Reflections on Fukuyama’s “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment”
American politics suffer an identity crisis. So does political correctness since many political actors seem to promote that we be politically incorrect when speaking with or about persons who are female, gay, religious, black, brown, immigrant, or whatever.
In his latest book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment and consequent essays, Francis Fukuyama convinces me that politics is mostly about identity. Who am I and who are we? He demonstrates why there is such a furor across the partisan spectrum over “identity politics.” He helps me understand the essence, causes, and consequences of populist nationalism in America and the rest of the world. Best of all, he sets a course for me to think and to act in faith to revive the characteristic American identity of unity in plurality expressed as liberty and justice. An identity that could be a universal identity for humanity and all thinking beings.
Fukuyama’s magnum opus as a political scientist is The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Decay. But I would rather consider him a political thinker[i] — a person who is rational discovering patterns and principles from human nature, who is open to change formulas with further evidence from experience, who is prepared to accept criticism and advice, and willing to pass beyond accepted truths even those of his teachers and colleagues.
Fukuyama is a historian of ideas[ii] linking to the material conditions within which these ideas took root, were nourished, and grew. He develops a model for which he provides historical evidence and submits his findings to others in schools, think tanks, professional journals, and popular magazines to receive reviews and encourage discussion. In his first most noted publication The End of History and the Last Man, he refined Hegel’s model of progressive history. He conjectures that, at the termination of both fascism and bolshevism, the Kantian antinomies of necessity and freedom are reconciled into a free-market economy and liberal democratic politics that is global. He begins the quest for resolving the contradictions of freedom and necessity in Plato’s discovery of humanity’s universal desire for thymos, the recognition of a person’s human dignity, at the root of a liberal democratic political economy that is the goal of History.
The Public, the space of political thinking, speech, and action, is the place of where humans, freed from pursuit of the necessities of biological life, enter and appear to one another as equals in dignity. Here is wherein they satisfy their desire for thymos and are recognized as having the power of human agency and innovation. Here is where humanity moves beyond the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom and achieves its highest self-actualization
Fukuyama traces the development of public order in the West from Athens and Rome into Christianization, the medieval triumph of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire,
sanctifying a hierarchical political order of the Holy Roman Empire, on through the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on the inner life of individuals, and moving from fiefdoms, kingdoms, into nations, and leagues of nations. Modernization with the culmination of scientific methodology and industrialization leading to increasing new technologies give rise to the strong liberal democratic state with its rule of law, efficient bureaucracy, and accountability, which he describes in his study of the rise and decline of political order.
In his latest book on identity and subsequent essays, he returns to the concept of thymos to reflect on our contemporary world of religious terrorism, populist authoritarianism, and global nationalism in the Near East Islamic revolutions, Brexit and the European union, and the United States under Trump.
While all civilizations arise through agriculture, trade, and urbanization, Western Civilization conditioned by the Judeo-Christian culture with its more linear notion of history and its teachings on the dignity of all humans with inner lives of divinely granted souls, sprouted the Enlightenment and modern science. In this cultural environment, the concepts of individual achievement, personal liberty, and human rights in a liberal democratic republic are institutionalized and proselytized around the world.
He agrees with his teacher and mentor Samuel Harrington on the importance of culture (including language and religion) in the development of humanity. However, he disagrees with Harrington that diverse cultures will make for a clash of civilizations. Modern global economic development through science, industry, and technology has a unifying dynamic beyond the diversity of cultural traditions. Humanity has the opportunity to retain and learn from diverse cultures (i.e., multiculturalism) while at the same time developing national and international institutions which raise politics beyond culture. National and international agreements and regulation could lead to an economics of industrial and technological development, global trade and markets, and a unifying, self-actualizing humanity.[iii]
“We cannot get away from identity or identity politics,” are the words with which Fukyama starts the last chapter of his book. Why? Because it “builds on the universal psychology of thymos.” The demand for recognition of our dignity is natural and “gives us a language for expressing the resentments that arise when such recognition is not forthcoming.” Earlier he distinguished individual identity simply as a human being with an authentic inner life. On this is based the universal declarations of human rights. He then discusses group identity as part of everyone’s personal identity, and how belonging to a group in modern society where one has many identities shaped by interactions on many levels. When persons find themselves in a group which has been disrespected, that person feels resentment and can be stimulated to act on this appropriately through political action or inappropriately through violence.
“Rub raw the sores of discontent,” Saul Alinsky taught his community organizers. He also taught the need to polarize as a tactic to get attention. But these were tactics in a nonviolent strategy for inclusiveness, admitting the excluded to the polis where they are respected with others, not for victory or domination over “the other side.” Civil Rights organizing, labor unions, and women’s suffrage, achieve the recognition with parity, fairness, and inclusion in a democratic republic. This is not a strategy that would base the unity of humanity in a sectarian religion or an ethnicity or race. Quite the contrary. Those like Trump, following in the path of the Tea Partiers, who use naming and blaming tactics, who stoke divisions among black and white, straight and gay, macho men and feminists, Judeo-Christians and Muslims, religionists and secularists in the public sphere are actually undermining the national character, unity, and soul of the nation.
Fukuyama rightly acknowledges among the discontented the white working class in the cities made up of refugees from Europe as well as the black families, brown farmworkers, and small farmers who leave their rural homesteads and reservations and come to cities for work in industrial centers financially supported by Wall Street companies and large banks. Many had to live in segregated neighborhoods trying to maintain their cultures and the values and beliefs that underly those cultures, but at the same time struggle to achieve recognition in the hall of political power. The politics of identity and political correctness is important for the recognition of the dignity of all individuals. It is also important for the multicultural character and ideals of the nation. A white supremacist, a coercive segregationist, a religious dogmatist, a male chauvinist is not a patriot in America. Yes, all lives matter but not some more than others.
The promotion and protection of individual and cultural identity requires a corresponding national identity based on a creed beyond ethnic, religious, and traditional groups. It was the genius of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the founders to affirm the rights of individuals and groups, especially in the Bill of Rights, while at the same time affirming a national identity and responsibility beyond individualism and cultural groups. They relegated cultural, ethnic, and biological identities to the private sphere of liberty — i.e., freedom from coercion. And national unity in the public sphere, i.e., freedom to speak and act as citizens.
Yes, the gods of tribe and household are recognized and celebrated. They contribute but do not dominate or overthrow the public, secular realm and its institutions. Freedom for households, tribes, and religion means also freedom from religion of tribe and household.
That national identity was based on a common aspiration for an inclusive more perfect union based on the democratic republican beliefs, values, and institutions open to all. They protected diversity in families and groups in the private realm by supporting a public realm founded on a special character, some call it an exceptional dream, special soul, or even public religion summed up in the words: American democracy.
Therefore those, like Trump, who foster resentment and use it to achieve personal power or control are not the American patriots they claim to be. It is great irony that the party of Lincoln who defended the unity of the nation by calling for the end of slavery and a new burst of freedom to extend the foundational principles of the nation, traded the presidency of the nation to reverse the Reconstruction of the nation on democratic principles. Through its “southern strategy” and now its wall and cage-building immigration policies, the Republic Party comprises many, formerly in the Democratic Party, who would compromise its own and America’s founding vision of national unity.
And Fukuyama lays out his prescription for identity and political correctness in the last chapter of his book. This includes public education that includes expanding citizenship through civics instructions and active commitment to democratic social change. It includes required national service. It also includes a distribution of wealth by public institutions and regulation to assure a safety net so people are not so bound to the necessities of life that they cannot live a public life.
I consulted Fukuyama, whom I consider a conservative centrist,[iv] as part of my search to understand the 40% of my neighbors who constitute a movement that we now call Trumpism, following in the path of slave owners, indigenous people’s cleansing, KKK, America Firsters, McCarthyism, Know Nothings, John Birch Society, and segregationists, who espouse such a contrary vision of and for my nation. I learned in my search of the long-standing caste system, christian dogmatism, and male supremacy that has been systematized in our social and economic order for centuries often through trade-offs. Fukuyama has helped me see the contradictions in our political order that requires a strong state apparatus, the rule of law that no ruler can violate, and especially accountability to a people well-educated in democracy.
I get it that many feel resentful of policies in the public sphere that protect behaviors that violate their values and norms in household affairs, i.e., homosexuality, birth control, male domination, white supremacy, recreational drugs, pornography, atheism, monotheism, assisted suicide, gun ownership, and pornography. I also get it that people, especially those who believed that they were “middle class” and so belonged in America have lost their rights to health, safe shelter, sufficient income, higher education, and opportunities in a changing economy and believe that the reason for this are special favors to outsiders, urbanites, the privileged or some foreign ideologues who conspire against them. These also feel that they have lost their place and their respect. They also need to organize themselves to support the public realm by which they achieve political power and respect in their own communities.
And I for one hope to support them in doing so.[v] At the same time I want to stop those who, like Trump, support and promote violence to destroy the best potential for freedom and justice for all.
The big question of identity is not who I am but who we choose to be as a community and as a nation. Martin Luther King answered that question by his teaching on the Beloved Community. Woodrow Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt asked that question in their advocacy for the League of Nations and the United Nations. The answers may not be sufficient, but the question is. It is a political question. One that we will answer by our concerted action. We have not yet finally answered the question.[vi] But hopefully we will and so bring humanity towards its goal.
[i] Thinking involves categorizing and relating. There are indeed many categories of “political thinkers.” 1) Philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Merleau-Ponty, Locke, Dewey, Arendt; 2) professional historians usually providing evidence for a thesis, 3) political actors who articulate positions in their speech and action within a worldview that is self-aware and critical. Some of which are employed by institutions of government (politicians, advisors, speech writers), by educational institutions (college, the press), and by organizations of citizens seeking social justice or collective power). Another good term for political thinker is public intellectual. Of course, there are many in all these fields who do not think because they do not question themselves or each other e.g., evangelists, propagandists, true-believers. These I do not consider public intellectuals.
[ii] Fukuyama was considered a neo-conservative when he signed on to the Project for the New American Century which supported the invasion and nation building of Iraq which he later disavowed. He has also been considered a neoliberal for his support of free-market globalization. I believe it is safe to say that he is in the tradition of conservatism (certainly not the contemporary Republican Party shaped by Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party) which maintains democratic republican and strong state institutions. He also supports the role of the State to control the economy and its institutions to ensure greater economic equality through safety net services and investment in low-income communities and nations without making them dependent on outside political and economic powers.
[iii] Fukuyama methinks would agree with Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, and Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, that one of the mistakes of global free-market corporate capitalism has been putting economic development and wealth creation, as important and necessary as that is, in the driver’s seat over democratic politics, by making life needs a higher goal or even the measure of human progress.
[iv] What I value in the “conservativism” Fukuyama represents is the conserving of democratic institutions often by reforming them, and the conserving of the earth, which is the very condition of human existence, limits of government through accountability, the tradition of great ideas linked with critical thinking. I was concerned with his signing a neo-conservative statement that supported the invasion of Iraq but he ultimately wrote a denouncement of the neo-cons. I suspect he is more of a neo-liberal in economic doctrine than I am. But most important, his analysis of political order and decay demonstrated the importance of a strong liberal democratic state as well as its bureaucratic competence which many of the people who claim to be conservatives in America today with their doctrine of less government and less regulation following Reagan’s saying: Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” It is only the strength of the liberal democratic state that ensures the accountability most needed for progress.
[v] Fukuyama’s emphasis is on educated expertise guiding national and international institutions. And thus, he writes for universities, think tanks, academic journals, and experts. My emphasis is on the education of everyday citizens through speech and action in their localities — worksites, neighborhoods, cities, churches, and schools. The positive result of Trumpism is that it has brought to light a whole new generation of historians, political thinkers, and political actors. My recent project is to link political actors in local communities to the rebirth of the ideas of American political nationalism and internationalism.
One project to which I am specifically attracted is the Community Learning Partnership marshalling the core strengths of community colleges linked with high schools to benefit low-income communities. CLP’s programs forge genuine partnerships between community groups and colleges which take full advantage of the greatest strengths of colleges– their great expertise in teaching, their responsiveness to local job markets, their capacity to prepare students for careers, and their access to student aid and other government resources. CLP has helped build genuinely reciprocal and collaborative partnerships between community groups and community colleges which have resulted in creation of substantial new Degree and Certificate programs for first generation college students who want to “give back” to communities like their own. These programs provide pathways into long-term careers in community building and social reform.
In California, CLP is launching a major pilot program which is of national significance in addressing students’ enormous financial and educational needs. With $2.3 million in initial foundation and State youth employment funding, the Learning Partnership’s new “California Youth Leadership Corps” will begin providing 200 Pell-eligible students with $16-$22 per hour internships for at least two years gaining direct experience working with community-based organizations on community change projects with expert training and mentoring while taking courses towards a college Degree or Certificate in Community Change Studies or a related field.
[vi] The title of my Essay — The End of Trumpism and the New Beginning of History — obviously plays on Fukuyama book on the End of History. Fukuyama was using “end” not meaning termination but as goal in which politics would create what human history was aiming, the resolution of necessity and freedom. He made it clear even there that while terminating fascism and bolshevism may push us further to that goal, there were events in the Baltics and Near East that were clearly not meaning that history will not go on. His book on Identity shows the same contradictions in many other parts of the world including America with Trumpism. Post-Hegelian (or what I call Transmodern) philosophy argues that these oppositions are seated deep in human nature and existence. What we call Trumpism today has been a strand throughout the history of America seeking a better union. Nevertheless, we are determined. We can choose to overcome Trumpism in its present form by seeking a rebirth of democracy what many call the true soul of America. I would submit that this is a never-ending, but ever so worthwhile, quest.