Reviewed by Brant Roberts
Interrogating identity typically requires walking a fine-line between, on the one hand, falling into an identity politics that has become one of the tools for maintaining liberal hegemony, and, on the other, collapsing into the abyss of a negation of identities marked by an indifference to difference. The former neutralizes any potential for turning the traditions of an identity into a radical political formation; the latter ends all hope of taking a diverse set of politics surrounding the problems of identity and flushes them into that European particular commonly known as universalism. In short, the danger of a political collapse is always a threat. Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump takes the reader down a different path, one bent on collective liberation through what he terms, ‘insurgent universality’ (108).
The book is surprisingly short yet succinct at 132 pages but the implications surround the sometimes daunting task of cross-organization coalition building with the potential problem of identity politics derailing such a project at the center of his critique. Few of today’s popular theoretical concepts are free from Haider’s critique, as intersectionality, Afropessimism, white privilege and class reductionism are treated with equal analysis. Following the book’s analytical progression, my review will begin with analyzing Haider’s main points and end with a critique of his proposed solution.
Beginning with the experience of the Combahee River Collective, Haider explores the origins of identity politics and what the collective set out to declare in their definitive text A Black Feminist Statement. The purpose of the statement was washed away by both the tide of history and the liberal misuse of its now infamous term, identity politics. Haider finds political redemption in this statement as a way to critique the overarching problem of how it was adopted by those who use the term to divide potential coalition building from other movements that could work to construct an emancipatory politics. Haider sees how identity is constructed out of tense social relations but asks the reader to pursue an understanding of identity not through abstractions but through ‘historical specificities and material relations’ (11).
In the second chapter, Haider analyzes his experience with organizing amongst the antiwar movement at State College in Pennsylvania and at the University of California (UC) at Santa Cruz during the anti-privatization campaign. The most eye-opening chapter in the book, it goes over the problems that occur when a set of liberal identity politics hijacks a popular movement and divides it. For instance, when tuition hikes began at Santa Cruz, the talking-point that these hikes hit students of colour the hardest was used as a purely rhetorical point by a faction of the coalition that did not take into account, as Haider points out, ‘the complicated mathematics underlying UC’s policy vacillations’ and the contradiction that a ‘racially equitable university privatization,’ implicit in the critique, was not a viable option either (31). Throughout this chapter he recounts the painful ebbs and flows that come about from such politics and the disastrous effects that this position held as the movement broke; turning one step forward into two steps back. In short, the campaign died and those who participated in it fell into a politics of identity without success.
The popular buzzword “intersectionality” is not free from Haider’s critique as he displays how it has been used to freeze political disagreement and turn politics into a juridical framework for deciding who has the right to lead by a multitude of overlapping identities along the trajectory of the untouchable trinity of race, gender and sexuality. He uses the example of how black politicians and nonprofit bureaucrats pushed for Black Lives Matter marches in Oakland to be organized along particular lines: ‘black people should be at the front of the march, with white “allies” last and “brown” people allowed in the middle’ (36). Apparently absent from the theoretical framework that intersectionality emerged from, the word has taken on the damaging effect of enforcing the idea that only people of particular identities can take the lead on issues that affect them. If solidarity with other movements is viewed as a necessary step towards collective emancipation, then the idea that only those who are affected have the license to lead becomes a contradictory practice. This has also resulted in the practice of pushing out organizers of different identities through the accusation that they are “outside agitators” who might use violence during protests. One need only look back at the media and state responses to the uprisings in Baltimore, Ferguson and Milwaukee for direct evidence of this rhetoric.
The logic that only those of particular identities can take the lead on problems that affect them follows its logical conclusion in Haider’s critique of Afropessimism. Brilliantly displaying how intersectionality can lead to separatist tendencies, he notes how the term “antiblackness” came to replace racism, creating a monopoly on racist oppression. He cites one of the leading thinkers on the subject, Frank Wilderson, when analyzing the antipolitical void that the philosophy creates when Haider recants Wilderson’s comments on Palestinian solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as an empty solidarity through ‘neoconservative Orientalist tropes’ concerning, in Wilderson’s analysis, historic Arab and Jewish antiblackness (38). Wilderson’s comments dismiss the anticolonial and antiapartheid solidarity that Palestinians displayed throughout the 20th century and into the present.
Haider moves on to a critique of how the concept of white privilege has been reordered in the larger scheme of liberal ideology. Beginning with the origins of the critique from W.E.B. Dubois in his infamous book Black Reconstruction where Dubois cites the ‘public and psychological wage’ that poor whites had in the American South and the interpretations that followed, Haider shows how the term was misconfigured into an analysis of race relations based within a similar juridical framework as intersectionality. Using the Weather Underground’s manifesto You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows, Haider reminds the reader of the Weather Underground’s analysis of engaging in a politics that critiques white privilege while shrugging off the idea of the white working class as potentially revolutionary agents due to their shared psychological wage of whiteness. Haider displays how this same theory has been adopted by liberals in their attempt to portray budding socialist movements as “white” movements bent on saving the “white working class.” However, Haider avoids the pitfalls of class reductionism by reminding the reader that that race solidarity among whites is still a problem that often overtakes the universality of cross-racial class solidarity.
In the fourth chapter, Haider begins to show a way out of the trench of particular identities that our movements have engaged themselves in through the life of the revolutionary poet and organizer Amiri Baraka. According to Haider, ‘Baraka’s own life represented a passage from individual rebellion to collective organization moving through the identity-based politics of black nationalism to a Marxist universalism’ (69). Through Baraka’s life, Haider shows how the identity based black nationalist movements were ultimately hindered by their lack of a material political program which led Baraka to critique them as incoherent and counter-revolutionary.
Haider’s conclusion asks the reader to rethink the popular discourse of identity that surrounds our responses to insurgent white nationalism and right wing populism. His answer is an insurgent universality, ‘which says that we are not passive victims but active agents of a politics that demands freedom for everyone’; what is lacking in his proposal is the lack of analysis that should flow from it as he dedicates only six pages to the point (106). In our political moment the lack of a detailed theory outside of an ambiguous universal emancipation is disappointing and, based on the criticisms he has of identity politics, a more detailed chapter would have rounded out this book in a more concrete fashion.
In order to justify this insurgent universality, he uses the example of Judith Butler’s critique of Zionism as ‘going beyond every kind of exceptionalism’ and to depart from ‘Jewishness as an exclusionary framework for thinking both ethics and politics’. Before Haider makes that claim, Haider refers to Butler’s point that, ‘Jewish values of cohabitation with the non-Jew that are part of the very ethical substance of diasporic Jewishness’ (110). The problem with using Butler’s work as an example is that the contradiction becomes that one cannot claim to leave Jewishness in order to critique Zionism while simultaneously proclaiming that Jewishness has values that stand against colonialism and occupation. This universality denies those who could potentially claim Jewish values against Zionism while still fighting under a universalist banner. This is far from a new idea as it rings of the same logic as class reductionism that Haider critiqued earlier but through the politics of identity.
Haider uses another example proposed by the philosopher Alain Badiou which attempts to negate the Hegelian difference between “the Other” and those who have the right of being through political and social relations. Quoting a passage from Badiou’s Ethics, Haider tries to show that the Other is in all of us, implying that difference is infinite and, therefore, not worth addressing a set of politics.
Haider’s insurgent universality is hardly different from the Marxist universality that pushed black revolutionaries such as Aimé Césaire, Richard Wright and Frantz Fanon, to name only a few, either away from Marxism or to build a new set of politics away from universality. That Haider does not address this historic problem shows the potential issues that could arise under such a universalism. In response to the blind road of universality that was upheld by the Communist Party of France, Aimé Césaire declared a universality that was rich with every particular. One wonders what Haider’s response would have been to Césaire, and anyone else who would critique this total negation of difference, in dealing with the vast differences that both bind and separate the political work of popular movements in the U.S. and beyond. It is certain that the Combahee River Collective understood this logic as one cannot imagine that they would have dropped their particular identities within the insurgent universality that Haider proposes since they clearly recognized the oppressions that they faced as a black lesbian feminists collective.
Despite the conclusive flaws, Mistaken Identity is a refreshing and timely answer to the rupturing status quo that flows within the popular movements of our day. Haider’s critique of liberal identity politics cuts through the fog that has been raised by opportunists who seek to divide popular movements. His insurgent universality could become a potentially useful way of thinking through the identity politics that seek to divide rather than reconstitute our movements into a larger program with demands for a better world for all of us. Only political practice and time will tell whether insurgent universality has the theoretical strength to overcome these contradictions.
12 August 2018