We are living in a society in which tastemakers are far more likely to offer hollow cries for justice than they are to recognize artistic endeavors.
Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment presents a portrait of the Enlightenment that is meant to help illuminate our political moment. The problem is that its portrait of the Enlightenment is tendentious and unrecognizable, while its description of our political moment is equally problematic.
Immigration: The Proxy Battle
As Fukuyama understands it, the Left started today’s identity politics, in which each marginalized group asserts “a separate identity for its members” and demands respect “as different from the mainstream society.” The broad scale failure of economic socialism “converged with the Left’s embrace of identity politics and multiculturalism” in the late 1990s. The identity-politics Left criticizes Western civilization as patriarchal, racist, imperialist, and exploitative of the environment. For Fukuyama, the Left’s way of thinking is “understandable and necessary.” It is “natural and inevitable”—and it has “both advantages and drawbacks.” He points to Black Lives Matters and #MeToo as bringing welcome changes in public policy.
The drawbacks he sees in this way of thinking include distracting the Left from a genuine concern for economic inequality; diverting attention from “older and larger” groups left behind in the modern economy; threatening free speech; and “most significant,” a “rise in identity politics on the right” seen in many quarters—Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Brexit, and other movements and personages (David Duke) in whom Fukuyama seems to discern the fetus of fascism. Assertions of white identities are unalloyed bads; they are “illegitimate” and “cannot be placed on the same moral plane as those of minorities” and other groups.
The Left may have started it, but the whites on the Right may end it. Fukuyama seems to think that such fascism is happening here!
The divide between the Left’s quasi-legitimate identity politics and the Right’s opposition to it plays out on immigration issues, and, Fukuyama realizes, they’re a proxy policy battle over the goodness or badness of the nation-state as a political form. He wants to defend that political form as essential to physical security, effective government, economic development, liberal democracy, a trusting social arena, and the welfare state; but he does not seem to think that the nation-state can be based on anything. Fukuyama rejects nations based on biology, ethnicity, inherited culture and religion. The best he thinks nations can do is “define an inclusive national identity that fits society’s diverse reality and assimilate newcomers to that identity.” A nation-state must have a creedal basis (he praises the citizenship oath especially) with common virtues and values (none are identified). Nations need creeds and something more (my words), but that something more cannot be traceable to ethnicity, inherited culture, or religion.
Fukuyama applies this vision to the West. I wonder if he would apply it equally to the East? Are Korea, for instance, or Japan—both of which have a strong sense of nationhood based on ethnicity (at least) and restrictive immigration and citizenship policies to boot—legitimate or not? If he were consistent, he would have to be a skeptic of their brand of nation.
However that may be, the creeds and the something more are under attack in the West: from the Right, from people who would ground identity in race, ethnicity, or religion; and also from the Left, among those who see victims and oppression and think all manner of hatreds and phobias (Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia) are sown into any country’s DNA. Fukuyama seems to consider the Right just as obsessed with race and ethnicity as the Left, even in America. America’s proto-fascist mouse (which controls no public institutions) can, if held close enough to the eye, be seen to be larger than the Left’s identity-politics elephant, with its fellow-traveling liberals (who control many public and private institutions).
What Is to Be Done?
That is in fact how this book aligns the world. From the Fukuyama standpoint, then, what is to be done? The author supports the nation as a political form, as long as it is not based on the bad things. Nations today are good, he thinks, as the most natural homes for the rule of law, constitutionalism, and the equal protection of individual rights. His politics would emphasize assimilation through public schooling, the adoption of more selective immigration policies and, under the right conditions, mandatory national service. Agreeing with much of what Trump has to say on immigration, Fukuyama flinches from siding with a man who winks, ambiguously, as he builds a coalition to stop the Left’s threat to civilized norms. Indeed, for Fukuyama it seems every Trump wink is worse than any act of political violence from the Left, which he scarcely acknowledges.
What we have in Fukuyama’s Identity is the pretense of moderation. There are ditches on both sides of this narrow path and the author hews to the middle. The ditch on the Right is scary and living a lie; the ditch on the Left, respectable, “necessary and desirable” but inconsistent with the nation-state, a political form that in his rendering has no basis. Fukuyama would not want to defeat the Left with the disreputable Right as it has arisen anywhere in the world. He would like a nicer Right like that of Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) that sees America as a creedal nation and that promises much smaller victories, if any. Every country needs something more than creeds, but as soon as a country imagines something more than creeds, Fukuyama finds it disreputable. Could a reputable Right overcome or modify the identity-politics Left with an undefined something more? Probably not.
Both Left and Right make claims to dignity offended, and hence to resentment. Neither side seems particularly admirable, dignified, just, concerned with the common good, or virtuous, as Fukuyama presents them. How each comes to make claims to dignity is the half-developed story of the first part of Fukuyama’s book, which is the part of most interest to political philosophy types.
Claims of offended pride are coeval with politics. Economic models of the human being, the late fruit of modernity, are incomplete: They leave out thymos and human pride, the fact that human beings consider themselves important and want others to recognize that importance. Fukuyama points this out but does not dwell on where thymos hid from the time of its discovery by the Greeks to the advent of modernity. In modernity, thymos is the “part of the soul that seeks recognition,” which ultimately makes it “the seat of today’s identity politics.”
A Tendentious Enlightenment Story
Why is thymos, a permanent part of human nature, tied to these modern concepts of recognition and identity? For Fukuyama, the two become linked because the interior life is elevated above the artificial world of social conformity, where all must have their inner lives respected as equally dignified. His tendentious Enlightenment story, which need not detain us (an idea from Martin Luther here, combined with an idea from Jean-Jacques Rousseau there, from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel too), culminates in the claim that this dignity-revolution is the driving force in modern politics.
This desire for recognition births modern liberal democracy (as Fukuyama argued in The End of History), but this desire has also taken one of two non-liberal paths in liberal democracy.
One path leads to the universal recognition of individual rights (and thus to today’s left-wing identity politics)—with Justice Kennedy’s mystery passage in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Fukuyama notes, being its famous expression: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.” This entails a troubling and debilitating relativism, where, in Fukuyama’s phrase, the “impossible” and “absurd” task of supporting everyone’s self-esteem without endorsing any conception of the estimable becomes the central demand of politics.
The other path leads to “nationalism and politicized religion” and other dangerous assertions of collective identity—and Johann Gottfried von Herder is its muse and Adolph Hitler (and today’s populists) its effectual truth.
How can the desire for recognition carry so much weight, causing liberal democracy but also creating the two main threats to liberal democracy? What can’t it do? Fukuyama’s argument demands an account much closer to political life if it is to yield a comprehensible story about how we got where we are.
A deeper understanding of what the Greeks understood as thymos is the beginning of political wisdom in this case. The Greeks did not honor offended pride as a mysterious, truth-telling good that all were obliged to obey. For them, claims of thymos were often partisan and subject to rational analysis and hence to political deliberation and control. This translation of raw passion to some approximation of a common good is the stuff of politics. The desire for recognition eclipses such deliberation and control, especially when all assertions of offended pride must be honored.
Yet, it is clear that neither the Left nor the Right really believes that all assertions of offended pride are created equal and should be honored—they deny each other’s claims, for instance. The desire for recognition masks a concern for justice that could be translated into a public good, if todays advocates would see their identities as less than categorical. Fukuyama’s abstractions do not deign to touch such modest notions of politics.
How Can Human Beings Be Dignified if They Are Trousered Apes?
His analysis is lazy in another respect. Human beings, as he presents them, are alone—without God, souls, a homeland, families, or a notion of perfection. Yet they are still dignified. They think they are important. Dignity is a hole that each individual digs, fills, digs, and fills—inconsistent with individual contentment, political order, or rational debate about merits. How can human beings be dignified if they are trousered apes? Claims of dignity seem inversely related to the dignity of one’s claims.
The Right and the Left, in Fukuyama’s view, act on desires that throw a wrench into the normal, spontaneous mechanisms of social progress. If partisans could forget their abstractions, then the something more of social capital might just spontaneously produce itself (as he argued in The Great Disruption) and save our situation. Perhaps he thinks: Stop with the abstractions and the situation will take care of itself. But no situation takes care of itself because human beings abstract.
There is no guarantee that science, technology, liberal democracy, commercial greatness, or military strength will go on much longer in a liberal regime. Fukuyama knows that political communities rise and fall, and the stakes in identity politics are high. He fails to rise to the challenge of prudence or to the challenge of theoretical understanding in this weak effort.