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The Working Class and Other Mistaken Identities
On Asad Haider's Mistaken Identity and why identity politics is good actually.
Asad Haider's book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump received glowing reviews on its 2018 release, and not without reason. As Ben Tarnoff writes at the Guardian, Haider’s book is "the best criticism of identity politics" extant. The contrast with Angela Nagle's slap-dash, Nazi-curious dreck, or the drumbeat of conservative attacks on campus liberals is immediately apparent.
Haider is historically and theoretically serious, and personally committed to left politics and the creation of a more just world. It's true he argues for a class-first leftism—that is, for a leftism in which class oppression is the most important, and most authentic form of inequity, and in which Marxism and class analysis can alone provide a universalist vision of resistance. But his class-first leftism is explicitly anti-racist, and grounded in an understanding, and respect for, black radical traditions. As a result, his book is worth engaging with even for those who disagree with his premises. Haider's is a clear and honest argument against identity politics. As such, he demonstrates why even the best arguments for a class-first leftism fail.
“Totalizing and Reductive”
Haider's central theoretical argument against identity politics is based on the work of Judith Butler (who provides a nice blurb for Haider's book.) In line with Foucault, Butler argues that the institutions or discourses of those in power don't just constrain one's actions, but actually form one's self. "Identities are formed within contemporary political arrangements in relation to certain requirements of the liberal state," Butler says (as quoted by Haider.) Haider elaborates
If we can claim to be somehow injured on the basis of our identity, as though presenting a grievance in a court of law, we can demand recognition from the state on that basis—and since identities are the condition of liberal politics, they become more and more totalizing and reductive. Our political agency through identity is exactly what locks us into the state, what ensures our continued subjection. The pressing task, then, as Butler puts it, is to come up with ways of 'refusing the type of individuality correlated with the disciplinary apparatus of the modern state.'
Haider in his book applies this analysis particularly to racial identity. He argues (following the work of Barbara and Karen Fields, among others) that race is constructed as a way to identify, police, and control individuals. When people organize around specifically black issues, or demand redress from the state for injuries directed specifically at black people, they are acquiescing in this construction of race, which is designed to erode collective organization and struggle.
…it is possible to reject racism while still falling victim to the ideology of race. Taking the category of race as a given, as a foundation for political analysis, still reproduces this ideology. This is not innocent, because in fact the ideology of race is produced by racism, not the other way around.
In other words, anti-racist activists who found their political analysis on anti-racism rather than Marxism are unwittingly contributing to the logic and structure of racism. So, for example, anti-racists might argue that there need to be more black op-ed writers at the New York Times. Haider, though, could critique this by saying that arguing for representation in this way is cosigning race as a real category, and is therefore perpetuating racist ideology.
Working Class Identity and Other Fictions
I think there are two problems with Haider's argument here. One is logical; the other is moral.
The logical problem is that Butler's argument about identity doesn't just implicate racial identities. It calls into question class identities as well. Yes, race is a constructed category. But so is class. Class differences are not innate or biological or handed down by God. They are created by institutions and discourses, just as are racial differences. And they are maintained in similar ways—via segregation, policing, limiting access to resources, and so on.
Haider (inevitably) points to Rachel Dolezal as an example of the incoherence of racial identity politics. Dolezal, famously, is a white woman who identifies as black. Haider thinks this is a knock out blow. But it begs the question, is the construction of class any more coherent? How do you define the working class, anyway? If it's "working people" then that would include CEO's, but not the unemployed. If it's people who grew up poor, then billionaires who grew up poor (of which there are a few) would qualify. Is there an income cut off? Does a factory worker making a good union wage count, but not a small business owner making less?
Haider doesn't explicitly recognize the confusions of working class identity as a problem. But he does make an effort or two to show that class is more authentic, or originary, than race. He argues that the ruling class in early colonial America were worried about black and white workers organizing together, and so created slavery based on skin color as a way to drive a wedge into the working class.
This narrative is somewhat contested; Ibram X. Kendi traces racist ideas about black inferiority to the middle ages, for example. But even if Haider is correct and racism (and therefore race) developed after capitalism, it doesn't follow that capitalism is the origination of oppression.
Divisions based on gender are certainly much older than capitalism, for example. Indeed, feminist Marxist theorist Shulamith Firestone has argued that all inequity is based in sex difference, and proposes that true social justice and equality can only be achieved when pregnancy is abolished and children are grown artificially. If the truest, most authentic basis for struggle is the earliest basis for struggle, then Haider should be writing incisive denunciations of the left's short-sighted willingness to organize around class. Why isn't he arguing that the patriarchy's divisive construction of class difference is designed to undermine the primary imperative to gender revolution?
Butler, of course, argues that gender is constructed too. "Women" are defined by institutions and discourses of power, just as are black people, and the poor. Haider, in good Marxist fashion, constantly refers to materialism and material analysis, but where is this material? If a black person shot by a cop is killed by a myth, then why are we talking about "material conditions" when a Walmart employee drags herself to work based on the carefully enforced lie that she can't afford food otherwise?
Immaterial Identities Everywhere
There's no one here but these immaterial identities. But the fact that these ad hoc constructions are immaterial doesn't mean they're fake. Nor does it mean you have to resolve every contradiction in order to organize against oppression. If the incoherent, imposed identity of the working class can be turned into a rallying cry for revolution and change, why can't the incoherent, imposed identity of women or black people function in the same way?
One person who agrees that imposed identities can be repurposed to new and revolutionary uses is Judith Butler herself. Butler's theories have often been used by transphobic feminist theorists like Sheila Jeffreys to argue that trans women, by adopting the identity of women, are reifying an oppressive category, and therefore contributing to the oppression of women. There are obvious parallels here with Haider's argument about identity politics broadly. But Butler vehemently rejects this interpretation of her work.
In [Jeffreys] view, a trans person is “constructed” by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct. But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions – or norms – that help to form us. We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones….. [italics mine]
People are not just victims of the categories imposed on them, Butler argues. Rather, people take the constructs they are given, and work both within them and outside them. An identity is not just a trap; it's a dialectic. People can, for example, turn a mark of stigma into a source of pride; they can refigure the identity that is supposed to isolate them as a basis for solidarity. Sometimes people reject the vocabularies they didn't choose; sometimes they rework them. But provisional acceptance of some of the identities you've been handed doesn't necessarily mean you're perpetuating oppression.
Don’t Blame the Oppressed for Their Oppression
Butler's anger at this use of her theory is a moral objection. Policing the identities of marginalized people is a big part of how those people are oppressed. Telling marginalized people that they are participating in bigotry by organizing around their identities gets perilously close to blaming them for their own oppression. As Butler explains:
One problem with that view of social construction is that it suggests that what trans people feel about what their gender is, and should be, is itself “constructed” and, therefore, not real. And then the feminist police comes along to expose the construction and dispute a trans person’s sense of their lived reality. I oppose this use of social construction absolutely, and consider it to be a false, misleading, and oppressive use of the theory. [italics mine]
Butler rejects Jeffreys use of her theory because it violates a "trans person's sense of their lived reality." Butler is, in other words, using an argument based in identity politics. Marginalized people, according to Butler, need to be given space to describe, and indeed to form, their own experience of self. Using Butler's theory to police marginalized identities in this way is, she says, "false, misleading, and oppressive."
The reason it's false, misleading and oppressive, again, is because defining marginalized people without their say so is a big part of how marginalization is enforced. Haider appeals repeatedly to universalism—he argues for a sweeping solidarity, based on a broad experience of (class) oppression. But what happens when black people, or trans people, or disabled people, in these universal communities, say that they are being discriminated against? If organizing around marginalized identities is seen as suspect, then the concern is that marginalized people will be ignored, or even targeted as divisive. This dynamic is, after all, not unknown in left movements.
Haider acknowledges that Marxists movements have at times tolerated racism. He says, however, "we should not oversimplify this point or use it to discredit the whole history of the labor movement." He then blithely insists that "the majority of the early American socialists were not racists and in fact openly and vigorously opposed racism," a claim that is hard to evaluate or prove. It seems, in short, to be based more on faith than evidence.
Racist Union Bosses > Black Bourgeoisie
But while Haider is eager to justify Marxism despite the occasional racist lapse, he uses non-Marxist anti racism to discredit "identity politics" altogether. In fact, among the chief villains of Haider's book are the black bourgeoisie. "Over the course of several decades," he writes, "the legacy of antiracist movements was channeled toward the economic and political advancement of individuals like Barack Obama and Bill Cosby who would go on to lead the attack against social movements and marginalized communities."
It seems a stretch to call Cosby the leader of anything, since he's now known mainly as a serial rapist, and framing Obama's legacy entirely as an attack on marginalized communities is reductive, to say the least. But of course, the exact policies or positions of Obama and Cosby aren't why they're linked. They're linked because they're both successful black men. What purports to be a rejection of the ideology of race rather helplessly slides into grouping people together for the purposes of condemnation on the basis of skin color. And sure enough, Haider later argues that black leaders are not just as bad as white ones, but actually are worse, since they use the ideology of identity politics to silence truly radical dissent. "Neoliberal policies could be implemented with a nationalist stamp of approval, any criticism easily silenced as a capitulation to white racism." Black power is a barrier to revolution.
Haider would no doubt argue that the power to direct the machinery of oppression isn't real power. And I'd agree. But that doesn't change the fact that Haider has taken us to a place where expressions of anti-racism are to be treated with special skepticism, since they can easily be weaponized by the powerful against universal freedom. Meanwhile (again) racism on the left is an unimportant, minor phenomena, which shouldn't delegitimize the movement. Is it possible that racism on the left—Bernie Sanders' supporters calling for BLM activists to be arrested for example—could be especially difficult to resist, because it has a radical stamp of approval? Not according to Haider, who sees vividly the danger that insufficiently rigorous anti racism poses to his priorities, but trips lightly over the dangers of an insufficiently anti-racist left coalition.
Those dangers can be substantial, as Stalin's ethnic cleansing of Ukraine demonstrates. Broad solidarity is a powerful and beautiful thing. But a call to revolutionary universalism which defines marginalized identities as complicit is likely to end up policing those identities as vigorously as the gendarmes. A truly universal resistance isn't one which finds the one true ground of revolution in the working class. It's a resistance which grants ontological validity and moral weight to the struggle of every marginalized people. All lives don't matter unless black lives matter. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
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