In his book, ‘Identity’ Francis Fukuyama traces the historical development of identity in Western culture. His book is an important read for those on the left who seek to understand why many people seemingly vote in ways that do not advance their own economic interests.
Fukuyama says that contemporary free-market economists, and Marxists alike, maintain that history is shaped by individuals or social classes pursuing their economic self-interest or class interests.
While this standard economic model explains a good deal of human behavior, it does not explain why a soldier or suicide bomber throw themselves on a grenade or a host of other cases where something other than material self-interest is at play.
Fukuyama says that there is a part of human nature that craves recognition of dignity- the desire to be recognized on an equal basis with other people. This he calls isothymia. Unfortunately, there is also megathymia- which is the desire to be recognized as superior to others.
While isothymia is universal, the concept of individual identity, as now understood, did not arise in most traditional societies. In pre-industrial societies, most people lived in settled agrarian communities. Strict hierarchies meant that social roles were limited and fixed, one’s religion and beliefs were shared by all, social mobility, or moving out of the village, was virtually impossible. It did not make sense for an individual to brood over identity by asking “Who am I?” There was no valuing of an inner self as an entity separate from the collective village life.
Fukuyama says the modern idea of identity in the West began with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther gave value to the inner individual self over the external social being. He said that human beings have both an inner spiritual being and an outer bodily one. But it was the inner spiritual being that was paramount in Christian renewal. He believed each individual could form a direct relationship with God. There was no need for the (Catholic) Church to mediate individual relationships with God. Individual faith, rather than good works and adherence to Church imposed rules, was the key to salvation.
Fukuyama then traces the further development of the idea of identity through thinkers such as Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Hegel. He refers to the link between human beings exercising moral choice or agency as the basis for recognition of human dignity. The importance of human agency- the choice between right and wrong- exists within all of the Abrahamic religions. Within Christianity, there is free will/moral agency. But it is tainted by Adam and Eve’s original sin. Human beings are born sinners and can only be corrected or saved by faith or adherence to religiously based rules.
Rousseau is important in the development of identity because he reverses Christianity’s traditional assumption about the inherently sinful nature of the inner self of human beings. Rousseau believes the inner nature of human beings to be good. It is society, with its rules and private property, that corrupts people. This raises the possibility that society should change to accommodate the individual’s inner being rather than vice versa. Kant also emphasizes the role of choice in ethics. But he replaces the will and rules of God with universal duties which he says can be determined through reason. Reason and choice are also central to Hegel’s philosophical system. He viewed human societies as becoming freer as they progressed from less to more rational forms.
Fukuyama says that societies that only recognized the dignity of elites were eventually replaced by modern democracies which at least purported to recognize the dignity of everyone. He recognizes that real-world democracies never fully live up to their ideals. Rights are often violated, laws do not apply equally to rich and poor, there is tension between greater freedom and greater equality. And, within democracies, the desire for equal recognition can easily slide into a demand for recognition of a group’s superiority- this is a large part of the story of nationalism, some concepts of national identity and extremist religious ideology. But Fukuyama still adheres to liberal democracy as the optimal socio-political system. The right to elect governments is an important recognition of human dignity, as is the idea that law should apply equally to all.
Fukuyama says that the old class-based left has been in long term decline right around the globe. The global weakness of the left is surprising given the rise of inequality within individual countries over the last three decades. He says that the left has been losing out to nationalists for a least 100 years, especially amongst the poor and working-class constituencies. These constituencies largely lined up behind their national governments, rather than with international socialism, in WWI and thereafter. He says this is because economic issues intertwin with identity issues in determining human behavior. “To be poor is to be invisible to your fellow human beings and the indignity of invisibility is often worse than the lack of resources.” People in this position are very susceptible to stories that make them feel more visible and important because they are part of a great nation or great religion.
Fukuyama says that with the 1960s social movements many people came to think in terms of the dignity of groups of which they were members. Each marginalized group could demand identical treatment to the dominant group or demand respect as being different from mainstream society. For example, Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement emphasized equal treatment. Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam emphasized differences. There were parallels to this within the women’s movement. Multiculturalism is a term that described societies that were diverse. But it is also a label for a political program that sought to value each separate culture equally.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and China’s shift to a market economy, the Marxist left largely collapsed and social democrats largely tried to make peace with capitalism. The left continued to be defined by a passion for equality. But much of its agenda shifted from the earlier emphasis on conditions of the working class to the psychological demands of ever-widening circles of marginalized groups.
Fukuyama points to some positive aspects of identity politics. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the USA has made police departments more conscious of the way they treat minority citizens and the ‘MeToo’ movement has broadened the understanding of sexual assault. But he says that for some progressives, identity politics became a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the thirty-year trend in liberal democracies towards greater socioeconomic inequality. He acknowledges that more extreme forms of political correctness, often associated with identity politics, are mostly the province of small parts of the left. But they are picked up by the conservative media and treated as representative of the left as a whole.
Fukuyama concludes that there is no escaping identity politics. The demand for dignity, which identity politics is based upon, will not disappear. And neither should it. But Fukuyama says identity politics, as increasingly practiced by both left and right, is deeply problematic. It returns to understandings of identity that are based on fixed characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and religion, which had previously been defeated at great cost. This type of identity politics risks fracturing societies leading to greater polarization and extremism.
In order to combat the negative aspects of identity politics, Fukuyama advocates national identity and assimilation based around common values such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, democratic accountability and the principle of recognition of equal dignity of all people. These are the common values around which he thinks societies can unify. Diversity should remain as both a fact of life and something to be valued. But while shared commitment to diversity should form an important part of a nation’s national identity, it cannot be a substitute for it. Diversity alone provides insufficient ‘glue’.
Fukuyama says that national identity developed a bad name because it became historically associated with an exclusive, ethnically based ethnonationalism where people were persecuted for not being part of a majority grouping. But countries with a history of fractured, or weak, national identities are more politically unstable than those with stronger ones. Many countries in the Middle East have a history of fractured or weak national identity. Countries like China and the US have stronger ones. Fukuyama says national identity is important for security, quality of government, facilitating economic development, promoting a wide radius of trust and to maintain strong social safety nets. Safety nets, for example, are more likely to be supported where citizens feel they are part of an extended family linked through the common values national identity provides.
Policies that do the most to shape national identity are rules regarding citizenship and residency, laws on immigration and refugees, and the curricula used in the education system to teach children about the nation’s past. The last chapter of the book discusses what can be done to promote more progressive views on national identity in the conditions that prevail in the USA and the EU. A fundamental problem with the EU is a lack of democratic accountability. Its most powerful institution is the European Commission, an unelected, technocratic body whose main purpose was to promote a single market.
Fukuyama appears to endorse de Tocqueville’s view that, in order to work, democracies require an engaged citizenry- patriotic, informed, active, public-spirited and willing to participate in political matters. In fact, Fukuyama adds “open-minded, tolerant of other viewpoints and ready to compromise for the sake of democratic consensus” to de Tocqueville’s list of citizenship qualities.
Fukuyama has written an interesting history on the development of identity and identity politics. It is a short, highly readable book. It is potentially important to anybody who wants a deeper understanding of why people do not necessarily vote in what progressives would consider their economic interests.
I think Fukuyama is correct in his views that identity politics is linked to something about people wanting their dignity recognized whether as individuals or as part of a group with which they identify. I also think he is correct in asserting that there is no escaping identity politics. In ‘Marx- Identity Politics and Economic Inequality’, I argue that Marxism is ultimately a form of identity politics. While there may be an objective basis to the position people occupy within any system of production, Marx’s whole scenario for revolution is dependent upon the development of revolutionary class consciousness amongst the proletariat. It requires workers to put identity as a class ahead of other identities as a determinant of their political action. Marx himself recognized that nationalism and religion, as well as competition between workers, potentially impedes the development of this consciousness. He thought changes in the material conditions (increased economic inequality) would usher in class consciousness. Fukuyama’s book helps explain why this is not necessarily so.
Fukuyama supports constitutionalism, equality before the law and democratic accountability. Indeed support for these principles is really imperative in any social-democratic, reformist ideology. But Fukuyama does not really come to terms with some of the most obvious problems confronting liberal democracy.
For example, it should be recognized that neither the US nor the Australian constitutions are really democratic. In both cases, democratic principles were sacrificed for so-called ‘state’s rights’.
Although relatively progressive for its time, the US constitution reflects the slave-owning society from which it was spawned. Slaves, of course, could not vote. But to preserve unity and to diffuse differences over slavery, the constitution gave the southern slave-owning states the right to count three-fifths of their slave population when it came to apportioning the number of a state’s representatives to Congress and to the Presidential electoral college.
The USA’s electoral college system is anti-democratic because it means that US citizens do not directly elect the President. And, as occurred with Donald Trump, the person elected President is not necessarily the person who wins the majority popular vote.
These historical accidents are unfortunate and almost impossible to change through referenda because the referenda processes themselves also privilege states’ rights. But perhaps an even bigger threat to the integrity of democratic accountability lies with the very growing socioeconomic equality about which Fukuyama expresses concern. As Robert Reich has written:
“…Most Americans have no influence at all. That’s the conclusion of Professors Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, who analyzed 1,799 policy issues – and found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Instead, American lawmakers respond to the demands of wealthy individuals (typically corporate executives and Wall Street moguls) and of big corporations – those with the most lobbying prowess and deepest pockets to bankroll campaigns.”
One only has to look at the role Clive Palmer’s $80 million spending-spree played in the last federal election to see the threat that big money poses to the integrity of Australian democracy.
I think Fukuyama’s assertion that identity politics has “become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the thirty-year trend in liberal democracies towards greater socioeconomic inequality” is only half right. There is no shortage of policy programs devised by left thinkers for combatting economic inequality. There are dedicated websites promoting such policies like inequality.org, as well as individual economists, like Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and, further to the left, Yanis Varoufakis. Rather the problem lies not with policy prescriptions but with the politics. The first political obstacle lies in promoting these policies in a way that appeals to the electorate sufficient to win government. If this problem is overcome, and government is achieved, the second problem lies with implementing the policies in the face of capital flight, disinvestment, or misinformation campaigns, or other restrictions. Think, for example, about the failure of Syriza, the limited success of the Obama administration on health reform and the total failure to achieve a decent minimum wage. Think of the campaign conducted by large corporations against Labor’s mining tax.
Further, there are two very important identities the effect of which Fukuyama does not really consider. Indeed they are not commonly mentioned in discussions about identity politics. Yet they are perhaps the identities which occupy much of the time of large majorities of people.
If you asked somebody to describe the essence of who they are in 100 words what would most people say?
They would probably tell you their age, occupation, their family situation and perhaps their main hobbies or interests outside of work. Then they might add something about their ethnic origin, religion or political beliefs. But for most people family is the most immediate and important identity. It is their number one tribe. Pew surveys rank being a good parent as the most commonly sited top priority.
Most people would not likely describe themselves as a “consumer”. Yet buying things, together with doing things, or thinking things, about family, or love interests, probably occupy far more time in the lives of most people than any other activity apart perhaps from work. This activity certainly occupies more time for most people than engagement or participation in political matters. This is for the simple reason that these activities require less effort or knowledge and because people judge (quite correctly) that they have far more power and influence in decisions about what to buy or who and how to love. Most people put more time and effort into creating or influencing the immediate world around them than in trying to change the bigger world outside their immediate sphere of influence.
Israeli Historian Yuval Harari has described consumerism as the most successful of ideologies. Most Christians fail to emulate Christ. Most Buddhists fail to follow Buddha. Consumerism is the first “religion” in history where the followers actually do what they are asked to do- buy more and more. Hardly anybody is immune. An entire industry exists to spur dissatisfaction and encourage people to buy- advertising. Once individuals internalize the notion that buying things can alleviate dissatisfaction, their spending spurs domestic economic growth. But perhaps even more importantly, a strong consumerist identity is also a means by which potential political engagement is diverted into more passive pursuits.
The de Tocqueville/Fukuyama ideal of a politically active, open-minded, engaged citizenry seems a long way off. But Fukuyama’s book is still a worthwhile read.