Whose Mistaken Identity?

Field Street Collective
Huey Newton and strikers

Asad Haider has written a rousing critique of a concept he fails to define. In so doing, he underscores the need for a theory of race adequate to the politics of our time.

     Mistaken Identity
     Asad Haider     Verso | $17.95 | 144 pages

Lucid, compact, and fiercely polemical, Asad Haider’s book Mistaken Identity identifies a desperate need for greater political solidarities and broader coalitions at a time when left political movements are governed largely by the logic of “staying in your lane,” which poses a significant barrier to mass organizing in the United States. Instead of reinforcing a race/class binary whose terms have rigidified since the seismic fissures of the sixties, the book proposes that contemporary political movements can be better understood through a tension between mass and elite politics. The political strategies of neoliberal antiracism, the book argues, are focused on the advancement of elites within nonwhite groups, on strengthening state and institutional authority, and on individual inclusion within capitalism rather than a collective struggle against it. Such strategies have trapped contemporary antiracist demands, Haider argues, within a logic where the “white cop gets replaced by the black cop.” How did we get here, the book asks, and how might we return to the radical promise of earlier movements that were able to better integrate antiracist and socialist aims?

The book’s attempt to reconcile these aims in the present is hindered, however, by how Mistaken Identity frames the trajectory of postwar political-economic history. The book’s basic analytical categories are loosely defined—among them, materialist analysis (from Marx’s Grundrisse, proceeding “from the abstract to the concrete”), socialism (after Huey Newton, the capacity of “the people in power”), “insurgent universalism” (as a set of transhistorical moral principles), and, most notably, “identity politics” itself. Appearing against a welter of editorials, articles, and contemporary scholarship condemning nebulous versions of the lattermost term, especially on college campuses, the book largely preserves the basic terms used by these critics. Dominant forms of “identity politics,” the book argues, have betrayed the legacy of earlier, more radical antiracist movements. The book subsequently has to navigate around decades of denunciations of the politics of identity not only from conservative commentators looking to deny the reality of racial oppression, but also by figures like ex–New Left critic Todd Gitlin insisting on the corrosive effects of identitarian particularism on the “universalism” of class-based demands.

Mistaken Identity attempts to intervene in this chronically polarized debate, where Gitlin’s harshest critics have largely accepted the opposition between identity and class politics, and committed themselves to a narrowing vision of racial justice that has become progressively disconnected from any attempt to either analyze or fundamentally transform capitalism. Though the text works to distance itself from these arguments, the race/class binary reemerges at key moments in the book despite the author’s efforts to reject the framing of anticapitalist and antiracist movements as mutually exclusive. More broadly, the persistence of this binary in the age of Trump demands a materialist inquiry capable of grasping the intimate relationship between race and class in US history and explaining how the production of racial divisions has been inextricable from a class project of surplus value extraction. This is the kind of book we need. Haider does not provide us with it, but his elegant encapsulation of the work of black British theorist Stuart Hall, in particular, does underscore the urgency of that need.

“But how do movements transform particularity into universality beyond the assertion of ethical principles?”

While the book’s reading of Hall promises to push forward a synthetic account of the co-constitution of race and class, not simply as a matter of political will but as a historically changing form of the capitalist project, it expends most of its effort criticizing the moving target of identity politics. The book’s casual dismissal of contemporary Afro-pessimist theory, for example, may offer polemical clarity to some readers. But even for those critical of this emergent body of writing, the book refuses to account for why descriptions of seemingly gratuitous violence and coalitional failure have gained so much traction both on college campuses and beyond, and how this work might point to a political economy of black “social death.”

Rather than work through the variety of ways in which the term “identity politics” has been deployed in scholarly and public debates, the book splits the term apart into “good” and “bad” versions. It is a framework that cannot help but echo the left-liberal account of a good sixties and a bad sixties wherein organizational discipline gives way to fractious disorder. The 1977 “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective (CRC) exemplifies a “good” version of identity politics that manages to synthesize antiracist, feminist, and anticapitalist political commitments by challenging the marginalization of black lesbian feminists within New Left social movements. This stands, Haider argues, in stark contrast to contemporary hostility to socialism and mass coalitional politics, the outcome of a pivot from good to bad identity politics attributed almost entirely to opportunism by political elites in the aftermath of the sixties. Mistaken Identity subsequently borrows heavily from the work of theorists Judith Butler and Wendy Brown to diagnose the political limitations of a “bad” post-CRC politics of identity premised upon calls for state protection and the compulsive reenactment of psychic trauma.

This bad version of racial identity politics is defined, via an analogy with a Butlerian critique of gender, by an essentially legalistic demand for state protection and recognition. In a book so committed to a “materialist mode of investigation,” the turn to theories that explain political change through individual psychology, where bad identity politics is a pathological attachment to the state or psychic injuries, is puzzling. Mistaken Identity does not engage with a rich body of scholarship on racialization offered in the writings of Frantz Fanon, for example. Instead, it draws on sweeping, abstract theories of identity formation that detach the book’s argument from the concrete particulars of history.

Explaining the historical decline from good to bad versions of identity politics in such political and ideal terms fails to address how shifts in the postwar global economy have profoundly transformed US racial politics beyond a modest diversification of the ranks of the wealthy and powerful. The book’s story of opportunistic betrayal by elites in the aftermath of the 1960s passes over the fact that such elites were already a feature of political movements early on, raising the question of just how much responsibility they might bear for neutralizing movements against racial oppression that were less hostile to socialism.

Moreover, the tale of mass movements betrayed leaves us with an inconsistency between the historical and theoretical accounts. On the one hand, the mass movement as such is the guarantor of political virtue. On the other, the political objectives of actually existing mass movements are highly variable. This is apparent in the reactionary mass movements of the present. But it is no less apparent in radical movements of the past, from the US labor movement to the civil rights movement, which have pragmatically included state protection among their many demands. While Mistaken Identity understands identity-based appeals to state recognition as a limit of post-CRC identity politics, historical mass movements have frequently relied on such strategic appeals in ways that complicate the book’s framing of the mass/elite distinction.

Readers might wonder why returning to earlier political strategies as if the last several decades had simply not happened might solve the problem of solidarity. One might begin, for example, from a more critical assessment of how organized labor in the US has been subject to a similar process of “neutralization” and juridical containment, not because of some failure of political will but because of the existential threat a slowing global economy poses to labor organizations. The book does not explore how parallel processes of neutralization might be bound up with each other—and how the fall from the black radical tradition to its reactionary other might be less the result of elite betrayals than structural conditions that also undermined the US labor movement and actually existing socialist regimes across the globe. Without a corresponding critique of the limits of historical socialist or social-democratic strategies, the book’s criticism of self-defeating forms of contemporary antiracist politics remains radically incomplete.

Instead of assessing the limits of an earlier combination of antiracist and socialist strategies, the book advocates a return to these methods as if they retained a transhistorical force. Adopting Huey Newton’s shorthand for socialism—the “people in power”—allows the book to avoid reckoning with the state policies and economic forces contributing to the organizational fragmentation of the New Communist Movement, for example, and the long-term decline of organized labor. The book’s persistent focus on the actions of elites rather than shifting material conditions represents racism as a top-down ruling class strategy to produce divisions among workers. What this historical narrative obscures, as Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatin have argued in “White Blindspot,” is the extent of postwar worker participation in suppressing the wages of specific racial groups, and a history of bitter struggles between foreign and native-born workers over the racial nationalism of organized labor. Calls for greater control of the labor process or a “greater share of the pie,” as Allen and Ignatin argue, do not automatically translate into racial equity.

Since the book explains the failure of political strategies primarily as a matter of political will, it ultimately asserts an emancipatory ideal of “insurgent universality” generated by antiracist political movements that can overcome the bad particularism of identity-based ones. This is a form of universality that exceeds the universality of rights-based formal equality imposed by states from above and is instead created through the concrete activity of political movements from below. “Real emancipation,” Haider argues, “would mean going beyond political emancipation and overcoming the exploitation of the market.” 

Lacking a more sustained theorization, insurgent universality seems to collapse the range of movements led by women, the poor, and slaves into a single overarching metaphysical ideal of self-governance. Some of the political demands issuing from these movements attempted to push “beyond the exploitation of the market.” Others did not. The crucial airport protests of the 2017 travel ban are offered as an example of this ideal, but the book cedes the opportunity to unpack the geopolitical complexity of juridical inclusion within an imperial state partially responsible for so much death and displacement across the seven countries affected by the ban. Haider’s minimal definition of socialism compounds this problem by offering primarily political criteria for assessing how antiracist and anticapitalist programs might be synthesized. In the space of an analysis of the political content of specific movements, the book reproduces a well-worn opposition between universality and particularity that has dominated scholarly discussion of identity politics since at least the 1990s. But how do movements transform particularity into universality beyond the assertion of ethical principles?

Workers on Dakota Access Pipeline

Although the book argues that race is irreducible to identity, the book’s narrow conception of identity does not investigate the term as a potential signifier of shared history or culture. It is also unclear whether attachments to specific identities should or could be “set aside” without the transformation of the conditions that materially reproduce them. If a “particularist” identity politics is to be eschewed for the mass, multiracial coalitional politics that implicitly borrows its conception of universality from socialist theory (a point underscored in the book by the political evolution of poet and activist Amiri Baraka), must we not develop a theory of how the real particularity of racial groups is reproduced through capitalism? The book leaves us with a moral language of universality to fill this material gap.

Withdrawal of labor remains an essential strategic tool for any potential transformative mass movement. However, any attempt to extrapolate a potentially universal combination of “program, strategy, and tactics” can only repeat past strategies that were developed under different material circumstances. Against a global upsurge of far-right (and some purportedly left) nationalist, anti-immigrant political parties, positioning wage labor as the basis for political solidarity across social differences does not automatically constitute a challenge to calls for the restoration of manufacturing and the concomitant white nationalist fantasy branded as “Make America Great Again.” In the face of imminent planetary ecological collapse, demands for full employment do not, for example, call into question the logic behind recent statements by the AFL-CIO supporting Dakota Access pipeline jobs against indigenous groups struggling not only to protect the environment but also to realize alternative principles of collective social organization. Without a more robust investigation of the neutralization of past movements organized around the “universal” category of the wage worker, readers might be tempted to ask, Whose mistaken identity?