Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

Asad Haider
Identity Politics and Mass Self-Organisation

The concept of ‘identity politics’ is central to a great deal of mainstream political discussion, both on the left and right. On one side, it is a form of politics that asserts the rights of marginalised groups against entrenched cultural (white male) privilege. On the other, it is an elitist drive to curtail free speech and undermine traditional values. But how does it relate to a more radical left-wing project? Has identity politics become a politics of the establishment? What kind of role must it perform in a mass movement for radical social change? In his new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider considers the history and modern form of identity politics, and what it means for the development of collaborative social movements. In the following interview I discuss some of the important points he raises.

Asad Haider

Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, and author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018)

How was the emergence of identity politics in the 1970s important as a critique of the socialist politics of the time? Does modern identity politics continue to perform the same function?

Asad Haider: I advocate being very specific about terminology, so I associate the emergence of the term identity politics with the Combahee River Collective’s statement in 1977, which posed an essential challenge to the class reductionism of past socialist movements – that is, the assumption of these movements that economic exploitation was experienced in a unitary way, that other forms of domination were peripheral, and that struggles against other forms of oppression were subordinate to class politics. It was also a challenge to the black liberation movement and the feminist movement, because the specific position of black women was not taken into account. ‘Identity politics’ in this case meant producing a more radical struggle against all forms of oppression.

In my book, I jump from the introduction of that term to its usage during the 2016 primaries in the US, during which it was used to defend the Democratic Party elites and their agenda against challenges internal to the party, but which were riding the wave of previous social movements. ‘Identity politics’ in this context was seen in opposition to socialism, which was represented as necessarily exclusionary. This was not an attempt to enrich socialism and realise an emancipatory potential that had been suppressed by exclusion; it was a weaponised deployment of identity to prevent a shift to the left.

The point is that, like any word, the meaning of ‘identity politics’ is highly contested, and that its usage today is frequently diametrically opposed to its original usage. I am sympathetic to those who want to reclaim its original usage, but it seems to me that this will be very difficult, because the whole apparatus of the media and the liberal intelligentsia have appropriated the term, and have reshaped its meaning in such a way that it carries new effects; it will never simply return to its ‘pure,’ original usage, but will now also carry with it the resistance to coalitions, the opposition to socialism, the reduction of politics to a demand for recognition by the state. My intention in the book is to recognise the valuable and necessary contribution of the founders of the term, while criticising its contemporary appropriation and beginning to look for other languages that can carry on that emancipatory project. READ MORE

One Question
Marx at 200

One Question
Marx at 200

Karl MarxOne Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, to mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on 5th May, we ask:

How has Marx influenced your thinking?

Responses from: Ursula Huws; Sven-Eric Liedman; Terrell Carver; Jayati Ghosh; Wolfgang Streeck; Frigga Haug; Lucia Pradella; Neil Faulkner; Lars T Lih; Esther Leslie; Guilherme Leite Gonçalves; Michael Roberts.

 

Ursula Huws

Marx helped me understand how capitalism works. There are many developments he did not predict, but he bequeathed us tools to unpick the business models and explain the processes by which capitalism continues to expand and develop, and the creative-destructive way it lurches from crisis to crisis, transforming labour and everyday life along the way. As he put it in the Communist Manifesto, ‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones’.

Using his concepts, we can see how the continuous need for expansion drives a voracious appetite to seek out new sites of accumulation and how this sucks more and more aspects of human activity within the scope of the market, opening up new opportunities for making money out of them. To quote again from his Communist Manifesto, ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere’.

For me, the concept of ‘commodification’ is key to understanding these dynamics. In Marx’s day, industrialists took activities that were previously based in the household, such as weaving, sewing, making cleaning materials and preparing food, and, turned them into standard commodities, forming the basis for huge new industries. New machines played a key role in this. In our own times, new commodities are being generated from art and culture and the exploitation of the natural world, as well as many other aspects of daily life and sociality. We are turned into customers, even for such basic aspects of subsistence as health, clean water and the ability to communicate. This locks us into an ever-greater dependence on the market. To change this situation we will have to find a collective way to say ‘No’! READ MORE

Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Nick Hewlett
Marx on Violence

Many past and present revolutionary movements that have used violence to achieve their ends have drawn inspiration from Karl Marx.  Yet when we scan the many books written on Marx, it becomes clear that few examine the place of violence in his revolutionary theory.  Here I discuss with Nick Hewlett Marx’s position on violence and ask how it might guide us in the twenty-first century.

Nick Hewlett

Nick Hewlett is Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. He is author of Blood and Progress. Violence in Pursuit of Emancipation (Edinburgh, 2016), The Sarkozy Phenomenon (Imprint Academic, 2011), Badiou, Balibar, Rancière.  Re-thinking Emancipation (Continuum, 2007), Democracy in Modern France (Continuum, 2003), and Modern French Politics. Analysing Conflict and Consensus since 1945 (Polity, 1998).

How would you define ‘violence’?

Nick Hewlett: In order to make the subject manageable, I define violence narrowly, as follows: ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others’; political violence is therefore ‘deliberately causing physical pain, injury or death to others with political goals in mind’. This type of violence is sometimes described as personal, or agent-related violence, where the perpetrator or perpetrators are often easily-identifiable. However, it is also necessary to take into account what is sometimes described (after Galtung[1]) as ‘structural’, or society-related violence, meaning harm inflicted, for example, as a result of particular conditions of work, or harm as a result of uneven distribution of resources in society, perhaps resulting in ongoing pain, illness or premature death. Inequality and structural violence are often closely related – the one frequently leading to the other – and it becomes highly relevant when discussing, amongst other things, the ethics of violence in revolt compared with the ethics of established states and governments which may be deemed responsible for structural violence. I should add that I do not include damage to property in my definition of violence, so smashing the windows of a government ministry building or cutting down a fence surrounding a military airbase are not forms of violence, although burning crops or destroying a person’s house might cause so much hardship and suffering that it becomes a form of violence. Certainly, the boundary between violent and a non-violent forms of action is not always clear-cut, nor is the difference between agent-related and structural violence. READ MORE

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we ask:

What is the relevance of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 to us today?

Their responses are collected below.

Russian Revolution

Lars T. Lih

Author of Lenin (2011) and Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ In Context (2006). Adjunct Professor at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal.

In 1917, Russian elite society committed suicide. The educated elites were fanatically committed to a war that was in the most direct sense indefensible: it could not be justified in terms that the Russian people (narod) would accept. The people had reluctantly obeyed orders when the centuries-old traditional government demanded it, but after February the tsar abdicated not only for himself but also (as it turned out) for his entire dynasty, thus leaving Russia suddenly without any source of legitimate authority (vlast).

The continuing war meant that the elite could not restore order in the usual repressive way nor could they refrain from further alienating the people. In these circumstances, ‘All Power [vlast] to the Soviets!’ meant ‘using the forces of the people to do the job the elite is failing to do’ – namely, respond to the national crisis in a way favourable to the great mass of the people (workers, peasants, urban lower classes).

As we might expect, taking on this task led to mistakes, absurdities, and outright crimes. Today, looking back, we should not focus so exclusively as we do on the crimes and absurdities, but rather appreciate the huge dimensions of the challenges handed to the new and untried regime, and the often admirable energy and creativity shown in responding to them. READ MORE