“This pattern of growing religious nationalism, violence, disregard for institutions, rampant misinformation, weak and corrupt opposition, we’re seeing all of this all around the globe...Democracies are backsliding and it’s not just me saying this”. In a recent episode of his show, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, the American comedian said that something much deeper is at stake here – and he is not the only one saying this.
American neo-conservative political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, known more popularly for declaring the “end of history” after the fall of the Berlin wall with his 1989 article “The End of History”, also sees this around himself as he writes his most recent book, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. He says that he would have not written this book had Donald Trump, the poster-child of populist nationalism, not been elected the President of the United States in 2016, and that this book is his attempt to explain the rise of the right wing across the globe.
The reversal of liberalism
Fukuyama argues that threats to democracy are emerging from within established democracies themselves as they are giving in to identity politics and being defined in terms of the dissonance between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rule and norms that does not adequately recognise that inner self’s worth. He roots all of the various components of identity politics in the ancient Greek concept of thymos – a human desire for recognition.
Fukuyama argues, “A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity carries far more emotional weight than people simply pursuing their economic advantage.” Minhaj, in talking about the Indian elections, also contemplates whether “India will define itself through inclusion or exclusion”. This is exactly what Fukuyama, who tries to find the basic psychological reason behind identity politics by grounding all of them in the crisis of one’s thymos, does not take account of in his book, and perhaps this is why an analysis of the arguments put forward by this book becomes so crucial and contentious.
Identity, described by The New Yorker as Fukuyama’s effort to “postpone” the end of history, was published just short of 30 years after the aforementioned essay. In fact, he uses the preface to justify that he only meant “end” in the Hegelian-Marxist sense to imply “target” or “objective” and not “termination”. Identity is also deeply rooted within the Hegelian understanding of recognition.
Fukuyama posits that in the mid-2000s, the momentum towards an increasingly open and liberal world began to falter and saw a reversal, particularly after having been hit by two major financial crises – the 2008 Great Recession and the crisis in Europe, first evidenced by the threat of Greek withdrawal from the eurozone (Grexit). This, he argues, led to authoritarian countries like China and Russia becoming more and more confident.
This was followed by a global rise of the right , a process that continues to reveal its folds everyday. Fukuyama says that from his standpoint, “the most disturbing thing was this emergence of populism within established democracies and, in fact, within the two most established democracies – Britain and the United States.”
Motivation and identity groups
Divided into 14 chapters that seek to break down the concepts of identity, dignity, individualism, nationalism, religion and democracy, the book covers the broadest possible strokes of disciplines like evolutionary biology, psychology (though Eurocentric), history, philosophy, political philosophy, feminist critique, and economics, to name a few. While in most cases, this is done in order to circumvent mono-causality, the book still keeps falling into the traps that it was trying to avoid in the first place.
For instance, Identity criticises modern economics for perceiving human beings as units of “rational utility maximisers”. Instead, he argues that human motivation – largely, human “nature”, needs to be accounted for. And yet, even though one of the basic aims of the book is to decipher the psychological reasons behind the rise of identity politics amongst individuals, it fails to see those individuals as complicated people and ends up naming thymos as the root of the reason behind all forms of identity politics.
What puts the reader in further discomfort is that different forms of politics, with different social and historical baggage – feminism, LGBTQI+ rights and homosexual marriage, the Arab Spring and other similar movements, religion-based terror, and Russia feeling systematically discriminated against by the USA – are clubbed together. Fukuyama argues that by the early nineteenth century, the politics of recognition and dignity had reached a fork in the road with the emergence of two kinds of needs – universal recognition of individual identities, and rights that sought to provide citizens with an ever-expanding scope of individual identity, and assertion of collective identities which had two major manifestations: nationalism and politicised religion.
This dual character, he points out, was present in the French Revolution, the Arab Spring and in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. Furthermore, he argues that both nationalism and Islamism or political Islam can be seen as two sides of the same coin, since both are expressions of a hidden or suppressed group identity that seeks public recognition.
The book, easily not one to be shy of offending readers and critics, as has always been the case with Fukuyama, can be read to imply that feminism mostly serves as an interest group composed of “educated females seeking to rise closer to the top of the social hierarchy”. He further contends that it is only matters of dignity that propel feminism. However, it can very easily be argued that his proposition only works one-way – in terms of gender-based income parity, whereas, feminism for one covers a great breadth of issues, with most of them going above and beyond economic parity only.
Narrowing versus broadening
Even as Fukuyama claims that “identity politics has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality”, his issue is not particularly with identity politics in itself. Instead, it is with the politicisation of narrow identities, which he argues are made exclusionary by the concept of “lived experience”.
Stacey Y Abrams’s critique offers an alternative voice to these arguments:
“What Fukuyama laments as ‘fracturing’ is in reality the result of marginalised groups finally overcoming centuries-long efforts to erase them from the American polity – activism that will strengthen democratic rule, not threaten it… Fukuyama and other critics of identity politics contend that broad categories such as economic class contain multitudes and that all attention should focus on wide constructs rather than the substrates of inequality. But such arguments fail to acknowledge that some members of any particular economic class have advantages not enjoyed by others in their cohort... Embracing the distinct histories and identities of groups in a democracy enhances the complexity and capacity of the whole… The marginalised did not create identity politics: their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.”
Abrams, as well as British journalist Mehdi Hasan, the host of Al Jazeera’s Upfront, correctly see through the discrepancies in Fukuyama’s advice to solely focus on broader categories like class, because such a perspective overlooks the complex links between race, gender, economics, and, sometimes, other rubrics like, in the case of India, caste. Other writers like John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck also argue that unlike what Fukuyama offers in terms of locating a deepening fracture in democratic societies since the twentieth century, the history of identity and identity politics goes much further back in the past. Echoing Abrams, they also argue that it is not going to lead to a “state breakdown and, ultimately, failure.”
Fukuyama combines Marxist and Weberian thought to argue that both evolution in thought and broader societal changes contributed to the conditioning of identity in its modern form. However, his arguments take a massively Eurocentric approach, in which he first finds the genesis of modernisation and modern identity in Europe, and then uses examples from Europe to establish his theory. What works against this understanding is that he uses the same theory to put forward a generalised argument.
For instance, he uses the theory of transition from Gemeinschaft (village/rural) to Gesellschaf (town/urban) to argue that Islamism (and Islamist terror) emerges from modernisation and the alienation that it brings. Again, this works at best only for Muslim immigrants in the West. Thinking aloud, if this were to function as a generalised argument, would it work in the context of internal instances of inflicting terror, such as mob-lynching in India? Or does that imply that our definition of terrorism is rather constricted?
The reader is also left bemused by the lack of nuance in statements like: “Trump was the perfect practitioner of the ethics of authenticity that defines our age: he may seem mendacious, malicious, bigoted and unpresidential, but at least he says what he thinks.”
Sharp questions, wild answers
Fukuyama is correct in acknowledging that the most dangerous of the new right wing identities are those related to race. The observation that erstwhile fringe movements like White nationalism have moved to the mainstream also stands true for other countries that are witnessing a rise of the right, such as India. Furthermore, the book, in attempting to explain the rise of the right, also does an expansive job at explaining the problem with the left.
Fukuyama argues that the problem with the contemporary left is that “rather than building solidarity around large collectives such as the working class or the economically exploited, it has focused on ever smaller groups being marginalised in specific ways.” He further argues that the diminished ambitions for large-scale socioeconomic reform converged with the left’s embrace of identity politics and multiculturalism. This, he argues, led to an agenda shift for the left. He propounds that the kind of identity politics which is currently being practised on the left has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right.
However, for a book that sets its argument so deeply into the distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social norms that does not adequately recognise the inner self’s worth, it deals too little with social media – a platform that has so much to do with this kind of behavioural patterns. More immediate questions, such as the way identities will evolve in the age of social media and what Albrechtslund calls “participatory surveillance”, how political stances will be negotiated with power increasingly based on big data, and so on could have been taken into consideration in the discoursing on identity.
Fukuyama says that one of his persistent concerns is to expand the realm of democracy. His contention: “...that the demand for dignity should somehow disappear is neither possible nor desirable”. This is why he argues for the integration of smaller groups into “larger wholes on which trust and citizenship can be built”, ie, the promotion of creedal national identities. In terms of policy-based solution, he argues for the introduction of compulsory introduction of civil or military national service, the European agenda redefining its national identity embodied in citizenship laws, the EU creating a single citizenship, etc.
Besides the fact that these suggestions seem a little too forced, even utopian, the idea of a single form of broader identity poses the threat of erasure of other forms of identity – a process that portends a very smooth slippage into the creation of an oppressive institution – or the politics of exclusion rather than the politics of acceptance and inclusion.
Characteristically, Fukuyama brings forth crucial questions and attempts wild strokes at answering them. What this book presents is a multi-angular thought experiment about one’s identity, but what it lacks is nuance, empathy and an openness towards acceptance of other histories.
Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books.