Book Review: Identity by Francis Fukuyama

‘Identity’, political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s latest, contains his concerns about identity politics, though much of his analysis is limited to the US and the West

Fukuyama had predicted the end of history with the victory of liberal democracy. It sounded a ridiculous assertion even when he made it in 1989, and Fukuyama exerts much to defend his idea, arguing that he was misunderstood and misinterpreted then.

Being not on the left side of the political centre, Francis Fukuyama might not use the words popularised by Marx and Engels over 150 years ago about a spectre that was haunting Europe. The authors of the Communist Manifesto who saw the spectre thought that it was benign, and they defended and championed it. There is a spectre haunting the world now also, and it is the threat of a militant identity politics rising in most parts of the world.

Political scientist Fukuyama is concerned with that, though much of his analysis is limited to the US and the west. That may be because he teaches at Stanford University and studies the developments in US politics and society more than those elsewhere in the world. But the problem identified by Fukuyama is real everywhere, perhaps more real and dangerous in other places than in the US. Fukuyama does not spend much time and words on the spectre outside the US, and that is a limitation of the book. 

About two decades ago, when the fall of communism was in the air and most communist states were about to collapse, Fukuyama had predicted the victory of liberal democracy. Now he is worried whether identity politics would defeat liberal democracy.

Identity politics is about positions based on ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality or other denominations rather than on universal principles and policies of equality and brotherhood. It is by definition exclusive in nature and tends to be militant, while liberal democracy tries to be inclusive and moderate. It looks for differences and works through conflict while democracy seeks commonality through compromise. Fukuyama considers the victory of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK as clear manifestations of identity politics.

The Trump presidency’s dangerous potential is unfolding. The dangers of identity politics are already clearly seen in India, European countries like Italy, Sweden and much of East Europe. China disguises its identity politics as the politics of nationalism. The rise of political Islam and its depredations, anti-immigrant attitudes and the resurgence of white nationalism in many places are also its expressions. 

Fukuyama had predicted the end of history with the victory of liberal democracy. It sounded a ridiculous assertion even when he made it in 1989, and Fukuyama exerts much to defend his idea, arguing that he was misunderstood and misinterpreted then. He says he used the word history in the Hegelian sense of a long-term evolutionary story of human institutions, and the question mark in the title of the book, which propounded his thesis, was ignored. These explanations do not make a convincing defence of an outlandish theory. The lesson is that even ideas set in cold print may also shift over time, and the writer himself would claim a different meaning for them.

But Fukuyama seems to be on firmer ground in this book, though his thought horizon does not go much beyond the western world. He traces the idea of identity as it is relevant in politics from Plato, through Aristotle, Luther, Hegel, Rousseau, and others, and aims to find a “better theory of the human soul”. Recent political events are judged in the light of the evolving theory. His explanation of modern politics is in terms of two competing demands for recognition and dignity, and on how these are at the root of the idea of respect for others and the principle of universal human rights. 

But there is not much explanation of the rise of identity politics which we do not know. Globalisation made great strides in the 20th century and it led to economic development and a greater emphasis on co-operation among nations and sections of people. It also led to the rise of an unequal society with large economic disparities.

National and other identities faced ideological challenges and even felt threatened by phenomena like increased population migrations. This prepared the ground for the emergence of today’s identity politics. Fukuyama presents his ideas with much data and great sophistication and gives many insights. But the theory is not exactly new. 

He does not think that the sense of identity on which identity politics is based is all wrong because it arises from a need for recognition. It is now expressed as conflicting identities, and the rightwing identity assertion is more dominant now. He rightly sees a danger in this. He supports the nation-state, which also represents an identity but an inclusive one, as defined by liberal political thought. He thinks countries can develop interactive national identities which are rooted in liberal and democratic values. It is an expression of hope and faith which is needed now but seems to be in dire danger.

There are fine insights on issues and processes like nationalism, the rise of Islamism, the failure of the left and the role of social media in the changing world. “Nationalism and Islamism can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Both are expressions of a hidden or suppressed group identity... that arise in similar circumstances when economic modernisation and rapid social changes undermine older forms of community and replace them with a confusing pluralism of alternative forms of association’’. As a general theory of identity politics, there is much truth in this. The rise of the Hindu right in India and even the furore over the entry of women into the Sabarimala shrine can be explained in these terms. 

Fukuyama says: “There is nothing wrong with identity politics as such… It becomes a problem only when identity is interpreted or asserted in certain ways.” He explains it further: “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.” It is not a very new and illuminating conclusion, but reading the arguments with which he reaches the conclusion is rewarding and illuminating.

The same person has different identities related to race, religion, society, gender etc which co-exist in the complex idea of the self. While people stick to their identities, they also feel the need to go beyond them. These assertions and counter-assertions alternate in history and society at all levels, from the individual to the national and the global levels. The rightwing identity warriors are ascendant now, but the cycle will eventually turn. Fukuyama does not seem to have given much thought to this.

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Book Review: Identity by Francis Fukuyama

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