Not only the difference between identities but the differences within them

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

This 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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