Francis Fukuyama is one of those authors who are often invoked and far less frequently read. This has to do, at least in part, with the controversy surrounding his first and best known book, The End of History and the Last Man and the National Interest essay that preceded it. Despite the book’s rather pessimistic account of a world of “last men,” living out lives of dreary consumerism at the end of history, and its now seemingly prophetic claim that right-wing discontent would generate the rebirth of the historical movement, Fukuyama is all too frequently attacked as a shill for the status quo. His book has been critiqued by everyone from postmodern theorists and leftists—who attack its claim that liberal capitalism has inevitably triumphed—to neoconservatives like Samuel Huntington, who has claimed that our future will be characterized by a “clash of civilizations.” Fukuyama has continued to publish voluminously since the 1990s, and has even backed away from the strongest formulation of his claims, in books like Our Posthuman Future. But, given the provocative nature of his first major foray into political theorizing, it was perhaps inevitable that he have should returned to some of its major themes in the age of Trump.
Fukuyama’s new book, Identity, is intended as a major analysis of current events by a public intellectual. It is eminently readable and clearly addressed to a broader audience than, say, the doorstopper The Origins of Political Order. The preface reveals why: Fukuyama is deeply concerned about the future of liberal democracy and the threats posed by a Trumpian “politics of resentment.” While the book certainly dives into the deeper reasons behind the emergence of the controversial president, it’s clear that Fukuyama is not a fan of the man:
This book would not have been written had Donald J. Trump not been elected President in November 2016. Like many Americans, I was surprised by this outcome and troubled by its implications for the United States and world. It was the second major electoral surprise of that year, the first being Britain’s vote to leave the European Union the previous June. I have spent much of the last couple decades thinking about the development of modern political institutions: how the state, rule of law, and democratic accountability first came into being, how they evolved and interacted, and finally, how they could decay. Well before Trump’s election, I had written that American institutions were decaying as the state was progressively captured by powerful interest groups and locked into a rigid structure that was unable to reform itself. Trump himself was both the product of and a contributor to that decay.
These are strong and somewhat surprising words from a man who, thirty years early, was often (uncharitably) written off as a rote apologist for an American-led neoliberal order. Fukuyama links Trump to a “broader trend in international politics toward what has been labeled populist nationalism.” In Identity, he attempts to explain why this trend has emerged. While the short book is undertheorized at points, there are some striking claims—particularly about the dangers posed by moneyed interest groups and the need to take economic inequality more seriously.
Identity and a Politics of Recognition
Fukuyama has always been fascinated by Georg Hegel, the nineteenth-century Prussian philosopher famous for his dialectical approach to history and freedom. In particular, Fukuyama emphasizes the relationship between the human need for recognition and the sense of personal and collective dignity we all wish to enjoy. This is best explored in Chapter Two, on the “third part of the soul.” The phrase alludes to a key passage in Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates and his interlocutor Adeimantus divide the human soul into two parts. The first is the desiring part, which seeks to fulfill our most basic needs, such as food and water. The second is the rational part, which tempers the irrational pursuit of desire with calculations about personal utility maximization. This dualistic model of the soul corresponds, according to Fukuyama, to the “modern economic model.” This casts human beings in purely economic terms. But Fukuyama follows Plato in insisting that we have a third part of the soul, which longs for thymos and is concerned with judgments of worth. We crave much more than the satisfaction of our basic needs, in accordance with economic calculations about utility maximization. Human beings also “crave positive judgements about their worth or dignity” on the part of others.
For Fukuyama, this thymotic desire is at the root of identity politics. While many of us fight over economic issues, the primary political struggles involve demands for the recognition of our dignity as members of different groups. Fukuyama points to the LGBT and #MeToo movements as exemplars of this. All these groups are engaged in the kinds of historical struggles described by Hegel, striving for recognition of their dignity, a motive which he regarded as the chief driver of modern politics. As Fukuyama puts it:
Hegel pointed to a fundamental truth about modern politics, that the great passions unleashed by events such as the French Revolution were at base struggles over dignity. The inner self was not just a matter of personal reflection; its freedom was to be embodied in rights and law. The democratic upsurge that would unfurl in the two centuries after the French Revolution was driven by peoples demanding recognition of their political personhood, that they were moral agents capable of sharing in political power.
This is the kind of remarkably broad but undeniably thought-provoking claim one would expect from Fukuyama (and indeed Hegel), who has never shied away from grand narratives. It is striking that the account here is more democratic and perhaps less stridently attached to liberal possessive individualism than Fukuyama’s arguments in The End of History. While that book was reticent about the potential nihilism stemming from self-centered liberal modernity, now Fukuyama seems to be thoroughly on board with the modernist project. This demonstrates a complex drift in his thinking, which becomes clearer towards the end of the book.
The Problem of Identity
For Fukuyama, the past few centuries have witnessed the “democratization of dignity.” In previous, megalothymiatic societies, dignity was enjoyed only by an “elite few,” but now there is a rising belief in “isothymia”—that everyone is “just as good” as everyone else. Drawing on other Hegelian philosophers of recognition, like Charles Taylor, Fukuyama charts the major revolutions in the United States and France through to the Civil Rights movement, to show how dignity moved from belonging to the few to belonging to the many until, in the present day, “each marginalized group had a choice of seeing itself in broader or narrower identity terms. It could demand that society treat its members identically to the way that the dominant groups in society were treated, or it could assert a separate identity for its members and demand respect for them as different from mainstream society.” Democratic societies became characterized by multiculturalism and growing pluralism.
So far this sounds like a sincerely triumphalist narrative, but, in Chapter Eleven, the cracks start to form. The identity politics that characterized the birth of modernity, spearheaded by the left, has had “both advantages and disadvantages.” Fukuyama claims that the “embrace of identity politics was both understandable and necessary” because the lived experiences of different groups and their identities needed to be acknowledged and the various forms of injustice that prohibited them from expressing those identities had to be undermined. However, for Fukuyama, identity politics becomes “problematic only when identity is interpreted or asserted in certain ways.”
First, Fukuyama makes the striking claim that the upper-middle-class form identity politics has assumed—focused on agitation on university campuses and around cultural issues—ignores the impact of growing and “glaring” inequality between the “top 1 percent and the remaining 99.” This invocation of a popular Occupy Wall Street theme is striking. Second, Fukuyama argues that the focus on “newer and more narrowly defined marginalized groups” has diverted attention away from older, larger groups, whose “serious” problems have been ignored. In particular, Fukuyama points to the plight of the white working class and observes that “progressives today have no ambitious strategies for dealing with the potentially immense job losses that will accompany advancing automation, or the income disparities that technology may bring to all Americans.” Third, Fukuyama claims that identity politics has often threatened free speech, especially when the “preoccupation with identity” runs up against the need for dialogue in the public sphere. He goes on to claim that the “focus on lived experience by identity groups valorizes inner selves experienced emotionally, rather than examined rationally.” Finally, Fukuyama claims that the most problematic aspect is that the identity politics of the political left has given rise to identity politics on the political right. Political correctness has generated tremendous backlash from “conservative media,” who claim that leftists, allied to minority groups such as Mexicans, are ruining the country and one is not even allowed to talk about it. This facilitated the emergence of figures like Donald Trump, who spoke on behalf of right-wing identity politics as a warrior against political correctness and opposed the changes to the national, ethnic and racial makeup of the United States.
These challenges have resulted in the emergence of a Trumpist politics of resentment. Previously dominant majorities, who felt that they were relinquishing their rights and dignity to an ever growing variety of groups, were drawn to increasingly xenophobic hucksters. These feelings were compounded by greater economic precarity, which—rather than generating a sense of solidarity with the poor—led many in the middle class to accuse the disadvantaged—such as immigrants in low-paying jobs—of screwing them over. As Fukuyama puts it:
The resentful citizens fearing loss of middle-class status point an accusatory finger upward to the elites, to whom they are invisible, but also downward toward the poor, whom they feel are undeserving and being unfairly favored … Economic distress is often perceived by individuals not as resource deprivation, but as a loss of identity. Hard work should confer dignity on an individual, but that dignity is not recognized—indeed it is condemned, and other people who are not willing to play by the rules are given undue advantages. This link between income and status helps to explain why nationalist or religious conservative groups have been more appealing to many people than traditional left-wing ones based on economic class. The nationalist can translate loss of relative economic position into loss of identity and status; you have always been a core member of our great nation, but foreigners, immigrants, and your own elite compatriots have been conspiring to hold you down; your country is no longer your own, and you are not respected in your own land.
The richness of Fukuyama’s analysis is let down somewhat by his comparatively simplistic solutions. He puts forward two proposals. First, Fukuyama concludes that more emphasis needs to be placed on developing a sense of national identity that is stronger than that promoted by cosmopolitan institutions like the European Union and by the American left. While Fukuyama concedes that diversity is valuable, “diversity cannot be the basis for [national] identity in and of itself.” But then neither can ethnicity—let alone race—both of which entail their own dangers and vulgarities. Fukuyama claims that adopting a shared set of values—a creed—would be a good first step, although insufficient in itself. Immigrants also need to assimilate into the national value system, and the number of immigrants should be restricted. However, Fukuyama also claims that “liberal democracies benefit greatly from immigration, both economically and culturally” and does not specify how strict the assimilation criteria and restrictions should be. He begins to clarify this position by pointing to a number of case studies, such as France and the United States, but the proposal is still frustratingly vague. Second, Fukuyama calls for “ambitious social policies” to help the poor and underprivileged. What these policies should entail is left largely undefined, however. Fukuyama argues that Obama’s Affordable Care Act represented a good first step, but that much more needs to be done. Unfortunately, what further steps should be taken, particularly in countries that already enjoy universal public health coverage but are still dealing with inequality and nationalist populism, is left vague.
Fukuyama’s book is ambitious and eminently readable. He is at his strongest when discussing the relationships between identity, thymotic recognition and dignity. He makes the convincing claim that the emergence of nationalist populism is at least partly the result of strong resentments on the part of the middle classes, whose outrage is misdirected against the poor and marginalized, and who should instead demand structural reforms. The book is at its weakest when discussing what those reforms should look like. The book also fails to discuss the emergence of what I have elsewhere called the “engaged left,” which has developed in opposition to the politics of nationalist resentment. Moreover, Fukuyama spends very little time discussing the issues highlighted in J. A. Smith’s Other People’s Politics (reviewed here), which points out that Sanders, Corbyn and Warren have spent a great deal of time focusing on the economic issues Fukuyama claims the left mostly ignores. It is also strange that he spends so little time examining Marx and Marcuse, whose work could help formulate a left-wing account of dignity and recognition from within the dialectical tradition. Finally, the kind of nationalist social democracy proposed by Fukuyama is neither very attractive nor even necessary. While I largely agree that a shared identity is needed to hold society together, it is not clear why that identity needs to go much beyond a common creed. Fukuyama makes occasional references to my home country, Canada, which is a model of multiculturalism, whose own Prime Minister has denied the need for a national identity, and which is nevertheless not facing a significant right-wing populist uprising. Examples like Canada’s suggest that a unified collective identity can be successfully based on creed, rather than on some thicker conception.
Despite these weaknesses, Identity is worth reading. It is a significant, interesting and sometimes surprising step forward for an ambitious and reflective thinker. I hope Fukuyama follows up this short, popular book with a longer one that outlines his proposals more thoroughly and contrasts them to the growing number of available alternatives.