Francis Fukuyama needs no intro- -duction. He shot into prominence with the publication of his widely read book, The End of History and the Last Man in 1992. In brief, Fukuyama had put forth the thesis that with the collapse of Communism ideological wars have come to an end and the future belonged to liberal democracy, which—in a Hegelian sense—was the culmination of all human associations, and indeed, its very pinnacle. Fukuyama’s contention was problematic and in a short period it became widely apparent that liberal democracy faced severe challenges from within.
Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition published in 2018 is, in some senses, an admission that liberal democracy is becoming increasingly inadequate to meet the most important challenge it faces in the post-ideological world, namely the challenge of identity politics. Fukuyama says that he does not deny that some of his ideas need revision in the altered international terrain which has seen many upheavals since the death of Communism. This process of revising his intellectual landscape had already begun earlier with the publication of his two volumes on political order and decay a few years ago.
Fukuyama, however, doggedly refuses to accept that the basic argument posited in the The End of History and the Last Man has been refuted by subsequent events. In the preface of his new book, Fukuyama says that he was misunderstood by his critics who missed the import of how he used the terms history and end. He also says that the two major factors endangering liberal democracy—nationalism and religion—were never discounted by him as spent forces. Fukuyama argues that he never meant to imply that the triumph of liberal democracy was conclusive. To prove his point, Fukuyama asks his baiters to pay attention to the question mark in the title of his original essay, ‘The End of History?’, written in 1989, which he later elaborated into the above-mentioned book. It is somewhat amusing to see Fukuyama tenaciously hanging on to the question mark, as if by a whisker, to drive home his point.
Fukuyama claims that his book Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and The Struggle for Recognition would never have been written had it not been for the election of Donald Trump—who, according to him, is eminently unsuitable for the job—to the US presidency in 2016. Fukuyama wishes to see the election of Trump as the US President in the wider context of the rise of populist nationalism the world over and the crisis besetting liberal democracy generally.
In many ways, this book is somewhat unlike the earlier writings of Fukuyama who usually puts a premium on data. A good example would be his excellent work, The Origins of Political Order, written in 2011 where he grounded his arguments about civilizational specificity in rigorous empirical evidence. Unfortunately, much of that rigour is missing in the current book. I might also point out that this is a brief work, all of 183 pages. Not to suggest that brevity is undesirable, but Fukuyama’s rather ambitious project of reducing everything that has gone awry in the world to the question of identity needed more substance perhaps—if at all such a grandiose narrative is possible.
I am not suggesting that the book is devoid of insights or explanations. One thing that works for it is timing. Much like the uncanny essay that Fukuyama wrote in 1989—which came at the cusp of the collapse of Soviet Union and caught the fancy of the world for suggesting that the final victory of liberal democracy is inevitable—the present book too, draws the reader into the temptation of rendering the chaos and confusion in the world coherent by looking at disjointed, disparate, and perhaps, unrelated events through the singular lens of identity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everything of significance from the French Revolution to the #MeToo movement could be explained as a demand for recognition, a politics of resentment? If the rise of Right-Wing nationalisms the world over since the turn of the century, the spectre of Islamic terrorism, the Arab Spring, the Velvet and other revolutions of Eastern Europe, and the surge of militant Hinduism in India are sought to be seamlessly woven into one meta-narrative—as Fukuyama gingerly proposes to do in this ambitious book—it would undoubtedly be a momentous, astonishing feat of theoretical brilliance, one that would make even Hegel, whom Fukuyama admires greatly, proud.
The moot question, however, is whether it is plausible to read everything as a species of identity politics. Quentin Skinner—who contributed immensely to the hermeneutics of interpretation—would suggest that such attempts betray the frailties of the human mind to search for coherence where there is none. We are tempted by order. We detest chaos. But to imagine a regulated human universe, as Fukuyama does imagine in this book—a universe where identity is the fulcrum of all motivation and behaviour—is to deny other possibilities that exist and that are at play in the complex world that unfolds every moment. Skinner calls this tendency the ‘mythology of coherence’, and I think Francis Fukuyama is guilty on that count. Perhaps, the genesis of the problem lies in the initial argument itself—since Fukuyama thought that liberal democracy is universal, or that eventually it would be universal, he also thinks now that challenges to it too ought to be universal. Unfortunately, his universalist bias in regarding liberal democracy as the only template for the world has also resulted in a universalist bias in positing identity politics as its sole enemy.
Francis Fukuyama’s argument hangs heavily on identity. Not surprisingly then, he explores the idea of identity extensively with a view to widen its horizon and increase its ambit over every possible dimension of modern politics. He begins by developing a working theoretical framework which remains tentative, if I may call it conjectural, throughout the expanse of his bold imagination. The major inspiration for Fukuyama in delineating the contours of such a framework is Hegel who believed that human history was driven by a struggle for recognition. Fukuyama, following Hegel, is suggesting that the only rational solution to the desire for recognition is universal recognition in which the dignity of every human being was recognized.
The crisis of liberal democracy in recent years has been due to the fact that universal recognition—which is the cornerstone of liberal democracy—has come under a cloud by a surge of demands for partial forms of recognition based on ‘nation, religion, sect, race, ethnicity, or gender, or by individuals wanting to be recognised as superior’. Fukuyama gives us a solemn warning. He says that the rise of identity politics is the key threat to the promise of liberal democracy, and unless we are successful in clawing our way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, unabated conflicts will doom our future. There is not much to join issue with here except the giant leap of faith that Fukuyama seems to take in reducing, essentializing if you will, all struggles of recognition at the altar of identity.
Fukuyama wishes to posit recognition as the ‘master concept’ that can explain all dissatisfactions with modern liberalism. To that end, Fukuyama proceeds to give a sketchy genealogy of what constitutes identity and delves into an uncharted exploration into the dungeons of western philosophy beginning with Plato’s Republic. An early, but critical, chapter in the book is titled ‘Third Part of the Soul’. Fukuyama anchors identity—or desire for respect and recognition—in the spirited part of the human soul, or thymos, as Plato calls it. Isothymia is the desire for equality and megalothymia is the desire for superiority. Liberal democracies are constantly under threat from both, according to Fukuyama’s view.
Identities come into being and disappear in the above matrix and while the grounds of identity have historically changed, the desire for respect and recognition has always endured. When this desire is stymied, it leads to what Fukuyama calls as the politics of resentment, and that according to him is the reason how identity is transformed into identity politics. Even Charles Taylor—the prominent Canadian thinker—admits that whereas ‘honour’ was the source of the ancient self, ‘dignity’ is the building block of the modern self.
The key aspect in the story of identity is the schism between the inner and the outer self—according to Fukuyama—and the principal theorists who were able to capture this disjunction were Luther and Rousseau. Although Luther’s understanding was still Christian, it was Rousseau who finally secularized the self by cleansing it of the burdens of sin, says Fukuyama. Rousseau located the outer self’s depravity in the excesses of civilization and liberated it by absolving it of all guilt. This paved the way for Kant who made human will the final arbiter of the self, a process that made identity creation a creature of human autonomy. Hegel then built upon all these tendencies and put the desire for recognition as the central force in human history. The above framework is developed by Fukuyama in the early chapters of the book. While it makes for interesting reading, it remains a shot in the dark. The complexities of these immensely diverse thinkers are ironed out and they are made to fit into a pre-meditated cast which is culled out from the richness of their philosophies.
The remainder of the book is an attempt to employ this wobbly framework to contemporary politics and, arguably, this is where Fukuyama fails to deliver as well as he would have liked. He makes many interesting points along the way though. Fukuyama is right in suggesting that one major failure of liberal democracy in recent decades has been its inability to ensure a semblance of economic equality. The gap between the rich and the poor has been expanding at an alarming rate, he says. This holds true for most of the world including Europe and America and Fukuyama gives enough evidence to substantiate his claims. The curious thing though, as he notes, is the unexpected failure of the Left to cash in on declining material prosperity.
In an incisive chapter titled ‘The Wrong Address’ Fukuyama says that the woes of the Left can be squarely blamed on its shift from ‘class’ to ‘culture’—a tendency that began in the early 1970s, especially in the echelons of the French Left, and then it spread all over the Leftist firmament gradually. This turn from class to culture meant that the Left found itself increasingly unable to take up hardcore economic issues of the working class and instead dissipated its energies on movements pertaining to identity like LGBT rights, minority rights or the rights of immigrants. Fukuyama says, perhaps correctly, that the white working class, in Europe and America, which was the core constituency of the Left found itself stranded when the Left of the Centre parties failed to champion its cause. This explains to some extent, according to him, the resurgence of Right-Wing populist nationalisms in many parts of the world including the success of Donald Trump who was able to capitalize on the fears of the average American white male and rouse him against immigrants and minorities.
There is a rather telling passage in the book which echoes with what is happening in India: ‘Populist leaders seek to use the legitimacy conferred by democratic elections to consolidate power. They claim direct charismatic connection to the people who are often defined in narrow ethnic terms that exclude big parts of the population. They don’t like institutions and seek to undermine the checks and balances that limit a leader’s personal power in a modern liberal democracy: courts, the legislature, an independent media, and a nonpartisan bureaucracy.’ Although India is barely discussed in the book Fukuyama’s words sound prophetic in the context of India. Thymos is the seat of both anger and pride. Fukuyama holds that economic interests do not always take primacy over demands of recognition and respect. The mushrooming of Hindu nationalism in India—especially since the advent of Modi to the seat of power—is a case in point. Modi, much like Trump did with the average American white male, has been able to galvanize the average Hindu on the issue of recognition for the Hindu self. This new brand of politics, rooted in resentment as it is, catapulted the BJP to sweep the Lok Sabha elections held in 2019. In brief, one might disagree with the somewhat unconvincing theoretical framework that Fukuyama forces upon us, yet the book shines in parts, it offers profitable insights into the rise of nationalisms and the buoyancy of religions in a world rent asunder by inequalities and conflicts.
To conclude this review, one must talk about the solutions that Fukuyama offers to the problem of reclaiming liberal democracy from the ungainly abyss that identity politics has caged it in. I am afraid that Fukuyama is on thin ice here. In the last chapter that he has tantalizingly titled as ‘What is to be Done?’—reminding us all of Lenin’s piece written in 1902—he displays a clear bias towards universalism, something that he really has found a fetish for since the publication of his essay ‘The End of History?’. The challenge is to move back towards a universalist form of identity and away from the proliferation of identities that have resulted in fragmented loyalties. Liberal democracies—hopes Fukuyama—must find resources to assimilate immigrants in better and more cohesive ways than what they have done so far. Quite clearly, Fukuyama does not think that pluralism or multiculturalism has been successful and he advocates a more thorough integration, based on the need to cultivate greater familiarity with the language, culture and mores of the host country—including, if necessary, mandatory military service. The idea, obviously, is to stress on grounds of similarity rather than celebrate the differences. He tersely says in the closing lines of the book, ‘Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate. That in the end will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present.’ The need is to develop creedal nationalisms rooted in constitutional virtues. Partly, Fukuyama says, this can be done by translating ‘lived experiences’—erlebnis— of social groups which tends to be exclusionary to ‘shared experiences’—erfahrung— which are inclusionary by nature. Admirable sentiments, one might say, but where is the policy framework to achieve it?
Syed Areesh Ahmad teaches Political Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi, Delhi.