We face a two-pronged menace: Trump, and the Democrats that failed to prevent his rise and won’t fight his policies.
“Effective struggle against racism today requires us to return to the model of radical mass organizing, rather than the moralizing rhetoric of the contemporary liberal clerics.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Asad Haider. Haider is a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. His book is Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Asad Haider: My book addresses a two-pronged aspect of the current conjuncture. On the one hand, there is the openly and viciously racist regime of Donald Trump, and on the other hand, the inept and incompetent responses of mainstream liberals, who utterly failed to prevent his election and continue to fail to prevent him from carrying out his policies. Since the 2016 primaries, when it came to be used to suppress any challenge to the Democratic Party mainstream, the term “identity politics” has been at the center of political debate. My book tries to understand why the term was taken up by neoliberal elites, and also shows that historical struggles against racism were radical, grassroots movements whose goals are totally irreconcilable with the politics of contemporary liberalism. In fact, this contradiction can be seen in the very history of the term itself, which originally came from the revolutionary black feminist and socialist organization the Combahee River Collective. I argue thatan effective struggle against racism today requires us to return to the model of radical mass organizing, rather than the moralizing rhetoric of the contemporary liberal clerics.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
First of all, for me the most meaningful feedback is from activists and organizers. It was important to me in the book to explore the history and theory of mass anti-racist movements in the United States, which frequently were simultaneously socialist movements, or turned towards socialism as a way of advancing their anti-racist program. I have heard from organizers of color that this aspect was valuable to them, as they work to argue against both white socialists and liberals of color that socialists of color exist, and that they have historically made some of the most important contributions to both the socialist and anti-racist movements. This is moving for me personally, since it was precisely in reading this history that I became convinced, as a young person primarily concerned with race, that an anti-capitalist movement was necessary to undermine the structures of racism.
“Coalitions don’t resolve differences, they exist across difference.”
The second point which I believe is deeply important is the distinction between mass movements and elite politics. We operate too much on the model of elite politics, not only in terms of transferring our power to elected officials, but also in terms of an individualistic style of political practice. When the problems of identity emerge in organizing scenarios, they can often lead to an internal crisis or split, because they are articulated in an individualist way. And it is assumed that the solution will come through the elite model of parliamentary dialogue: to discuss the problem for hours and hours until it is resolved. Unfortunately, such discussions, especially without the formal rules and norms of an actual parliament, are self-perpetuating, and often cause more problems than they solve.
Instead of trying to resolve differences through discussion, it is important to act on the coalitional model which can be learned from historical mass movements. Coalitions don’t resolve differences, they exist across differences, because there will always be differences, even within what appears to be a cohesive “identity.” And coalitions are not discussions; they are constructed in order to work on concrete projects. By working together across differences on concrete projects, we change our ways of communicating and relating to one another, and we build a basis for mediating problems that arise within coalitions.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
My book has a polemical aspect which is very clear from its presentation: I am criticizing the ideology of identity politics. Unfortunately, this leads many people to form vehement opinions about it before they even read it. That is regrettable, as I believe there is a possibility for dialogue with many readers who I think will realize, if they actually read what I have to say, that my argument is not what they expected. I have not, for example, argued that there is a hierarchy between race and class, in which the latter is more important or more determinant. I have not argued that anti-racism should be dismissed because of the superiority of Marxism. Rather, I have argued that racism was a fundamentally determining factor in the history of American capitalism and the production of capitalist class relations in American society. I have proposed distinguishing anti-racism from “identity politics,” since the latter term is too general to capture the specificity of the historical construction of race, and because it has been appropriated by a neoliberal form of politics that does not actually advance an anti-racist program. And I have insisted on recognizing that Marxism is a theory that was taken up and developed in the non-European world, and that if we do not recognize and study these contributions, we are not even talking about Marxism at all.
In a rather difficult recursive way, I am seeking to dismantle the ideology that makes my argument so difficult to make. I am trying to uncover the underlying ideological assumptions that have led to the organizing problems I described earlier. And that requires, I think, a certain critique of the category of identity and what identity does in political situations.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This could be an endless list, so I will restrict myself to one figure: Stuart Hall. Hall was a brilliant theorist of the historicity and instability of identities, and he profoundly influenced the way I think about the category. In my book, however, I chose to emphasize an aspect of his work that I think should be more widely appreciated, which is his political thought. Hall’s theory of the “authoritarian populism” of Margaret Thatcher – we should add Ronald Reagan and now Donald Trump – was among the most insightful analyses of the political changes of the 1970s and 1980s in the UK, and by extension much of the advanced capitalist world. For me, this analysis is crucial in understanding why we are now so distant from the models of mass organizing that were so decisive in the 1960s, and how that affects us at the level of culture and ideology.
While Hall’s writings were scattered across various journals and collections, new collections are starting to be published and contemporary readers can discover his ideas. I also hope that new readers will notice something else I admire about Hall, beyond the content of his work, which is the way he modeled an engaged intellectual life. He made innovative contributions at the level of high theory, but never saw it as beneath him to talk about everyday life, mainstream politics, and popular culture. He insisted on the necessity of reaching an audience that went beyond the academy, but without the condescending assumption that ideas must be oversimplified and pared down for the public. It is a project that I can only claim to aspire to, but which I believe is a necessity: to take the risk of speaking publicly, to speak the truth – not the single, timeless truth which is the sole property of intellectuals, but rather, as Hall put it, the best truth we can know or discover – in all its complexity and contradictions.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
What I hope to emphasize is that ordinary people have always imagined new worlds, and have acted to transform the world that exists. The thousands of people who faced fire hoses and jails in the civil rights movement were not politicians, academics, or celebrities. They were ordinary people who acted on the basis of their convictions, and through their resistance to injustice they changed the world. I believe we have a responsibility to those who gave their lives so that we could live in a world that is more just. Of course, it is only incrementally more just – we have not made it all the way yet. But change did happen, and it can happen again; and it is up to us to realize the visions of new worlds that moved those who came before.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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