The politics of identity: Francis Fukuyama

(Trigger warning: this piece may offend political correctness. The Humanist magazine’s editor wouldn’t publish it. It appears instead in the current issue of  Free Inquirya publication living up to its name.)

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man importantly broadened my political perspective. Now he’s written Identity — The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. 

A key concept in The End of History was thymos. Man does not live by bread alone. Thymos is an ancient Greek word referring to a desire for status and dignity; recognition of one’s human worth. It looms large in all matters political. For example, the push for gay marriage was a thymotic quest by gay people. Similarly, the pay equity issue is more about respect than money.

Identity carries this idea forward, as it’s become central to understanding today’s political situation. Fukuyama distinguishes between megalothymos, in aristocratic systems, with dignity accruing to superiority (for a few), and isothymos, the modern democratic concept of equal dignity for all.

But it’s not that simple. “Who am I, really?” is a modern question. It would not have occurred to those in pre-modern societies where identity was totally, immutably fixed by social context. And while who you are outwardly may seem clear enough, your idea of personal identity rooted inside is a more slippery concept.

Fukuyama sees Rousseau (writing in the late 1700s) as seminal here. Rousseau idealized people in the state of nature, with society actually being a corrupting force, an obstacle to the realization of one’s human potential. Rousseau would have said a craving for thymos is something that can only have meaning in a social context yet society actually impedes its achievement, a Catch-22 dooming us to unhappiness. But Fukuyama thinks social existence is of the essence in human life so it’s meaningless to posit its absence. It’s through society that our thymotic cravings play out — and their satisfaction is finally being enabled by modern liberal democracy. (That was the chief point in The End of History.)

Fukuyama spells out his take on today’s evolved concept of identity: the distinction between inner and outer selves; valuation of the inner self above social demands; its dignity resting on moral freedom; in which all human beings share. But then we come to a fork in the road. One path emphasizes individual fulfillment, the other a collective identity. And while the latter, in the guise of overtly collectivist systems like communism has largely proven a dead end, collective identity has lately recrudesced in ethno-nationalism and politicized religion (not only among Muslims, but also American Christians).

One might have expected the 2008 economic crisis, with rising inequality and a stressed working class, to spark a big surge for the populist left. Yet the opposite happened, especially in the U.S., electing Trump, and in Britain’s Brexit (though both were close votes). Fukuyama finds the explanation in how economic motivations are intertwined with identity issues in human behavior. Again, it’s thymos. In particular, immigration is seen on the right as a threat to the nation’s traditional culture, and undermining respect for those identifying with it.

But perhaps the left just hasn’t had a good answer for the economic problems coming to the fore. Fukuyama says the traditional left is now long on rhetoric but short on actual workable policies. The essence of its project — to increase socio-economic equality through state power — having reached its limits.

He also thinks it’s a problem that the principle of universal equal recognition has mutated into special recognition for particular groups. And those are mainly groups whom less educated working class whites don’t identify or feel solidarity with. Thus the left with its identity politics has actually lost touch with what used to be its own core identity group.

This identity politics also diverts attention from society’s most salient inequality, namely that between educational levels. Which will only grow more acute as technology, the biggest factor behind it, advances. Progressives have little to say about this (and what they do say is often unhelpful — battling school choice and in effect defending an abysmal educational status quo for the underclass you might think they’d champion).

Fukuyama notes the rise of the “self esteem” idea, tying in with that of liberating and dignifying the inner self. And this points to another basic dichotomy: asking society to treat your group the same as others, versus demanding respect for its differentness. The latter, Fukuyama says, has tended to win out. Thus “multiculturalism” and the idea of equal respect for cultures, contrasted with classical liberalism’s equal respect for human beings. Indeed, the left seems willing to sacrifice the latter on the altar of the former. (Some consider FGM or “honor” killings, for example, not wrong but merely culturally different).

Hence Fukuyama sees the idea of common humanity getting submerged in a celebration of differences. As though the black experience cannot be appreciated by whites; the “lived experience” of women is inherently terra incognita to non-women. With the next step being to delegitimize any differing viewpoint. And he deems it ironic that all this valorizes only certain approved identities while actually barring respect for some others: white, Western, Christian — male! — etc.

What a shock that there’s a backlash, a reassertion of such other identities. Fukuyama considers this whole dynamic (with associated censorious political correctness) bad for free reasoned discourse and liberal democracy itself. It’s torn apart when groups within society demonize one another as illegitimate threats to all that’s good and holy. This plays into the bitter partisan tribalism dividing America. Fukuyama says “societies need to protect the marginalized and excluded but they also need to achieve common goals.”

Note that while identity does come from inside oneself, most people actually conceive their identities in relation to other people: binding them with others in their groups, and also vis-a-vis other people whom they may see as not giving their group its due. Again, this centrifugal tendency among groups can unravel a liberal democracy whose organizing concept is groups coexisting, accepting each other’s legitimacy.

That’s a problem within a society. Then there’s nationalism, looking outward. The concern, Fukuyama writes, is not with nationalism per se but with a narrow, ethnically-based, intolerant form that it has widely taken. There’s a better alternative: building national identity around a set of positive values. That’s America’s own story, our identity uniquely grounded not in ethnicity or the like but in the American idea: constitutionalism, rule of law, democratic accountability, and all people being created equal.

Some actually see America as traducing such ideals, epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, a litany of oppression, injustice, and illiberalism. Missing there is any sense of America’s progress in ameliorating and overcoming its defects. Which, for Fukuyama in contrast, is the real story.

And we lift our lamp beside the golden door. That too is integral to our American identity, expressed in our national motto, e pluribus unum. The very fact that diverse people came here from every corner of the globe, to join in the American enterprise, is our crowning glory.

And so immigration doesn’t threaten our national identity — to the contrary, immigrants actually embody it more faithfully than do many native-born Americans who, for all their flag-waving, have lost their own consciousness of the nation’s true ideals and values.

Our identity in those ideals and values is what we must fight for.


3 Responses to “The politics of identity: Francis Fukuyama”

  1. Mr. Tony Muhammad Says:

    Your idea of America does not exist in the civil society of these United States. Simply, because it was not the political intent of the foundation structure of this American project. As outlined and decreed in the founding political construct of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

    I understand your hope and desire that these United States majority populace will one day produce a will and conscience that respects the humanity of each and every citizen’s right to freedom, justice, and equality. But the present ill social racial indicators reveal the true mind of its majority populace. Overwhelmingly tainted with white skin color privileges reinforced with the 500-year-old idea of scientific racism.

    Your idea and Fukuyama’s central theme dismiss and suggest that black/red American people’s experiences and [persistence] struggles in our national history are tolerable human rights crimes against their people’s humanity. And as Americans, all citizens today regardless of race and creed should forget the past horrors inflicted on them and their fore-parents.

    Forget the human inflictions purposedly orchestrated by European=white people? With ill-intent to suppress and destroy their human development and social advancements. Written and endorsed by institutional rules reinforced by domestic laws. Supported by the U.S. Government’s [Federal and States] implementation of domestic policy-making that reinforce the will of the dominant European=white white.

    I ask you why should so-called black and so-called red people forget America’s racist atrocities under the light of your idea of America?

    For the sake of ‘can’t we all get along,’ today. In spite of institutional crimes against selected groups human rights.

    Do any nation-state and its citizen body yesterday and today implore or suggest to the Jewish Holocaust survivors to get over European/Germans attempted genocide of German Jews?

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Where did I write that past wrongs should be forgotten?? What I said should not be forgotten is America’s progress in overcoming those wrongs and working to be better. What is your alternative? Race war?
    But I agree with you that my idealistic idea of America has, during these last few years, gone into the toilet. Whether it’s still possible to resurrect it we’ll know in November.

  3. Steven Strahan Says:

    Whence American solidarity? Waving the flag doesn’t seem to work. Shared values? Sure and let’s see which can be commonly agreed. Likely they can be counted on one hand, but anything would be a start. The atomization of American society has many causes, not least there being powerful forces which profit from it and have no interest in change anytime soon. I really struggle to envision what will allow Americans to discover their common values and hence their common goals. Perhaps it will take an anti-Trump, a leader who can articulate these few, but critical common values and then use the power of the people to overcome those elements which perpetuate this very destructive status quo.

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