Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, by Francis Fukuyama

A thinker revisits democracy’s power to unite in light of populism’s rise, writes Martin Cohen

November 15, 2018
Pile of metal skulls
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Francis Fukuyama will for ever be remembered as the man who prophesied the inexorable spread of democracy over the Earth. This was, he said, because only democracy could satisfy the core psychological trait of humankind: a desire for recognition. That was in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), and it seems a world ago now. Indeed, prefacing his new book, Fukuyama says that he would not have written Identity had not Donald Trump been elected president. Because Trump, like Brexit, represents not the values optimistically talked about in The End of History but rather the return of “populist nationalisms”.

Fukuyama puts it well: “Populist leaders seek to use the legitimacy conferred by democratic elections to consolidate power.” They claim direct, charismatic connection to “the people”, defined in terms that exclude large parts of the population. And they abhor institutions and seek to weaken the very democratic structures that brought them to power. He finds many examples to illustrate how “the global surge towards democracy…has gone into recession”.

He is also at pains to rebut critics of his earlier thesis by saying that he has not so much been proven wrong as misunderstood. Fukuyama’s point was not that democracy would take over the world, merely an investigation of whether it could satisfy the human desire for “recognition of one’s identity” – the impulse he grandly calls “megalothymia” – at the heart of Hegel’s political philosophy. Unfortunately, the problem for democracy is that it offers recognition that you are as good as everyone else – but what people really aspire to is to be better than others.

Thus, universal recognition is challenged by “partial forms of recognition based on nation, religion, sect, race, ethnicity or gender”. Although the great struggles of history – over slavery, women’s rights, for the vote – all come down to demands for recognition of equal worth, such demands can “easily slide over into a demand for recognition of the group’s superiority”, via the politicisation of religion or nationalism.

Both tendencies, writes Fukuyama, “peddle in victimhood that lays the blame for an individual’s unhappy situation on groups of outsiders”. And, crucially, they both demand dignity in a restrictive way: not for all human beings but only for members of a particular national or religious group.

For the trouble with identity politics is that it engenders a dynamic by which societies divide themselves into smaller and smaller groups. Add to that the condition of modernity itself, which is for people to have multiple identities, including race, gender, workplace…

At a societal level, Fukuyama’s remedy is twofold. First, a vigorous defence of liberal democracy and its culture and values, such as constitutionalism, human equality and the rule of law. And, second, to “define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies”. Just what the European Union is trying to do, in fact. However, Fukuyama insists that the EU fails to achieve any mechanism for democratic accountability, complaining that the European Commission takes the key decisions, yet forgetting that its members are appointed by national governments and that both the European Parliament and the European Council still have to agree.

Martin Cohen is visiting research fellow in philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire. His new book, I Think, Therefore I Eat, a sociological study of food and culture, is due out this month.

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition
By Francis Fukuyama
Profile, 240pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781781259801
Published 4 October 2018


Print headline: Can we make one out of many?

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