I Tried to Be A Socialist / Thom Donovan

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.

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Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, like many of his main references concerning identity politics (Wendy Brown’s “Wounded Attachments” in particular), is a book that I desperately want to agree with and affirm. I am especially drawn to the claim that identity politics, so-called, is a phenomenon that has served neoliberalism in eclipsing solidarities among differently raced and gendered groups and individuals in their collective fight against capital. His case is a convincing one, and there is much about his personal approach that I find attractive, particularly his poignant references to his background as a person of Pakistani descent who has experienced the intersection of economic injustice and racism firsthand during the post-9/11 era. It is also this personal approach that at times seems ironic considering Haider’s critique of how identity shapes one’s political orientation.

I’m not sure how old Haider is, but I suspect that we are of roughly the same generation. In his introduction to the book, he recalls his disenchantment with the US left following the failure to stop the second Gulf War and war in Afghanistan. Like many in my generation, I also experienced profound disillusionment after participating in numerous public demonstrations and protests. He and I also came up during the Occupy era, which for both Haider and myself revealed Barack Obama’s true colors in the face of the financial collapse of 2008. Instead of taking the opportunity to socialize the country’s financial institutions, the Obama administration resurrected and bolstered the banks and other financial institutions which had caused the disaster. Meanwhile, multiple wars in the Middle East continued, intensified by drone strikes, and Black, Brown, and Red people continued to be murdered and incarcerated in record number. These and other apparent contradictions are what have put so much pressure on identity politics. Given Obama’s significance as the first African American president, I wonder, like Haider, to what extent the wanton violence perpetuated by Obama’s administration found cover through his identity as a person of African descent. Similarly, when Sanders and Clinton faced-off for the Democratic primary, I wondered to what extent Clinton’s constituency was willing to overlook her checkered record in order to vote the first woman president to power.

But while I agree with Haider’s read on the Obama presidency and the 2016 Democratic Primary, I am less convinced by his sense that in the wake of Occupy we have simply splintered into the “identity” politics of Black Lives Matter and Afro-Pessimism. Such a claim follows implicitly from his analysis of what he calls, after Bobby Seale, the legacy of “Porkchop Nationalists” (alluding to the Panthers well-known conflicts with The Nation of Islam) in tandem with his dismissal of Afro-Pessimist discourse during the years following Occupy. It is because of these narrow identity claims, Haider suggests, that a new mass anti-capitalist movement failed to congeal, a notion which I must contest.

When Ferguson occurred, as well as the rioting in Baltimore and elsewhere in the United States, it was my own sense that a political-economic discourse had not so much been abandoned as crucially re-centered. This re-centering goes to the heart of the Afro-Pessismism of Frank Wilderson and others, who claim that political antagonism in the US may be resolved by the meeting of two demands: (1) to end the appropriation and gratuitous violence against Black people and to return to Black people what is owed them in the form of reparations; and (2) to return the lands occupied and expropriated by settler-colonialism as well as to acknowledge the genocide of an indigenous population by the United States. Thus where Haider sees Afro-Pessimism as a corrosive force for class politics, I see a project whose primary articulation is about the specific damages done by racial capitalism against particular groups. Thus I ask with Afro-Pessimism: what if we center race, and specifically anti-Black and anti-Red racism, as a means of combatting “White civil society” (a society defined by its propensity towards economic, racial, and gendered exploitation)? What, I ask further, if the struggle against such a society were re-centered around the “Slave,” which is to say, not Black people per se, or necessarily the legacy of African slavery in North America (though it is admittedly difficult not to read Wilderson et al through the particular history of Transatlantic Slavery), but by those most incapacitated by their racialization?

Haider’s response to the putative porkchop nationalism of Afro-Pessimists is to turn our attention to the history of anti-racist struggles among White and Black communists in the United States, particularly during the 1920s and 30s. But while granting the power of such alliances, such a historical reference is unsatisfying inasmuch as it downplays not only the longstanding prejudice of White workers against Blacks, Reds, and workers of color (a prejudice extensively documented by Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and J. Sakai’s Settlers, among other foundational works), but also the fact that United States democracy is built on a solid foundation of African slave labor coupled with indigenous genocide. That an indigenous perspective (or “paradigm,” to use Wilderson’s term) is ignored in Mistaken Identity makes me profoundly skeptical, as I believe such a perspective is necessary for thinking beyond traditional strategies of the left, particularly in the US.

Additionally, I am struck by the short shrift Haider gives to the breakup of the Communist Party in the 1940s in the face of WWII. One can see the pitfalls of his strategy, for example, when studying Ralph Ellison’s biographies, particularly Lawrence Jackson’s Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. There one can watch the blow-by-blow of Ellison’s disenchantment with his nominally “communist” peers and contemporaries throughout the 40s. Much of it revolved around the Party’s abandonment of anti-racist activism, as well as its capitulation to the US government’s segregation of the US military. It is mirrored by the disillusionment of Ellison’s friend and mentor Richard Wright, who originally titled the second section of his autobiography, Black Boy, “I Tried to be a Communist.” The result of this disillusionment was Wright’s expatriation to Paris and his championing of Third World anti-colonialist struggle.

One of the most haunting scenes in Invisible Man, especially given the re-centering of our own era, is the image of Tod Clifton’s murder by police and his funeral during which the narrator poses the extraordinary question: “[c]ould politics ever be an expression of love?” Questions like these recur for me as I consider the limits of Haider’s Mistaken Identity which, while impressively grounded in its research and theoretical articulations of cross-racial class solidarity, and desirable in its call for material critique and analysis, at times loses sight of the complexities and lacunae of any project to forge solidarity and construct a unitary subject against capital. Haider, in other words, may be right about the goals, but risks a naïve understanding of the difficulties of such a subject formation. Such concerns have been the mainstay of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstruction, phenomenology, and post-structuralism alike, all of which are tellingly absent from Haider’s analysis.

Perhaps a counter to the many useful provocations and analyses of his project would be another much more invested in the messiness, contingency, and impossibility of solidarity (a project that I myself have been invested in since the demise of the Occupy and Anti-Globalisation movements). I am also curious, after his book, if he (and others) may more successfully wed (Black) Marxist and Afro-Pessimist analytical frameworks. Afro-Pessimism provides a much needed check to Marxist-Socialism’s fetishisms of agency, universalism, and its centering of “exploitation” (labor) over “gratuitous violence” (domination). Furthermore, it offers a deep analysis of the psychic, libidinal, and affective structures governing anti-Black racism as it undergirds and facilitates racial capitalism (something which, unfortunately, [North American and Europe-centered] Marxism has never been up to the task of).

Lastly, and despite the pains Haider takes to proceed self-reflexively and critically, I wonder about the value in centering a boilerplate socialism of basic economic equality, whether that of (racialized) workers in the United States or elsewhere. Should the struggle not make a more radical set of demands about reparations, such as those evoked by Wilderson, to which we might add others? What’s more, and this is where I feel I cannot abandon identity politics so-called entirely: what if society were made not just safe but a realm of abundance for its least well-off members, which is to say, if struggle were organized messianically, making the last the first? I think here, in particular, about the safety of Trans people of color, who are not only put at risk by the dominant society (White, cis, heterosexual), but by those of their own (ethnic, and national) “communities”. I wonder, too, what a society built for the least accommodated would look like, insofar as those who identify as disabled tend to be the most marginalized socially, economically, and politically. Perhaps this is where political expressions of love come back into the frame; expressions that are less easy to examine and access through traditional political expressions, even revolutionary ones; expressions that also lean less heavily on both negative and positive notions of freedom centered by the state.

Also taking very seriously Brown’s notion of “wounded attachment”—the notion that identity politics reduces political struggle to the granting and protection of rights for individuals made vulnerable by their identities—I wonder if there is a way the wound itself might open to positive and emergent freedoms rather than purely negative ones—freedoms intended to protect us (and our property) from one another. Might, for instance, our wounds capacitate expressions of vulnerability, tenderness, intimacy, generosity, and responsibility of which a politics of love might consist? Haider critiques the “exceptionality” of a/an (identity) politics centered on Blackness, and yet through Blackness (as through other categories of identity and/or ontology) modes of freedom are practiced that have flourished as the result of unbreachable wounds (to paraphrase Saidiya Hartman). What resources—practices, expressions, modes, and models—of freedom have wounds and woundedness provided us with which should not be so quickly abandoned in our quest for more effective mass movements in the name of socialism?