Not only the difference between identities but the differences within them

Thoughts on Asad Haider’s 'Mistaken Identity: race and class in an age of Trump' ( Verso, 2018) contributed to a panel discussion at the fifteenth Historical Materialism annual conference in London. Review.

Samir Gandesha
19 November 2018

Members of Steel Pulse, The Clash, and the Sex Pistols demonstrating outside National Front Leader Martin Webster's house in 1977. Twitter. Fair use.

Mistaken Identity: race and class in an age of Trump (Verso, 2018) is a remarkably well argued, theoretically sophisticated critique of identity politics. And by critique I don’t mean abstract negation or dismissal but rather a form of determinate negation which is at once a cancelling and a preserving of aspects of the object at hand.

Haider takes us from a key statement of identity politics in the militant Black lesbian formation, the Combahee River Collective, in which identity politics is internally articulated to a "revolutionary socialist politics", through the appropriation of its language by Hillary Clinton against the so-called ‘Bernie Bros’ during the Democratic presidential nomination race, through to discussions of the use and abuse of identity. The latter are understood as “the neutralization of movements against racial oppression” (p.12), in which identity becomes the basis for bourgeois elites to claim inclusion within the existing order precisely by exercising social control over the members of their racialized group.

In this, there is a kind of a parallel with the historical role of social democratic and labour parties – not as the means by which political demands are made of the state as it were “from below”, but as the means by which those demands are more effectively managed precisely by these parties from above.

His argument goes on to discuss critically the mystifications surrounding the discourse of “race” and the baleful problem of the way in which “positioning oneself as marginal is the recognized procedure of becoming political” (p.80). It then draws upon Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy to suggest a powerful way of understanding the intricacies of race and class as in Hall's memorable statement, “Race is the modality in which class is lived.” It also seeks to understand the triumph of Trump in terms of Hall’s concept of authoritarian populism, before concluding with a chapter drawing upon an “insurgent universalism.” “Race is the modality in which class is lived.”

If this book could be reduced to a slogan it would be “not just difference between but difference within identities!” 

Recruiting the far-right

What is especially compelling is the way the book’s argument is punctuated by Haider’s own experience as a Pakistani immigrant to the United States as well as a student at UC Santa Cruz. The book resonates with me in part because of my own and my family’s historical experiences, as migrants from the West Indian state of Gujarat (today the locus of the vaunted neo-liberal Gujarat model of Narendra Modi) to east Africa in the early twentieth century, from which my family was expelled, that is from Uganda, in 1972 by Idi Amin.

Asians occupied the sphere of circulation, as traders, and also fell into the middle of the racialized colonial hierarchy. It was a community that was particularly vulnerable to mass resentment, not least because of its own deep-seated caste prejudice which seamlessly mapped into racial prejudice, against the African masses just coming into their own via decolonization.

Members of my own family came to this country as refugees, settling in London where they eventually started businesses and in Leicester where they worked for in the factories of companies such Walkers Crisps. Asians occupied the sphere of circulation, as traders, and also fell into the middle of the racialized colonial hierarchy.

I was acutely aware of the rise of the far-right, which found an opening at a historical conjuncture not unlike our own, constituted by the structural crisis of the welfare state amidst growing stagflation and a backlash against the immigration that had previously been encouraged as the source of cheap, malleable labour in the immediate post-war period starting in 1948 (this was the so-called Windrush generation) as well as the arrival of families like my own from Uganda several decades later.

I was profoundly influenced by the steadfast self-organization of the Sikh community of Southall, the Bengali community in Brick Lane, and the vital alliance-building of the Anti-Nazi league throughout the country to confront the existential threat of fascism on the street.

Back then there was no discussion about punching Nazis: but it was done as an act of self-defence. What was so different about that time and now, was the forging of alliances between many different communities in response to the threat of fascism.

This was beautifully expressed in Linton Kweisi Johnson’s moving tribute to a white teacher from New Zealand and member of the SWP and Anti-Nazi League, Blair Peach, killed in a demo against the NF by the LMP. “Reggae fi Peach.” There’s a memorable photo ( see above) of the members of Steel Pulse, the Clash and the Rich Kids, besting signs with the slogan “Black and White Unite.” These efforts culminated in Rock Against Racism which engaged in the struggle over the common sense of working class Britons on questions of race, empire and belonging.

Today, largely as a result of identity politics, the situation could not be more different with various groups and organization showing themselves unable to work together amidst what is perhaps an even more troubling threat of the spectre of fascism. A criticism of the structural power of white supremacy is one thing, but direct, self-righteous and moralizing attacks on White people is quite another and, simply from a strategic standpoint, deeply counter-productive. It is really nothing but a recruiting device for an ascendant far-right. But these are the stakes of identity politics today.Direct, self-righteous and moralizing attacks on White people… It is really nothing but a recruiting device for an ascendant far-right. 

I arrived as a student at the LSE just in the aftermath of the defeat of the NUM and the sense of melancholy was palpable. The significance of this strike at one level was clear. Like the 1981 Air traffic controllers' Strike broken by Ronald Reagan, it cleared the way for the accelerated neo-liberalism which had already taken hold by 1979 if not before. But the deeper significance was only made apparent by Matthew Warchus’ 2014 film Pride which lays bare the disarticulation of social movement and class politics. The miners lead the Pride Parade but this is purely symbolic; they are defeated and the Pride organizers are clear that they want an apolitical parade not a demonstration, even though this is at the height of the AIDS crisis. 

Victim status in authoritarian times

At the same time, because of the book’s focus on the American experience, it tends to understand identity politics, with Brown and Butler, in what I consider to be an excessively juridical manner. The collective nature of identity politics and its connection with authoritarian forms of politics, while hinted at, isn’t thought through enough in my view.

Today, it is not possible to understand contemporary politics in India without understanding Hindutva identity politics, for example. It is necessary to show the connection of the rise of Trump to a wider wave of authoritarian and neo-fascist politics that represent a dangerous, collective identity politics. This has often corresponded to a downturn in the fortunes of the Left.

Do Left identity politics respond to the same dynamics? I would suggest (though I can’t show this here) that rather than an individualistic, rights-based model, identity politics is based on a particular, in my view reified, account of experience as expressed in the statement “You wouldn’t understand because it’s a black, Asian or queer, thing.” It is a staking out of a proprietory relation to an experience understood not as a process and a social relation but as a thing. This then leads not to a juridical discourse but a moralistic one based on the claiming of special victim status based on such reified experience. The collective nature of identity politics can be seen in various sorts of redress and apology movements in Canada. The collective nature of identity politics can be seen in various sorts of redress and apology movements. 

Abstract and concrete

So the question I want to pose here is the relation between the abstract and the concrete. The book makes the correct claim that it is of vital importance to get this relation correct. “A materialist mode of investigation has to go from the abstract to the concrete – it has to bring this abstraction back to earth by moving through the historical specificities and material relations that have put it in our heads.” (p.11)

But I wonder if this formulation gets the relation right? After all, the commodity form is both abstract and material. Here, abstraction does not stand in relation to the concrete as ideas stand to material history. Rather, the commodity form is, itself, what Alfred Sohn-Rethel called a “real abstraction.” It was real insofar as it was a material object and therefore a use value. At the same time, it was abstract insofar as it was an exchange value and therefore was ultimately indifferent to its own content. The key thing is that the commodity form has the immediate grasp of experience insofar as it abounds, as Marx put it, in “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” It has not been possible to grasp it as a social relation, that is, as the product of human labour power. In this account of abstraction, Marx drew upon the dialectical logic of Hegel. An object is concrete precisely in terms of its mediations – just as, for Marx, in the Grundrisse, the commodity form is mediated by the spheres of distribution, production, consumption and exchange.

A jargon of authenticity

The danger today lies in what Adorno diagnosed in his critique of Martin Heidegger as a jargon of authenticity (Jargon der Eigentlichkeit) in what was to be a section of Negative Dialectics. What Adorno meant by this was that Heidegger’s thought was "fascist to its innermost core" precisely because of its attempt to grasp being in its immediacy as a form of concreteness which served as the antithesis to an empty bourgeois public sphere in which, as Heidegger put it, the light of reason darkens all and the technological disclosure of Being reigns supreme.

In contrast, following Hegel, Adorno argues that Being is the emptiest of categories and hence is indistinguishable from its antithesis, which is to say nothing. The claim for an immediate "experience of the meaning of Being” is ultimately grounded in a false concretion culminating therefore in a metaphysics of death. Fascism crystallizes the de-sublimation of the death drive.Fascism crystallizes the de-sublimation of the death drive.

Now, I don’t want to be taken to suggest that identity politics is fascistic as such. I do, however, want to raise the question about a certain tendency within a global order, dominated by the ever-more abstract and accelerated operations of finance capital, leading to ever-more pronounced forms of anxiety and insecurity, to produce what Adorno calls an “ontological need” for collective identities.

But these entities are many forms of false concretion whose political nature is deeply ambivalent at best. What Adorno calls "false concreteness", Moishe Postone calls a “fetishized form of anti-capitalism”, which takes the form of modern anti-semitism: “That is, the sense of the loss of control that people have over their lives (which is real), becomes attributed, not to the abstract structures of capital, which are very difficult to apprehend, but to a Jewish conspiracy."

Such forms of false concreteness in their insistence on immediacy foreclose the relationality required for either the insurgent universality that Haider invokes as a way forward or Ernesto Laclau’s notion of post-hegemonic politics based on an equivalential chain of differences in relation to an “antagonistic frontier.”  This, and nothing else, is what is at stake in the debate surrounding identity politics today.

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