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Identity: The Demand for Dignity & The Politics Of Resentment – Francis Fukuyama

by Venky


We are living in testing times where notions of identity and ethnicity threaten to take precedence over cultural assimilation and geopolitical tolerance. The shock election of the entrepreneur turned playboy to the highest office in the oldest democracy on the Planet and the equally shocking decision by the United Kingdom exit the European Union are but two quintessential representations of the changing global contours. But what exactly is this political identity with which the world seems to be disturbingly occupied? Is identity politics a divisive force or an integrative power? What are the origins of this powerful attribute that permeates continents and exerts an indelible influence? These are some of the questions which one of the most well acclaimed political scientist and political economist, Francis Fukuyama attempts to answer.

Continuing from where he left off in his seminal, “The End of History and The Last Man”, Mr. Fukuyama dwells on the aspect of ‘thymos.’  Thymos as per the author is that part of the soul that desires recognition of dignity. The twin facets of ‘isothymia’ and ‘megalothymia’ – the need to be respected on an equal basis with other people and the desire to be recognized as superior respectively constitute two integral elements that drive the essence of identity. This craving for identity which originated with an intent and purpose to attain recognition has ineluctably morphed into a fervent ideology nursing and nurturing its own agenda. As the author illustrates, anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties are gaining ascendancy across nations. Primary examples being the National Front in France, the party for Freedom in Netherlands, the Alternative for Germany and the Freedom party in Austria. While the term “identity politics” is a recent coinage first attributed to the psychologist Erik Erikson during the 1950s, the concept of identity is deep rooted. Mr. Fukuyama employs the term identity in a specific sense to mean an identity that “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.”  This non recognition leads to isothymia and induces actions that strive to claim such absent recognition.

Departing from the received economic wisdom of rational preference and utility maximization, the author argues 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.”  Thus, a hedge fund manager seeking to accumulate wealth as well as a soldier gallantly falling upon a grenade to save his brethren are both maximizing their different preferences. Drawing our attention to the conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus more than two millennia ago, Mr. Fukuyama, asserts that economics did not comprehend the fact that “desire and reason are component parts of the human psyche (soul), but a third part, thymos, acts completely independent of the first two.” Hence when man feels that there is a conflict between an authentic identity that is closeted within and the role assigned to their persona by society there occurs an identity crisis. This concept of identity has been analysed in great depth and detail by various beacons of change, ranging from the Augustinian friar Martin Luther to the pioneer of the construct of the social contract Jean Jacques Rousseau. The French philosopher bemoans the shift from amour de sol  (love of self) to amour propre (vanity) which fuels the need for social recognition.

This universal demand for dignity has birthed revolutions from time immemorial. Whether it be the French Revolution or the Arab Spring of 2010, the “demand for the equal recognition of dignity” continues unabated. Geniuses such as Vincent Van Goh and Franz Kafka who were not accorded recognition during their life time became martyrs of an unapologetic society that did not have the necessary sense to appreciate the depths of individuality represented by such stalwarts. Mr. Fukuyama also underscores the lockstep between individual identity and collective identity. While the former is an individualistic desire to be recognized, the latter is the outcome of a belongingness to a particular unit such as a nation, a religion or a community. First accorded prominence by Johann Gottfried von Herder, the notion of collective identity or ‘ethno-nationalism’ has assumed magnitude of great and at times grave proportions. In the words of Mr. Fukuyama, who echoes the sentiments of the nineteenth century social theorist, Ferdinand Tonnies, “the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or from village community to urban society……engenders a psychological dislocation that lays the basis for an ideology of nationalism based on an intense nostalgia for an imagined past of strong community in which the divisions and confusions of a pluralist modern society did not exist.”

This ideology propagated by the Biblical scholar Paul de Lagarde and avidly researched by intellectuals such as Wilhelm Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Troeltsch and Thomas Mann, was also one of the driving thrusts behind the Nazi forces. This very transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is the one that has seen the humongous migrations of victims from the war torn countries of Syria, Yemen, Libya etc and has led to a raging debate on immigration and the attendant policies. The ethno nationalism triggered by this transition leads to people wearing specific garbs not as a declaration of their faith towards a particular religion but as a strong and impacting declaration about their association or belongingness to a cause or a group. The “born-again” phenomenon that results in an otherwise perfectly normal, seemingly assimilated group of Islamic youth transform into suicide bombers and gun toting maniacs has been described by the French Middle East Scholar Oliver Roy as more of “Islamization of radicalism, rather than radicalization of Islam.”  The motives underlying the wanton acts of destruction of such brain washed individuals are more a result of deprived identity rather than a fostering of religious ideologies. Not surprisingly this theory of Roy has come in for some scathing criticism by other scholars and experts in the subject.

This loss of identity which makes one seem almost ‘invisible’ in relation to a class which wallows in wealth and recognition also unleashes an ethno nationalism based on dissent and discord. Citing the example of Thailand, the author states, “loss of middle class status may explain one of the most bitter polarizations in contemporary politics, which has emerged in Thailand.”  The roiling class division that led to clashes between the “yellow shirts” supporters of the monarchy, and the “red shirts” rebels of the Thai Rak Thai Party depicted in chilling detail the sectarian strife that could be triggered by a lack of identity. Similar were the working class resentments which not only led to the formation of the Tea Party in the United States but also vaunted a demagogue to the country’s highest political pedestal.

Mr. Fukuyama also identifies what he terms to be six vital functions of national identities: “physical security; quality of government; economic development; promoting a wide radius of trust; maintaining strong social safety nets that mitigate economic inequality; and to make possible liberal democracy.” Such a national identity, “provides the connective tissue around which diverse communities can thrive. India, France, Canada and the United States are examples of countries that have tried to do this.”  Mr. Fukuyama also proposes measures such as encouraging proper assimilation of refugees, streamlining citizenship laws by introducing community and civic service, changing the laws of EU member states still based on jus sanguinis to jus soli and to counter specific abuses such as sexual harassment and abuse to overcome the obstinate problem of identity crisis.

In an era where using trucks to mow into a teeming mass of public, or to explode oneself in the middle of a bustling concert has become commonplace, socio economic measures and political policies followed by the nation states will, to a large extent determine not only the well-being of the world, but also the path to be pursued in future.

Francis Fukuyama’s new book, while not proclaiming to erase the ails triggered by the needs of identity, provides an illuminating overview of the very problem and the myriad reasons under girding the same.

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