Towards an Insurgent Politics of the Particular: A Review of Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity

If I have to hear another argument about the relative importance of race versus class, I’ll scream. Long a staple of graduate theory seminars, late-night Facebook rants, and the various circular firing squads of the Left, the argument exploded into the broader culture during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. There, Bernie Sanders’ courage in speaking openly about America’s class divides was matched only by his reticence about our racial ones, making him the perfect avatar for a certain class-reductionist socialism. Hillary Clinton’s lean-in feminism and merely rhetorical appeals to racial equality, meanwhile, made her Sander’s perfect foil—the emblem of a neoliberal “identity politics” divorced from any question of material distribution.

But if Sanders and Clinton were reduced to stock characters in an ongoing argument between sections of the Left, it is the stubborn persistence of this debate that seems as exhausting as it is perplexing. After all, the stark dichotomy between “class” and “identity” is self-evidently nonsensical. (Class, too, is an identity; the working classes are gendered and raced.) Meanwhile, the proposition that racial and class oppression are inexorably intertwined is one that few of us–and by “us” I mean anyone broadly committed to an emancipatory politics—could disagree with. The outcome of the 2016 election seems like a perfect allegory for the ultimate trajectory of this dead-end debate; while we argue amongst ourselves over the hierarchies of oppression, our oppressors swoop in and steal everything.

Asad Haider’s new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, pledges to move beyond these increasingly fruitless debates by revisiting the legacy of the Black freedom struggle. On the surface this sounds promising, as does Haider’s goal of building a powerful multi-racial movement that is at once anti-racist and anti-capitalist. Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its promise, collapsing back into the very debates it had set out to overcome.

Haider begins by invoking the Combahee River Collective, who first coined the term “identity politics” to make sense of the interlocking systems of oppression they experienced as queer Black women. This he rightly credits as an important advance over earlier univocal class-, race- and gender-reductive political paradigms. Yet Haider devotes less than two pages to the Collective before abruptly reversing course. Having only just finished extolling the virtues of their vision of identity politics, he suddenly redefines the term purely negatively. “In its contemporary ideological form,” he writes, “rather than its initial form as a theorization of a revolutionary political practice, identity politics is an individualist method.”

This would seem to set Haider up for the recuperation of a lost, prelapsarian politics of identity–a rhetorical move familiar to a Left that has long regaled itself with tales of legacies corrupted and revolutions betrayed. Such, however, is not his intent. To the contrary, Haider devotes the rest of his short book to a forceful polemic against identity politics in any form, insisting that we break with the beguiling “consolations of identity.”

This creative (mis)use of the Combahee River Collective is only the first and most jarring example of a pattern that will recur throughout the book. Time and again, Haider cites seminal figures from the Black freedom struggle only to draw conclusions that seem quite curiously at odds with them. For the identity Haider is most concerned with, it turns out, is that of race. (Gender is explicitly dropped within the first pages; class, as we will see, remains the pervasive if occluded background.) And the primary “consolation of identity” he urges his readers to reject is that of any politics predicated on an affirmative conception of Blackness.

In this, Haider follows in the footsteps of anti-identarian race theorists such as Paul Gilroy and Adolph Reed, and his position will likely receive a warm reception from those who find themselves convinced by the latter’s arguments. For those, like myself, who do not, Haider’s version of this position will appear even more implausible, incoherent, and conceptually thin—so much so that I struggle to reconstruct his argument. To the best I can make out, there are three components.

Haider’s first, historical argument is that the growth of a Black business and political elite in the aftermath of formal desegregation eliminated the possibility of “a politics conceived solely in terms of racial unity.” Curiously, this would seem to call for more of the type of intersectional analysis advanced by the Combahee River Collective and other proponents of “identity politics.” Indeed, Haider here (deliberately?) confounds a monolithic Black nationalism inattentive to the striations of class and gender with the very politics that emerged in response to its limitations—attacking the former in a confused attempt to discredit the latter.

Second, Haider solemnly informs us that race is a social construct, a proposition it is hard to imagine any of his readers disagreeing with. From there, he leaps to the assertion that any race-based politics is baseless, insofar as it is predicated on “an arbitrary form of classification that only has any meaning at all because it has social effects.” Haider seems to consider this a knock-out argument. But I confess that I find myself perplexed by this resort to ontology. After all, most of the things that we construct our identities and our politics around—money, nation-states, religion, punk rock—are social constructs, without that seeming to obviate their political efficacy. (Politics, almost definitionally, is the realm of social effects.)

Finally, in an argument borrowed from Judith Butler, Haider asserts that (racial) identity politics paradoxically confirms our “subjection” to state power, demanding restitution on the basis of a grievance that reinscribes our identity as injured “subjects.” (It is odd to hear this argument, with its reified conception of “the state” and “power,” from the mouth of the Marxist Haider.) In order to “go beyond the liberal paradigm of victimhood and the paradox of rights,” he then argues, we must create an “insurgent universality,” one that “does not demand emancipation solely for those who share my identity but for everyone; it says that no one will be enslaved.”

If it is difficult to read this as anything other than a puffed-up and theory-laden version of “all lives matter,” it is impossible to imagine Haider applying this analysis universally. Let us picture, for instance, a group of protesting workers, carrying the banner “workers of the world unite!” Can we conceive of Haider chastising them that in fact the goal is to eliminate class identities, that “worker” is an injured subject position that they should seek to abolish, not celebrate, that their demand for $15 an hour merely reinforces their dependency on state power, and that their slogan should read “all classes of the world unite to abolish class society”?

But this is precisely the point. None of Haider’s arguments really make sense unless they are juxtaposed against an alternative that he is too canny to name explicitly. His dismissal of an affirmative politics of racial identity as predicated on a meaningless “social construct” is itself nonsensical unless we imagine other social systems as more meaningful—in other words, unless race is conceived as the superstructural expression of an underlying class relation. Indeed, his whole attack on “identity politics” relies on an implicit contrast between those social structures that are merely identities (race, sexuality, gender) and a putatively non-identarian class relation. Haider does not dare come out and say this, in part because his own analysis would problematize the distinction on those terms. But his own proposed dichotomy between a sectarian and divisive identity politics (by this point virtually synonymous with Blackness) and an expansive “insurgent universality” merely displaces the terms of the “race versus class” debate while repeating a tired, class-reductionist argument in veiled form.

There is something astonishing about the fact that Mistaken Identity, which had set out to transcend the “race versus class” debate, in fact reiterates it, as if the argument were the inevitable ending of a Greek tragedy that the protagonist is doomed to repeat. But this fateful debate, pace Haider, cannot be escaped through a mere change in terminology. Instead, it is the question itself that is wrongly posed. “Race or class?” as an abstract exercise in ordering oppressions seems to me a relatively useless piece of scholasticism, along the lines of “chicken or egg?” Regardless of which comes first—either historically or (onto)logically—the question is how to build a powerful movement that can tackle both.

It is here, ironically, that Haider converges with his ostensible opponents. For while he chastises Black nationalists for imagining that a “straight line could be drawn between identity and politics,” at times he implies an equally direct equation between radical politics and class identity. The point, however, is that political identities cannot be “read off” one’s position within a set of social relations—racial, class, or otherwise. Politics is the art of forging collective subjects whose social cohesion cannot be presupposed.

Yet astoundingly, Haider seems to suggest that the principle obstacle to forging such a powerful multi-racial movement is, well, Black people. In the traumatic scene that sits at the center of the book, Haider describes his participation in a campus-based movement against tuition hikes and austerity. In his telling, the promise of this broad-tent, multi-racial movement was utterly destroyed by the organizers of “separatist POC meetings,” whose racial sectarianism splintered a previously united effort.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of Haider’s description of these events, though I’ll note that, even in his own telling, he doesn’t come across too well himself. (“I stood up again and ranted as I paced in circles,” he writes, “comparing them to the Nation of Islam.”) The problem is that, as virtually the only contemporary example that Haider provides of “identity politics,” this sequence comes to stand in as an allegory for the ills he perceives as plaguing the broader Left. The latter is then figured as a powerful multi-racial movement, untrammeled by racial divisions, which could successfully overcome capitalist austerity if only it weren’t for all those unruly Black activists.

As a diagnosis of the forces preventing the cohesion of a powerful, multi-racial Left in this political moment, this is so deeply wrong-headed as to be simply shocking. Yet it seems to be Haider’s sincere motivation for penning his diatribe, which musters the most important figures of the Black radical tradition in order to earnestly explain why today’s Black activists are doing it all wrong.

Of course, scolding present-day Black activists for doing anti-racist politics wrong—while simultaneously uplifting their ancestors for doing it better—is a time-honored American tradition. Indeed, Haider merely repeats the hackneyed distinction between the “good” and the “bad” Black activist more typical of vapid centrism than Marxist radicalism. The terms are different–for moderates the “good” activist is MLK; for Haider it is the Black Panthers–but the content is exactly the same. Where earlier struggles were putatively expansive, inclusive, and universal, their contemporary successors are dismissed as narrow, divisive, and sectarian.

In writing this review, I have hesitated to so strongly foreground my points of disagreement. After all, I share Haider’s goal of building a broad, powerful, multi-racial political movement capable of challenging—and, ultimately, abolishing—both white supremacy and capitalism. I agree that the two are deeply entangled and that an effective anti-racist politics must be anti-capitalist (and vice versa). I think the figures Haider urges us to reexamine—From Du Bois to Stuart Hall to Theodore Allen to the Black Panthers—are crucial for the formation of an effective radical politics today.

But it is precisely because this task is so urgent that Haider’s book is so deeply unsatisfactory. It simply will not do, in 2018, to repeat the tired tropes of a colorblind anti-racism—not even if you quote all the right race theorists. It will not do to critique Black activists’ ostensible sectarianism while remaining silent on the overt and covert racism that plagues many majority-white movement spaces. And it will not do to suggest that universal emancipation requires us to renounce our identities, as if universality were a homogenizing twilight in which all cats are gray. To the contrary. As Aimé Césaire put it in his marvelous letter of resignation from the French Communist Party: “My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.”

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Bennett Carpenter

Bennett Carpenter is an organizer and movement theorist. They are a proud member of the Duke Graduate Students Union and a reluctant PhD candidate at the same institution, where they are completing their dissertation, "Lumpen: Vagrancies of a Concept from Marx to Fanon (and on)." Off campus, they work with Durham for All—a cross-class, multi-racial movement working to build and shift power through a combination of electoral and community organizing.