This is part II of Jesse McCarthy’s interview with Asad Haider, the author of Mistaken Identity (Verso, Spring 2018). Click here to read Part I, “The Consolations of Identity.”
Jesse McCarthy: Setting aside the left turning on itself, I wonder if you’ve received critiques along the lines of cultural nationalism, and black-nationalist politics in particular. I keep going back to Harold Cruse and some of the arguments that he makes in “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” (1967). One of his points in that book is that he thinks there’s a sort of mystification in the way the United States frames politics through this Enlightenment-liberal conception that is fundamentally about the individual and individual rights, and the Constitution granting individuals all these special protections and privileges, which he thinks masks a kind of realpolitik which is in fact prosecuted by groups. That in fact, if you look at U.S. history, what you will see is that the elite class is in fact more or less a homogenous ethnic group that is sometimes called the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), that you will see the Irish organizing, the Italians organizing, Jews organizing, as an ethnic group in order to achieve certain aims and goals, at the level of local politics: getting control over a city hall, saying “We’re going to get all the fire department or give the police force to a certain group.” Cruse thinks that’s what blacks need to do too. Another version of this is Gayatri Spivak’s well-known conception of “strategic essentialism.” Would you accept that sometimes we need to rally around or advance a group-based politics?
Asad Haider: As far as I know, Spivak later said that she was not so satisfied with the popularity of that term. In terms of the kind of ethnic group politics that you’re describing, the noteworthy thing is that black people did do this in the 1970s with the rise of black mayors. I go over one example in the book, which is the case of Newark, with the involvement of a fully invested, essentialist cultural-nationalist at that time, Amiri Baraka. The problem is that it generated a situation in which that racial unity that had led to the group taking city hall—that couldn’t continue, because this was an economic climate in which the interests of politicians and businessmen and the majority of black working people did not align. That’s the reason why Baraka began to put cultural nationalism into question and shift towards Marxism. Strategic essentialism ends up just restating the question with a new term. It doesn’t present a solution.
JM: We can also follow a historical arc here, tracking Baraka’s evolution, that leads us into the neoliberal moment, so ’79 and 1980 forward. This is why I was pleased that you bring up an important book that I’ve always been surprised hasn’t received more attention, which is Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis (1978). I was wondering if you could talk about how Hall helps us to understand the political dynamics that connect the 1980s to the election of Trump.
AH: One of the reasons to write about Stuart Hall is that he was one of the greatest theorists of identity that I know of. In Policing the Crisis and several essays that were published in Marxism Today, he provides an analysis of this moment starting in ’79 but preceding ’79 in the sense that he’s talking about how the Sixties and Seventies represented what he called a crisis of hegemony. There was in fact an economic crisis, but there was also the crisis of the putting into question of cultural values by the counterculture. And there was a crisis of the existing political system and existing political parties, in the sense that the Labour Party, for example, had been in power for much of the Seventies and was supposed to be representative of the working class. It found itself tasked with managing a capitalist state that was in crisis, and so it had to be the one to impose austerity on the working class it was supposed to represent: it had to curtail autonomous working class action and so on. This was a crisis of hegemony in a thoroughgoing sense, and it meant there had to be a new ruling-class strategy of governance. That new ruling class strategy Hall identified as authoritarian populism, pioneered by Margaret Thatcher and for us in the U.S. taken up by Ronald Reagan.
Authoritarian populism meant taking the ideas of neoliberalism which come from these Austrian liberals, figures like Hayek and Von Mises who were not popular cultural figures in the U.K., but taking their ideas and stitching them together with an idea of English nationhood and traditional family values. We have our own equivalents here in the U.S. So authoritarian populism was what made it possible politically, within the structure of a democratic society that still operates on the basis of popular consent.
JM: I think that’s absolutely right, and what people sometimes fail to appreciate, is that authoritarian populism becomes particularly potent as a political strategy when the left-liberal state is actually in power, because then you can blame everything on the state, and it’s stuck in this position where it’s supposed to be defending its pledged constituencies but in actual fact it has to serve and manage the interests of capital. I’ve always thought one of the most obvious examples of this is Barack Obama’s coming to power in 2008, with all of this rhetoric and all of this excitement and energy on the left-liberal side behind him, and what is the absolute first thing that he has to do and that he immediately delves into? Propping up the banks and supporting the capitalist structure, which produces an enormous amount of dissatisfaction and anger, rage that is ultimately capitalized upon by right-wing populists. You can see a line there running through the last decade right up to Trump.
AH: It’s a peculiar thing that on the left: there doesn’t seem to be an understanding that people have very good reasons to be skeptical of the government; and that articulating the message that everybody should have health care, everybody should have housing, everybody should have education—that there’s no need to articulate these in terms of an expansion of the government or of preserving the power of government, because we know that the people and politicians who claim to be against government, they believe nothing of the kind, they’re fully in support of expanding the surveillance state, expanding the prison system, expanding policing. No politician is actually in favor of a smaller government, but there’s only one side which is actually tapping into popular discontent with the government, and that’s the right.
JM: It seems to me that the strategies that have been adopted since 1980 are on the one hand multicultural liberalism and on the other hand authoritarian populism, that these are the options that we’re presented with. This is the full menu in the contemporary West: Would you like multicultural liberalism or would you like authoritarian populism? It strikes me that Hall would say both multicultural liberalism and authoritarian populism are actually flip sides of the same coin, of the same ruling-class strategy. That basically what they’re for is allowing what are essentially superficial concessions to the masses, the bread and circus of cultural theater, while allowing capital an ever-firmer grip, deflecting politics from the issue of our relationship to the mode of production. Would you agree with that?
AH: I do agree with that, and I think that it’s borne out if you look just at the symbolic position of the U.S. President, the fact of alternation between Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama—this is like a flipping back and forth between multicultural liberalism and authoritarian populism, and it’s been a fairly continuous regime throughout all of this.
JM: You talk about this in a chapter called “Passing,” where you describe the clashes between Philip Roth and Amiri Baraka, but also the uproar around Rachel Dolezal. For you, the Dolezal thing really gets at the heart of these flare-ups in the culture wars. I want to read a little paragraph, and then if you could explain a bit what your view is:
For first-generation college students, who feel the daily ambivalence of leaving behind their neighborhoods in favor of upward mobility, or faculty who hide their class positions behind their skin tones, identity politics appears as a particular introjection of white guilt. Passing, in this sense, is a universal condition. We are all Rachel Dolezal. The infinite regress of “checking your privilege” will eventually unmask everyone as inauthentic. No wonder then, that we are so deeply disturbed by passing. It reveals too much to us about identity, it is the dirty secret of the equation of identity with politics.
What are you getting at here?
AH: Usually people skip that first sentence you read, which is an interesting omission. The idea is something that I felt in a lot of political situations where people take positions of rigid authenticity or try to present themselves as highly authentic, because when people of color do this, when they try to present themselves as the most authentic in a political context, it’s because they’re experiencing white guilt. That’s my provocative proposal. Because of course the authenticity is contrived. It is being articulated in a context [like a college or university campus] when people are really departing from this site at which that kind of authentic identity could be located. If you’re rising away from your community and the conditions that you now claim to be central to your identity, there’s that kind of psychic guilt about that abandonment that makes it all the more urgent to claim a rigid and foundational authenticity. In that context, the case of Dolezal was especially revealing, because she represented that performance at its greatest extreme. She did not come from a black background herself, but she claimed to have that identity in order to participate in politics, to take a particular political position, to participate in a particular political performance. Her case reveals that a performance of authenticity is demanded of us. But since it’s always constructed, somehow fictive, there’s always some way to for it to be exposed as inauthentic, whether it’s the fact that we left our community, whether it’s the fact that we don’t practice a particular religious belief or whatever, we can be exposed.
JM: How do we get out of the dead ends of this kind of problem and these kinds of politics which lead us in directions that are unproductive or that will ultimately only serve to show our limitations and our internal contradictions? You propose at the end of the book this concept of “insurgent universality”—what is insurgent universality and how does it work? What’s “insurgent” about it?
AH: It’s insurgent because it’s something that springs forth, it surges up. Instead of a universalism which is based on the idea that everybody has natural rights, everybody is the same abstract kind of person and we all enjoy these particular rights, it says that universality is only brought into being when there’s a break with the normal order of things, when those who are excluded and marginalized and subordinated, express their own agency. It happens in a specific place and time, and with specific people, but that doesn’t mean it’s reducible to whoever it is that enunciates it. That’s the paradoxical character of insurgent universality, that it comes out of a specific circumstance and announces a principle that applies to all, a principle that says nobody should be oppressed. I borrowed the term from my friend Massimiliano Tomba who has a book with that title coming out soon, and I very much recommend it.
JM: What you would say to someone who says, okay, let’s say that I accept that’s the goal and that’s how I want things to be and the way we want the structure of our emancipation to work. But from a pragmatic standpoint, politics is going to be about some form of prioritization. An order in which things are going to happen, who’s going to get what, when, and why. I would put it to you that we sometimes struggle with a problem on the left that runs something like this: maybe at the heart of leftism, or leftist politics let’s say, is a notion of wanting things for others, or maybe the capital-O Other; and at the heart of a right-wing or rightist politics is wanting things for oneself. Maybe not just oneself, but one’s tribe, or one’s ethnos, or one sense of belonging however defined. The counter of a leftist is first to get things for others, and in the process of doing that, we will get what we want as well. Does your concept of insurgent universality account for the necessary pragmatics of doing politics, of choosing something or someone first? Is politics possible without some kind of prioritization scheme?
AH: To that question, I can certainly say no. In politics, even a thoroughgoing revolution happens in a sequence, in which one thing happens before another. We didn’t get time to talk about intersectionality and its own specific historical origins and that’s a complex issue, but the way that intersectionality is used now in organizing scenarios around college campuses is something which is basically unrelated to what [Kimberlé] Crenshaw meant by the term, which is the idea that in every political situation or even in every political utterance, you must list every form of oppression or every marginalized group. That’s not possible, first of all, and second that’s not even how politics works. There will always be priorities or strategies, or there will be a particular sequence of goals and actions. But I don’t think this means that insurgent universality isn’t generated in the particular moments in this sequence—it’s something that comes out of specific times and places and from specific people who have specific demands. Slaves who want to be free. There are particular cases that we could talk about of slave rebellions throughout history, and even though each one responds to that specific situation, the principle that they produce is that no one should be enslaved. So I think insurgent universality still remains the active principle, even once we’ve acknowledged the fact that politically there will be sequences, there will be priorities.
In terms of a prioritizing of self or other, I’ll just bring it back to the point you suggested earlier, which is that we have to bring this conception of the self into question. When people say “America First,” they may not actually be putting themselves first, because their conception of the self is based on a construction from a category of nationhood which may not even align with their own conscious desires!
JM: Let alone interests.
AH: Exactly. So I think that when we put that concept of selfhood into question, that opposition may cease to exist.
JM: Speaking of another way of thinking about priorities, on the left there’s often this running debate about organizing versus theorizing. You’re the founding editor of Viewpoint magazine. I was wondering if you could talk about how that came about, why you chose to build Viewpoint and how you see its mission and how it’s going.
AH: I founded Viewpoint along with Salar Mohandesi during the Occupy movement. You point to an opposition some people feel between theory and practice. Well, we simply refuse to recognize that there’s such an opposition from the outset. We always wanted to combine very intensive theoretical work with participant-observer reporting on the political activity that was happening at that time. So these were juxtaposed on the website from the beginning, and we thought that that juxtaposition would resonate with other people in Occupy, and thinking about strategic and tactical questions for which we had no immediately available answers. For us at Viewpoint it was immediately relevant to look over the history of radical movements in which these questions had been addressed before. How do you take a spontaneous movement which seems to rise and fall almost randomly, and bring it together into a kind of continuous sequence? How do you take various open-ended assemblies and meetings, and turn them into an organization that can last? I think that it’s important to recognize—when one engages in political practice, to have those moments of self-reflection, which can show both that there are assumptions and presuppositions that are determining the way we act now, and second that there are unanswered questions which we have to think about and engage in study about in order to answer.
JM: That brings us to the present and the future. You end your book by saying, “Our world is in dire need of a new insurgent universality. We are capable of producing it, we all are by definition. What we lack is program, strategy, and tactics. If we set the consolations of identity aside, that discussion of identity can begin.” It seems like we lack pretty much everything! It sounds like we might be in a bad place—do you think we’re in a bad place? When you look at the landscape of the left today, how do you see it? We could talk about the DSA, these insurgent candidates challenging the old machinery of the Democratic Party, I’m thinking especially of Ocasio-Cortez right here in New York. And one specific question: Do we need to break the Democratic Party?
AH: Yes. [laughs] I think the hope of getting anything better out of the Democratic Party is futile. It doesn’t mean that I dismiss the insurgencies within the Party, figures like Ocasio-Cortez or Sanders or whatever, because I think that this raises a question which is being debated within the DSA and other left organizations, about how to relate to electoral politics when you have a program of radical change which goes against the very reasons for having political parties. Can you participate in electoral politics when you have a vision of fundamentally transforming the structure of society, can you accept society’s means of making political decisions and choosing political representatives? The answer to those questions is no, plain and simple. This is not something that I can see a reasonable debate about.
However, participating in elections can still be useful as long as you don’t confine yourself to an understanding in which politics has been reduced to electoral contestation, to the selection of representatives and so on. Engaging in the practice of what the German Social Democratic Party called “speaking through the window,” is something that can be very valuable. I think that many of the debates about electoral politics would benefit from viewing it from this strategic and tactical standpoint, rather than from the abstract one, which asks whether electoral politics is valuable, full stop. It’s not a question that’s useful to answer in the abstract. Bernie Sanders reached a very large population that otherwise would not have been political, and I think Ocasio-Cortez may do the same thing. Those are valuable things to do and the important thing is to remember that unless electoral politics is accompanied by a politics at the grassroots level, it will be absorbed into the existing practices of politics. That’s something that we’ve seen happen throughout history. If there’s some kind of zero-sum question about whether to participate in electoral politics or to do other forms of organizing, that’s a dead end. Each has to be approached strategically and thought through at that level.
JM: Final question then. Insurgent universality sounds in many ways like a return to leftist ideas that we’ve already had, that are within the tradition. In other words, it doesn’t strike me as a fundamental departure. In a lot of other ways, your book seems to go back, whether it’s to Combahee River Collective, or to Kimberlé Crenshaw, or to Allen and Ignatiev, to these resources of leftist thinking in the past. Is the implication of this that a 21st-century left isn’t really about innovating some kind of new theoretical structure, some new set of ideas, but rather returning to old leftist ideas that have simply been either poorly understood, poorly implemented, co-opted in some fashion. And related to that I suppose, it sounds to me like you’re holding out for that radical insurgent hope and force. Where will we find it? Where is the grassroots? I ask this as someone who wasn’t that deeply involved, but very much supported the Black Lives Matter movement for instance—but BLM is basically a very moderate platform. Its demands are really fundamentally reformist, that basic protections be afforded, things that should already be in place. Even the way of phrasing it, Black Lives Matter, seems an extremely modest goal, not so much a revolutionary oppositional one. It’s a far cry, in some sense, from Black Power, which seems to potentially have a far more contestatory implication. Your answer doesn’t have to be framed within black politics as such, but where do you see this grassroots revolutionary energy coming from within the U.S. context? And finally, is your program about going back to an old left the right way, or do you think we need to innovate some fundamentally new intellectual furniture for the left for the 21st century?
AH: I think that in terms of grassroots revolutionary opening, right now I don’t see it. But I think it’s been hinted at in the various upsurges that we’ve had. I saw hints of it in Occupy and I saw hints of it in Black Lives Matter. I think that those movements—you described it as a modest agenda—but the potential existed for something very transformative, which would have been in the case of Black Lives Matter an opposition to the very structures—policing, criminal justice system, the prison system—which targeted their racist character, but also their form of dominating the population, and could extend to what we see now with the detaining of immigrants and the separation of families. Any political program becomes more and more revolutionary as it accumulates more groups and more demands. That’s very contrary to an essentialist, foundationalist conception of a movement, which says it should be restricted to whatever group initially brought it into being.
Now in terms of theory, there’s no truly original theory. The theorists I refer to are constantly referring back to Marx or to Mao or whoever. I think that every breakthrough—to refer to another Newton, Isaac Newton—is made by standing on the shoulders of giants. That’s very much how theoretical work takes place, and a theory that is adequate for the contemporary left is going to come not just out of theoretical work, but also from the practical political work that right now we can only glimpse in the distance. It’s only just beginning. And as we see organizations grow and different kinds of initiatives take place, thought will be generated from that. Though it won’t be a fundamental break from what came before, it will be new.