táíwò’s previous book, Reconsidering Reparations, was written firmly in the specialist language of academic philosophy and has been lauded by the elites who populate that space. Elite Capture has done quite well for itself too. It’s been reviewed and profiled, with almost universal acclaim, by the writers at the bastions of the chattering classes, from the Nation to the New York Times and, now, The Point. It will doubtless be read in many university classrooms; indeed, one can morbidly imagine corporate antiracist trainings passing out excerpts alongside Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Given the book’s descriptions of, well, elite capture, the irony is unmistakable.
The question of the undercommons’ radicalism, then, applies to Elite Capture too. And this, if we heed Táíwò’s own warnings, cannot be treated as a matter of moral purity. The question worth asking is: How can the undercommons, in which Elite Capture endeavors to participate, change the world?
Moten and Harney locate the radicalism of the undercommons in its approach to social life. They believe:
Study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice.
Summoned out of themselves, the undercommons theorists are driven to speak when a human being sends something their way; they are pulled into social orbit by the unnamable gravity that every human being exudes and by which every human being is drawn to one another. The fugitive intellectual is a fugitive from the way of relating to other people that objectifies them, alienates them, treats their utterances as hypotheses to test or attacks to defend against. This thinker, this speaker and hearer, performs the ultimate act of love: attending carefully to what others have to say, because they care that the other cares enough to say it. They receive an invitation: not an invitation to retreat to a monastic refuge and think the universe in order, but to turn toward the one who has made an unsalvageable, blissful debtor out of them and speak back, with feeling, and an ear open for an altered echo.
Táíwò has reminded us of the stakes of radical work. A constructive politics must deliver more than tenure for elites, pay raises for elites, state apologies for elites. The university is not abolished when Moten gets a MacArthur. It is abolished when universities no longer exist to fund fossil-fuel extraction and private prisons, or funnel elites into state-surveillance branches and global banks. How does study—even study steeped in sociality—get us closer to that world, or the world of any genuinely radical, genuinely transformative politics? Can the politics of the undercommons be genuinely constructive? Can the undercommons escape elite capture? Can Elite Capture?
Can this review? What does it matter if I manage to convince the graduate students and journal editors who read The Point that Táíwò is an accomplished writer or a gifted rhetorician? What does it matter if I successfully litigate Táíwò’s correct or incorrect applications of Marxist or decolonial analysis? Are such concerns not further proof of the absorption of Táíwò’s project, of my commitments, into the circulatory system of racial capitalism laying waste to the world beyond your laptop screen?
If all criticism is capable of performing are such adjudications—attributions of symbolic totems of praise or disapproval—then the answer is simple. Criticism is elite capture; criticism is the death of abolition; criticism is the death of politics.
But what if we did an undercommons kind of criticism? How might criticism—the act of speaking about another’s speech, the act of thinking aloud, in the public, about what another has thought—become a social gesture? Or, I misspeak. This is an invitation to see criticism as the act not of speaking about, but speaking with.
When critics fail to embrace this undercommons possibility, both disagreement and agreement—with the artist, with the reader—fail to be opportunities for connection. They become nothing but opportunities for a declaration, a decision, an assertion. The other, in their difference, is not someone to hear and be changed by but someone to talk to, or even toward. Call this adjudicatory criticism: a criticism that cares about nothing but evaluation, a criticism that does not care about care.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that to write a review of Elite Capture worth writing, I had to become the kind of critic who asked, “How could Elite Capture change the world? How might it be useful?” rather than “Is Elite Capture good or bad?” I realized this because I realized that that, after all, would be the only useful thing for me to do.
But it is Elite Capture itself that asked me to be useful. I did not simply bring a radical pragmatism to this book; Táíwò pulled it out of me. That is, my notion of what it took for a review of Elite Capture to be worth writing was not foreign to its contextual landscape, the world Táíwò had constructed for us, with us, together. I had to enter that world without ethnographic remove and be moved, be affected, be undone and redone by what Táíwò has done. In other words, Elite Capture asked me to join a conversation, not judge its success.
To really listen to Táíwò is to hear his plea to care about changing that world; and to take that plea seriously is to be moved by it, to see it as a call that makes a claim on me, as a call that is not asking me just to evaluate but to care. Rather than searching for criticism’s heroic potential, its utopian capacities, we should see it as a fundamentally human—and thus fundamentally shared—extension of life: compromised, complicit, and seeking to build a better world from that compromised complicity, which is nothing more or less than the condition of living a radical human life in a state of evil.
We need to be convinced to embrace constructive politics—in deed as well as word—because we live in a world structured by the consistent elite capture of our political spirit. That is simply true. The fundamental message of Táíwò’s book is that eliding this condition, erasing our complicity, should not be the focus of our radicalism. It is impossible and beside the point. We must, instead, accept this condition as our starting point.
The sociality of the undercommons is the condition of possibility of you and me being taught to care; we do not enter it as revolutionary agents, but become such by moving into it, by being moved by it. Perhaps it would be better if we lived in a world in which elites did not need to fumble our way through the undercommons, through the murky depths in which revolutionary consciousness is put on the path to be made black, to be made strong. We do not. Perhaps it would be better if you did not need to read this book. You do.
Human beings transform only when we refuse to cordon ourselves off from each other behind a vulgar individualism. The sociality of the undercommons is meant to serve as a corrective to such vulgarity, in service of the glorious obscenity of living with other people. I tried to read Elite Capture with a heart open to such obscenity; I hope you do too.
Will all this chattering be useful? That depends entirely on what we do next.
Art credit: Forrest Kirk. Secret Handshake (2021), acrylic, spray paint and Gorilla Glue on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.