Class, Identity, and a New Hegemony — Rafael Khachaturian

Asad Haider’s recent book Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump has reignited a longstanding debate on the left about the relationship between social class and identity politics. [1] Melissa Naschek’s review in Jacobin, “The Identity Mistake”, saw Haider’s book as shunning the need for a universal mass movement based on material working-class demands, in favour of a particularism and emphasis on difference that asserts the importance of “identity politics” even while decrying them in their liberal form. [2] In his response, Haider has suggested that this is a return to economic determinism, and instead maintained the need for an “insurgent universality” that may emerge from a specific struggle–one that could be a response to economic oppression, albeit in a mediated way–but that challenges the entire structure of social oppression by drawing upon universal principles of emancipation and autonomy. [3]

This exchange has again traced fault lines along which contemporary discussions of identity and class diverge. Beyond these historical and theoretical debates looms a strategic and tactical question for the present. In the context of the race-class relationship, it is whether the struggle for a more expansive and non-exclusionary welfare state, exceeding the heyday of the American New Deal regime or the European social-national state, is the best way to rectify the racial injustices that arise from the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and mass displacement and migration. To put it formulaically, should today’s nascent socialist movement accept “We Can’t ‘Do Both'” and instead push for universal “non-reformist reforms” that seek to address racial oppression through broad movements for such rights as healthcare and housing? Or given the exclusionary character of social provisions in liberal-democratic and communist states alike, does our moment call for a more insurgent politics grounded in the self-determined needs and demands of marginalized communities?

This is not a question that can be answered in advance. Much of it will be decided by the given context and organizational opportunities that present themselves–and because politics always exceeds our typologies and plans, it will almost certainly involve elements of both. But it is also worth seeing whether certain discrepancies and commonalities might provide some clues for thinking about class and race simultaneously as sites of struggle. Rather than treating one or the other of these categories as ontologically prior and extrapolating a political program from it, or simply grafting contemporary left-liberal identity politics onto a call for greater social provisions, the strategic challenge is to bring forth a new politics that taps into the overlapping points between them as part of a general struggle for a universal and egalitarian order.

For one, it is clear that identity must play some role in the formation of a socialist, anti-capitalist coalition. Capitalist societies are made up of heterogeneous elements, combining overlapping divisions based on racial, class, gender, and status distinctions, the boundaries of which are constantly renegotiated and are also further complicated by distinctions in space and time. Per Haider, liberal identity politics cannot be the basis of a new anti-capitalist, revolutionary movement, since this framework structures individuals into specific subject positions, as recipients and bearers of legal recognition and of rights granted by the state, in this manner defusing their political agency. Given these social and institutional limits, what new kind of identity can possibly emerge? As Etienne Balibar observed, “every concept of politics implies a concept of the subject”–but this subject is not a social given, nor is it universal. [4] Politics is the process of forging this new political subject, however temporary and time-bound, through organization and praxis.

Taking the contemporary United States as our example, how do we generate such a subject today? Naschek writes that “[s]ocialist politics, rather than being a summation made up of movements of movements, requires a cohesive bloc in society fighting to gain control of crucial resources in the hands of its enemies. Historically, the only political movements that have successfully created such a force are ones that emphasized shared economic demands based on one’s location in the capitalist class structure.” [5] She is right that a (semi-)cohesive bloc is absolutely necessary, and can be forged through a political program that emphasizes popular measures like housing, education, debt relief, and healthcare. At the same time, the universality of this platform cannot be assumed to derive from the capitalist class structure in a linear way. Shared material demands, even as universal needs for food and shelter, do not directly imply a common political subjectivity, since they do not rule out internal marginalization and exclusion based upon race, legal status, and gender and sexuality. Capitalism is not an economic system. It is a social relation, and its class structure has always been enmeshed in these divisions, with many (but not all) working toward its reproduction.

Related to this is the issue of a “summation” of movements. A summation is an aggregate of identities that are liable to fall apart at any moment, precisely because they are grounded in situated rights-bearing subjects and so remain indebted to the framework of liberal identity politics. But we should not contrast this to a simplistic, pre-political understanding of class rooted in objective structures, which has its own limitations today in the popular fetishization of the “white working class”. Instead, as Gabriel Winant has argued, today’s new working-class formation is a multifaceted process driven by “feminization, racial diversification, and increasing precarity: care work, immigrant work, low-wage work, and the gig economy”, and further overdetermined by structural forces such as costs of housing, education, and healthcare, policing and incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, and ecological crisis. [6]

Under these ongoing conditions of the division of labor, increasing precarity, and the racialization and gendering of socially reproductive work, a new hegemony must be built by acknowledging the reality of these plural identities. This is an opportunity to construct a multi-tendency, hegemonic bloc centering on the call for anti-capitalism, working-class solidarity, and non-domination. By emphasizing these aspects, we could begin to outline a transformative vision based on the fusion of existing identities into a new, common political program. Not a summation of movements, then, but an articulation–one that takes identities not as a pre-political given but as historically fluid, and in this case based on a shared opposition to capitalism and the many forms of domination it enables.

One last point has to do with the question of political power and the state in relation to aspiring hegemonic social movements. The opposition between mass movements and elite politics is central to Haider’s argument. [7] Relatedly, he finds traces of “insurgent universality” in “lines of struggle that lie outside the boundaries of the state”. [8] On this understanding, insurgent universality is anti-statist in its premises and vision. But encountering and engaging with the state in some capacity is unavoidable, since it provides the underlying unity and stability for the reproduction of capitalist social relations. This calls for a three-level approach: a general theory of the capitalist state, an intermediate theory of the state in our current social and historical context, and an ongoing rethinking of our politics in the present conjuncture.

Haider acknowledges that his book primarily tries to orient us to the latter. His key examples of the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panther Party were movements deeply grounded in the particular circumstances of the 1970s, which we might take inspiration from but cannot merely emulate today. Insurgent universality points us to a long-term goal of emancipation that we may someday reach, but, as Haider suggests, we lack a corresponding program, strategy, and tactics.

This makes it all the more important to develop a mid-range vision of the dynamics of political power in present-day liberal-democratic states. This is doubly complicated by the fact that the modern liberal-capitalist state is an uneven and internally contradictory political terrain, one that historically has been able to absorb democratizing movements and working-class struggles within its framework. Göran Therborn observed long ago that “bourgeois democracy has always and everywhere been established in struggle against (hegemonic fractions of) the bourgeoisie, but through political means and channels provided for by the capitalist state”. [9] Historically, these channels were political representation, expressed via universal suffrage, and the expansion of individual rights and social protections to previously excluded populations. State recognition of marginalized groups has not only been in the form of the passive reception of rights, but also the winning of them through concerted political action by mass social movements. These rights were mainstays of the postwar social-democratic order. While they are not sufficient for the broader project of societal emancipation, no such project can be complete without retaining and building on their legacy.

Today a new movement aspiring to hegemony should operate through a multifaceted approach that both seeks to influence the state from the inside, in its representative institutions, and exert pressure on it from the outside through the cultivation of popular struggles. Making claims on the state and framing them in the name of the democratization of democracy–a universal demand from which no groups can rightly be excluded–can press it to either meet this demand, which opens the door to further substantial transformations of the state and the social relations it reinforces, or expose its inability to do so, encouraging further mobilization and contestation. Such claims can be framed as non-reformist reforms, provided that they are seen as stepping-stones toward a broader social transformation and not confused for it. A combination of electoral initiatives and social struggles can feed off each other, allowing such a movement to gain momentum by strategically leveraging power within state institutions while also building a base outside it. The distinction between elites and movements, a perpetual problem for the history of the left, is here less important than the ability to hold together a multi-tendency movement and a dynamic strategy advanced under the banner of anti-capitalism, working-class solidarity, and non-domination.

Balancing these demands will not be easy, and it may well prove impossible. But it is the best chance to find an answer to our current dilemma in politics rather than theory. Capitalism is a social system that reinforces both class and identity-based oppressions in the image of its own needs and pathologies. Class is not only an objective and fundamental social category, but an everyday experience that is lived in different contexts and with different effects. As Nikhil Pal Singh has recently put it, class struggles are also “classification struggles over how we posit the most meaningful and consequential social divisions”. [10] Likewise, racism and sexism are not simply psychological biases or prejudices, but material structures reinforced through concrete and repeating social practices. The new socialism has an opportunity to draw on these distinct but overlapping experiences, integrating them into a common framework for challenging the structures of social domination in the multiple forms it takes, and in the process transforming them from injured subjects to democratic agents. In that sense, our question should not be whether class or identity is primary, but instead what strategic and organizing opportunities the articulation of class and identity into a unity under contemporary capitalism may afford us.

[1] Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (London: Verso, 2018).

[2] Melissa Naschek, “The Identity Mistake”, Jacobin (28 August 2018), available at

[3] Asad Haider, “Zombie Manifesto”, Verso blog (1 September 2018), available at

[4] Etienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, trans. Christine Jones, James Swenson, and Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2002 [1997]), 13.

[5] Naschek, “Identity Mistake”.

[6] Gabriel Winant, “The New Working Class”, Dissent (27 June 2017), available at

[7] Daniel Denvir, “Mistaking Identity Politics: A Conversation with Asad Haider (Part I)”, Verso blog (14 August 2018), available at

[8] Haider, Mistaken Identity, 102.

[9] Göran Therborn, “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy”, 103 (1977) New Left Review 3, at 35.

[10] See

Rafael Khachaturian is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy.