Identity : by Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s book is intelligent and provocative. It’s true, the left doesn’t always see the bigger picture, and at its most self-righteous, it’s easily caricatured. It’s true, too, that Trumpian nationalism has something in common with ideologies it abhors, among them “politicized Islam” — each is driven by grievances “rooted in the demand for recognition.” But when Fukuyama argues that right-of-center identity politics is only starting to rival the scope and intensity of the left’s, he’s off the mark.

In the world of right-wing commentary, nothing’s quite as detestable as “identity politics.” Liberal “snowflakes” and their complaints about racial oppression, gender bias and other forms of discrimination — this is the stuff of nightly cable news screeds and countless derisive tweets.

But what these rants fail to acknowledge is that millions of Donald Trump supporters are motivated by their own brand of identity politics. Francis Fukuyama describes the situation this way: Not only have plenty of people on the right coalesced around “an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion” — they’ve also “adopted the language and framing of identity from the left: the idea that my particular group is being victimized.”


For their part, he contends, many on the left have lost the plot, concentrating “less on broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized.” In the process, Fukuyama says in “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” lots of Americans have forgotten the importance of having a shared set of national beliefs.

A senior fellow at Stanford who was aligned with — and then backed away from — the neoconservatives of the George W. Bush years, Fukuyama coined a phrase that appeared to define an era. In “The End of History?” a 1989 essay, he called the collapse of Eastern Bloc socialism “an unabashed victory” for the form of government found in the U.S. and Britain. Moving forward, he believed, more and more countries would embrace liberal democratic values.

His thesis has been challenged by subsequent events, like the recent rise of right-wing populist leaders in America and Europe. Over time, he says, his ideas have shifted in response to the facts on the ground. In the 2010s, Fukuyama has grown increasingly concerned about “the possibility of a modern liberal democracy decaying or going backward.”

This is one reason he wrote “Identity.” Another is the election of Trump, which “troubled” Fukuyama. He attributes Trump’s success to several factors, none more important than the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Amid surging economic inequality, he writes, the shrinking “class-based left” lost to a candidate who exploited the white working class’ “perception of invisibility.”

It can be hard to understand why voters feeling economic anxieties would support someone who didn’t offer specific solutions to their concerns. But Fukuyama suggests Trump intuited something that political scientists have long known: “The nationalist can translate loss of relative economic position into loss of identity and status: you have always been a core member of our great nation, but foreigners, immigrants, and your elite compatriots have been conspiring to hold you down.”

Though he believes part of the left spends too much time on identity-based clashes, Fukuyama notes that the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have “brought about welcome changes in concrete public policies.” Identity politics “is a natural and inevitable response to injustice,” he writes, but it’s counterproductive when it obscures major economic issues, stifles free speech or results in divisive political correctness. “By taking on political correctness so frontally,” he adds, “Trump has played a critical role in moving the focus of identity politics from the left, where it was born, to the right, where it is now taking root.”

The identity politics practiced by the right is only beginning to challenge the fervency of the liberal brand? No, this isn’t correct. Let’s go back a half century (though it’d be easy to cite earlier examples): In 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency thanks in part to his identity-based and racially divisive “Southern strategy.” In the decades since, the right has used the us vs. them framing of identity politics in battles over school prayer, abortion, gun rights and many other issues.

Fukuyama’s chief concern is that “the retreat on both sides into ever narrower identities threatens the possibility of deliberation and collective action by the society as a whole. Down this road lies, ultimately, state breakdown and failure.” Americans who want to prevent such a dire outcome should redouble their commitment to a shared set of values, he says. Some of his ideas are winningly direct — we should all reject white nationalism, he says. Others, like his proposal for “a universal requirement for national service … in the military or in a civilian capacity,” won’t get anywhere in a polarized Washington.

Above all, Fukuyama says, let’s not give in to pessimism. “Identity can be used to divide,” he writes, “but it can and has also been used to integrate.” In a period of destabilizing, downcast politics, it’s a welcome moment of hopefulness. ..

Identity : The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment By Francis Fukuyama , Book Reviewed by Kevin Canfield


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 organizing 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”. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter 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 etc.

Fukuyama’s issue is not necessarily with identity politics per se, since he recognizes 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 politicization of narrow identities, made exclusionary by their focus on ‘lived experience’, i.e. 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. He is not afraid to ask big questions or to try to provide big answers. Identity addresses one of the most salient political questions of our times, but ultimately falls short in providing coherent, actionable answers.…


The Ruling Elite, Aristocracy:
The word aristocracy derives from the Greek term “rule by the best.” 9These warriors were seen as morally different from shopkeepers because of their virtue: they were willing to risk their lives for the public good. Honor accrued only to people who deliberately rejected rational utility maximization—our modern economic model—in favor of those who were willing to risk the most important utility of all, their lives.
Today, we tend to look back on aristocrats with a great deal of cynicism, regarding them at best as self-important parasites, and at worst as violent predators on the rest of their society. Their descendants are even worse, since they did not themselves earn the status that their families receive, but got it as an accident of birth. We have to recognize, however, that in aristocratic societies there was a deeply rooted belief that honor or esteem was not due to everyone, but only to the class of people who risked their lives. An echo of that feeling still exists in the respect we pay to soldiers who die for their country, or policemen and firemen who risk their lives in the line of duty. Dignity or esteem is not due to everyone, least of all to businesspeople or workers whose main objective is to maximize their own welfare.
Aristocrats thought of themselves as better than other people and possessed what we may call megalothymia, the desire to be recognized as superior. Predemocratic societies rested on a foundation of social hierarchy, so this belief in the inherent superiority of a certain class of people was fundamental to the maintenance of social order.
[From “Identity” by Francis Fukuyama ]

Using identity in a specific sense that helps us understand why it is so important to contemporary politics. 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 does 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.

Modern economics is based on one such theory, which is that human beings are “rational utility maximizers”: they are individuals who use their formidable cognitive abilities to benefit their self-interest. Embedded in this theory are several further assumptions. One is that the unit of account is an individual, as opposed to a family, a tribe, a nation, or some other type of social group. To the extent that people cooperate with one another, it is because they calculate that cooperation will serve their individual self-interest better than if they act on their own.
The second assumption concerns the nature of “utility,” the individual preferences—for a car, for sexual gratification, for a pleasant vacation—that make up what economists call a person’s “utility function.” Many economists would argue that their science says nothing about the ultimate preferences or utilities that people choose; that’s up to individuals. Economics speaks only to the ways in which preferences are rationally pursued. Thus a hedge fund manager seeking to earn another billion dollars and a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies are both maximizing their different preferences. Presumably, suicide bombers, who have unfortunately become part of the twenty-first-century political landscape, are simply trying to maximize the number of virgins they will meet in heaven.
The problem is that economic theory has little predictive value if preferences are not limited to something like material self-interest, such as the pursuit of income or wealth. If one broadens the notion of utility to include extremes of both selfish and altruistic behavior, one is not saying much more than the tautology that people will pursue whatever it is they pursue. What one really needs is a theory of why some people pursue money and security, while others choose to die for a cause or to give time and money to help other people. To say that Mother Teresa and a Wall Street hedge fund manager are both maximizing their utility misses something important about their motivations.

The politics of recognition and dignity had reached a fork by the early nineteenth century. One fork led to the universal recognition of individual rights, and thence to liberal societies that sought to provide citizens with an ever-expanding scope of individual autonomy. The other fork led to assertions of collective identity, of which the two major manifestations were nationalism and politicized religion. Late-nineteenth-century Europe saw the rise both of liberal and democratic movements demanding universal individual recognition and the more ominous emergence of an exclusive nationalism that would eventually trigger the world wars of the early twentieth century. In the contemporary Muslim world, collective identity is taking the form of Islamism—that is, the demand for recognition of a special status for Islam as the basis of political community.


In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, Syria descended into a devastating civil war that has left an estimated 400,000 people dead. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.8 million people have fled the country, including 1 million going to Europe, and another 6.6 million have been displaced within Syria—this in a country that had a population of 18 million at the start of the conflict. The knock-on consequences of this war include destabilization of the politics of Syria’s neighbors Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, and a migrant crisis that has rocked the European Union.

Syria is an extreme example of what happens when a country lacks a clear sense of national identity. The proximate cause of the war were peaceful protests that broke out in 2011 against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which were triggered by the Arab Spring. Rather than stepping down, Assad met his opponents with fierce repression. The latter then responded with violence themselves, and the conflict began to attract the attention of outside groups, with foreign fighters streaming in to join ISIS. The civil war was further deepened by support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and the United States.
Underlying these events were the realities of sectarian division. Following a coup in 1970, Syria was ruled by Hafiz al-Assad and, after 2000, by his son Bashar, who were members of the Alawite sect. The Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, constituted perhaps 12 percent of Syria’s prewar population; the majority of the remainder were Sunni Muslims, with significant Christian, Yazidi, and other minority populations. There were also ethnic and linguistic divisions between Arabs, Kurds, Druze, Turkmen, Palestinians, Circassians, and the like, which sometimes also corresponded to religious fractures. Ideological divisions also existed between violent extremists, moderate Islamists, leftists, and liberals. The Alawites had come to dominate Syrian political life because they had been recruited into the military by the French under a divide-and-rule strategy when the latter were the region’s colonial masters. Throughout the Assad family’s rule, the Alawites were hated and resisted by other groups in the country, and stability was maintained only by harsh repression by both Hafiz and Bashar Assad.

Little sense of loyalty to an entity called Syria transcended loyalties to one’s sect, ethnic group, or religion, and when the repressive state looked as if it was weakening, as in 2011, the country fell apart.
Weak national identity has been a major problem in the greater Middle East, where Yemen and Libya have turned into failed states, and Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia have suffered from internal insurgency and chaos. Other developing countries have remained more stable, yet remain beset by problems related to a weak sense of national identity.

Japan, Korea, and China all had well-developed national identities well before they began to modernize—indeed, prior to their confrontation with the Western powers in the nineteenth century. Part of the reason they have been able to grow in such spectacular fashion in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is that they did not have to settle internal questions of identity as they opened up to international trade and investment. They too suffered from civil war, occupation, and division. But they could build on traditions of statehood and common national purpose once these conflicts were stabilized.

Good Governance & Corruption

National identity is important for the quality of government. Good government—that is, effective public services and low levels of corruption—depends on state officials placing public interest above their own narrow interests. In systemically corrupt societies, politicians and bureaucrats divert public resources to their own ethnic group, region, tribe, family, political party, or to their own individual pockets because they do not feel obligated to the community’s general interests.

Dr. Fukuyama:

He has written on questions concerning governance, democratization, and international political economy. His book, The End of History and the Last Man, was published by Free Press in 1992 and has appeared in over twenty foreign editions. His most recent books are The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. His book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment will be published in September  2018.

Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford University, and Mosbacher DIrector of FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

Francis Fukuyama received his B.A. from Cornell University in classics, and his Ph.D. from Harvard in Political Science. He was a member of the Political Science Department of the RAND Corporation from 1979-1980, then again from 1983-89, and from 1995-96. In 1981-82 and in 1989 he was a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the US Department of State, and was a member of the US delegation to the Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian autonomy. From 1996-2000 he was Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, and from 2001-2010 he was Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He served as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001-2004.

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