Race And Class In The Age Of Trump
Transcript January 21, 2020
[edited for clarity]
Laborwave Radio in conversation with Asad Haider, editor of Viewpoint Magazine and author of Mistaken Identity: Race And Class In The Age Of Trump.
What is the relationship between race and class, and which should be the primary focus to address on the level of political organizing? Questions such as these, argues our guest Asad Haider, misses the mark as these views seek to make determinations about the world at the level of conceptual abstractions. Furthermore, he suggests, such questions slide into a muddled debate between advancing either universal or particularist demands, identity politics or class politics, when the reality is that the abolition of white supremacy is by necessity a universal program aligned with the waging of class struggle.
Works referenced and links at the end of the transcript.
“Abstract disputes over race and class, identity politics versus class reductionism, are obstacles. But it’s also an obstacle when we can’t conceive of any other form of human life. We think that higher wages, universal healthcare, and so on are the only possible goals that can be achieved, and that winning elections and working within the existing political structure is the only way we can achieve them. The overall perspective has to be one which says that we can conceive of human life in which people are not dependent on wages for survival. Not only that they should make higher wages, but that we should not have to depend on wages just to live. And that we should be able to control our own lives as members of the human community rather than transferring our power to a minority that defends its position with weapons and prisons. It’s possible I think to conceive of a society beyond that.”
Laborwave: The title of your book is Mistaken Identity, and I was able to listen to a presentation you gave at the Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago where you talked about what happens to debate when people seek to discover the relationship between concepts like race and class, but use these concepts at the level of the abstract. You said that such kinds of conceptual abstractions lead to bad analysis and enters us into fruitless debate. Specifically I recall you mentioned that these debates take on a “geometrical dimension.” What do you mean by that and can you elaborate on this more?
Asad Haider: The important thing is to have some clarity about what we’re doing when we use concepts like race and class. When we use these concepts we’re not talking about discrete objects that already exist fully formed in the world. In the world what we have are very complex structures and multiple factors determining phenomena. Abstractions like race or class are efforts we make to grasp aspects of what’s happening.
If you make an abstraction, like race and class, and try to determine what relationship they have at the level of the abstract, then I think you’re going in the wrong direction. Already in the world they exist as a unitary and complex process. In specific situations and circumstances we’ll see that there’s a relationship between what we conceptually refer to as race and class, and that’s going to be very important for any political analysis and practice. But to try to determine their relation in the abstract is going to lead down many false paths.
When I talk about a geometrical relationship I’m alluding to the idea that we have on the one hand a common language of “intersectionality” and intersecting lines. When the term was proposed it had a very specific usage about situations in courtrooms, when it was advanced by Kimberle Crenshaw. But to say that race and class “intersect” is a very abstract and general claim. I don’t think it actually illuminates the interactions between what we describe as race and class in the world.
On the other hand, this is not a common way of describing it but by illustration, I want to point to another kind of geometrical shape which would be that of the circle. We could say that all points are defined by one central point on the circle. The idea is that there is one unitary and essential cause for everything. Usually this is something you hear from people who identify as Marxists who want to say that class is the ultimate cause of any relationship of domination. I don’t think this is a very good way of understanding Marxism, and it’s not the most constructive way of understanding phenomena where race is crucial, such as the example of racial slavery in the United States all the way up to the continued existence of racial oppression today.
LW: What happens to our political strategies when we use abstractions like this to begin our analysis? Is your concern that the political strategies that we build upon these abstractions lead to things like reactionary politics, Black nationalism which you discuss a lot in your book, or other problems?
AH: We always begin in some sense with abstractions when we use words at all. What we have to do is what Marx characterized as a material analysis by going from the abstract to the concrete. That is adding back the multiple complex factors and phenomena that have generated that abstraction, and arriving at a more complex analysis rather than a more simple one. So if you say that everything can be explained by class you’re going from the concrete to the abstract. When you say we have this concept of class and we need to understand how class actually exists in the world, how it is actually active in the world, then we’re going to add back the complexity and multiplicity of practice.
The problem with that is it doesn’t lend itself readily to slogans and easy conclusions.
LW: It’s not very memeable, right?
AH: It’s not memeable, it’s not easy to tweet, and it doesn’t give you the idea that you can draw conclusions with absolute certainty about your politics, your social analysis, and your practice. Looking from the perspective of Marxism this is the greatest danger, that getting tied up with abstractions and taking them to be the ultimate reality will prevent us from having a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. Such concrete analysis is the precondition for political practice.
LW: At the conference you said, in addition to these problems, that you don’t think race and class should be understood as categories of identity. What did you mean by that?
AH: Words bring a lot of baggage, and they carry a lot of ideological weight. Class is often used to counterpose identity, though sometimes class gets folded in as part of the list of different identities when people talk about “classism” and so on, which is a very different thing from talking about class struggle. But there’s this common assumption that if you’re talking about race and gender you’re talking about identity, so if you’re against identity politics you don’t think that race and gender is important. But I think the word identity is doing a lot of work here, and that there’s some risks when we use that word.
Etymologically identity refers to sameness. If we carry through the history of the term we can say it has something to do with the formation of the self. What is it that makes me who I am in distinction from others, that causes me to be the same over time in different places, and so on. It’s the characteristics that inhere in me. I think if we want to understand a social, structural phenomenon like race we can’t begin with how I see myself, who I perceive myself to be, what I think my characteristics are.
Race is a social phenomenon which is determined independently of me and how I see myself. As a social phenomenon race ascribes certain things in me, inserts me into certain categories, places me in particular material relations, like in the sense that racial slavery was a material relation, and this is what has to be understood if we want to talk about race.
If we start at the level of identity then I think we can’t explain what race is, what it does politically, and why it matters. Far from dismissing race when I criticize identity politics I’m arguing for a more robust and effective understanding of race.
LW: The response I observed at the conference presentation was one where it seemed that people assumed you were saying that experience doesn’t matter, and that experience shouldn’t be considered as a factor when determining political analysis and strategies. How do you respond to that interpretation?
AH: This is a very complex theoretical question, and it’s ultimately a question of ideology as understood in the Marxist theoretical tradition. Experience obviously matters. Experience is something real. I have a particular experience of the way I live in this society, but the way that I make sense of my relationship to the social structure which constitutes me and who I am and how I’m constrained to act – my experience of this is not the same as an understanding.
An understanding of the actual causes that underlie what I experience is something distinct from my experience. That doesn’t mean my experience isn’t real. It is real, it is caused by these material factors, but it’s not the same as an explanation of them. What that means is that explanations of these material phenomena and relations can’t just be developed out of my experience. It takes a separate process of theoretical production in order to arrive at an understanding.
Experience is going to be obviously the level at which one develops an awareness of political problems. They develop an awareness of forms of oppression they experience, they develop an awareness of exploitation, of how capitalist society affects them, and this is indispensable. We can’t get rid of these ideological moments, but we have to also engage in the theoretical labor that allows us to understand society.
LW: I suppose in my experience in organizing spaces what might grate up against this claim you’re making, or maybe people would hold on to, is the view that experience provides more authority on a subject and more authority to be able to provide political insights into that subject than maybe what your argument suggests. What do you say to that?
AH: I think empirically this is not true. We know that many people, for example, who experience the most classical form of class exploitation don’t have a consciousness of class. This is a major discussion among socialists over how to form class consciousness, do people have class consciousness, etc. Actually, before we even get into identity we can just talk at the level of the category of class consciousness which exists in a certain form of Marxism. I’m very critical of the concept because I don’t think consciousness is adequate to explain when people are able to act as a class and engage in class struggle.
People have consciousnesses of many different kinds. Someone who is a traditional proletarian worker may also have a consciousness informed by nationalist belonging, family roles, and so on. These are things that determine consciousness, and they’re not “false consciousness” because they represent real phenomena. You really are within national borders and do have a family structure which is determined historically. These are not illusions.
LW: It also implies that there’s a “correct” consciousness that’s attainable.
AH: Precisely. I think that the more productive way of conceiving this is not in terms of consciousness but in terms of organization. Do we have a class organization that can actually act and allows people to act? When you have disorganization, then people don’t have this class consciousness that socialists want. If you have organization, then consciousness is an effect. I think organization is prior to consciousness.
When we talk about identity, and people say the experience of a particular kind of oppression gives unique and privileged knowledge of that oppression I think this is not borne out in actual social practice. In many cases, for example at the level of race, there can be an everyday consciousness of race which leads to reactionary nationalisms of the kind you’ve described, or in which various patriarchal forms are reproduced, and in which there’s an individualistic ideal of personal advancement. Experience can also lead those ideas. We can’t distinguish good from bad ideas by appealing to the level of experience.
LW: Continuing with the conversation over ideology, you spend a lot of time in your book discussing how this level of relating to race as an identity category generates what you call “racial ideology.” I’m paraphrasing what you wrote when you argue “racial ideology” is produced by racism, not the other way around.’ Can you elaborate more on this?
AH: Racial ideology, along the lines that I’ve been saying, is the idea that race comes out of the characteristics that inhere in me and who I am perhaps at the level of my experience, but also at the level of what my skin looks like, what my hair is like, and so on. The very strong claim I want to make is that those things are not race. These are arbitrary physical characteristics, which we know from science don’t correspond to anything like a meaningful category of human beings. In fact the genetic variation within so-called races is greater than the average genetic variation between different races.
A rational understanding of the causes of race is one which sees how race is a social phenomenon and construct. We’re familiar with the idea that race is a social construct, but what does that mean? It means that the arbitrary physical characteristics that people carry are categorized according to a social hierarchy and social classification system that emerges historically, and is not just contained in the way people are. That means that you can’t just make general claims about what race is. You have to look at historically specific forms of race and how they are produced.
That’s why in my book I emphasized what Theodore Allen called “the invention of the white race.” Because another consequence of racial ideology is that whiteness is seen as the neutral, universal thing. Everybody else “has a race.”
The idea is that there is a white race which is constructed and brings together various different supposed ethnic categories from Europe is a historical process which takes place starting in 17th century colonialism, and is a complex uneven process for the next centuries. Going beyond racial ideology means understanding these historically specific processes by which race is assigned to people rather than deriving race from the way people look, or act, or talk, or the rest of it.
LW: I appreciate how you highlight how whiteness, under the category of race, disappears. Because when we say “race,” I imagine people are not conjuring up the idea of white people but rather are only thinking of people of color. What you talk about in your book a bit more is how much of a problem racial ideology becomes when we generate concepts like privilege, and how to hold people accountable for particular forms of privilege that they have. What are the problems with the politics of privilege when they’re generated from an understanding of race as an ideology?
AH: What happens is that the behavior of an individual is seen to stand in for an entire social structure. If you get an individual person to behave in some kind of different way then that means undermining white privilege and so on. Well, the way politics works is more complicated.
Obviously if people have backwards practice, which are white chauvinist practices, this is harmful to a political organization. People like that have to be changed and educated. There’s no simple guidebook to determine the means by which they are educated and the processes which are most constructive. If you have a process in which everybody is suddenly afraid to speak because they have some form of privilege in which they might be exposed and so on, this is not a fertile atmosphere for political organizing. The problem is ultimately all of us can be identified as having some form of privilege. Privilege runs all the way down. An atmosphere in which anyone can be denounced is actually a kind of classical atmosphere in the left which has always destroyed us. There’s a very bad history of this. [laughter].
We have to find ways of actually combating white chauvinism. I don’t want to say privilege because privilege doesn’t describe actual actions that are counter-productive. Privilege just describes some sort of status that people have. What really matters is how people act. If we want to change people’s actions we have to find ways of doing that which increases our collective power rather than undermines it.
LW: In your book you describe an experience of organizing at a university space that I think tellingly highlights how privilege politics and racial ideology becomes a serious problem which undermines us. I want to say that it is an incredibly similar experience to ones that I have observed in college politics. Would you be willing to describe briefly what happened in this experience, what were the goals and how was it ultimately destroyed?
AH: I don’t want to get too much into the story because already in the book I go into it and it’s probably more than I should have said anyway. [laughter] But in broad strokes what I can say is that multi-racial organizing efforts were targeted by people who were distinguished not by race but by their politics, and they represented this political antagonism as a racial one rather than a political one.
The movement became divided and many onlookers who weren’t directly involved in the day to day began to view the movement as a racist one, because this propaganda was so effective. As you say it’s a problem that comes up constantly, and it’s coming up now again I think in current organizing efforts from the same place. I think it will take a lot of creativity to figure out how to counter that.
LW: Part of the problem, I think, today in organizing is that it seems so many folks first exposure to political struggle and political thought is through the academy. Particularly through the academy’s creation of services like diversity projects, cultural centers, workshops on unpacking your privilege, and so forth. I think what happens there is that, because the university is a neoliberal structure, and can only conform to at best a kind of mushy liberal politics, those kinds of ideas and understandings of how to unpack your privilege and check it and racial ideology itself is facilitated by people’s coming to politics through academia. Maybe in the past there was more exposure to political struggle outside of academic spaces. I don’t know, it’s just an impression I have, but what do you think about this idea and is it possibly something that’s contributing to the production of racial ideology?
AH: Universities are major sites of privilege with comparison to most of the rest of the world and most of the spaces people occupy during their daily lives. Of course this doesn’t mean there aren’t real struggles within universities over people’s living standards, over the exploitation of people who work there, and so on. But it’s a very specific sector of the society, which is one that is increasingly self-enclosed and cut off from the broader groups that constitute society.
When, for example, organizing efforts are seen to be insufficiently diverse, which is a common complaint, the relevant question to my mind is not first and foremost what is the racial composition of this particular meeting and so on, but the fact that it’s constituted by people who are part of the same general milieu, who already know each other, who are all getting or have gotten a college education. This is a very limited range to have constituting a political group. I think the way to diversify organizing efforts, including at the racial level, is by moving outside of these circles of college students, left-wing techies, and so on that are making up a lot of the contemporary left. How do you go beyond that and reach people living in different neighborhoods and working different kinds of jobs? These are questions I think are not getting posed often enough.
LW: I want to return to class as something which shouldn’t be understood as an identity category. In particular you highlight how within leftist discourse today there are charges leveled against people as being “class reductionist,” which is in many instances a valid charge, and you claim that class reductionism in itself is an identity category. What do you mean by that, and how is class analysis hurt by these forms of reductionism?
AH: Just as I said that race shouldn’t be understood as an identity I don’t think class should be understood as an identity. I don’t want to explain these things as part of our experience but as part of impersonal social structures which shape our experience. Now the sense that class becomes an identity is when a socialist politics becomes about affirming the dignity of labor, of saying that there is this group which is the working class which has a particular set of common interests and a particular way of understanding the world, a kind of class consciousness, and that the mission of socialism is to defend its interests.
This is something that is very distant from Marxism, which had a very great insight in my view. The insight of Marxism was that overcoming the oppression of the working-class meant not affirming the working-class, but working for its abolition. That is the abolition of all classes. If you’re in favor of the abolition of classes this means that a defence of the working class as an identity can only at best be a provisional moment in the formation of a political process. But I think that very often today those who get called class reductionists see the defence of the working class as the ultimate aim, rather than as a possible moment in the unfolding of the process of the abolition of classes.
LW: This insight is very close to me as a labor organizer. What I often witness and observe is rhetoric and slogans around things such as “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” calls for $15 minimum wages, and efforts to create dignity in work that seems very much convinced that the imposition of capitalist work will always continue. I wonder if you feel similarly about anti-racist efforts informed by racial ideology. Maybe racial ideology itself is a fatalistic concession to the idea that racism will always exist, so the best we can do is fight for the affirmation of race rather than its abolition?
AH: It’s an interesting question. If you talk about abolishing race people often take that to mean abolishing different cultures, awareness of affinity with others who share experience, and so on. I think this is derailing the discussion, because such things will certainly always exist and they’re particular forms taken by human communities that are intrinsically valuable and have yielded great achievements of culture that we all benefit from. But the abolition of race as a material structure is certainly in the interest of human emancipation.
Racial ideology, by shifting the discussion from the material relation to individual experience, precisely as you say, turns the struggle against racism into one which is about personal validation and advancement within the existing structures of race. So, I agree with you there.
LW: Do you think it’s a fatalistic worldview?
AH: I think all ideology is a way of understanding the world in which everything always remains essentially the same. That’s the way I would put it.
LW: I want to focus more on how improving analysis can help with our political programs. You have an affinity towards what you call “insurgent universality.” When universalism, perhaps even more than some of the topics we’ve already discussed, is so disparaged on the left today in the postmodern milieu that we swim in, why do you feel that going back to a different kind of universalism is an appropriate political maneuver?
AH: To me it has always been apparent that the struggle against racism is a universalist struggle. That is, that anybody who is interested in the emancipation of all of humanity is opposed to racism and takes up the cause of struggling against racism. I think this is absolutely obvious and intuitive to those who believe in human freedom.
It has taken incredible contortions for the camp called class reductionists to somehow say that the struggle against racism is secondary, or subordinate, or particularistic. Also, from the side of the advocates of identity politics, to say that the struggle against racism is in the particular interests of a community and therefore does not have universal relevance. The way that I would put it now is that what is being lost is the perspective of emancipation itself.
The possibility of the emancipation of all of humanity has been understood in Marxism as the project of a particular class. In Marx’s earliest writings the reason he identifies the class struggle as central and the proletariat as a revolutionary class is because he believes it will liberate all of humanity. It’s not because of something to do with the physiological reality of class as compared to something else.
There’s a way that people have now of talking about materialism, as though materialism says that class is the most fundamental because that’s what has to do with whether you can eat, and can get shelter, and all these obviously material needs – well if you’re thrown out of your home, or you can’t find a place to live, because there’s discrimination on the basis of your race, this is equally material. If people are being forced to labor by being whipped, this is material. That is, I think, a serious theoretical muddle. If you have the perspective of emancipation you are opposed to all forms of domination, and the social analysis that you do has to be from that perspective.
If you take this perspective then a particularistic struggle is not going to be adequate. But any struggle can be particularistic. A class struggle at one given workplace is a particular struggle, it’s not inherently universal. If there’s a socialist case that struggling for higher wages in one particular workplace is universal, I think this is not convincing on the face of it. This struggle is in a particular context and advances a particular demand. All demands are always particular. The universalism comes if they are part of a project for universal emancipation. Here the distinctions between class and race are taking us back to that level of abstraction that illuminates nothing.
LW: It seems that you are contrasting this understanding of universalism with some of the ways it has been taken up in the United Nations and legal documents that pose a universalism as an abstraction. Like a universalism that highlights some values which are inalienable and endemic to all humans and so forth. So how is universalism in the way you’re using it distinct from those other forms of universalism that most folks are probably more familiar with?
AH: The idea is that the universal is not something that already exists. Even when you look at, for example, the classical declarations of universal rights, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in the French Revolution, it’s a declaration which says that these rights are natural and eternal and exist across history, across geographical boundaries, and apply to all humans as a result of their nature. And yet they had to be brought into being through a revolution. They had to be proclaimed, and then they have to be proclaimed over and over again even though they are supposedly natural. Even certain articles of these declarations say these rights have to be revised and updated and future generations will have to update them.
Universal categories have to be brought into being. The idea that they are somehow insurgent represents this. That the universal is not what already exists, the universal is brought into being when existing forms of exclusion and domination are opposed and put into question is when you have something that’s universal.
LW: As we move toward wrapping up this conversation, I was wondering what have been the key forms of feedback you’ve received from your work on race and class in your book? Particularly I’m interested in critiques to give you an opportunity to address some of the misunderstandings you’ve encountered.
AH: Well you should prompt me on the misunderstandings. What do you think have been the common misunderstandings? [laugher]
LW: Well I don’t know. I know that in your book you mention that you often get written down as a white socialist that is a class reductionist. I’m certain that’s one. But are there other forms of feedback that you’d like to correct?
AH: I was frequently called a white socialist for the first half of the year after the book was published. Then suddenly a review of my book appeared which was from a class reductionist vantage point which saw me as insufficiently class reductionist. I don’t subscribe to class reductionism so this was an accurate criticism.
The review, which was the only review I responded to, was so polemical in an unnecessary way. It was not tactically sound to write a review of a Marxist critique of identity politics and claim that it was too soft on identity politics. It just didn’t look good. A lot of people I think got upset about it. So that changed the discussion a lot. Now for a whole group of people I was associated with identity politics and became an advocate of identity politics. [laughter]
Since then the debate, which – I can’t say I’m totally up to date with the way it’s being discussed, but a lot of it is very confusing. I think in some cases it’s based on people not reading the book, but responding to the various positions taken on social media or in other reviews. But you might know better than me what there is to respond to or what there is to clarify.
LW: On an anecdotal level I haven’t gotten a ton of critical feedback on the book, and I think it’s similar to what you’re saying in that I can’t get people to read it or engage in the content of the book. Maybe that’s something to talk about. What is happening within, maybe it’s not even accurate to describe it as within the leftist disciouse, but in general discourse today where content and the actual substance of an argument are often not even paid attention to, but instead what happens is debate at the level of threads online, or just arguments that are more of an interpersonal nature? Is this another expression of identity politics undermining the left and our prospects today?
AH: Many features of identity politics as I discuss it in my book correspond to this, and maybe it’s part of a larger trend or set of trends – the personalization of political positions, and the way experience becomes an important category. One of the problems with that is if politics is equated with personal experience then frequently political disagreements take the form of attacking another person. When fighting out disputes by attacking another person is done online, or social media in real time constantly throughout the day in a back and forth in which people aren’t stopping to check their sources, or to even take a deep breath and think about what they’re saying… [laughter] Politics just totally gets shut down by this. I don’t think it’s so important for people to read my book. I think though that those who comment on it would be advised to read it first. It would be better.
The book I think became a screen on which different factions projected their positions or how they wanted to represent their adversaries. I think it would be more interesting to have a discussion on the substantive issues. Because I wrote a short book, and there are many interesting discussions and debates to have about these topics beyond what is contained in the book. Maybe people are raising them, but I don’t know.
LW: As we conclude, is there anything you want to highlight as a final word on the matter?
AH: What I think is most pressing right now is to combat this climate that we were just discussing, which in a recent article I describe as “depoliticization,” in which the performance of political positions, personalized disputes, and so on are taking the place of politics. I think along the lines of what earlier we were talking about in terms of insurgent universality, politics is when a new possibility is created which puts the existing world into question. This is why revolutions are examples of politics.
What we need today is not to have a debate over race versus class, or even reform versus revolution, in a way that guarantees a politics in some kind of story about history or a story about human nature. Or based on the idea that models from a century ago can just be copied and pasted into the present. We need real politics, which is the creation of something new. And we need an emancipatory politics – a politics which is about liberating all of humanity.
I think within the left there are abstract disputes over race and class, identity politics over class reductionism, and so on, that are obstacles. But it’s also an obstacle, and we got into this a little bit with the general topic of ideology, it’s also an obstacle when we can’t conceive of any other form of human life. That we think that higher wages, universal healthcare, and so on are the only possible goals that can be achieved. And that winning elections and working within the existing political structure is the only way that we can achieve them. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be struggles for universal healthcare, or it’d be bad that some politician is elected who introduces a life-saving reform. These are good things if they happen. How to make them happen is a complicated question.
The overall perspective has to be one which says that we can conceive of human life in which people are not dependent on wages for survival. Not only that they should make higher wages but that we should not have to depend on wages in order just to live. We should be able to control our own lives as members of a human community, rather than transferring our power to a minority that defends its position with weapons and prisons. It’s possible I think to conceive of a society beyond that.
To say another world is possible is maybe in some ways premature, because we don’t know that the powers exists that can bring another world into being. We don’t have that organization and don’t have that struggle at this stage. But to say that it’s possible to conceive of a different form of human life, I think, is a necessary perspective to have an emancipatory politics.
Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump
Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color