By Francis Fukuyama
In an ever-changing and complex world, people yearn for meaning. This meaning can be found in the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and how we relate to the world; in short, in our identities.
People want to feel as though they are justly recognised and that their voice can be heard. This desire to experience both personal and collective recognition is inescapable to the modern human condition. But in a time of increasing political polarisation, this quest for recognition has captured the political process. Identity politics has come to the fore and it is proceeding to tear the traditional political consensus to shreds.
In his latest books titled, appropriately enough: “Identity“, Francis Fukuyama argues that identity politics has serious repercussions for the maintenance of liberal democracies. Fukuyama does not condemn identity politics as such, recognising that it is in some way the result of inevitable processes. But he does condemn it’s used to stoke fears of resentment and grievance.
Francis Fukuyama is famed for his book End of History and The Last Man in which he argued that with the fall of communism in 1989 we were moving towards a point in human history that saw the universalisation of liberal democracy as the final form of government. Recent political events seem to cast doubt on such a hypothesis as we see liberal democracies across the world facing a number of challenges from populist leaders on both the right and left. Fukuyama has sought to clarify his position by arguing that he was not literally saying that history has ended, but the history of the idea that socialism would necessarily lead into a communist utopia had. But what cannot be denied is that the liberal democratic states that Fukuyama so vigorously defended in “The End of History” have not responded well to the challenges of pluralism. This book is trying to process what is happening in American society, but also across the world more broadly as people strive for recognition against a backdrop of increasing partisanship and polarisation.
Early in the book Fukuyama seeks to establish that a quest for dignity and recognition is symptomatic of the modern condition. He traces the ways in which modern identity politics has developed by tracing the historical origin of both an individualist sense of identity, expressed through the process of self-actualisation, and the quest for identity amongst collectives of people.
“The French Revolution unleashed what would become two different versions of identity politics across the world, though that term was not used to describe either phenomenon at the time. One stream demanded the recognition of the dignity of individuals, and the other the dignity of collectivities.”
The former can trace it’s origin back to the enlightenment and the latter has been around as long as politics has been practised. But the two are by no means mutually exclusive and we can often hold many, sometimes conflicting, identities at once that we are forced to reconcile with. The individualistic sense of identity comes to the fore during periods of modernisation in which people fled from rural areas into the cities and were confronted with a mass of different languages, religions and cultures and were aware of a sense of the difference between where they were and where they are now. We see the other forms of collective identity come to the fore in the major nationalist movements of the 20th century, but such a notion goes back to the creation of modern nation states. It’s formed in America during the declaration of independence, or in England through the introduction of Protestantism and the establishment of the church of England.
Fukuyama notes the ways in which questions of identity politics have come to be regarded as synonymous with the right. Donald Trump supporters are animated around the removal of Confederate statues and the president’s lack of defence to political correctness is a significant mobilising force on the right. But Fukuyama is also critical of the way in which the left has now become taken over by the identity question.
The problem with the contemporary left is the particular forms of identity that it has increasingly chosen to celebrate. Rather than building solidarity around large collectivities such as the working class or the economically exploited, it has focused on ever smaller groups being marginalized in specific ways
Fukuyama charts the emergence of today’s left identity politics as a product of the uprisings across the world in 1968. Since then, he argues, the left has lost its focus on broader issues around economic equality and has instead placed ever greater focus on the rights of minority groups. When Fukuyama speaks about the left it is unclear who he is speaking about specifically; recent protest movements like Occupy Wall Street showed that the left can still be mobilised around issues of income inequality and wealth concentration. It could be that the ease with which such a movement dissipated shows, however, that Fukuyama thinks that their true allegiances now lie elsewhere.
The shifting agendas of both left and right is a serious concern to Fukuyama who sees this divide of society into smaller and smaller groups as a real danger to peruse any form of collective action. He is certainly right to underscore the threat that identity poses to the very existence of the liberal democracies, of which he has been such a staunch defender for his professional career. When democracies are left so powerless to reconcile different points of view they inevitably reach a point of stasis in which they are unable to act. His solution is to try and restore some sense of national collective identity that can be embedded through national service and a better system for the assimilation of immigrants into nation states. He acknowledges that attempts to create a broader internationalist identity, such as the European Union project, have largely failed because the individual national identities of the national states are too strong. Ultimately the question of fractious identities and their accommodation into modern liberal democracies is a difficult issue.
What Fukuyama perhaps could have emphasised more is the role of economic disruption and uncertainty as a major catalyst for the unleashing of the swath of identity politics that we see at the moment. During times of relative prosperity, it is much easier for people to get along than in times of want. Identities are formed in conjunction with the external forces that shape their grievances which can be cultural, but economic conditions and the structural inequalities built into our global political system has a major role in exacerbating them.
There is reason to believe that we have much more in common than that which divides us. And on that basis, we should be hopeful that there is some way out of this period of acute polarisation represented by the rise of identity politics. But with no easy or accessible remedy at hand, it will take some time to know what the way out of this mess could be.