Mistaken Identity

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How did identity politics go from being part of a wider radical movement for change to becoming a tool for establishment politicians to undermine the left? If identity politics doesn’t move us towards genuine liberation, what sort of politics do we need? These are the central questions that Asad Haider asks in this thoughtful and thought-provoking book about race, class and the limitations of identity-based politics.

His answers come in part from the powerful movements for black liberation that shook the US in the 1960s and 1970s — looking to the anti-capitalist writings of Black Panther Huey P Newton, as well as to Malcolm X and the radical elements of Martin Luther King’s politics. As Haider points out, the black struggle in the US has shown that mass movements can effectively challenge the state and point in a direction that challenges the logic of capitalism itself.

However, this is not just a nostalgic desire for a return to the struggles of the past. The author is trying to unpick the current political terrain, especially in relation to more recent struggles against racism in the US. He is fearlessly critical of identity politics that has put “black faces in high places” and retreated from mass struggles that could challenge the structures of a racist system.

The author shows how politics detached from mass struggles becomes focused on language, authenticity and individual injury, and how this is a dead end for effecting real change.

It is brilliant to read a book on contemporary racism that seriously grapples with questions of the state, class and systemic change while at the same time dealing with the complexities and contradictions of identity.

One of the book’s strengths is that the author is motivated by a desire to build effective anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles.

He describes the frustration of trying to build a mass movement on his university campus only to see it fragmented by splits and interminable internal arguments focused on language — such as whether the word “occupy” carries too many colonial connotations.

I laughed when I read his description of how people of colour (to use the US term) are invisible to black nationalists or seen as white if they have socialist politics, an experience that many of us can identify with in the British context.

For a relatively short book, Mistaken Identity references a vast range of ideas and thinkers, discussing not only radical black writers such as CLR James, WEB Du Bois and LeRoi Jones (and his later incarnation as Amiri Baraka), but also theorists including Judith Butler and Alain Badiou, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and at one point even taking an unexpected detour into the fiction of Philip Roth.

This range of sources is impressive and will point readers to other areas of investigation, but sometimes it overwhelms the text, crowding out Haider’s own polemic so it is not clear how much he agrees with some of those he cites.

The weakest section of the book is the chapter on Britain and the rise of neoliberalism. Given how much the anti-racist movement in Britain looks to the history of US struggles, I was intrigued to see the lens turned the other way round.
However, while Haider rightly notes the impact of the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 on not just the labour movement but wider struggles, he relies almost entirely on work by Stuart Hall to explain this process.

This is problematic as Hall, although a brilliant theorist of race and identity, had some dubious things to say about the Miners’ Strike as well as overestimating how far Margaret Thatcher had created a new form of “authoritarian populist” class rule.

To understand the entrenchment of a certain form of institutionalised identity politics in Britain, it is necessary to look not just at state coercion, but at the way the state attempted to co-opt “community” and “ethnic” leaders in the wake of the riots of 1981.

For a book subtitled Race and Class in the Age of Trump, I suspect some readers will be disappointed that there is actually so little about Trump, especially as there are plentiful arguments around about Trump and white identity politics.
However, it seems reasonable to me to focus on how we got here if we are going to understand both the current political climate and find strategies to go forward.

There are brief discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement and of grassroots opposition to Trump — highlighting the possibilities of new forms of solidarity.

Mistaken Identity concludes with a discussion about what sort of politics could replace identity politics. In particular it considers how ideas of universalism could avoid the pitfalls of liberal individualism or abstraction. Haider uses the debate on the Jewish question between Karl Marx and Bruno Bauer to illuminate this point.

Throughout the book, Haider rejects the pessimism of much of the left and insists on an emancipatory project that challenges the whole system.

This is a hugely welcome intervention in current debates on liberation and anti-racist struggle.