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
Verso  2018

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 Our Country:

“[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 ( 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 ballot box.

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 afraid.

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 eliminated.

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 to address.

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.

Tom Sandborn

August 13, 2019

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