Identity Politics, Revolution and Counter Revolution: A New View?
review by Tom Sandborn
Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump
By Asad Haider
Identity politics are on a lot of minds these days. Many
of us on the liberal to left end of the political spectrum, reflecting on the
rise of Trump and other racist authoritarians around the world, have wondered
if identity politics (understood as political practice and theory that focuses
on various identities- race, gender, gender expression, etc., rather than class)
have somehow broken up larger, class based coalitions like the one that formed
around the New Deal in the US and left us all vulnerable to the toxic rule of
anti-immigrant, anti-woman, racist politicians who fatten on our divisions.
Often, the centre left pundits who advance this critique quote a concern voiced
by American philosopher Richard Rorty in 1998, when he wrote in his book Achieving
“[M]embers of labour
unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that
their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent
jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban
white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are
not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The non- suburban electorate will decide
that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for
— someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug
bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors
will no longer be calling the shots. ...
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40
years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.
Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. ... All the resentment
which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them
by college graduates will find an outlet.” Sound familiar?
This passage is, like
everything Rorty ever committed to paper, eloquent and persuasive. But, as I
argued in an earlier essay in the Columbia Journal (http://www.columbiajournal.ca/17-09/index.html) it is wrongheaded in itself, and Rorty’s eloquence has been
inappropriately used by those on the center left who want women, LGBT and
racialized communities to shut up about their particular grievances in the name
of re-building a utopian and largely
imaginary grand Roosevelt coalition led by union officers and progressive
intellectuals, all presented as the best way to defeat thugs like Trump at the
Meanwhile, on the Right, identity politics are the targets
of sneers and contempt, often prefaced by the self exculpatory line “It may not
be politically correct to say this…” and leading up to ugly statements of
sexism and racism. This critique from the Right is easy to dismiss. It is just
another self-satisfied expression of authoritarian populism at its ugliest.
The critique from the center left cited above, while less
patently hateful, is also unpersuasive. Feminists and anti-racist activists did
not create the identities that inform identity politics. Nor did rights
activists in LGBT communities. These identities are socially constructed along
lines of power and oppression. Identity
politics activists are responding to terrible oppression that ranges from
lethal force and violence to daily insults, and are quite rightly demanding
that their oppression end.
If you are looking for reasons that right wing populism
is on the rise, look at the changes to the world economy that have
re-structured the global working class and created a divisive gig economy. Both
these factors work to erode solidarity and make people feel more isolated and
In addition, the New Deal coalition that is invoked so
lovingly in the Rorty inspired centre left criticism of identity politics was
never as utopian as it seems in academic retrospect. Too often it allied with
southern racists and ignored the just demands of women and people of colour. If
we want to defeat Trump and his global accomplices, we need to look forward to
a better world of universal emancipation that is worth our dreams and our
collective struggles, not back to the partial and compromised achievements of
Democrats in the US and social democrats around the world.
That, at least, is the argument made by Asad Haider, a
California based academic and trade union activist in his challenging new book,
Mistaken Identity. Haider, who is a person of colour himself, argues
that most of the discourse about identity politics on the left is as unhelpful
as the frank animosity toward such politics from the Right. His critique of
identity politics comes from the far left, and is uncompromising.
He argues that any political program that stops short of
anti-capitalism is partial at best, and leads to capitalism flexing to allow
some women and people of colour to rise into management, so to speak, with the
Obama presidency as one heart breaking example. A progressive capitalism may
extend some much needed reforms that primarily benefit the new elites from
oppressed groups who serve to manage the others who share their identities
while “proving” by the power they wield that racism or sexism have been
What is required, he says, is not reform but revolution,
a total restructuring of society he calls universal emancipation. This will not
be accomplished, he warns, by allowing our masters to divide the class on race,
orientation and gender lines, or by expecting women, queers and people of
colour to shut up about their particular oppressions in service to class struggle.
We have to learn, in short, to both walk and chew gum at the same time
politically, addressing all oppressions in a comprehensive and holistic way. We
need, he reminds us, program, strategy and tactics.
All of this is closely argued in a deeply researched essay
that touches on black history and working class history and ranges from Marxist
theory to the little known history of the Combahee River Collective, a group of black American lesbians based in Boston who
may have invented the phrase “identity politics,” to the Obama phenomenon and
on to the Age of Trump. He focuses more on the social construction of race than
he does on women’s and queer issues, but he seems aware of the deficit in his
theoretical framework this creates, and gestures toward other voices like the
women of the Combahee River Collective as useful correctives to what he fails
This is an important book of theory and analysis and
should be read by anyone who hopes we can emerge from our current orange tinged
hell into a more human society. Highly recommended.
August 13, 2019