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Francis Fukuyama & the Perils of Identity

Peter Benson critiques a liberal but nationalistic brand of identity politics.

The American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama is still best known for his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. It was written in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Those events, he contended, constituted the triumph of liberalism, democracy, and capitalism over the alternative social model provided by communist totalitarianism. “For a very large part of the world,” he wrote, “there is now no ideology with pretensions to universality that is in a position to challenge liberal democracy” (p.45). From today’s perspective, this triumph seems a good deal less definitive. Various forms of totalitarianism remain alive and well: in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. And the rise of populist politicians in the West has placed strains on the continuance of recognizable liberal democracy. Fukuyama’s latest book, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition (2018), was written as a reaction to the unexpected election of Donald Trump. Like many people, Fukuyama feels troubled by the fact that a liberal democratic society could elect as its leader a man so notably opposed to liberal values and often openly contemptuous of democratic processes. How could this happen? What does it tell us about our world?

Curiously enough, Trump had already been mentioned briefly in The End of History (on p.328). At that time, he was merely a well-known tycoon in the building trade, and Fukuyama referred to him as a representative example of driving ambition. Fukuyama’s concern was whether a stable liberal democracy could provide adequate satisfactions for such hugely ambitious people. Clearly, for Trump, the mere acquisition of large amounts of money did not in the end fully gratify his striving for success, which drove him on into the political sphere.

Fukuyama uses the Greek word thymos for this ambitious drive. He takes it to be a universal feature of humanity, to which any possible social order will need to accommodate itself. He derives this idea in part from his interpretation of Plato’s tripartite division of the human soul in Book IV of Republic. According to Plato the three parts are Reason, Desire, and Thymos. This last word unfortunately does not have any very exact English equivalent, but combines notions of drive, ambition, spiritedness, courage, and determination. Fukuyama’s use of the term, however, includes in addition a characteristic not present in Plato’s description, a desire for public recognition. Here Fukuyama blends ideas from Plato with those of Hegel, who is a more central and defining influence on Fukuyama’s thought. The desire for recognition by another is the central motivation propelling the dialectic of the master and bondsman in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), and so propelling history itself, and it underpins many aspects of Hegel’s account of history. But Plato’s understanding of thymos did not acknowledge a need for public recognition. It is easy to see this if one thinks of Socrates, presented by Plato as an embodiment of humanity at its best – a role model, as we might say. Far from recognizing and rewarding his qualities, his own society sentenced him to death, for the alleged crime of encouraging the youth of Athens to think for themselves. Socrates’ unruffled acceptance of his condemnation exemplifies thymos in Plato’s sense of the term – courage, steadfastness – whilst displaying a notable indifference to the opinion of others, and a freedom from any craving for their recognition. So Fukuyama is wrong in asserting that “Plato’s thymos is… nothing other than the psychological seat of Hegel’s desire for recognition” (End of History, p.165), concluding that “ thymos typically, but not inevitably, drives men to seek recognition” (p.166). Fukuyama subsequently gives no serious consideration to the human capacity to reject the need for recognition. Instead, he judges that thymos (in his sense) “is the seat of today’s identity politics” (Identity, p.18) – which politics are indeed notable for their insistent demands for recognition.

The History of Identity

Pursuing further his enquiry into the factors that have led to our contemporary notion of personal identity, Fukuyama offers the following account of the relevant historical developments: “The modern concept of identity unites three different perspectives. The first is thymos, a universal aspect of human personality that craves recognition. The second is the distinction between the inner and outer self, and the raising of the moral valuation of the inner self over outer society. This emerged only in early modern Europe [with Luther’s Reformation of Christianity]. The third is an evolving concept of dignity, in which recognition is due not just to a narrow class of people, but to everyone” (Identity, p.37). He then subjects the second of these factors to the same kind of modification he performed on thymos: “In modern times the view has taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable… The inner self is the basis of human dignity… [But] the inner sense of dignity seeks recognition. It is not enough if I have a sense of my own worth if other people do not publicly acknowledge it… Self-esteem arises out of esteem by others” (p.10, my emphasis). If this last statement were true in any significant sense there could never be a fundamental conflict between our inner and outer selves, because our own valuation of our characteristics would always be an internalisation of our evaluation by others. Society, not individuals, would then be the only source of values. Fukuyama concludes, “Because human beings naturally crave recognition, the modern sense of identity evolves quickly into identity politics, in which individuals demand public recognition of their worth” (p.10).

The alleged reasons for the expansion of identity into the political sphere are clarified by the third of Fukuyama’s postulated origins for the modern concept of ‘identity’; the extension of the idea that some people are due recognition from some people, to the idea that all people are due recognition from all people, so that, for example, human rights become applied universally. This is universal legal recognition.

Fukuyama closely follows Hegel in regarding the right to universal recognition as having been announced in principle in the French Revolutionaries’ 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Subsequent history has then been an uneven process of actualizing this project. But Fukuyama also notes a later bifurcation in this demand for universal human rights – a split between the original aim of giving the same rights to every individual and the specific pleas made for the rights of different groups of people. Over time a conflict arises between these two projects. Fukuyama is at his best in elucidating this division.

In the abstract it may not seem obvious that any conflict could arise from such closely-related goals, but in practice the distinction can become very evident. Fukuyama gives an illuminating example from the politics of race in the US from the time of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present day. He comments on p.107, “The early civil rights movement of Dr Martin Luther King Jr simply demanded that American society treat black people the way it treated white people.” Later groups, however, argued that “the authentic inner selves of black Americans were not those of white people, but were shaped by the unique experiences of growing up black in a hostile white society.” In this way, “each marginalized group had a choice… 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 the mainstream society. Over time, the latter strategy tended to win out.” Similar splits emerged from the self-assertion of other ethnic minorities, in feminism, and in the campaign for gay rights.

The ideology of ‘multiculturalism’ arose as a reaction to these demands. About this Fukuyama writes with acute insight:

Multiculturalism was a description of societies that were de facto diverse. But it also became a label for a political program that sought to value each separate culture… equally… While classical liberalism sought to protect the autonomy of equal individuals, the new ideology of multiculturalism promoted equal respect for cultures, even if those cultures abridged the autonomy of the individuals who participated in them.” (p.111, my emphases).

Identity Politics
Identity Politics by Cameron Gray 2020. Please visit parablevisions.com and facebook.com/camerongraytheartist

Identity Today

More generally, ‘Identity Politics’ has become one of the most distinctive features of contemporary political debate. It has displaced more traditional areas of political disagreement, such as over economic policies, and has contributed to a fractious ideological landscape with little sense of consensus. On the Left, a historical concern for the working class has been overtaken by responses to more specific oppressions suffered as a result of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. On the Right, a resurgent sense of national identity has risen in reaction to the globalisation propelled by capitalism.

This is the historical juncture at which we now stand. It has little resemblance to any imagined ‘end of history’. Any thoughts we now have about endings tend to revolve around an approaching climatic apocalypse which will leave all of us in the same sinking boat. Otherwise, unresolvable conflicts between mutually exclusive viewpoints dominate the political landscape. This is how as divisive a figure as Trump could become US President – with the votes almost equally divided for and against him. A similarly almost equal division of views has propelled Britain into Brexit chaos.

In this context Fukuyama understandably feels the need not merely to describe our situation but to ask ‘What is to be Done?’, which is the title of his last chapter. Unfortunately, I find his proposals here both dispiriting and unconvincing. “We cannot get away from identity or identity politics,” he writes (p.163) because “identity builds on the universal human psychology of thymos.” I have already questioned whether thymos in his sense is really as universal as he thinks. He goes on, “But if the logic of identity politics is to divide societies into ever smaller, self-regarding groups, it is also possible to create identities that are broader and more integrative” (pp.165-6).

His major vehicle for integrative identity is nationhood: “We need to promote creedal national identities built around the foundational ideas of modern liberal democracy” (p.166). By ‘creedal’ he means the central values and principles of each particular nation state. So he is promoting nationalism as a cure for the ills of identity politics – one of which ills, by his own admission, is the resurgence of nationalism itself! Those of us who have experienced the various angry phases of current political events may well feel that passionate nationalism is more likely to be divisive rather than unifying. In the book’s final lines Fukuyama concludes: “Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate. That in the end will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present” (p.183). So his suggested cure for the problems of identity would be a higher identity. But which features most characterize a nation (its ‘creedal commitments’) are rarely readily agreed upon by all its citizens. Hence assertions of national identity cause splits even within the nation itself, let alone between that nation and others.

Identity & Ideals

Liberalism is intended to offer an alternative to fractious cultural splits. The characteristic feature of a liberal society has been best expounded by the American philosopher John Rawls, as the ability of people with radically different conceptions of the Good to live together – not in a state of agreement, but without hostility. Thus, the liberal state must remain neutral with respect to these divergent views. (It follows that participation in the civil life of the state cannot be founded on one or more specific identity.)

As Fukuyama recognizes, our democracies can only survive on the basis of this pluralistic liberalism – which current identity politics tend to undermine. Without a pluralistic basis, democracy becomes the tyranny of the majority – with ‘majority’ given a purely mathematical definition electorally. So I am highly sceptical of Fukuyama’s advocacy of a renewed nationalism – which he supplements with a call for compulsory National Service (civil or military) as an aid to integration. This would be a very unlikely policy to be widely accepted in either the US or the UK.

It would seem to me more useful to study the mutations already taking place within our concept of identity, which is itself a far more recent notion than Fukuyama seems to realize. The first use of the word ‘identity’ in this current sense quoted by the Oxford English Dictionary only dates from 2005. This suggests that the concept is not, in fact, as deep rooted in Western thinking as Fukuyama believes, but is a relatively recent mode of self-description, and one which is already beginning to take new forms within the political discourses it has enabled. I am thinking particularly of the formulation “to identify as [a member of a particular group]”. The addition of the simple word ‘as’ shifts identity from a given to a choice. It refers to an identity as willingly assumed rather than imposed from without. This linguistic use has been particularly prominent in recent years among LGBT people. Indeed the ‘T’ of this acronym (for ‘transsexual’) designates people whose bodies might appear to assign them as one gender but who self-identify as another. An even more common designation is LGBT+, the ‘+’ indicating the inclusion of all additional possibilities, either known or yet to be discovered. A few brave souls have already begun to claim that they identify as ‘+’: the opening to unspecified possibilities. Needless to say, this is controversial, and divisions of outlook have formed around whether one thinks of oneself as born with a certain sexuality or as discovering different options. But my concern is with the developments in our terminology that allow possibilities to be envisaged that were previously unimaginable because unnamed.

The Future of Identity

It is a feature of human beings that the way we think about ourselves can change the kind of selves we are.

There is a history to the various concepts that humans have used to describe themselves. This indicates not merely a succession of different theories about human nature, but also a series of different ways that life has been experienced and lived by people. In medieval times, a person might typically have thought of themselves as a pilgrim soul, seeking the path towards their heavenly reward. In the twentieth century, many people sought to balance within themselves the conflicting claims of ego, superego, and id, as propounded in Freud’s picture of humanity (with its obvious echoes of Plato). Our current, indeed very recent notion, is of overlapping identities – of social roles both imposed on us and accepted by us as constitutive of our subjectivity. This is a sociological notion of the self. The concept of ‘social identity’ was introduced into sociological theory in the 1950s. Such a concept lacks any criterion of individuality: for in each of these categories one is by definition a member of a specified group. Hence in this theory our identities are always collective, not individual.

Here we must return to the important historical split Fukuyama discusses between thinking in terms of universal individual rights or in terms of group rights. Universal rights treat every individual as separate and equal. Group rights, on the other hand, treat people as members of specific collectives. The concept of the Universal thus paradoxically becomes closely allied with the notion of the Individual. Group identities, on the other hand, can never generate a sense of universality, because any group is always defined by a barrier separating ‘us’ from ‘them’. To move beyond this viewpoint would be to recognize “There is no us and them, there is only us” , as Ali Smith beautifully puts it in her novel Winter (2017).

The major crises facing the world today, such as global warming, cannot even begin to be tackled unless we take a universal, non-partisan, perspective. Some countries are going to be more severely affected by the changing climate than others, and far sooner. Yet if our automatic assumption is that it will affect others but perhaps not us, our approach will inevitably lack the necessary urgency. For this reason, Fukuyama’s prescription of a renewed sense of national identity is the last thing we need. Almost every political problem in today’s world results from perceived divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ based on group loyalties which are bolstered by modern notions of identity. Only when we stop having identities in the group-defined sense can we return to being individuals.

It was on the idea of humans as separate individuals that liberal political theory was originally established. In our divisive times these are the only acceptable grounds on which liberal democracy, with its many advantages, can stand. The numbing possibilities of totalitarian alternatives, fascist, religious fundamentalist, or ethnic, should alert us to the dangers if this mode of society – apparently so successful until recently – should collapse.

As I’ve suggested, some people are beginning to think of their identities as self-chosen rather than determined by nature or history. This is a sign that the concept of identity as elucidated by Fukuyama, as being defined by society, is already beginning to disintegrate, making space for new ways of thinking about ourselves and our relations to others. Now when someone says, “That’s part of my identity; it’s a central component of my sense of self!” they’re not reporting a fact in the objectively observable sense, but rather giving an interpretation of their life. It’s a historically specific conception of human selfhood. There have been in the past, and will be in the future, alternative ways of thinking about our selves. In Sartre’s existentialism, for example, the central characteristic of human life is freedom, and any of our choices for self-identification could only be pasted over this ineradicable freedom. A fixed or ‘essential’ identity is ruled out by his theory. In Buddhist meditation, an important practice involves detaching oneself from each category of identification we possess (gender, age, race, even being a Buddhist) in order to reach the unencumbered consciousness lying behind all these veils. Maybe if we could do that in our lives, some of our conflicts with others would evaporate. The politics of identity, on the other hand, can only multiply conflicts and divisions.

Finally let us return to the figure of Socrates as the exemplary embodiment of Platonic thymos. What kind of identity did he have? Plato’s dialogues make it clear that it was never Socrates, but rather his interlocutors, who had definite ideas about who they were, what they believed, and where their allegiances lay. Socrates, on the other hand, took on the role of asking questions about their assumed certainties, thereby undermining their complacency. His provocations put their allegiances into flux, and people would feel their senses of identity quivering and becoming insubstantial. This, I would suggest, is the very role that philosophy should still play in contemporary disputes about identity.

© Peter Benson 2020

Peter Benson would prefer not to be defined by such identities as ‘philosophy graduate’; ‘regular contributor to Philosophy Now’; ‘devoted fan of Miley Cyrus’; and other such contingent facts about his life.

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