Mistaken Identity and misunderstood interests: Haider and identity politics

I just finished “Mistaken identity” by Asad Haider, and like anyone who has just finished a good book I’m a proselytiser for it. My aim here is to draw out one thread of its multifaceted arguments, that the whole of the working class share a joint interest in abolishing racism in a way that is not recognised by what is often called identity politics. Like Haider we will only be discussing racial identity politics here, and focusing particularly on the problem of white supremacy in America.

Consider this quote from Ignatiev reproduced in Mistaken Identity:

“To suggest that the acceptance of white-skin privilege is in the interests of white workers is equivalent to suggesting that swallowing the worm with the hook in it is in the interests of the fish. To argue that repudiating these privileges is a “sacrifice” is to argue that the fish is making a sacrifice when it leaps from the water, flips its tail, shakes its head furiously in every direction and throws the barbed offering.”

What Ignatiev is suggesting- and Haider concurs- is that rather than accepting that the white worker benefits in any unequivocal sense from racism we should consider a more complex view. As Haider puts it when discussing the history of racism and slavery in America:

“In exchange for white-skin privilege, the Euro-American workers accepted white identity and became active agents in the brutal oppression of African American laborers. But they also fundamentally degraded their own conditions of existence.”

In other words, Haider contends that white supremacy is ultimately bad for white workers and thus all workers have an interest in abolishing it, whether they do or do not recognise that interest. What I want you to consider is that this might be the real hinge of the whole argument over identity politics, insomuch as this is a useful debate. Do you accept that the best strategy for the whole proletariat, people of colour and whites alike, is to oppose racism, or do you believe that the objective interests of the white section of the proletariat lie in supporting and upholding white supremacy?

1.

There’s a sort of cognitive trap here that it’s easy to fall into. It’s easy to think that obviously all whites have an objective interest in supporting white supremacy. After all, by definition, white supremacy is a situation in which whites are better off than non-whites.

To see why this doesn’t necessarily follow, consider a cute little meme that goes around the internet sometimes, usually an image or text that is a variation on the following:

“Bob gives Luke two cookies, Samantha one cookie, and keeps twenty seven cookies for himself. He then turns to Luke and says “Watch out! Samantha is going to take your extra cookie!”

(For clarity, this is not a quote from Haider)

Bob represents the largely white bourgeoisie; Luke represents the white portion of the proletariat; and Samantha represents proletarians of color. It is simultaneously true that Luke is better off than Samantha because of white supremacy AND that both Luke and Samantha would be better off were white supremacy dismantled. Luke is better off than Samantha under this unjust distribution of cookies, but would still benefit from, and be better off under, a more equitable distribution of cookies. To avoid confusion- this isn’t just about money. Cookies also represent power, status, security and other goods. Whether in relation to material things or more intangible goods, a system that guarantees supremacy over another group need not guarantee a genuine improvement in living standards overall.

2.

What does the capitalist gain from racism?

Our first clue should be that the most open and vicious racists are also the most open and vicious in opposing workers rights. The struggles are linked if for no other reason than the clearest opposition to both is one and the same.

Racism is used by the right (yes, even the respectable right) to constitute an alternative nexus of political struggle. What I mean by this is that politics is always a struggle between forces, but even the nature of this struggle is itself subject to conflict. The right benefits from conceptualising the fundamental political struggle as a struggle between races and nations whereas the left benefits from conceptualising that struggle as a struggle between classes, in which racism is used as a crucial weapon by the ruling class.

Someone who sees politics as fundamentally a struggle between races will engage in cross class collaboration for the perceived advantage of their race. They may vote for those they see as having linked racial interests, but who do not share their economic interests, such as white supremacist capitalists, or rich persons of colour with bourgeoisie values. They may also be reluctant to collaborate on issues that should unite workers, such as joining a union that includes workers of color. Another example would be contemporary white workers who refuse to oppose police violence, despite police violence being a threat to workers everywhere, because they identify the police with their racial interests.

Thus racism creates a defanged and disorganised working class that doesn’t even conceive of itself as sharing interests. It is a win for capitalists.

3.

Arguably at least, The mistake of thinking that white supremacy isn’t ultimately counter to the aims of the whole proletariat leads into all the other problems with identity politics.

For example, a common complaint about identity politics is that it is moralistic and preachy, and that this leads to a culture of infighting and vicious online arguments. This follows from believing that there is no common linkage of interests in the proletariat to oppose racism. If you truly believe that some workers benefit in the long-run from racism, you will naturally resort to preaching and moralism, since the white portion of the working class has no material interest in abolishing white supremacy, there will be no option but to prick their consciences to guilt.

Another complaint that’s frequently made about identity politics is that it is overly liberal, and not sufficiently committed to abolishing capitalism. Again, this pretty plainly flows from the view that the working class is not even potentially unified with respect to its objective interests on white supremacy. It’s a pretty major blow to a Marxist anti-capitalist view of things if the supposedly universally emancipatory working class has no basis for a solidarity of shared interests in opposing racism. If the working class is nothing special in this regard, a space is opened for class collaborationism.

4.

As we talk here about common interests, please keep in mind an important caveat from Haider:

“A common interest is constituted by the composition of these multitudes into a group. This is a process of political practice.”

In other words, it is not so much that the working class already has a common interest in smashing both racism and capitalism, as that there is a potential liberating political strategy which could infuse it with a common interest and a common program. This is not a matter of a voluntary or subjective element deciding ex-nihilo to form such a coalition, rather it is a possibility already present in the class which comes to the forefront in certain circumstances.

5.

If the root of identity politics is a rejection of the revolutionary anti-racist potential of the whole working class as a group with a common interest in abolishing white supremacy, where does it come from?

This quote from Stuart Hall reprinted in Chapter 5, discussing economic despair in the 1980’s and its interaction with racism in the UK captures it:

“As economic circumstances tighten, so the competitive struggle between workers is increased, and a competition structured in terms of race or color distinctions has a great deal of mileage. It is precisely on this nerve that the National Front is playing at the moment, with considerable effect. So the crisis of the working class is reproduced, once again, through the structural mechanisms of racism, as a crisis within and between the working classes”

In other words, as Bob gets a larger and larger portion of the cookies, the idea that both Samantha and Luke’s situation could get better at the same time seems more and more distant. Since Stuart Hall wrote this, the wage share has been in almost continual decline in the developed world- for over three decades now.

Crudely speaking these material realities come to be reflected in our souls, or as Haider more eloquently puts it:

“I have come to think that this sadness is the primary cause of the restriction of politics to one’s personal identity. Not only has the idea of universal emancipation come to seem old-fashioned and outmoded, the very possibility of achieving anything beyond the temporary protection of individual comfort seems like a delusion. Hence a call for universally beneficial social change is often heard as a personal affront: instead of an affirmation of my individual demand for security and recognition, I am presented with a goal that lies beyond my powers to achieve.”

We need to move our imaginations beyond the equitable distribution of crumbs, towards a coherent anti-racist, anti-capitalist program that roots itself not merely upon an abstract notion of ‘social justice’, but upon a recognition of our common interest in dismantling white-supremacist capitalism. Moving our imagination in this way is supremely difficult, because our despair is not merely a voluntary choice, but an outcome of our circumstances.

There are however reasons to hope. It is difficult to read the political weather, nonetheless it seems to me that over the last two or three years, an understanding of the inseparable linkage between anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggle has continued to deepen, one sign of which is the publication of the book that we have discussed here. As both capitalism and white supremacy continue to be exposed and treated with greater cynicism there is space for us to draw the links, and an urgency for us to do so.

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