mistaken identity

Mistaken Identity reveals identity politics as the strategy of defeat, but solidarities are built through engagement in existing movements, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh


Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity. Race and Class in the Age of Trump, (Verso 2018), viii, 132pp.

In 2014, the University of California, where Asad Haider was teaching, proposed to raise tuition fees by 27%. Students occupied an administration building in a protest which seemed initially to have both energy and wide support. The first sign that things were going wrong was the students’ decision that the occupation could not be called an occupation, as using that word would be to celebrate the genocide of Indigenous people. ‘A debate that should probably have happened in a semiotics seminar took up hours at meetings where we could have planned teach-ins and rallies and workshops or allocated clean-up tasks’ (p.32). After a week, the occupation disintegrated amid accusations of racism against students who had questioned the unelected ‘facilitators’ at the occupation general assembly.

Haider makes clear that this was not simply an example of disorganisation in student politics, but a demonstration of how modern identity politics militates against organisation and genuine solidarity. Indeed, when a radical student coalition on the campus wanted to address police violence against black people, the reaction was ‘to question whether a group which was not black-identified should even be permitted to address the issue’ (p.35).

While these sorts of debates are hampering campaigns at grassroots level, the existence and language of identity politics are being used on the wider stage against the left. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for example, used identity politics against Bernie Sanders, dubbing his supporters ‘Bernie Bros’ in an attempt to cast them as white men oblivious to oppression.

Sanders supporters, the argument went, were essentially privileged, as they could risk foregoing the gains oppressed groups would make under a Clinton presidency in favour of a socialist dream. At the same time, alt-right figures have been able to use well-publicised rows about offensive speech, safe spaces and no-platforming, to position themselves as insurgents against the establishment and as martyrs for free speech. It is, as Haider says, ‘impossible to put off the task of rethinking everything, learning how we got here, trying to recover our history, and find alternative approaches’ (p.41).

Origins of identity politics

Modern identity politics, Haider argues, reduce politics to a juridical framework, in which each person seeks restitution for the injuries they have received from society as a result of their identity. Not only does this invite ‘the construction of baroque and unnavigable intersections constituting the litany of different identities to which a given person might belong’ (p.35), it is a view of the world which precludes solidarity with others of different identities. This was not the use to which identity politics were originally put. Haider traces the modern origins of the term to the Combahee River Collective, who, while defending their right to root their politics in their awareness of their black, lesbian identities, were very clear on the need to work in coalition with others. Identity politics for them were not separatist, and simply asserting their identities was not sufficient political action in itself.

The Combahee River Collective understood racism and women’s oppression as structural rather than individual phenomena, which could not be addressed as a set of interpersonal relationships. In the same way, the Black Panthers understood that racism could not be fought effectively without also fighting capitalism. Otherwise, ‘you were setting up a situation in which the white cop would be replaced by the black cop. For the Panthers, this was not liberation’ (p.19).

In contrast, viewing racism through identity politics results in the knapsack theory of privilege. This is a conceptualisation of ‘white privilege’ as ‘a weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks’ (p.45). As Haider points out, this is to reduce politics to ‘the psychology of the self’ (p.46), forgetting that the first analyses of ‘white-skin privilege’ opposed white chauvinism on the basis that it was bad for white workers as well as for black people, and overthrowing it thus should be a demand of the entire working class.

Modern identity politics therefore represent a depoliticization of anti-racist struggles, demonstrating Haider’s important insight that identity politics are the politics of defeat. Haider traces the development of identity politics in anti-racist struggles with groups like the Weather Underground in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who ‘used the language of “privilege” to reject the working class as a force for revolutionary change’, (p.48) turning instead to a theory of white guilt (self-flagellation, with explosives, as Haider calls it) which made white working-class people the problem rather than part of the struggle.

The politics of defeat

This was not a development out of nowhere, but a consequence of defeats of the movement which made the ultra-left vanguardism of the Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army and others seem a preferable option. Modern identity politics constitute part of the theoretical underpinning of this turn away from mass working-class struggle, but an underpinning developed as a result of, not as a spur for, this turn. The theory provided a justification for turning away from mass struggles once this had already happened.

In the same way, Haider argues that embracing identity politics can be one result of believing the neo-liberal ‘there is no alternative’ mantra: ‘In this flat, hopeless reality, some choose the consolations of fundamentalism. But others choose the consolations of identity’ (p.6). The defeat of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985 is clearly key here, as one of the major defeats of the working-class in the West since the Second World War. Haider provides a substantive discussion of the debate between Stuart Hall, Ralph Miliband, Paul Gilroy and others about the strike and its relationship to new social movements against different forms of oppression.

Hall was extremely critical of the strike and what he viewed as the undemocratic decision to go ahead without a strike ballot. He also argued that it would be impossible to generalise the strike into a wider social struggle, because the miners were being mobilised ‘as men, within a specific “familial and masculinist” class identity’ (p.95). In response, Miliband asserted the primacy of class and the ability of organised labour to challenge the ruling class. This debate thus set up a classic opposition between the politics of identity and organised labour, where identity politics ignores class, and socialists are accused of ignoring oppression and oppressed groups in favour of white men.

In fact, Hall was clearly wrong about the impossibility of generalising a struggle based on people with a ‘masculinist’ identity, as solidarity work from groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners demonstrated. His intervention dismissing the epochal strike was also, to say the least, unhelpful. It was true the defeat of the strike did indeed represent a fundamental defeat for organised labour by Thatcher’s neo-liberal agenda. As Haider points out, however, it also represented a defeat for the new social movements which Hall and Miliband both in their different ways counterposed to the NUM. This was because, detached from wider grassroots movements which could fight for systemic change, demands for anti-racist or anti-sexist action were prime for co-option by the ruling class when it was interested in ‘politics in a particular cultural style … that played on the diversity of the new times’ (p.99). Thus, Bill Clinton could be dubbed the first Black President by Toni Morrison, while presiding over continuing advances in anti-racist linguistic norms but no material, structural change.

Continuing to assert the mantras of identity politics is therefore unlikely to result in real, systemic change. Haider’s call, instead, for a programme, strategy and tactics needed to build the movement (a new insurgent universality, as he calls it) is clearly a reasonable one (who could disagree with a need for a strategy and the tactics to implement it?). In putting this forward as what can be achieved if we turn away from identity politics, he is however ignoring what has been achieved since 1985, even in the face of identity politics and neo-liberalism.

Building on movements

It is true that the book is a critique of identity politics and not a history of the modern Left. Not mentioning the upturn in the movement since Seattle in 1999, however, nor, in this context, successful united fronts like Stop the War or the Anti-Nazi League, does mean that it presents a lopsided and unnecessarily pessimistic picture; ironic considering Haider’s criticism of the ‘melancholic sensibility’ of even young progressives (p.101). This silence also has the effect of detaching Haider’s call for a new insurgent universality from any sense that this would be building on existing struggles. If this call is to be more than a rousing peroration for a monograph, it would have to take the campaigns which do exist now rather more seriously.

There is also an ordering problem with Haider’s closing prescription, that we must turn away from identity politics so that we can then build the movement. Haider’s analysis shows above anything else that defeat is bad for people. This is not perhaps a particularly surprising conclusion, but defeat which leads to a downturn in the movement is bad for people in specific ways, as it removes them from active struggle. It is when you are not involved in mass movements that it is much easier to develop a theoretical position that argues that they are unnecessary or undesirable, or that the real struggle is to change individuals’ language rather than the structures of society. Conversely, the bonds forged when different groups come together to unite around a particular issue can create the practical solidarity which is capable of overcoming the sort of theoretical differences which can seem all-important when considered in isolation.

Haider makes a convincing case for the damage identity politics can do to struggles for real change. The way to overcome this, though, is not through theory first but through a unity of theory and practice. The way to achieve a successful, open movement against oppression and exploitation in the future is to continue to build the movements in the present. The politics of identity are a diversion, not a help in doing so, but to believe that we have to achieve a theoretical victory over these views before the struggle can begin would also be a mistake. One of the many problems with identity politics is how they obviate solidarity. It is in creating and acting on that practical solidarity that we can move forward.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.