Francis Fukuyama is America’s last great student of G.W.F. Hegel. Which prominent thinker today still writes earnestly of the Spirit’s unfolding in history, of Napoleon at Jena? None but Fukuyama. He has one foot firmly in serious Continental thought, and the result is that even when he’s wrong, he’s wrong in fascinating ways. That alone should commend him to our attention in an intellectual landscape populated by dreary quants and TED charlatans.

In his latest book, Identity, the Stanford University scholar turns his attention to the burning questions of the moment, namely, identity politics and the challenge it poses to the democratic West. Who, or what, is to blame for our newfound obsession with identity—this thing we’ve had enough of and yet can’t get enough of? Should the democracies attempt to feed this hunger for identity? And if the answer is yes, how can they do so without tearing themselves apart?

“Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what’s going on today,” the author notes, from campus mobs to white-backlash politics to the resurgence of nationalism. He sets out to uncover the origins of these paroxysms and to offer a “more universal understanding” of recognition that would be at peace with the liberal-democratic project—one that he thinks represents the telos, or endpoint, of history.

If identity politics is at root about recognition, then it isn’t a new phenomenon at all but a very old one indeed, and it behooves moderns to listen to what the ancients had to say about the problem. Fukuyama does this in his early chapters, the book’s strongest. The desire for recognition that animates identity politics arises from what Socrates in Plato’s Republic calls the thymos, the spirit or “the third part of the soul.” The thymotic urge kicks into action when people seek recognition of their equal dignity (isothymia) or when they want to establish superiority over others (megalothymia). Isothymia can easily morph into megalothymia, a danger that didn’t escape Plato’s notice. Still, the rigid class distinctions of the ancient world helped contain some of the tensions. Pagan society reserved recognition only for certain people, mainly the guardians of the community, whose descendants formed the aristocracy; other classes were born, they toiled, they died unremembered, and that was that.

The God of the Hebrew Bible—and Christianity, which spread the Bible’s promise to the Gentiles—changed all that. That God imprinted his own image on this one creature, man, and gave him free will and a capacity for moral judgment. Thus, “in the Christian tradition, all human beings are fundamentally equal: they are endowed with an equal capacity for choice,” Fukuyama writes. The French philosopher Rémi Brague has described this process as Judeo-Christianity’s “democratization of nobility.”

As Fukuyama argues, many of our highest ideals today echo these teachings. The birth of modernity, however, radically altered how men and women went about satisfying the thymotic drive—and what they sought recognition for. Catholicism, in Fukuyama’s telling, “acted on the external person” through the sacraments. But then came Martin Luther with his claims about justification by interior faith alone. Whatever their theological validity, Luther’s ideas triggered a revolution of subjectivity in the West. The schism in Western Christianity would have far-reaching secular consequences.

In the centuries that followed, thinkers such as Rousseau told those hitherto unremembered multitudes that society was unjustly suppressing their inner lives, which were full of rich feelings and moral intuitions that deserved to be liberated from external restraints. Hegel, Fukuyama’s muse, saw in history the gradual universalization of recognition for all along French-revolutionary lines. The fact that history designated a marauding French general to impose these principles on the world “was a small detail” for the German philosopher.

These intellectual developments both reflected and influenced modernization across the West. The material benefits, in terms of growth and technological progress, are beyond dispute. But Fukuyama also tallies the harms—not least the dislocations, geographic and spiritual, that had millions answering the siren call of murderous ideologies such as Nazism. Elsewhere, in the liberal-democratic technocracies, they opened the way to a therapeutic culture that authorized moral license and disorder in the name of “authenticity” and “self-esteem.” 

Identity politics, then, has deep roots. There is a tendency among some liberals, of the classical and contemporary varieties alike, to view today’s identity politics as a novel and alien invasion. Fukuyama’s best contribution is to remind readers that deep secularization, what he calls the “disappearance of a shared religious horizon,” set the stage for today’s identity explosion. In other words, the same process that made liberal democracy possible also divested Western societies of a common source of attachment, belonging, and recognition. In its place came demands for recognition based on race, nationhood (including the nasty, exclusionary kind), sex, gender, and a thousand newfangled sexual preferences.

So what to do? Fukuyama devotes the final chapters of his book to imagining some new model that could reconcile, on the one hand, liberal democracy, and the various longings for collective recognition and deeper attachment that we group under the term “identity politics,” on the other. This is the book’s least compelling portion. The author can’t give up on the idea that secular universalism is the only way forward, since in his view, religion can offer only “partial” recognition. 

Thus, instead of calling for a recovery of Western democracy’s religious roots, as the likes of John Paul II and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks have argued, Fukuyama insists that secular, liberal-democratic culture itself should become the glue that holds us together. Put another way, the procedural norms of liberal democracy that are enshrined in Western constitutions should form the basis for attachment to the reigning political order and respect for the dignity of the other. But such thinking is precisely what got us here in the first place. At one point, he even envisions creating a European Union citizenship as a way to calm the Continent’s nationalist and populist storms. 

Sigh. If the last few years have taught anything, it is that voters across the West are hungry for a substantive vision of the good and of belonging and recognition. Telling them, loudly and slowly, that liberal democracy is the best apparently doesn’t calm the agitation at the heart of identity politics. And a soupy end-of-history transnational liberalism doesn’t sate Western man’s spiritual hungers. It’s too bad Fukuyama the Hegelian can’t look back and retrace historical steps, to see whether truths from the past were unduly discarded; the very arrow of time must ratify his ideas. This, even as historical events debunk them.

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