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"We do not yet know what a social move­ment can do"


Asad Haider is the author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, published earlier this year by Verso. The book aims to explain how the notion of “identity politics,” which was coined by the US-based Combahee River Collective in the late '70s, was transformed from a project of radical multiracial autonomy to an individualistic signifier of fixed racial categories today. In Viewpoint Magazine, Asad Haider has a new article that addresses reactions to the book and argues that the later, simplified notion of identity politics stands as an obstacle to radical mass organizing. Invoking thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman, C. L. R. James, and Lenin, Haider show how “we do not yet know what a social move­ment can do.” Here’s an excerpt:

I would like to take as my point of depar­ture Saidiya Hartman’s refusal of pes­simism and despair. My book Mis­tak­en Iden­ti­ty is about how a term which orig­i­nat­ed at a his­tor­i­cal turn­ing point char­ac­ter­ized by a cri­sis of mass move­ments came to be rad­i­cal­ly trans­formed in a polit­i­cal cli­mate framed by pes­simism and despair. This is a com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry to tell, because when we speak of these affects, it is not always clear whether we are oper­at­ing at the lev­el of the diag­nos­tic or the pre­scrip­tive – or nei­ther or both – and what rela­tion these terms have to what appear to be their oppo­sites, name­ly opti­mism and hope. To imag­ine a “free state” is a ques­tion of his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, but it is also a ques­tion of polit­i­cal action, and thus leads us to prob­lems and prac­tices which are gen­er­al­ly not accord­ed the sta­tus of the­o­ret­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance: con­sti­tut­ing col­lec­tiv­i­ties, con­struct­ing orga­ni­za­tion­al forms, cul­ti­vat­ing agency, and oth­er prac­tices in every­day life which are so often exiled from the polit­i­cal.

This text is a the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion, which has been prompt­ed by ques­tions and dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing my book. It is an inter­weav­ing of med­i­ta­tions on the nar­ra­tion of his­to­ry, ide­ol­o­gy, and the ques­tion of lib­er­a­tion – themes that used to belong to one fab­ric, but which have been torn apart in most con­tem­po­rary dis­cours­es on iden­ti­ty.

Image: Afro-Trinidadian historian and revolutionary C. L. R. James.