The Use and Abuse of ‘Identity’: Samir Gandesha’s Fanonian Critique

Samir Gandesha.jpg

August 24, 2019

By Jeff Shantz

 Through his work with the Institute of the Humanities at Simon Fraser University, Samir Gandesha, Institute Director, has done much to provide opportunities locally for substantial analysis of the current rise of fascist movements and politics, and to discuss ways to confront this rise. On August 17, 2019, Gandesha presented a wide ranging discussion on the nature of identity politics in the current fascist period drawing on insights from Frantz Fanon, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Louis Althusser among others.

The Uncanny Return of Fascism

The historical context today is what Gandesha calls “the uncanny return of fascism.” He rightly notes that the stakes today are quite high. As his talk was happening clashes were underway in Portland, Oregon as antifascists sought to stop a fascist rally organized by the Proud Boys.

Gandesha suggests that today it is difficult even to have the discussion about identity politics and about free speech given the fraught context. He says that his concern is to renovate democratic institutions (which, he notes, are quite broken anyway).

Contemporary fascism, Gandesha points, out, is a militantly anti-democratic response to the multiple crises of capitalism. It uses a mobilization of collective identities and cultural “traditions”—including the mobilization of traditional, patriarchal, authoritarian collective “identities.” Yet fascsists assail the identity politics of those who have been subjected to forms of oppression and marginalization and who seek to mobilize against conditions of inequality and hierarchy.

Identity Politics?

So what is “identity politics?” Gandesha suggests that, in part, it is understanding political commitments from experiences of oppression or the individual’s “subject position,” to use a term from Althusser. Gandesha starts with Althusser’s notion of interpolation. The response when the police officer calls out, “Hey you.” Who turns to answer the “Hey you” and why? It very much depends if a Black or Indigenous person is being hailed by the cops, or if it is a white male. And it matters that it is a cop doing the hailing, not someone else.

Here Gandesha builds up the analysis with reference to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s foundational work on intersectionality. Police violence is represented almost entirely as targeting Black men, not Black women. Gandesha also references positively Natalie Clark’s notion of “Red Intersectionality—feminism situated within Indigenous traditions and concerns.

The Combahee River Collective (1974-1980) significantly connected identity politics and collective liberation politics. They developed a critique of both masculine forms of liberation politics and feminist approaches that overlook race and class. They insisted, and Gandesha takes up, that the liberation for oppressed people must be anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

Gandesha too insists that radical politics must be a politics of fundamental social transformation. Yet, he makes the claim, controversial for some, that identity politics in theory and in practices undermines the approach to a large scale transformation of society. In his view it undermines its own emancipatory aspirations. More than that, Gandesha argues that identity politics creates problems of even having a discussion about having a discussion. He suggests that the guns become turned inward. What results, according to Gandesha, is a closing of critical discussion and debate rather than actual engagement and response.

Identities, he argues, demand recognition. That is a vital aspect of the politics. He points out though that class cannot be understood in the same way. Class is an empirical sociological category. It is a specific form of structural negativity. Class demands its negation not its recognition. As for homelessness—it is not about recognizing an identity—it is about abolishing a structural condition (a negative one). It requires the abolition of class society itself.

Identity politics is based on a reified account of experience, for Gandesha. Claims to “authentic” identity are similar to property claims, he suggests. Identity is carried around and possessed, and this fits with a neoliberal possessive individualism. It is a proprietary relationship with and to identity.

Gandesha wants discussion and debate. He suggests that even where artwork (or argument) fails it could “fail better” and in doing so help us to learn something. Demand for artwork’s destruction (as in the recent case of “Open Casket” which Gandesha references) rules this out—and for all time. Truth becomes based on the identity of the artists—not on the collective response and criticism.

Failed Revolutions

Gandesha notes that conflict and abuse are not the same thing. Here he brings in a reading of anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon and his dynamic understanding of identity. Fanon offers a transnational perspective—not one drawn from US experiences. Gandhesa points out that Fanon hits on exploitation and oppression as intra-racial facts (colonized colonials).

What Theodor Adorno calls the “Unitarian Trick of Authoritarianism” reduces differences within groups and exaggerates differences between groups. Typically reducing class distinctions within identity groups, nationalities, etc.

Gandesha then turns to issues of contemporary fascism. He starts with Walter Benjamin’s famous quote that “Behind every fascism is a failed revolution. Gandesha argues that there is a larger failed revolution here—the bourgeois revolutions of the 1700s that promised a better life but did not deliver. Since there have been several failed revolutions aimed at transforming the failed bourgeois revolutions—responding to unmet promise and disaffection with bourgeois life. Now multiplied in economic and ecological crises.


Gandesha offers a challenging and compelling response to and assessment of identity politics. There is much to debate and develop. He argues that the Left must distinguish itself from Rightist attacks on liberal democracy and this is not about natural hierarchies and identities. Gandesha suggests that the Left must insist on thoroughgoing democratization of social life—for free and autonomous life.

He references the work of Franz Neumann, “Anxiety and Politics” (1957) in calling for a dual offensive on anxiety and for liberty. Education is necessary—not an idealism that excuses assaults on libertarian (in the socialist, not in the US sense) impulses.

The conclusions are a bit lacking. He ends up with a defense of liberal democracy and seeks a response to this. Of course, liberal democracy has been a tool of management and reproduction for capital—the continuation of exploitation and oppression. And appeals to discussion and debate can be abstract and repressive when taken from real world struggles. We do not need to hear from and debate fascists. Rather, it is right to punch Nazis. Neither do we want a world where we have to turn when hailed by cops (we want no cops at all, not better debates with them). They have every opportunity to speak and do not need to be heard. 

*Much thanks to Eva Ureta for insightful conversations about this material and the presentation itself.