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 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.
In your book you focus on today’s identity politics in relation to questions of race. In that context you say: ‘I define identity politics as the neutralisation of movements against racial oppression. It is the ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy in service of the advancement of political and economic elites.’ To what extent would you say modern identity politics is a conservative or establishment ideology?
AH: When I talk about ‘neutralisation,’ I mean that the struggles against racism of the 20th century, which are often cynically appropriated by the reactionary ideologues of contemporary politics, were mass movements, with revolutionary agendas. They challenged the entire structure of society. Because of their mass character, leaders were subjected to the supervision of the collective, which often meant open conflict with self-organised collectivities.
When, in the United States, the Civil Rights movement achieved its major legislative victories, the future of the movement became unclear. And it became far more possible for black elites to enter into the existing political and economic structures. As that phenomenon continued in the 1970s, the elite leadership could use the residual language of racial unity to justify its own interests, which increasingly entered into conflict with the majority of black working people. This was a watershed moment in the transformation of anti-racist politics in the US.
The situation now is that when race is understood according to the language of identity, there is no way of distinguishing between agendas that serve elites and agendas that serve the majority of working people of colour. In order to do that, we need languages of class and economic exploitation. In order to effectively fight against racism, we need coalitions that are simultaneously anti-racist and anti-capitalist.
It is important to note that in making this argument, I am not arbitrating an opposition between race and class. Race and class are conjoined in the subtitle of my book because I understand them to be inseparable components of American history and the existing social structure. The Civil Rights Movement presented no opposition between race and class – perhaps its most famous event, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, demonstrates this just in the title. Neither did many of the Black Power organisations. Some representatives vacillated on the question, for reasons that are historically perfectly understandable, but they were challenged by others in the movement even then. The opposition I make is between mass self-organisation and elite-led politics. To understand the history of anti-racist movements, and the political problems we face today, this opposition is essential.
You also discuss how politics concerned with specific identity groups tends to work against collaborative political resistance. Do you see this kind of separatism as a defining attribute of modern identity politics?
AH: I think that separatism is important to understand because it was highly contested in mass anti-racist movements. It was certainly often an important strategic move to say that oppressed groups should organise autonomously, with their own leadership, so that they were not subjected to the leadership of whites. However, this did not necessarily mean a kind of essentialist move that said that black people, for example, had a unitary identity and thus unitary interests, and so on that basis would remain separate from any other group. The Black Panther Party engaged in autonomous organising, but they openly criticised this separatist ideology. And they also engaged in coalitional practices like the Chicago Rainbow Coalition, which we would do well to study today.
There are times when openly separatist views are voiced today. They are damaging and ignore the legacy of challenges to separatism from within the history of black radicalism.
To what extent do you think the Black Lives Matter movement has avoided the kind of separatist identity politics you describe?
AH: First of all, I think it would be highly reductive to understand the Black Lives Matter movement in identity terms. It was a challenge to the violence of the American police state, and by extension the prison system, which had a highly general relevance. Today, the obscene policing and detention of immigrants demonstrates one sense in which this movement challenged the structure of society and could potentially challenge a range of forms of oppression. That this movement arose to respond to the specificity of racism against black people presents no problem; all movements arise in response to specific situations, and sometimes take strategic precedence. They are strengthened by coalitions and by a growth which allows them to put forward a range of demands.
The Black Lives Matter Movement was very heterogeneous, arising often from spontaneous mass actions, and often taking a coalitional character. I was a participant in some actions, and encountered many tendencies: radical, coalitional politics; elite reformism; reactionary separatism. I cannot state with any certainty which tendencies were dominant in specific places or in the country as a whole. What I can say with certainty is that the movement altered the American political landscape, and must be a fundamental reference point for future social movements.
One issue you consider is how identity politics can reduce marginalised identity groups to the status of passive victims, rather than being subjects or political agents themselves. As you put it, ‘when the liberal language of rights is used to defend a concrete identity group from injury, physical or verbal, that group ends up defined by its victimhood and individuals end up reduced to their victimized belonging.’ Is this a core element of modern identity politics? How is it to be avoided?
AH: This is certainly the core problem I identify with contemporary identity politics. Identities become the standpoint from which we can claim to be injured and demand redress from the state. In this sense, identity politics is a politics which locks us into the state and prevents us from challenging it, and prevents us from asserting collective agency which is at a distance from the state. I criticise the language of victimhood not because I believe people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or because I question that this victimisation is real, but rather because I refuse to accept the logic of state power, which says that all of us are passive recipients of its protection who can have no political agency of our own.
As to how we avoid this, I must return to a consistent refrain: the necessity of mass self-organisation. This is the only path to collective subjectivity. Waging an ideological struggle against liberal conceptions of politics may be an important step on this path.
You point out that an important aspect of identity politics is ‘policing of language’, or paying great attention to promoting appropriate terms for addressing different identity groups. What have been the positive and negative impacts of this focus on language for progressive politics? How does it aid or stifle the construction of collaborative political movements?
AH: I believe it is centrally important to educate people on the everyday hierarchies which really exist in our society as a result of social inequalities. White men, for example, generally feel more entitled to speak in political meetings or classrooms. They also often use language which is not sensitive to the experiences of people who have been marginalised in various ways. This is harmful to those who have not grown up with that feeling of entitlement, or experience psychic damage from that language. It also obstructs the self-organisation I have described, because a large part of the collectivity ends up excluded from leadership.
However, ‘calling out’ the white men is no solution, as it turns a meeting which should be about expressing collective agency into a prolonged discussion of the white men themselves. And the policing of language unfortunately makes matters worse. While the white men may have been challenged, it is not clear that this will actually change their behaviour. What is clear is that there is now a climate of anxiety and fear about saying the wrong thing, which affects people far beyond the white men. Anyone is capable of saying something ‘problematic’ and they may be challenged for it in a public, humiliating way.
The tasks of political education require building climates of mutual trust and collaboration, which will in many cases have to include even white men. Good faith one-to-one conversations may be more useful than public trashing. And getting away from a liberal insistence on constant, perpetual dialogue is just as important; working collaboratively in smaller groups on concrete projects, like canvassing or writing flyers, allows people to form different relations with each other. This does not happen in the large meetings and assemblies that too often get prioritised in the urgency of action.
Here we may briefly note an important point about mass self-organisation: self-organisation does not mean pure spontaneity, or an absence of leadership. It means building structures that allow everyone to exercise leadership. This does not simply happen automatically in a political meeting, it has to be built.
At the same time, when discussing language here we may also talk about negative representations of different identity groups in the media or by public figures, whether an objectified depiction of women in a music video or a racist tweet by Donald Trump. In each case, the challenge that results tends to focus on the individual perpetrator rather than institutional issues. Do you think it is important to keep challenging these representations, and if so how?
AH: Issues of representation are very important. I had the personal experience during my childhood of seeing most Muslims on TV represented as terrorists, and most South Asians as objects of ridicule. The situation has improved considerably due to activism surrounding the problems of representation, but it has by no means been completely resolved, and will not be resolved as long as American imperialism continues to produce enemies that correspond to these categories and global capitalism preserves an extreme inequality of wealth between populations. Incremental progress makes a difference in people’s lives, but representation cannot be isolated from the larger social context in which it is situated, and change must take place on a far greater scale.
If we understand that, as you suggest, focusing on individual perpetrators turns out to be at best a poor use of time, at worst a counterproductive strategy. These are both problems when the stakes are so high. Attacking and criticising Donald Trump are obviously worthwhile, but we should not forget that this alone will not stop him from tweeting. He doesn’t care. We should criticise him and counter his message, but this has to be done as part of a bigger project that can actually stop him, which means directly attacking the ruling class he comes from and the capitalist state which allows him to exercise the power of governance.
But part of this bigger project is the slow, patient political education I spoke about before. This political education is aimed at ordinary people, who are not Donald Trump, who operate on the basis of a contradictory ‘common sense,’ which combines progressive and reactionary elements. When engaging in political education, it is necessary to acknowledge that none of us speak from a pure political standpoint. If we live in the advanced capitalist countries, we are already at a level of privilege that far exceeds the majority of the world’s population. While Trump should be openly attacked, there are many ordinary people who have not yet been educated to understand the problems of racism and sexism, or may be aware of them but have not learned the norms of discourse that are de rigueur at liberal universities. While attacking such people may provide a sense of moral satisfaction – especially on social media, where righteous denunciation is a hot commodity – it is not an effective form of pedagogy.
Some protest that it is not our job to educate white people about racism, or that people who do not share the discursive norms of liberal intellectuals are beyond redemption and are thus only worthy of excommunication and damnation. This is essentially a form of religious fundamentalism, and it is highly dangerous. White people are not just going to disappear, and unless they are educated to reject whiteness and embrace an anti-racist politics, they will reproduce white supremacy on a daily basis and its violence will continue. If we are serious about fighting racism and its actual structural effects, we will engage in educating and recruiting people rather than shaming them.
How would you frame the opposition between identity politics and the populist political right or alt-right that has emerged in recent years? For example, have the deficiencies in identity politics allowed the alt-right to gain greater legitimacy? Or, does this right-wing resurgence represent a backlash because identity politics has been successful in challenging traditional cultural hierarchies?
AH: The idea of a right-wing resurgence should not be exaggerated, because the white supremacist politics of the extreme right have been a consistent feature of American politics for centuries. Thus the ‘backlash’ thesis is clearly incorrect. However, it is also true that political ideas that have been discredited throughout the twentieth century, as an effect of social struggles, are now being heard in the mainstream media, and have a hearing in the White House.
This shift to the right represents two things. First of all, it represents a crisis in the existing practices of governance, of the political parties that ascended in the 20th century and have now shown themselves incapable of managing economic and geopolitical turbulence. Second, it represents the exposure of traditional cultural conceptions of identity – mainly whiteness and masculinity – as socially constructed. Obviously, not everyone believes this, but they are forced to recognise that this position exists, and they have to strain to respond to it. In this context, these identities – white supremacists like Richard Spencer describe themselves as ‘identitarians’ – have to be explicitly asserted, rather than simply assumed, and this means reaching back to the ugliest forms of racialism and patriarchy. Jordan Peterson is able to reach an audience of disaffected young white men because he promises to train them to express their identity, to reclaim the masculinity they feel they have lost.
To respond to this identity politics with a different kind of identity politics is in my view not sufficient, precisely because it neutralises the movements which could effectively respond. When identity politics substitutes for a mass movement, it renders us powerless against the right.
We also see strong criticism of identity politics from academics and writers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris, who position themselves as representatives of humanist liberalism and Enlightenment principles. What, if anything, does your critique of identity politics share with theirs? What are its fundamental differences?
AH: I have nothing in common with Steven Pinker and Sam Harris, whose ideologies of ‘humanist liberalism and Enlightenment principles’ are based fundamentally in an uncritical celebration of Europe and an inability to comprehend the possibility of other vantage points. This does not mean that I simply invert their argument and condemn the Enlightenment as a homogeneous expression of European domination. I recognise the heterogeneity of the Enlightenment, which even within Europe contained both revolutionary and conservative tendencies, and encompassed figures who were apologists for colonialism and slavery as well as figures who unequivocally condemned these forms of domination and fought against them.
Furthermore, I recognise the heterogeneity of Europe itself. There is a European identity, which was built on the basis of the exclusion of non-Western peoples. But this exclusion was a contradictory practice. It meant that Europe was actually constructed by the populations that were excluded from its self-understanding, yet were centrally involved in the production of its wealth, knowledge, and culture. Political movements, intellectuals, and artists of the non-Western world intervened in the legacy of the Enlightenment and fundamentally transformed it. Pinker and Harris ultimately practice a European identity politics which ignores this heterogeneity. I reject this European identity politics.
When Pinker and Harris criticise what they perceive to be identity politics, conveniently ignoring their own identities, they do so from the vantage point of an abstract universalism. This is one kind of universalism of the Enlightenment, the universalism of natural rights which is grounded in particular philosophical understandings of human nature, the needs and liberties of the human individual. I do not agree with this form of universalism, which mistakes the specific relations of capitalist modernity for the natural essence of human beings. The universalism I advocate is not one that is based on the foundation of abstract individuals, but is rather based on a break with the existing state of the situation, when people collectively express their agency in opposition to domination and bring about a vision of a new kind of world in which everyone is free.