Haider is also a critic of identity politics, but with a crucial difference: he knows the history of the term and is working from within the tradition that produced it. As he explains, the idea has radical roots. It originated with the Combahee River Collective, an organisation of black lesbian feminist socialists in Boston who published a landmark statement in 1977: “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
This is the original demand of identity politics, and it’s one that Haider embraces: for a revolutionary practice rooted in people’s identities as racialised, sexed, gendered and classed individuals who face interlocking systems of oppression. These systems have to be fought together, by organising people of different identities in what Haider calls “a project of universal emancipation” devoted to dismantling all of the structures that make them unfree, including and especially capitalism itself.
But if anticapitalist revolution is where identity politics began, it has since become something quite different, and is now invoked by certain liberals and leftists to serve distinctly non-revolutionary ends, Haider argues. It involves members of marginalised groups demanding inclusion, recognition, or restitution from above – a seat at the table. These demands are made in response to very real injuries endured by those groups. But their method, he says, ends up strengthening the structures that produced those injuries in the first place.
Drawing on Wendy Brown’s idea of “wounded attachments”, Haider contends that identity politics causes people to become invested in their marginalisation as a source of identity, and to continuously enact that identity as a form of politics. This approach can extract occasional concessions from the system but cannot build the power necessary to transform it.
Building that power will require forging a “new insurgent universality”, Haider believes. This doesn’t mean pretending that everyone is the same. It doesn’t mean elevating one identity – that of the white male worker, say – above all others. Rather, the universality that Haider wants is built from below. It is “created and recreated in the act of insurgency”, as people come together to combat the common enemy lurking behind their particular oppressions. Freedom for ourselves – whoever “we” are – is inseparable from freedom for everyone. If emancipation is always self-emancipation, self-emancipation is always a collective endeavour.