Jacobin’s quality control has never been its strength and combined with the impossible to kill dogma among certain leftists that so-called “identity politics” are a black hole that cover up for the only politics that do matter–class-based politics, it can lead to a real mess. The fundamental problem with this is that it is nonsense in the American context. It is simply impossible to conduct such a politics without minimizing or dismissing the concerns of people of color, not to mention dealing with inherent sexism on the job and in our economy. But that’s not going to stop Jacobin from going back to the well again and again, this time from Melissa Naschek, who I’ve never heard of before but seems to be a young DSA person from Philly. Well, that’s fine, but this is not:
Mistaken Identity defines identity politics as the “neutralization of movements against racial oppression. It is the ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy in service of the advancement of political and economic elites.” Such a definition highlights the contradictions that plague much of Haider’s book — a willingness to acknowledge the historic failures of identity politics combined with a continued assertion of their essential place in left politics.
Using historical analyses of groups such as the Communist Party and the Weather Underground, as well as anecdotal experience from his own student activism, Haider describes how posturing around identity has subsumed radical demands under a fog of rhetorical policing and petty power plays. Along the way, he charts a historical path of the Left’s political neutralization through the “decomposition and disorganization of the working [class]” supposedly wrought by racial division.
Despite these acknowledgments, Haider calls for leftists to speak to the particular oppressions of groups in capitalism and use these aggregate grievances to forge a patchwork mass movement — he calls this approach an “insurgent universality.” But Haider’s political conclusions, however well-intentioned, fail to impress.
Much of the problem stems from the shakiness of his historical narrative. Mistaken Identity recycles a shopworn account of the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to provide an institutional pathway out of poverty, causing the emergence of black nationalist ideology in response.
Haider’s account of Black Power is not uncritical. He takes the movement to task for paving the way for black elites who abandoned racial uplift and implemented neoliberal economic policy. It’s not just mayors such as Kenneth Gibson, who helped decimate Newark’s public school system, who get Haider’s scorn, but even activist leaders like Jesse Jackson, whose “efforts ended up lending a rainbow aura of legitimacy to the right wing of the Democratic party.”
Haider acknowledges that ultimately, Black Power failed to redistribute power away from the ruling class, and he rightly blames this defeat on the movement’s ideological commitment to racial unity, which attempted to create consensus among people with fundamentally divergent political interests. He notes how “the lingering ideologies of racial unity left over from the Black Power movement rationalized the top-down control of the black elite, which worked to obscure class differences as it secured its own entry into the mainstream.”
But here is where Haider fails: if class differences helped to neutralize the radical potential of black power, he should address not just who betrayed the black left, but how they did it. Understanding postwar liberalism, and its contradictions, is key here.
The Johnson Administration, despite responding to mass movement pressure and helping to dismantle Jim Crow, offered an insufficient solution to economic inequality. When trying to solve the remaining issue of black economic disparity, the administration chose to create a series of “anti-poverty” programs.
Their reasoning was embodied in the 1965 Moynihan Report, which argued that black poverty was culturally distinct from white poverty and therefore required special “community”-targeted programs. These policies were a genuine attempt by liberals to solve the “problem” of race and poverty in America.
However, the root causes of black inequality — deindustrialization, structural unemployment, and lack of strong protections at work — were left completely unaddressed. Instead, these policies isolated the most aggrieved victims of capitalism from the rest of the working class while simultaneously failing to address the sources of their immiseration.
The inadequacy of the liberal approach did not go unnoticed. The Black Power movement called for more radical solutions demanding a revolutionary politics of racial unity. But no matter how militant the rhetoric, it was still based on a liberal belief that economic inequality could be dealt with by segregating the working class into racially distinguished units.
And Haider, for his part, embraces this same liberal culturalist logic with his assertion that black self-determination and socialism are mutually dependent. Despite his own criticisms of cross-class political alliances, he invites the exact same contradiction into his own analysis.
Now I haven’t read the book that this is reviewing. But this analysis of Black Power is incomplete to say the least. It’s real easy I guess to say from the perspective of 2018 that Black Power had the same world view as liberals, but that’s not just true, nor is it contextualized in the time in which these activists were operating. It takes no great shakes to criticize Black Power today for how it actually operated in 1969, but Naschek goes way too far in doing so. What’s especially interesting is that she embraces A. Philip Randolph as an alternative, but Randolph was strongly anti-communist, knowing of what he spoke. Of course, Randolph was indeed broadly socialist, which leads to the question of just what DSA and the current left actually believes, a question which is just getting worked out now. Anyway, Naschek’s conclusion may leave you frustrated:
Today, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and a resurgence in trade union activity, circumstances are finally re-emerging for a political program capable of fostering mass working-class solidarity. Instead, Haider would have us turn to the model that has failed the working class for years: rhetorically accepting identity-based particularism at the implicit expense of class-based universalism.
Of course, Haider does not overtly suggest that this is an either/or. Instead, he insists that we must do both — working-class politics and identity politics.
But “doing both” is easier said than done. Identity politics and class politics understand capitalist power structures in distinct ways and therefore lead to distinct political strategies. More importantly, however, “doing both” misreads the balance of power in America today: institutionally on the Left, we have nothing but a fraction of the already miniscule labor movement to back our platform and our analysis.
But liberalism has a major political party, the media, academia, and the entire world of nonprofits, which today controls about as much wealth as the Church did before the French Revolution. And it’s in the “do both” strategy that these powerful enemies of the Left (and allies of capital) worm their way into our coalition and play up identity to reshape working-class demands until they’re neutralized.
Haider fails to recognize the profound asymmetry between the power of institutions of the working-class and the advocates of universal class-based reforms, and those of the liberal establishment and their own embrace of identity-based particularism. Concretely, this asymmetry does not lead to the best of identity politics and the best of universal demands in some sort of synthesis. Instead, the lopsided advocacy for particularist demands serves only to further marginalize the universalist demands.
An anticapitalist politics capable of fighting against such forces must appeal to the whole working class to build a mass movement. Masses of people become interested in politics when organizations offer a real possibility to change their lives for the better. The only way to forge a movement capable of achieving that is by fighting for shared working-class political and economic interests. This remains the only plausible path to harnessing the only power offered to workers in society: their position as an exploited majority.
The good news is that the needs for affordable medical care, a livable planet, quality education, and respect and security in the workplace satisfy such a mandate. It is two of Mistaken Identity’s supposed interlocutors, Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields, who note that downplaying class demands “is a devastating, intolerable mistake. It leads people to say that race is fundamental — not economics, not class — and if you bring class in then you’re trying to deny the reality of human existence and identity. That is the big mystification achieved by racecraft.”
While Haider rightly identifies the ineptitude of identity politics, he does not craft a political strategy that could serve as the basis for a socialist politics. Ultimately, Mistaken Identity is a manifesto of the Zombie New Left, claiming to overcome identity politics but leading us down the same dead end.
Doing both class politics and identity politics may indeed be easier said than done–but so what! That’s the only option we have. It simply makes no sense to subsume identity-based politics to class-based politics. That’s because people have multiple identities. They don’t think about class as much as they think about other things in their lives. White people vote their white identity, their misogynistic identity, their homophobic identity, etc., more often than their class identity. And the problem with analysis like that of Naschek is that it simply handwaves this away. Ultimately, the upshot of all this is not challenging white supremacy and misogyny, creating a comfortable place for white people to organize without being questioned about their privilege. We’ve seen that before and it’s a story that leaves women and people in color in subservient economic positions and subservient positions within unions.
Politics ain’t easy. We have to take on class oppression, racial oppression, and gendered oppression at the same time, even when members of the oppressed class by one definition is an oppressor by another. That’s life and that’s our challenge. Trivializing so-called “identity politics,” which somehow have never included white-based identity, simply is a dead end. The sooner the left figures this out, the better off we will all be. The Zombie Old Left is certainly not more relevant than the Zombie New Left.