The following is part of a symposium on Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.
The last U.S. presidential election and the subsequent chaos of the Donald J. Trump presidency has prompted reflection on what has broadly been deemed “identity politics” by thinkers across the political spectrum. Alongside Asad Haider’s book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Mark Lilla, Francis Fukuyama, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, among others, have published books in the first two years of this administration on the question of identity politics and its role in the Trump campaign’s baffling victory in 2016. Though radically different in their approaches and political stakes, Haider, as well as Lilla, Fukuyama, and Appiah, all pinpoint the corruption and cooption of identity politics as one of the most egregious failures of twenty-first-century modernity. In particular, the major problem all four authors identify is a fetishization of the Enlightenment concept of “individuality” that has seemingly created a generation of free-speech allergic, easily “triggered,” #woke navel-gazers who are single-handedly disintegrating liberal democracy (according to Lilla and Fukuyama), destroying the potential for collective work (Appiah’s concern) and worldwide solidarity (Haider’s).
Often, “identity politics,” along with “multiculturalism,” functions as a strawman for those who decry what is understood to be the sort of touchy-feelie, late-twentieth-century liberalism that amounts to an equal opportunity to participate in global capitalism for all races and genders. This seems to be the case for Fukuyama and Lilla, who both wage a critique that seems generationally marked, disparaging those who have fallen under the spell of identity politics in their constant demands for validation. “Contemporary identity politics is driven by the quest for equal recognition by groups that have been marginalized by their societies,” writes Fukuyama, but this “can easily slide over into a demand for recognition of the groups’ superiority” (22). And, in Lilla’s view, “Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people…seeking to redress major historical wrongs….But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities” (9-10). Appiah, meanwhile, denounces the illusion of quasi-consumerist choice when it comes to identity: “There is a liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we choose to be….If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you cannot simply refuse them; they are not yours alone” (217). Appiah’s consideration of identity-production is more nuanced than Lilla’s or Fukuyama’s, limning the ways identity classifications shift in terms of geographical and historical context via his considerations of “class,” “creed,” “country,” and “color.” Appiah urges us to resist the “confinements” of externally imposed identities while simultaneously instrumentalizing social identities to “connect the small scale where we live our lives…with larger movements, causes, and concerns” (218), a goal that sounds simultaneously idealistic and vaporous.
To some degree, Haider is similarly forward-looking and utopian, but only to the extent that Marxist historical materialism can allow. His approach is to give a thorough account of the twentieth-century movements that undergirded identity politics in various national contexts, seeking to rejoin the issues of class and race that the initial proponents of identity politics saw as inextricable and that have now become decoupled. He argues that the need for recognition upon which contemporary identity politics is predicated is bound up with being fully assimilated to the state. “If we can claim to be somehow injured on the basis of our identity, as though presenting a grievance in a court of law, we can demand recognition from the state on that basis…. Our political agency through identity is exactly what locks us into the state, what ensures our continued subjection” (Haider 30). And thus, the injustices identity politics aims to rectify are rights the state denies the individual as part of a systematically subjugated group. For Haider, the major issue with identity politics is not that it has so splintered the democratic polity that democracy has become non-functional. Rather, the problem is that it seeks equity and parity in capitalist liberal democratic regimes. But, according to Haider, our focus should be breaking away from that paradigm entirely. This can be achieved by forging global solidarity via a kind of universalism he calls “insurgent,” i.e, one that maintains the ideals of the 1793 “Declaration of the Rights of Man” revised after the French Revolution, but that removes the straight, cisgender, white male as the universal subject of history.
Haider’s apparent aim in his book is to lay out a thorough historical account of how identity politics has led to the sundering of identity from class, eventually leading to the wholesale replacement of class with identity. It is through this process, as Haider argues, that identity politics eventually loses its political mojo and revolutionary potential. But his considerations are unsystematic and ultimately confusing as he covers topics as disparate as his own experience of 9/11, the origins of “identity politics” by the Combahee River Collective as a mobilizing term in 1977, the issue of “passing” in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Amiri Baraka’s political awakening, an examination of the Black Panthers’ role in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and the formation of the Birmingham School and the publication of Race Today by Stuart Hall, Darcus Howe, and others. He also touches on the 2004 headscarf ban in France and the “Occupy” movement in the 2010s, and additionally performs sustained readings of works by Frederick Douglass, Paul Gilroy, Alain Badiou, and Étienne Balibar. And more.
Aside from producing a sense of general disorientation in his reader, Haider’s flitting from one historical, political, literary, geographic, and theoretical context to another has the unfortunate effect of performing some of the same racial essentialization as identity politics’ more problematic versions. Though black nationalism was and is an incredibly potent global political force, all twentieth (and nineteenth, and eighteenth) century black race struggles are not equal to each other. In the case of Haider’s discussion of Britain, for example, I am reminded of a scene in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, after the character of England-idolizing Bollywood star, Saladin Chamcha, survives a plummet from an airplane flying over Britain only to find himself transmogrifying into a mythical goat-like beast. He takes refuge in the home of a working-class Bangladeshi family’s cramped East London quarters, where the two resident teenage daughters become enmeshed in a growing immigrant activist movement. Observing the activities of the young, disenfranchised, non-white protesters, Chamcha expresses extreme distaste for the solidarity the daughters forge with their comrades:
[H]e didn’t like the use of such American terms as ‘the Man’ in the very different British situation, where there was no history of slavery; it sounded like an attempt to borrow the glamour of other, more dangerous struggles, a thing he also felt about the organizers’ decision to punctuate the speeches with such meaning-loaded songs as We Shall Overcome, and even, for Pete’s sake, Nkosi Sikel’ iAfrika. As if all causes were the same, all histories interchangeable. (Rushdie 429)
Chamcha is wrong, of course. Britain’s terrifying, centuries-long history of participating in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade constituted the financial backbone of its empire. And certainly no one should commend Chamcha’s special brand of colonial mimic-man toadyism. However, there is a danger in erasing the historical specificity that created the conditions for the “Black British” population in the 1980s to radicalize and form the class- and race-coalitions that would demand civil and economic rights and retribution.
As opposed to the United States, Britain has only been truly “multicultural” since the end of WWII following the demise of its empire. The first waves of Caribbeans (mostly men) arrived after the docking of the H.M.T. Windrush in 1948, which brought hundreds of migrants (still subjects of the Queen) answering the call for cheap labor needed to rebuild after the war. The same went for laborers from newly-decolonized South Asia, mostly from East and West Pakistan, and subsequently from the postcolonial nations of Anglophone Africa. The racial anxieties for native British populations that arose around formerly colonized racial others now claiming their own brand of Britishness were coupled with the class anxieties of the white British working class who felt they were being driven from their neighborhoods and jobs by the new non-white migrants. What this means is that class and race have historically been more self-consciously coterminous in the U.K. It also means that “Black British,” until the last decade of the twentieth century, was a moniker that applied to all Britons of African, Indian (and Afro- and Indo-Caribbean) descent. “Black,” in mid-twentieth century Britain, was a more capacious term than it was in the U.S., and the activism that flourished among Black Britons in the 1960s-80s was consciously multi-racial.1 These kinds of fundamental historical details do not appear in Haider’s text.
The very race and class solidarity Chamcha witnesses and dismisses in London’s working-class neighborhoods in The Satanic Verses was to begin its dissolution upon the publication of the novel itself. “The Rushdie Affair” precipitated the emergence of a new British identity—British Muslims—that began to have its own political valence, largely because of the response of the British state. This is important because religious identity (regardless of practice) has begun to take on the qualities of racial and/or ethnic difference while simultaneously losing the class-specificity that race once held in Britain. This has only been exacerbated in the post-9/11 era of the international “War on Terror” and the more recent “migrant crisis,” both of which fueled the passing of the Brexit referendum in 2016. Significantly, class anxieties also swirled through the nebulous rhetoric of the Brexit campaign which fueled fears about European migrants “taking jobs.” But browner migrants now pose the perceived threat of hailing terror down while cordoning off “no-go zones” and forcing everyone to submit to Sharia law. In order to “save” Britain, many members of its political, racial, and economic majority—and by consequence of the Brexit referendum, the state—are now using the logic of a corrupted twentieth-century identity politics against itself. In spite of the concern Haider and others have expressed regarding the perversion of non-white identity politics from its initial political goals, the discourse surrounding the Brexit campaign and the rise of the American alt-Right reveals the disturbing cooption and re-deployment of identity politics by hegemonic superstructures. As appropriated by ethno-nationalists, the language of identity politics has been manipulated to position the dominant class (and race) now as victimized, an astonishing rhetorical turn that can only have extreme and disastrous consequences.
France is another context in which a narrative of victimization by the threat of marauding brown (mostly Muslim) migrants has more and more purchase in public and political discourse. It is interesting that Haider wants to redeem universalism from the contamination of identity politics by promoting what he calls an “insurgent” universalism, derived from the insurgent potential of the 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man. Universalism is dear to the French state’s heart—an inherited revolutionary legacy that still holds the idealistic promise of universal freedom for all human subjects. But the state form of French universalism is predicated upon assimilating to French cultural and ideological norms and mores, and we now see increasingly dire consequences for those who do not conform. As Haider writes of France’s headscarf ban, “Surely, the racism implied by the banning of a Muslim accessory should be condemned and attacked. But to the extent that this is framed as a defense of the rights of Muslims, the perspective of liberal tolerance traps the Muslims it claims to defend within a victimized identity rather than joining them in a project of collective emancipation” (Haider 190). But let us take a moment to examine the complex historical relationship between French universalism and Islam. The 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was a revision of the 1789 version, which itself took inspiration from the 1776 Declaration of Independence of the slavery-practicing United States, names individual freedoms that should be allotted to individual kinds of subjects rather than an “abstract bearer of rights” (192). Haider refers to Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 1799 letter to Napoleon Bonaparte pleading for the emancipation of all people from bondage, regardless of race, presumably as a model for “insurgent universalism.”
France, of course, did not heed. Some thirty years later it began its violent colonial campaign in North Africa, explicitly implementing policies that restricted access to French education and literacy from all but a tiny handful of évolués among its colonial subjects. Limiting the dissemination of French education in the nineteenth-century North African colonies had the effect of limiting widespread knowledge of the successful eighteenth-century revolutions in France and Haiti, thereby checking the possibility of a similar insurgency that could lead to the demand for universal rights in the Maghreb. However, restricting access to French education (and historical knowledge of both its colonial and metropolitan revolutions) did not ultimately prevent a North African uprising. Rather than being inspired by revolutions based in European Enlightenment principles of universalism, the seeds of anticolonial organizing and strategizing which led to Algeria’s bloody independence in 1962 were sown in the Salafi Islamic schools that formed to fill the French Maghreb’s educational vacuum.2 These functioned to produce a sense of community in the face of colonial oppression and solidarity in the form of pan-Arabism. The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) network that led the Algerian independence movement began in the 1930s as a syndicalist organization dedicated to protecting Maghrebi workers in France. It then spread to the colony, becoming a political party that joined socialism, pan-Arabism, and pan-Islamism. Indeed, though problematic, it may be useful to remember Frantz Fanon’s identification of the Muslim veil as the most potent symbol of Algeria’s revolutionary potential—the decoy of pious traditionalism obscuring the means of transporting the messages and weapons of insurgency.3 Islam, then, provides its own version of “insurgent universalism” that often appears to succeed at the precise pressure points where universalism borne of the European Enlightenment buckles.
Indeed, it is now more important than ever to subject the idea of universalism that came out of the Enlightenment to rigorous scrutiny. By the same token, we should be circumspect about Haider’s recommendation to recuperate universalism by fashioning it as “insurgent,” thereby re-injecting its revolutionary function. The legacy of universalism as a means to grant rights has produced some of the most troubling socio-political configurations of the twenty-first century. As deftly portrayed in Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel, Home Fire—the story of a British-Pakistani teenager who is briefly lured into joining ISIS with mortal consequences—the boundaries of European universalism have always been disturbingly indeterminate. They are at once elastic enough to snap back and shrink the parameters of modern citizenship, and pliable enough to be molded around an ideology that diametrically opposes Enlightenment values. This is patently obvious in the way terrorist acts committed by British citizens are reported in the news, as one of the novel’s characters reflects.
If you look at colonial laws, you’ll see plenty of precedent for depriving people of their rights; the only difference is this time it’s applied to British citizens, and even that’s not as much of a change because they’re rhetorically being made un-British….The 7/7 terrorists were never described by the media as ‘British terrorists.’ Even when the word ‘British’ was used, it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my favorite, ‘British passport holders,’ always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism (Shamsie 40).
The chain of signifiers is especially slippery here. “Muslim” seems to render “British” sous rature, and the tightness with which one “holds” a U.K. passport is almost certainly subject to forceful loosening. Committing violent crimes against the state does not appear to be primarily what barred the 7/7 terrorists the right to due process. As the character points out, the qualification of the terrorists’ Britishness with “Muslim” or “of Pakistani descent” indicates that these identity markers, rather than the perpetration of treasonous violence, determine the prohibitions and privileges of exercising full rights as citizens.
As Hannah Arendt argues, the very process of nation-state formation necessitates the creation of a citizenry, and citizenship by its very nature is an exclusionary category. The rights granted by universalism are ostensibly the building blocks of the modern democratic nation-state. To say nothing of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade’s concomitancy with the European Enlightenment, Arendt asserts that after the World Wars, “[t]here was hardly a country left on the Continent” without “legislation…phrased to allow for getting rid of a great number of its inhabitants at any opportune moment” (Arendt 278-9). The nation-state (and thus universalism) has always been predicated on identifying populations that do not belong in its universe, so to speak. Thus, the irresolvable irony at the very base of universalism—that in the name of inclusion it demands exclusion—is the vector that leads straight from revolutionary democracy to totalitarianism. This irony is no better illustrated than in Home Fire’s primal scene of ideological initiation, as Farooq, the ISIS recruiter, uses the ideals of the French Revolution to convert Parvaiz, the disenfranchised British-Pakistani youth at the center of the novel:
Liberty, equality, fraternity, who could argue with that?…But where would those ideals be without the Reign of Terror that nurtured and protected them with blood, eliminating all enemies, internal and external, that threatened the new utopia, and did so in full view of the public? It might have been regrettable—a man would rather fish with his friends than cut off the heads of his enemies—but it was necessary. Eventually the terror ends, having served its purpose of protecting a new—revolutionary—state of affairs that is besieged by enemies who are terrified of its moral power (Shamsie 150).
It is indisputable that what Farooq describes here is universalism at its most “insurgent.” Indeed, this passage reminds us that the words “terrorism” and “Jacobinism” were once synonymous. Home Fire plays out the nightmare version of Haider’s recommendation to turn our attentions away from identity politics and toward revolution. Shamsie’s novel powerfully illustrates the most confounding development in the politics of twenty-first-century identity: that rather than the demand for equal state-granted rights, as in the twentieth century, contemporary identitarianism now forms around narratives of subjugation and ressentiment. Creating these narratives is a potent strategy for identitarian groups of all varieties—not to establish equality among citizens, but to claim systemic victimhood as a means to justify the ends of dismantling global political order as we know it. And rather than socialist internationalism, in the wake of the democratic nation-state’s demise, the global order appears to be reforming in the image of authoritarianism.
The introduction to Mistaken Identity begins with a reference to Louis Althusser before Haider goes on to describe his experience of September 11, 2001: the moment of his own interpellation into an inchoate ideological formation that would shape the course of the subsequent seventeen years. Up until that fateful day in world history, Haider felt the sense of existential liminality—and thus invisibility—that so many children of immigrants experience. In his case, Haider suffered from being too American for his Pakistani cousins on trips to see family, and too generally brown for his fellow Pennsylvanian school children to fully accept. I cannot say I am unfamiliar with this scenario as Haider describes it, nor his description of the radical shift in perception that occurred after the morning the World Trade Center towers fell in Lower Manhattan. It is the experience of suddenly transforming from a condition of invisibility to extreme visibility in one catastrophic fell swoop. “Until then,” he writes,” I had learned to live with a culture of condescending and exclusionary toleration. But now it revealed an undercurrent of open hostility….My identity had become a matter of homeland security” (Haider 16). What does it mean for one’s identity to be a matter of security, i.e., to be perceived as the threat rather than the threatened? This shift in the rhetoric of identity politics, beginning with the War on Terror and ratcheting up in the last decade is what really interests me. Though Mistaken Identity is subtitled “Race and Class in the Age of Trump,” what follows in Haider’s book is a tortuous meditation on twentieth-century race relations in the U.S. and Britain, primarily on the question of blackness. Haider’s discussion is focused squarely on the potential and subsequent failure of identity politics to serve the left—a somewhat forensic account of the socioeconomic and political machinations that led to Trump’s election. But by introducing his text the way he does, Haider indicates that he is attempting to forge a continuous narrative between the politics of identity in the twentieth century and the bizarre turn identity politics has taken in the last five years.
My contention, now, in response to Fukuyama, Lilla, Appiah, and especially to Haider, is that we need to stop looking backwards and wagging fingers at the left for squabbling, in-fighting, ruining identity politics, and generally failing to forge the conditions of solidarity that could have led us toward universal emancipation. Or whatever each of these thinkers envisions to be the telos of human civilization. Our focus should instead be upon the truly monstrous demon-baby that the twenty-first century has spawned: that being the hegemonic, extreme-right, white (or ethno-) supremacist appropriation of identity politics, using the language of victimhood and injury to position those who are actually subjugated as existential threats to be jettisoned and/or exterminated. The rise of the extreme right across the world—in the U.S., yes, but also in France, Germany, Poland, Italy, the U.K., as well as India, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, Myanmar, etc.—positions the victory of Trump and his political base into a larger global context. They are part of a much greater worldwide pattern of governments leaping rightward and creating populist fervor in campaigns that coalesce around the question of identity. In these instances, the discursive production of identity categories is not only a means of naming difference in order to demand or deny economic and civil rights—i.e., the major preoccupation of identity politics on the left in the latter half of the twentieth century. The stakes of identity production are somehow even higher in the second decade of the twenty-first century: they are a means to the ends of firmly institutionalizing xenophobia in writ law, or more catastrophically, promoting ethnic cleansing and/or genocide.
The widespread targeting and systematic violence waged by national governments toward groups that are bound by political, ethnic, or religious identity such as Syrians, Yeminis, Kurds, and the Rohingya, as well as the increasing restrictions on civil rights of groups such as the Muslim minority of India and the Muslim Uighurs of Western China, has the cascading cumulative global effect of creating large populations of political migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. These are categories that are now gaining their own semiotic charge as identities in and of themselves. Much hysteria is lathered up among far-right groups across the world by the potential siege of refugee hordes, again positioning those already in power as potential victims, and those with the least political, economic, and social capital as existential threats, both as individuals and as a collective. Similar to “Muslim,” “refugee” and “migrant” have become politicized categories of difference despite naming no particular ethnic, national, or racial group.
Near the end of his book, Haider recalls joining the protests that erupted in San Francisco Airport upon Trump’s first attempt in January 2017 at implementing the “Travel Ban” (alias “Muslim Ban”). In its capacity to shut down the airport and demonstrate outrage at the absurd and baldly racist measure, Haider emotes: “It is still possible to claim the legacy of this insurgent universality, which says that we are not passive victims but active agents of a politics that demands freedom for everyone” (193). Two years later, it is difficult to celebrate the small victory of the airport protests after Trump took office. The ban was put on people arriving in the United States from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. Homeland Security deemed citizens from these countries to pose no particular risk to the United States. The ban continued to volley through the courts and get blocked numerous times before finally getting passed by the U.S. Supreme court in 2018. Citizens of these countries have not produced any significant number of terrorists (two total) in the United States. However, they do produce large numbers of refugees. It is not difficult to see the way the identity category of “refugee” is being mapped onto “terrorist,” “Muslim,” as well as “Arab/Persian/North and Sub-Saharan African.” This marks a new configuration of identity politics, one that is in dire need of examination, theorization, and sustained resistance. From December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019, the U.S. government was shut down for the longest period of American history because of Trump’s intransigent demand to spend billions of tax dollars to erect a militarized border wall with Mexico. What fueled this extended and destructive political temper tantrum is the same appropriation of identity politics by the far-right that fueled the Travel Ban. The identity of “migrant” and “refugee” in this case is now being mapped onto “Hispanic,” “Mexican,” “gang-member,” “drug-smuggler,” “murderer,” “rapist,” and somehow too, “terrorist.” As a result of Trump’s government shutdown that is the new face of the right’s identity politics, 800,000 government employees, many of whom fall within the bounds of the working class, went without pay for over a month.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century—the “Age of Trump,” as Haider puts it—the relationships between class, race, and identity have shifted in ways that would have been almost unimaginable in the twentieth century. Rather than spending intellectual time, space, and energy decrying the left’s failure to fulfill the initial aims of identity politics, it is urgently important now to direct our attention to the dangers of the right’s appropriation of identity politics—a phenomenon which could usher us into an era of global authoritarianism and the absolute reversal of any move towards “freedom for everyone” that the twentieth century may have granted us.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Appiah, Anthony. The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture. New York: Liveright, 2018.
Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Fukuyama, Francis. Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. London: Profile, 2018.
Asad, Haider. Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. London: Verso Books, 2018. Ebook.
Janoski, Thomas. The Ironies of Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.
Le Joly, Daniéle. The French Communist Party and the Algerian War. Basingstoke: Macmillan,199.
Lilla, Mark. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. London: Hurst, 2018.
Malik, Kenan. From Fatwa to Jihad. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Pub, 2010.
Procter, James. Dwelling Places: Postwar Black British Writing. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses: A Novel. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2008.