A mud­dled cri­tique of iden­tity pol­i­tics

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IDEN­TITY:CON­TEM­PO­RARY IDEN­TITY POL­I­TICS AND THE STRUGGLEFORRECOGNITION FRAN­CIS FUKUYAMA Pro­file Books, £16.99

Re­garded as pre­scient in herald­ing the col­lapse of com­mu­nism in 1989 as the “end of his­tory”, Fran­cis Fukuyama has since be­come some­thing of an in­tel­lec­tual piñata.

His the­sis then was that the tri­umph of lib­eral democ­racy, but­tressed by a mar­ket econ­omy, rep­re­sented the “end of his­tory” in the Hegelian sense that other modes of or­gan­is­ing so­ci­ety had been tried, and failed, leav­ing the strong­est stand­ing.

Even­tu­ally he ex­pected that it would be­come ubiq­ui­tous. The Euro­pean Union was hailed as an as­pi­ra­tional model, hav­ing put an end to the con­ti­nent’s cen­turies of in­ternecine con­flict.

So con­vinced was Fukuyama of the su­pe­ri­or­ity of lib­eral democ­racy that, though a Demo­crat, he aligned him­self with the neo­con­ser­va­tive move­ment that pro­vided the in­tel­lec­tual un­der­pin­ning for Ge­orge W Bush’s dis­as­trous in­va­sion of Iraq.

Iden­tity, his lat­est of­fer­ing, was writ­ten for the age of Trump. Ad­dress­ing the zeit­geist at both ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum for “iden­tity pol­i­tics”, par­tic­u­larly in the US but also across Europe, he does a deep-dive into what he sees as one pos­si­ble mor­tal threat to lib­eral demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

Fukuyama notes that “in the United States, iden­tity pol­i­tics has frac­tured the left into a se­ries of iden­tity groups that are home to its most en­er­getic po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists”. Me Too and Black Lives Mat­ter are held up as cases in point.

Echo­ing the crit­i­cisms of oth­ers, he adds that the left has “lost touch with the one iden­tity group that used to be its largest con­stituency, the white work­ing class”.

In fact he high­lights as one of the most acute dan­gers of left-wing iden­tity pol­i­tics the back­lash it can gen­er­ate, con­tribut­ing to the 2016 elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump, for ex­am­ple.

The author draws on a deep reser­voir of po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy to sup­port his claims, oc­ca­sion­ally dip­ping into the lit­er­a­ture from fields as di­verse as psy­chol­ogy, eco­nom­ics and an­thro­pol­ogy. In Iden­tity he reaches back to ground cov­ered in The End of His­tory, and much fur­ther, to Plato’s Repub­lic. He re­calls the dis­cus­sion around three com­po­nents of the hu­man soul: in­nate de­sire, cal­cu­lat­ing rea­son and what he calls thy­mos, the de­mand for dig­nity or recog­ni­tion. Fukuyama fur­ther dis­tin­guishes be­tween isothymia and mega­lothymia – re­spec­tively the de­mands to be re­spected as an equal and as a su­pe­rior. He goes on to ap­ply these con­cepts to iden­tity groups based on race, eth­nic­ity, creed, na­tion, gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and so on.

Fukuyama’s is­sue is not nec­es­sar­ily with iden­tity pol­i­tics per se, since he recog­nises the uni­fy­ing and some­times pos­i­tive force that, for ex­am­ple, a lib­eral strand of na­tion­al­ism can play in bol­ster­ing the le­git­i­macy of demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

Rather, his prob­lem is with the politi­ci­sa­tion of nar­row iden­ti­ties, made ex­clu­sion­ary by their fo­cus on “lived ex­pe­ri­ence”, that is, where mem­bers of the iden­tity group can be le­git­i­mate ad­her­ents to the po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy.

Here, for ex­am­ple, he con­trasts the de­mands for equal­ity of es­teem in­her­ent in the US civil rights move­ment, which fea­tured prom­i­nent white ac­tivists, with the more vir­u­lent and ex­clu­sion­ary ide­olo­gies of the Black Pan­thers and the Na­tion of Is­lam.

Na­tional ser­vice

The author’s think­ing be­comes some­what mud­dled, how­ever. Hav­ing held up the “hash­tag ac­tivism” causes célèbres of the Amer­i­can left as il­lus­tra­tive of a wider malaise, he later notes that they come as a “nat­u­ral and in­evitable re­sponse to in­jus­tice”. He is care­ful not to dele­git­imise cam­paigns to end the sex­ual as­sault of women or the mur­der of black crim­i­nal sus­pects.

He may have a point when he opines that “iden­tity pol­i­tics has be­come a cheap sub­sti­tute for se­ri­ous think­ing about how to re­verse the 30-year trend in most lib­eral democ­ra­cies to­ward greater so­cioe­co­nomic in­equal­ity”. But, these seem­ingly ir­rec­on­cil­able po­si­tions sug­gest a de­gree of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance.

In fact, his so­lu­tion is not to elim­i­nate the politi­ci­sa­tion of iden­tity but to re­frame it in more in­clu­sive terms, con­structed around the norms and val­ues of lib­eral democ­racy it­self. Ad­vo­cat­ing what one might call a “pro­gres­sive pa­tri­o­tism”, he wants our in­ner­most need for recog­ni­tion to be chan­nelled to to­wards an en­light­ened na­tion state.

In terms of pol­icy pre­scrip­tions, Fukuyama does not have much to of­fer beyond, for ex­am­ple, the (re)in­tro­duc­tion of na­tional ser­vice, whether civil or mil­i­tary, and the pro­vi­sion of mean­ing­ful path­ways to cit­i­zen­ship for im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions. He lauds as­sim­i­la­tion over mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, and calls for stronger con­trol of the EU’s ex­ter­nal bor­ders.

Fukuyama is as eru­dite as ever, but man­ages here also to make his writ­ing ac­ces­si­ble and di­gestible. One is left, how­ever, with the feel­ing that this comes at the price of be­ing less in­tel­lec­tu­ally nu­tri­tious than some of his ear­lier work. Iden­tity ul­ti­mately falls short in pro­vid­ing co­her­ent, ac­tion­able an­swers.

Fran­cis Fukuyama: his prob­lem is with the politi­ci­sa­tion of nar­row iden­ti­ties, made ex­clu­sion­ary by their fo­cus on “lived ex­pe­ri­ence”

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