Identity Crisis


This review appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
By Francis Fukuyama
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

The phrase “identity politics” gained momentum during the ’60s and was often used as a term of opprobrium referring to parochial interests motivated by the social background or orientation of a particular demographic group. Race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation became powerful vehicles through which the personal became the political. One only needs to think about the African American civil rights movement and the gay rights movement to understand what’s distinctive about identity politics. Both movements sought equal protection before the law for their respective communities, and for their individual members to be treated with dignity and respect. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is a powerful indictment against segregation precisely because it appeals to the same founding American documents and Western philosophical texts that some southerners used to support segregation. Early gay rights activists, too, appealed to founding documents like the Declaration of Independence to argue for individual rights. While it is true that identity politics informed the demands of these two communities, it is also true that both movements, at the time, appealed to a more comprehensive and inclusive national identity. Such an identity helped each movement gain much needed support from a broad swath of America.

Francis Fukuyama’s Identity loosely expounds on this line of thinking by arguing that liberal democracies are healthiest when they foster inclusive national communities, rather than a bunch of narrow identities among the aggrieved. In the end, Fukuyama offers several proposals designed to mitigate the pernicious effects of identity politics while also promoting an inclusive national identity. Encouraging citizens to commit to national service—either in the form of serving in the military or in a civilian capacity—is one such proposal. Ultimately, Fukuyama’s proposals amount to a “healthy nationalism” that is creedal in orientation. His promotion of a creedal American identity seems to account, in part, for his shortsightedness in not addressing existing policies, like affirmative action, that foster an especially pernicious type of identity politics.

Identity consists of a preface and fourteen self-contained chapters, most of which have been published previously in some form or another. Accordingly, there is no coherent argument that gains depth and clarity as one reads from chapter to chapter; rather, the book revolves around themes: the ancient Greek concept of thymos, recognition, dignity, identity, immigration, nationalism, religion, and culture. Fukuyama’s approach to each presupposes that human behavior is motivated by factors other than just the ones commonly espoused by neoclassical economists. The economists argue that human beings are “rational maximizers” always in pursuit of their own preferences and utilities. These preferences tend not to be rationally ordered in terms of a highest good, but are ordered emotively and only rationally pursued. On this view, material incentives are the main sources of human motivation.

Classical Marxists share the free-market economists’ view. The difference is that the Marxists believe classes rather than individuals pursue their economic self-interest. In this dispute, it seems the free-marketeers were right. In Communist China, for example, productivity on collective farms was low because peasants could not keep the surplus of what they produced. When the incentive structure was changed in the 1970s to allow peasants to keep their surplus, output soon doubled. We also see, according to Fukuyama, the role material incentives played in the 2008 financial crisis. Investment bankers were rewarded for risk taking and short-term profits—and that is what they pursued at the expense of stability.

So Fukuyama does not reject economic reasoning entirely. But he argues that the shortsightedness of the materialist view of human motivation is that it “does not satisfactorily explain either the soldier falling on the grenade, or the suicide bomber, or a host of other cases where something other than material self-interest appears to be in play. It is hard to say that we ‘desire’ things that are painful, dangerous, or costly in the same way we desire food or money in the bank.”

In contrast to the materialist model of human motivation, Fukuyama offers a much older account that goes beyond bodily wants and material preferences. Fukuyama appeals to Plato’s discussion of the soul in the Republic and the ancient Greek concept thymos, which is usually translated as spirit. In Book IV, Plato divides the soul into three parts: the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive. Each part of the soul offers a specific type of human motivation. Reason motivates humans to figure things out; appetites motivate humans to satisfy basic desires (food, thirst, sex, etc.); spirit motivates humans to feel a sense of justice and demand rights and recognition. It strives for good repute and victory. Spirit can be characterized in the following way: it is why one feels the competitive drive to distinguish oneself from the run-of-the-mill person, to do and be something noteworthy within the context provided by one’s society and its scheme of values. Spirit encourages pride in oneself and one’s accomplishments, esteem for noteworthy others, and the desire to be esteemed by others and by oneself.

Although academic philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have treated the issue of identity from a historical perspective, Fukuyama’s approach is unique for a social scientist who typically prefers descriptive accounts over prescriptive ones. He juxtaposes the neoclassical or materialist account of human motivation with the ancient Greek conception, and rightly concludes that the ancients recognized that “human beings do not just want things that are external to themselves, such as food, drink, Lamborghinis, or that next hit. They also crave positive judgment about their worth or dignity.” Judgment can come from within or from society’s recognition of a person’s worth. Fukuyama concludes that thymos or spirit is “the seat of today’s identity politics.”

Yet not all individuals or groups desire to be seen as equals among others. Some have a desire to be recognized as superior (megalothymia), while others have a desire only to be recognized as having equal worth (isothymia). In other words, thymos is not expressed equally among all human beings because individuals and groups often feel and act as if their identities are more equal than others’ and should be recognized as such. Not until thymos was coupled with the idea that individuals have an inner and an outer self, and that the inner self “was more valuable than the outer self,” did identity become crucially important.

According to Fukuyama, the disjunction between the true self or one’s identity and the outside world occurred in the West during the Protestant Reformation and was expressed by Martin Luther. As a young man, Luther struggled with not knowing whether he was acceptable to God, and he later came to the realization that the Church and performing works “acted only on the outer person—through confession, penance, alms, and worship of saints—none of which could make a difference,” because grace could only be bestowed by the love of God. Luther came to the belief that man has two natures, a spiritual one and an outer bodily one, and that faith alone can save the inner man, not external works and its preoccupation with man’s bodily nature.

Despite Luther’s belief in the dual nature of man, he was not calling for the true self or identity to be publicly recognized. The demand for public recognition of the inner self begins with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau secularizes the inner self and sets it at odds with society. The dynamic that emerges is a naturally good self with its identity intact in a struggle with the external social forces of a society that demands conformity to its dictates. In Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, people feign qualities and contort themselves to appear to be something they are not and to gain advantage. There are rich and poor, servant and master. Such positions are only possible as people need each other. The property of the rich is insecure, which leads the rich to conceive of the plan of using the weak to defend them. The rich come up with the idea of civil society to protect property. The origin of society, according to Rousseau, is a ruse by the rich. The state is a tool for securing their interests.

Rousseau then wonders if there can be any freedom in society. Perhaps if people were not softened too much by luxury and society, they could accept stern morality and live by reason. They would not be too dependent on each other and not live too much in the thoughts of others. If inequality could be based on real differences within the inner self, rather than conventional differences (the outer self), then perhaps freedom could exist in society. Fukuyama suggests that Rousseau’s fascination with the depravity of existing society and the possibility of a radically different, free way of life ushers in a very modern question: “Who am I?”

The question of identity thus combines three elements. The first element is thymos, the human need for recognition. The second element is the distinction between the inner and the outer self, and the inner self’s antagonistic relationship to society. The third element is the democratization of identity, wherein recognition is due everyone. It was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, according to Fukuyama, who first articulated in The Phenomenology of Spirit and The Philosophy of Right the idea that the inner self is not simply one’s personal reflection but rather that identity and its recognition should have juridical standing.

After having brought his argument up to this point, Fukuyama tries to show the real-world effects of questions of identity on mass movements and policy debates. I deliberately use the word tries because Fukuyama discusses too many disparate cases to make his point. Some cases seem to have only a tenuous connection with identity, while others seem irrelevant.

Nonetheless, Fukuyama discusses the role identity plays in the present and played in the past, both internationally and domestically. Colonialism, for example, equipped an indigenous elite with a European education and a cosmopolitan worldview, but by the middle of the twentieth century, in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, these acquired identities gave rise to inner conflicts with indigenous identities. In the writings of Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and others, the social philosophy of Négritude promoted black pride while also serving as a corrective to colonialism’s devaluation of native cultures and traditions. Islamism should also be seen as the by-product of modernization and identity politics. The movement of millions of Muslims to Western Europe remains problematic, says Fukuyama, especially for second-generation immigrants who are alienated from their parents’ religious tradition but feel themselves to be outsiders in majority-Christian societies. Under such trying circumstances, identity confusion leads Muslims to avoid membership in a nation and to embrace a larger religious group such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, immigration has brought to the fore issues of identity among native Western Europeans, who are increasingly attracted to nationalism and populism.

The United States is not immune to issues of identity. Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency was made possible, in part, by the white working class. Stagnant wages, job loss, and social deterioration were some of the factors that motivated Trump voters. The most important factor, however, was what Fukuyama refers to as the “perception of invisibility.” The perception among these voters is that the loss of their middle-class status is due to an elite that is disdainful of them but supportive and sympathetic toward undeserving minorities and the poor. The perceived loss of status among the working class is not just about economic deprivation; it is mainly about the loss of a historical identity. Nationalists and populists are quite adept at appealing to the inner sense of betrayal felt by core groups within nations.

In the concluding chapter of Identity, Fukuyama asks, “What is to be done?” What can liberal democracies do to reverse the proliferation of self-regarding identity groups defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and politics? Fukuyama’s more interesting proposals encourage the development of (1) broader identities that are integrative and promote mutual respect and dignity among citizens of liberal democracies; and (2) some form of national service that demands more from its citizens in return for protection of citizens’ rights. Such service, says Fukuyama, would be premised on the fact that “citizenship requires commitment and sacrifice to maintain.” In effect, it would be a contemporary form of classical republicanism.

Ultimately, Fukuyama’s proposals amount to an endorsement of a “healthy nationalism.” He does not describe his proposals as such, but a nationalism of this sort would be consistent with Fukuyama’s other proposals as well, especially his concern for the lack of assimilation among immigrants.

In the context of the United States in the twenty-first century, however, the proposals are too weak to address identity politics. The main problem is Fukuyama’s assumption that America is a creedal nation and should therefore promote a creedal identity. According to his way of thinking, Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” was a call to Americans to ground their collective identity in “substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, rule of law, and human equality.” Historically, though, the formation of identity does not begin with ideas. Instead, it begins in a particular geographic location, among a particular culture, and among a particular people. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed convincingly shows that the American identity was formed from a core of English-speaking immigrants that settled across the United States from 1629 to 1775. These immigrants and their British folkways account for the various regional cultures that endure today. Americans no longer have a common ancestry, but we certainly have a common culture that goes beyond mere ideas.

Fukuyama speaks about the need for broader identities that are more integrative than self-regarding identities based on race, gender, or religion. However, he should instead speak about the need for a compelling American narrative that promotes integration more effectively. New immigrants to America, for example, need a narrative that supersedes the old narratives and identities that once defined them in their respective countries. The more positive American narrative would tell a story about the role faith, family, and tradition have and continue to play in the evolution of the country, both politically and culturally.

African Americans, too, would benefit from such a narrative. No longer is it enough to appeal to creedal identity in the way Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement did. As one of the oldest minority groups in America, questions about identity have always been a central feature of African American culture. Unfortunately, given the history of African Americans, expressions of black identity have often been at odds with the formation of a positive American narrative.

I single out African Americans here because Fukuyama singles out the Black Lives Matter movement as helping the United States become “more conscious” of the way it treats minority citizens. His argument is only partly true. The Black Lives Matter movement has also shown that in the absence of a compelling and positive American narrative, identities multiply and grievances mount. Fukuyama is well aware of this issue, so it is surprising and disappointing that he does not include as one of his proposals the elimination of affirmative action. For nearly five decades, affirmative action has encouraged racial balkanization on the part of blacks and whites. Now that affirmative action is no longer justified on the grounds that African American slavery was unique in American history and, thus, should be acknowledged and atoned for through specific policies that benefit African Americans, issues of identity have only grown more fraught. Affirmative action is now justified on diversity grounds, which means all people of color are incentivized to balkanize along racial lines to gain preferential treatment in school admissions and employment. Given all that I have said about Fukuyama’s proposal to promote an inclusive national identity, I am doubtful whether such an identity is viable.

As for Fukuyama’s proposal to implement a national-service requirement to foster a sense of national community, virtue, and public spiritedness, it is an interesting idea. It is true that with the rise of the all-volunteer military force there are very few places or institutions where young people socialize with those who are of a different social class or race, or from a different region of America. When young people do come into contact with one another, it is most likely on a college campus with other middle- and upper-middle-class students. Ultimately, though, the jury is out on whether a national-service requirement would actually promote “virtue and public spiritedness.” The choices Americans make to sort themselves along the lines of class, race, and region seem too powerful to be bridled by such a requirement, however well-intentioned.

Fukuyama has written a thought-provoking book on a timely subject, and he has framed the issue in such a way that it should be accessible to the curious, concerned, and intelligent reader. He also has reminded us that the Western philosophical tradition continues to be a powerful vehicle by which to challenge and reorient our thinking. More important, Fukuyama’s Identity articulates the challenges identity politics presents to liberal democracies, especially to America. The book’s major flaw is that it does not adequately acknowledge that liberal democracies remain strong to the degree that they know which identities not to recognize.

Andre Archie is an associate professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Colorado State University and the author of Politics in Socrates’ Alcibiades: A Philosophical Account of Plato’s Dialogue Alcibiades Major.

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