While The Ship Sinks: On The Co-optation Economy

Estelle Ellison
6 min readApr 28, 2022


(This piece is best read as a follow-up to “Is Transformative Justice A Sunken Ship”)

There are many reasons that people in formal hierarchical positions of power choose to continue intergenerational harms and neglect those of us in the margins. These positions are officially recognized by the state, meaning their will is implicitly enforced by the state’s ever-present violence whether or not they choose to act on this fact. This is contrasted with how we mostly lack the means to directly challenge the countless oppressive systems that uphold capitalism. Many of these reasons people perpetuate hierarchical power dynamics overlap with informal hierarchies found in horizontal and non-horizontal groups.

However; formal hierarchies are distinguished from informal ones by their proximity to capital (i.e. their access to large sums of money). Formal hierarchies tend to be monetarily resourced and have access to the power of the state. This is not to say that informal hierarchies can’t have access to capital, nor does it mean that they lack the means to physically enforce their power dynamics because they absolutely do (they may also choose to involve the police if they so desire). A significant difference here is that one form of hierarchy relies upon a kind of cultural “buy-in” from its base of members, whereas the other relies upon its ability to deprive others of access to resources.

Put another way, formal hierarchies have the means to make their members or staff less vulnerable under capitalism, while informal hierarchies have the means to soothe the ways we feel socially alienated under capitalism. Again it is important to acknowledge that all hierarchies share strategies and attributes to varying degrees, but here we will examine why the difference is significant. The managerial class very much does burrow its way into marginalized communities in the hopes of claiming a privileged position of leadership within informal groups. Yet in these instances, the goal is gaining people’s faith in their supposed capacity to lead rather than reassuring more privileged and classed individuals that they will receive a return on their investments in a project or workplace.

Cliques within informal networks tend to enjoy more access to resources relative to more marginalized folks, but those cliques are more likely to be comprised of people who share similar class backgrounds. Formal hierarchies are for the most part made possible via relationships to people of a significantly different class background from those who make up the majority of those groups, workplaces, organizations, and institutions. The gap in class background shrinks the closer to the top of the formal hierarchy you get.

Why is this significant? Well, besides the implication of being in relationship with people who live through the exploitation of others, this dynamic poses a greater systemic threat to marginalized people than informal hierarchies. To be clear, informal hierarchies are also a threat. The greater threat is posed by the way that formalized hierarchies hoard and dispense resources. The more dependent members and staff become on the group’s resources to stave off further precarity, the more vulnerable marginalized folks become to those power dynamics. That vulnerability is characterized by a lack of agency over the way work is done within a formal hierarchy as well as a lack of agency over their own living conditions.

It is necessary to acknowledge that this vulnerability does not go both ways. It is unidirectional. The vulnerability of the base is not shared by the managerial class. This fact plays a very large part in the ways that critical feedback and calls for accountability are relatively easy to dismiss within a formal hierarchy. Organizational harms and the disposal of vulnerable folks both disincentivize criticism as well as any action that would jeopardize already existing power dynamics. Anyone who has attempted to unionize their workplace already understands this and the importance of leverage.

It is here that proximity to capital must be emphasized and that is because we in the margins have little to no access to what these relationships look like, how they are conducted, and what resources could potentially be redistributed were it up to us. This neoliberal fascist period reeks of decay. The apparent crumbling of a society built on unending profit leads many to think that revolution is both inevitable and likely to happen without a challenge. This belief is extremely dangerous because the state exists to ensure that decay alone cannot threaten capitalism. But, it is particularly dangerous because the managerial class has the means to keep decaying formalized hierarchies alive in the face of crisis or mass exits.

The liberal popularization of abolitionist politics, as well as the privatization of BLM’s grassroots movement, have both created a specialized economy that capitalism has found a use for. This economy has become yet another tool in an arsenal of counter-insurgent and union-busting tactics. The nationwide opposition to so-called “cancel culture” has demonstrated the utility of an emergent co-optation economy that has grown from the managerial class’s marketing of watered-down Black insurgency. From the perspective of this co-optation economy, achieving revolution is as simple as refusing to address the conditions that systemically validate harm and conflict. Anyone who tries to do otherwise is disposable and can be purged without consequence.

Over the past few years, political formations that were once considered radical have all pivoted away from the margins that used to yield the most promising recruits, and instead towards those who have invested in a co-optation economy that is largely shaped by the managerial class pitching easy guilt-relieving ways of “freeing us” to the funders of formal, but somehow still “progressive”, hierarchies. This clearly explicit shift in focus has meant a loss of respect from those of us who have consistently been most impacted by neoliberal fascism despite the fact that radical movements are only made possible by the margins. Black insurrection grew from the persistent hostility of our conditions that the managerial class is remarkably protected from.

And yet, this undeniable nose-dive in the principles among the celebrity “leaders” of liberation struggles and the loss of support from marginalized radicals has not spelled the end of their organizing careers. Why is that? The managerial class may not be in control of our narratives of insurrectionary survival, but it is in control of the liberal abolition narratives that yield funding. White guilt, Black capitalists, and class privileged non-black POC will gladly purchase cultural commodities and services that reassure them that they’ve already done what they can to answer for all the ways they’ve oppressed, exploited, and abused others (and in many cases continue to do so). The fact that the co-optation economy helps them neutralize any collective threats to their positions of power is just icing on the cake.

The co-optation economy and the managerial class have staked the future of their proximity to capital on the fact that funders constitute an audience to whom they have exclusive access. What is the need for meaningfully impactful work from a robust membership if all funders want are tax write-offs and a clear conscience? As abhorrent as this line of thinking is, we are already seeing signs that this trajectory is unapologetically in progress. The myth of leadership under neoliberal fascism has no faith in the potential of collective power and expects us to give up our principles as we plunge deeper into precarity. Saviorism is simply apologism for colonialism.

Every day in this period of overlapping crises reinforces the fact that only the margins can create sustainable networks of care and safety from acute violence. Just as our class enemies have chosen to bet on themselves, we must bet on the potential of our own synchronicity and spontaneity in a surveillance state that wants us to remain predictable and isolated. We must build a new ship from our intimate understanding of our collective needs and our ever-sharpening discernment. As the opportunists struggle to keep sinking ships afloat, we must find each other so that we may choose a truly liberatory horizon to sail towards together.

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Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)