Identity politics has critics and proponents everywhere. In the US, the very idea has been blamed for deepening political divisions. Some blame Hillary Clinton's presidential loss on her discussion of identity and inequality in her campaign. Others point out that identity politics are not the preserve of ethnic minorities - white nationalists such as Richard Spencer call themselves "identitarians". Whether class or race is the more important factor in modern politics is a question at the heart of recent history’s most contentious debates. And among groups who should readily find common ground, there is little agreement. In his new book "Mistaken Identity" (Verso) Asad Haider draws on the words and deeds of black revolutionary theorists to argue that identity politics in its modern sense is not synonymous with anti-racism, but instead amounts to the neutralisation of these movements. Here, he discusses his arguments.

Why write about this subject – identity politics – at this particular moment?

We are living through an age of identity politics in numerous senses. One sense is the white male identity politics of Donald Trump, and pop pseudo-intellectuals like Jordan Peterson. This identity politics is a dangerous phenomenon. The alternative presented in the mainstream political discourse is an identity politics which is supposed to represent the interests of minority or marginalised groups, by tracing politics to the foundation of a group identity, generally defined according to abstract categories of race and gender. The problem with this identity politics is that it does not account for intra-group differences, it does not provide a basis for forming coalitions and solidarities across groups, and it reduces politics to gaining recognition rather than transforming the social structure. Given the rise of the extreme right, the stakes of fighting racism and sexism are very high, so I think it is important to criticise the political language which has monopolised these questions, but prevents us from fighting effectively and winning.

Your book describes the origins of identity politics as a radical movement for mass emancipation. Could you expand?

The original presentation of the term was by the black feminist organisation the Combahee River Collective, whose important 1977 statement has now been published, along with illuminating interviews, in the collection How We Get Free, which anyone interested in the question should read. The starting point of this statement was to show how the existing political organisations of the black liberation and feminist movements had been based on exclusionary identities that effaced the intra-group differences I mentioned before. Hierarchies internal to these group identities had made it so that black liberation organisations were led by men, and feminist organisations were led by white women. So asserting their identity as black women meant disrupting these exclusionary identities. The conclusion of the statement was to call for an inclusive revolutionary politics, which became possible when black women organised autonomously. Needless to say, this is not what Democratic Party elites mean when they go on TV and talk about “identity politics.”

How and why have identity politics shifted from this radicalism to something more individualistic?

The problem is that this term, “identity politics,” has been uprooted from the context of people working in grassroots political organisations on concrete, radical projects. Already over the course of the 1970s mass movements were entering into crisis, due to state repression and strategic impasses, and as neoliberal restructuring and the rise of the right changed the political landscape, the Left entered into a state of fragmentation and decomposition. In this context, politics became individualised, and we have never really come to terms with the consequences. Today, gaining representation within the existing power structure seems to be all we can achieve to fight racism; and asserting our individual or group identities to splinter already fragile coalitions seems to be the most radical act. We need to have a more ambitious vision if we are going to make change.

You write that contemporary identity politics is a “neutralisation of movements against racial oppression”. What does this mean?

Too many irreconcilable things have been conflated in the contemporary usage of the term “identity politics”. We are supposed to believe that, for example, the mass movements for racial and economic justice that constituted the civil rights movement, or the anti-capitalist militancy of the Black Panther Party, are somehow in the same category as neoliberal elites who use the language of social justice to discourage policies that would address economic inequality. These elites, who control the supposed left wing of mainstream politics in the United States, claim that addressing economic inequality would not overcome the inequalities of race and gender. They completely obscure the reality that, for example, better wages and union representation in the workplace could help provide protection from sexual harassment by employers, and could help raise the standard of living for a great deal of people of colur. The Fight for 15 campaign, ridiculed by Democratic Party elites, is one example of such an initiative. But because these elites use the language of social justice, their rhetoric is extremely influential in establishing false oppositions between so-called “identity politics” and “class politics.”

So I want to draw a very clear line of demarcation between these historical mass movements, which fundamentally changed American society, and the contemporary appropriation of their legacy by elites who are completely opposed to the kind of broad social transformation that those mass movements were fighting for. The contemporary elite language of identity is an attempt to neutralise the emancipatory potential of those movements. I hope this neutralisation will ultimately be unsuccessful.

Identity politics gets name-checked across the political spectrum. Why do you think it makes people so angry?

We form identities, and our senses of ourselves, as a way of understanding our own experience. It is necessarily a partial understanding, because we can’t have a comprehensive awareness of all the histories and social factors that have gone into constituting our experience. But this sense of self is how we relate to the world, how we form connections with others, how we act in society. So we are very personally attached to our identities.

When we are attacked and oppressed on the basis of particular categories, we often try to affirm those categories as part of our identities, to turn the relation of oppression around, to proudly reclaim whatever term has been used to oppress us. Thus questioning the cohesiveness of that category is very threatening to our sense of self, which has now taken on much more urgency because it is a response to our oppression.

This is in many obvious ways a completely reasonable response. The problem is that it leads us to become attached to categories which are produced by the structure of oppression. While inverting that relation and reclaiming an identity may be a step in coming to consciousness of this structure, actually undermining the structure will also involve undermining the identity. It is not hard to see why people take this personally.

However, if we are able to build new collectivities and new ways of relating each other, perhaps we can begin to be comfortable with the fact, which no sense of self can ever alter, that actually our identities are constantly changing, they are unstable and without any fixed foundation. We might begin to consider this dynamism as something to embrace, rather than reject with anger.

The book incorporates your own experience. How has your own identity informed your understanding of race and identity politics?

I was never able to take my identity as a fixed foundation, though at times I may have tried, because it was always suspended between two countries and cultures, the United States and Pakistan. If I decided between one or the other – assimilation or a return to the source – I would be making a decision to do a kind of self-fashioning, not dissimilar from becoming a goth or a libertarian. It wouldn’t be some kind of natural expression of my essence, it would be a fictive construction.

At the same time, I experienced constant racism growing up in central Pennsylvania, and this made my identity a political problem, which only grew more acute after 9/11. Since I did not feel capable of asserting any stable identity in response – say, by embracing fundamentalist Islam – I instead turned to a study of the problems of racism and imperialism, which is what brought me into contact with the history of black revolutionaries in the US. This convinced me that solidarity across difference was the most important principle in struggling against racism, rather than positing a stable identity as a foundation.

What do you make of "call-out" culture, both in terms of social media denunciation and in activist spaces? Is it useful?

I have always been dismayed when call-outs begin at a political meeting, because it means that the actual project of working for change will be obstructed by a potentially endless process of exposing everyone’s privilege. We are all privileged and corrupted in various ways, and these public performances of trashing and shaming do not address the problem which comes with every coalition, which is that everyone is vulnerable and taking a risk. As the civil rights activist and black feminist Bernice Johnson Reagon said in her speech “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” coalition work is “dangerous.” There are no “safe spaces,” and there’s nowhere you can go where you will just find people who are like you.

People who are reproducing the hierarchies of the existing society in activist spaces – and eventually every single one of us will be guilty of this – should be educated to change their behaviour in a way that builds mutual trust. Otherwise, other people in the group, who are not all white men, will be afraid to speak. When people are at risk of being publicly shamed, and they are afraid of speaking, we miss out on the ideas and contributions they could make. We need all the ideas and contributions we can get.

Social media denunciation is call-out culture on steroids. I am not usually anti-technology, but in this case I believe denunciation is built into the medium, and there is no way to fix it. Because of various features of its format, social media encourages the worst behaviours that people are capable of. My proposed solution is that we all delete our accounts.

Can identity politics, as it is today, return to its radical roots? How?

This is a terminological question, because many of the political ideas proposed by the Combahee River Collective have been taken up and articulated since then with different terminologies. The way “identity politics” has now come to represent such drastically different political practices and beliefs suggests to me that we do not need to be attached to the term. The term now means many things. I think we should carefully study and learn from its history, but also criticise the practices and beliefs which now go under its name. My impression is that it is extremely difficult to prevent the meaning of a word from changing. This is already true of everyday words which are not politically contested. But in this case we are speaking of a political term which has been appropriated by neoliberal elites who control the whole media apparatus and have far greater influence than a left which has been on the defensive for decades. So I have criticised the neoliberal language of identity politics, while remaining open to the possibility that new terms and ideas may arise from the experience of struggle and political practice. Some people want to reclaim the term and, as you say, bring it back to its radical roots. If that project turns out to be successful, all the better.

You conclude by calling for a “new insurgent universality”. What would this look like?

I want to oppose the classical conceptions of universalism, which are based on abstract individuals who are naturally endowed with rights. This conception of universalism is drawn from European modernity, and it was systematic with the violent domination of the non-Western world, the exclusion of women from politics, and the enslavement of vast populations. Furthermore, it establishes a model in which our only access to politics is to passively request protection from the state when our rights have been violated.

As an alternative, I have drawn on Massimiliano Tomba’s conception of “insurgent universality,” which is the title of his excellent forthcoming book. This is a universality which avoids “isms.” It is not based on the natural rights of abstract individuals, but on the insurgencies of concrete people who reject exclusion, domination, and exploitation, with their active agency. Every movement of this kind, though it arises in specific times and places, among specific people with specific demands, brings into being a general principle: that no one should be oppressed.