Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition
Caution defines both the arguments and the style of Francis Fukuyama’s Identity. It is not difficult to surmise why this might be so. Fukuyama, who has a distinguished CV as a political economist and an academic, is most famous for his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, an expansion of a 1989 essay. That essay and the subsequent book developed an argument, influenced by Hegelian philosophical precepts, that the end of the Cold War had made possible an end to political and cultural struggle, with “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. The triumphalism of which Fukuyama was accused is not entirely fair. The essay title, after all, was posed as a question. Yet a rereading of the book is instructive. The blindness to non-European philosophical and political history now seems staggeringly myopic.
I remember at the time that for many people on the left, all of us dealing with the knock-out punch delivered by the collapse of communism, Fukuyama was often derisively labelled a “neoconservative”. That was a largely thoughtless response to an argument that was far more nuanced and anxious about liberalism than the pronouncements and writings of more ideologically driven neoliberal economists and political actors. Fukuyama was not Milton Friedman, and he was certainly no Dick Cheney. But the hubristic folly that led to the West’s involvement in the catastrophic wars in the Middle East also undergirded much of The End of History and the Last Man. The two planes that flew into the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001, and the subsequent tragedy of the destruction of Iraq, seemed to deliberately mock his theory. And in a different sense, but in similarly spectacular fashion, so did the emerging of communist China as a global economic superpower.
So, yes, Fukuyama’s new book is deliberately cautious. The focus again is on the importance of the European Enlightenment in developing universal notions of equality and justice and freedom. Though he has written previously about the danger of utopian thinking to political society, he is a covert idealist. What he doesn’t adequately address is how liberalism as we now know it has no “pure” essence but is forged from the ongoing conflict and compromises between labour and capital, and from the complicated history of nations throwing off the yoke of colonialism. Again, there is scant attention paid to nations and history outside the European and Anglophone world, and I started annotating my copy of the book with questions. Why do some nations develop a social-democratic form of liberalism? Why for others is it more laissez-faire, and for others still a conservative and statist form of democracy? Trying to corral the myriad forms of liberalism into an epochal cosmopolitan and globalised unity, Fukuyama overlooks one of liberalism’s great strengths: its resilient and pragmatic promiscuity.
The main philosophical advance he attempts in Identity is to introduce a concept borrowed from Plato – thymos – to buttress his arguments. Though he has written of this ancient Greek notion before, in this book he makes it central to his analysis. Fukuyama identifies thymos as “the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity”. In its positive guise, isothymia is the demand that one be recognised as the equal of one’s fellow citizen. In megalothymia, the overriding impulse is the desire to be considered superior to others. For Fukuyama, this constant tension between the democratic and authoritarian aspects of thymos – which could also be loosely translated as “will” – explains much of the contemporary distrust of liberal democracy, as well as the global turn towards populism.
I think his speculations on thymos are seductive and interesting, but here again I am wary of the idealism that overdetermines his analysis. He notes the devastating effects of the Great Recession, and he raises inequality as a key issue that modern democracies must address. But he doesn’t explore the relationship between thymos and economic injustice: why the claims for dignity only became a political problem with the advent of the global financial crisis. He remains a classic liberal, committed to the notion that only liberalism can provide both economic wealth and long-term social justice, and that means he is on surer ground when examining the struggles of women and people of colour through the lens of isothymia. He stumbles, however, whenever addressing class. He is never clear, for example, as to when class demands for dignity are just or when they are populist expressions of authoritarian megalothymia. It is understandable that he wishes to defend globalisation and free trade for enabling so much of the world to have emerged from poverty and destitution in the last half century. He is absolutely right to do so. But to put it bluntly, whatever the tensions in nationhood, gender, race and migration that have been simmering under the body politic for much of the democratic world over the last quarter century, it was an economic crisis that brought them to a head. Fukuyama introduces the concept of thymos and then refuses to integrate it into an economic analysis of contemporary liberalism. It is a great failing in the book.
I think he also elides something else that is essential to thymos: that there is always an aspect of fury – a visceral, disruptive indignation – in the demand of that particular assertion of dignity. For Plato, in The Republic and in Phaedrus, thymos was a third component of the human soul, alongside our logic or reasoning and that of our appetites, and it was logic that could control the dangerously eruptive potentials of thymos. The assertion of dignity in the ancient world invariably had a martial component, and the connection between thymos and the warrior caste is even explicit in Plato. Fukuyama nods to this connection but then does nothing with it. He is deeply committed to the rational liberal subject, and so the question of whether rationality should guide our actions, emotions and appetites is moot: of course, the answer is in the affirmative. But in ignoring the tensions between logic and thymos, he loses an opportunity to explore the key factors that unite the contemporary identity politics of both the left and the right: self-righteous rage and wilful irrationality.
In the second half of the book, Fukuyama directly addresses the turmoil in liberal identity politics that on one hand has led to Brexit, the Trump presidency, nationalism and the authoritarian turn in European politics, and on the other to the idiocies of separatism and infantilism that now bedevil progressive politics across the Western world. The usefulness of thymos as a category of investigation for political economy is stretched in these sections, particularly as he is reluctant to incorporate psychology into his analysis, to allow for unconscious or repressed factors that affect our will and our behaviour. He identifies the importance of the Great Recession in fuelling the anxieties of white and European identitarians, but fails to grapple with the ferocity of moral and existential outrage that energises them. The tentativeness of his approach is a real weakness here. He wants this long essay to be analytical rather than polemical, to avoid the anger and hectoring – and the partisanship – that so dominate the writing around identity at this moment. But it isn’t disrespectful to the legacies of the civil rights movement in the United States, for example, or to second-wave feminism or to early gay liberation to try to make sense of the vanity and narcissism that is so central to contemporary hashtag and university-campus politics. Fukuyama notes how working-class politics have been increasingly captured by right-wing populism across the West, but he isn’t prepared to indict the bourgeois self-regard that dominates academic, media and student identity politics. There’s something more than the desire for dignity going on in this constant avowal of trauma and injury as the defining component of activism.
As a result, one reads Identity without ever finding illumination or surprise. The book doesn’t have the urgency and charge of some other recent books on identity, also from the United States. Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, for example, written directly after the 2016 US election, is caustic in criticising contemporary progressive politics for abandoning the working class. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind is also a livelier and more engaging examination of the sociological factors that have led to contemporary identity activists trading freedom for safety. In comparison, Fukuyama’s book seems stolid. He doesn’t investigate what is clearly one of the most confusing and distressing aspects of contemporary politics: how all identity politics is justified in terms of isothymia, the wish for equal regard, but in their proclamations and demands what the identitarians all seek is megalothymia, the desire that the world remake itself in their image.
It is only in the last chapter, “What is to be done?”, that some fire animates his writing. He stresses the need for liberal politics to “create identities that are broader and more integrative” and that “one does not have to deny the potentialities and lived experiences of individuals to recognise that they can also share values and aspirations with much broader circles of citizens”. His suggestions are pragmatic and thoughtful. He defends the notion of the nation-state, and argues cogently that liberals and social democrats shouldn’t abandon the nation to extremists and xenophobes. I think he is acute in criticising left-wing and progressive actors for dealing inadequately with fears and anxieties around migration. He is also persuasive in his argument that forms of national service might be one way to build more cohesive citizenship in democracies. It is a failing of both social democracies and liberal democracies that their proponents have deliberately ignored the alienation, family breakdown and hopelessness – and the underemployment and inequality – that so many young people have experienced in the turmoils of rapidly globalised capitalism. It strikes this reader that, alongside a fully funded and adequately resourced public education sector, forms of mandated civil service are indeed a means to ameliorate this tragic historic oversight.
I finished reading Fukuyama’s book just as the gilets jaunes protests erupted in France. What seemed striking was the incomprehension of the rioters’ demands expressed both in traditional media and on social media. Whatever one’s analysis of what happened on the streets of France, a demand for dignity – for being seen – was part of what led to the protest. That’s the fury that has emboldened #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. It is the same anger, the thymos, that has ignited the rise of nationalism and #whitepride. The questions that were being asked, over and over, were whether the French protestors were left-wing or right-wing: which side were they on?
The symbolic resonance, with 2018 being the fiftieth anniversary of Mai’68, is just too delicious to ignore. In 1968, the student replaced the worker as the subject of history. For a generation or more, left-wing theorists have privileged the university over the workplace, and in doing so their thinking has become increasingly obtuse and disconnected from the lived experiences of the majority. I’m not suggesting a turning back of the clocks, a reinstating of the “noble worker”. But if one of the challenges of liberalism is to argue its case against the identity politics that is seeing people turn increasingly to the simplistic and xenophobic solutions of the far right, an equally important challenge is for it to refute the narrowness and narcissism of a left-wing politics dominated by the concerns and priorities of the student. I don’t want to live in the monocultural and racist world of the right-wing identitarian, but I certainly don’t think that means I have to settle for the victim-obsessed politics that now defines the left: who the fuck wants to live in a twenty-four-hour crèche?
I respect Fukuyama stripping anger and rage from his arguments, but his timidity is self-defeating. He clearly believes that liberalism is central to continuing equality, freedom and justice in the world. He and his fellow liberals should be defending it more rigorously.
February 28 2019Australian Foreign Affairs and La Trobe Asia panel discussion
March 13 2019Australian Identity in a Changing Landscape: A conversation at Cinema Nova
EventAustralian Identity in a Changing Landscape: A conversation at Cinema Nova
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