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Book Review: Identity – The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; September 2018; Pages 240.

The book tries to explain the rise of identity politics, and how liberal democracies can rise to the challenge. But inadvertently, author ends up replacing all identities by one single identity, which in itself is an illiberal proposal. Are the foundations of liberal democracies expected to be illiberal?

Francis Fukuyama needs no introduction, being one of the most noted political scientists of the world. He is best known for his argument that with the spread of western liberal democracy, as the form of governance, humanity’s sociocultural evolution has come to an end .

It needs no stressing that the number of authoritarian regimes ruling the world have increased after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In his new book, the author attempts to explain why his original thesis is seemingly falling apart as western liberalism has fallen into what may be termed as a recession.

The author argues that the rise of identity-based politics is the core reason for the retreat of western liberalism, more particularly since the GFC. According to the author, the main reason why liberal democracies are retreating is that they have not been able to solve the problem of thyoms which has two forms isothymos – “the demand to be respected on an equal basis” and megalothymos -” desire to be recognized as superior.” The book primarily targets the first variant.

The author first discusses the origins of identity and outlines how the concept of identity has arisen since the days of Martin Luther – “Identity grows, in the first place, out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that do not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity … Individuals throughout human history have found themselves at odds with their societies. But only in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former. It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.”

Following the introduction, the author discusses how on the culmination of the French Revolution, the concept of identity and dignity became closely intertwined with the Declaration of the Right of Man. Dignity moved from a preserve of aristocratic elites to every member of the nation. As this has happened, each and every human has come to see him/herself as a separate identity demanding its own dignity.

The middle section of the book then discusses at length how the dignity of individuals led to the dignity of collectives and eventually the concept of lived experience which stressed that marginalized groups need to preserve their tradition and culture and the majority/dominant groups need to respect them as it is. Fukuyama correctly identifies several of these reasons – rural to urban migration, stagnation in middle-class earnings, the rise of therapeutic turn in institutions likes school, health, etc. and a shift in what used to define left and right politics.

The author then discusses at length why nation-states are an ideal unit for implementing liberal democracies. Fukuyama identifies nation-states as an ideal unit for governance. He rightly observes that though the origin of most of the nations are based on ethnic-religious lines, in today’s world with ever-increasing immigration and globalization, this is no more tenable. According to him, nations can no more be based on ethnicity and religious creeds, but on adoption of liberal–democratic creedal, where trust between people overcomes ethnic and religious division.

In the end, the author discusses how we can make liberal democracies revive. This is the chapter which I find most baffling. But then this is not a surprise as the book suffers from a weakness common to all alarmist writeups – long on complaints, short on solutions (as solutions are the much harder bit). His view of pursuing liberal democracy as an agenda in itself becomes clear when he writes … “We need to promote creedal national identities built around the foundational ideas of modern liberal democracy and use public policies to deliberately assimilate newcomers to those identities. Liberal democracy has its own culture, which must be held in higher esteem than cultures rejecting democracy’s values.” I wonder if the so-called liberal mindset or nowadays not so happy “liberal globalist” is not a strong identity in itself, something which author tried to dissuade from the start?

The chapter has all sort of solutions like national service, but it gives short strife to the primary challenge of economic current which is promoting the rise of identity politics – rising inequality. Liberal democracies led by the US have preached the benefits of unfettered capitalism for too long. Unbridled capitalism has led to ever increasing wealth concentration, which then grants dignity to those who have it (in ways similar to erstwhile warriors). But while warriors risked their lives, capitalists risk only the capital at hand, which can also be earned back. Furthermore, with intergenerational transfer of capital, social mobility has taken a hit. The book fails to discuss solutions to lopsided taxation rules, restricted redistribution, stagnant wage growth, etc. Social cohesion and trust have been on a decline as an ever-shrinking group keeps benefitting from economic growth and globalization. Cases like Panama leaks don’t inspire any trust in the elites.

In the end, I have a question – if a personal identity is an intrinsic need for individuals as mentioned in the quoted paragraph earlier and the society is expected to change to accommodate individual identify preferences, why does one need “public policies to deliberately assimilate new comes to those identities”.

In other words, how can one identity be superior to other as long we are talking for the choice of identify being personal – that of an individual. If we accept author’s argument of nation-state assimilating all identities, the liberals are becoming illiberal by very design, which is why they get exasperated when a liberal democracy votes for individuals or causes that liberals think that people should not vote for. A worrisome thesis indeed!!! Is it not? The only correct vote can’t be the one that serves one party’s agenda or ideology.

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