We’re in This Together Now

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment BY Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 240 pages. $26.

The cover of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment

The closest thing to a consensus explanation for Trump’s election that has emerged in the wake of November 2016 is the notion that “the Left,” in relying on appeals to “identity politics” rather than to economic class, contributed to the GOP victory by provoking a backlash among white men and workers. In Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics and Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, centrist liberal academics showcased their predilection for battling the Right by punching left. Scornfully arraigning the campus thought police and mobs of online paladins prowling their nightmares, the pale male authors knew precisely whom to blame for the Democrats’ debacle: We could have fended Trump off, they groused, if it weren’t for the meddling kids whose cries for trigger warnings rousted the great white beast. Disdain for all things “woke” abounds across the social-democratic Left. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, a slapdash tract, copied and pasted, among much else, the message-board-Nazi myth that the censorious extremism of left-wing identity politics provoked their metamorphosis into aggrieved white nationalists. Jacobin, the leading magazine of the Left, routinely features Marxist academics inveighing against identity politics as a form of false consciousness, a liberal capitalist scheme to divert the working classes from their once and future unity. That the extreme Right has embraced this reading of recent history—which pits the vanity of “social-justice warriors” against the nobility of restoring a powerful majoritarian union—has given its centrist and leftist subscribers no pause.

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment marks Francis Fukuyama’s own concurrence with this complex of opinion: “Rather than building solidarity around large collectivities such as the working class or the economically exploited,” he writes, the Left “has focused on ever smaller groups being marginalized in specific ways.” In his view, the abdication of class politics has stranded the Left in a parlous condition. Without the votes of white workers, there can be no stable path to electoral victory; moreover, the “political correctness” mandated by left “identity politics” occasions a corresponding backlash: “The right has adopted the language and framing of identity from the left.”

Ken Gonzales Day, Untitled, 2011, Featuring Bust of a Young Man, Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi) and Bust of a Man, Francis Harwood, 2018, billboard for For Freedoms.
Ken Gonzales Day, Untitled, 2011, Featuring Bust of a Young Man, Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi) and Bust of a Man, Francis Harwood, 2018, billboard for For Freedoms.

In his diagnosis of an excess of political particularism and its prescription of reintegrated national identity as the cure, Fukuyama joins with the other congregants of backlash theory. Only the care and scope he displays in holding to its central tenets is unique. Fukuyama never emulates the sensibility of grievance he purports to critique. His sentences strive to be as tolerant and impartial as the ideal democratic state they advocate. “Identity politics,” for Fukuyama, is not just a scapegoat. Its conception spans centuries and continents, and he traces its history before he wades into the wetlands of contemporary polemic.

Fusing history with philosophy is far from an unfamiliar process for Fukuyama, who spent the best years of his life as a neoconservative using Plato and Hegel to deliver policy prescriptions for Republican presidents. A thirtysomething leading bureaucrat in the Reagan and then the George H. W. Bush State Department, Fukuyama won fame in 1989 for an essay titled “The End of History?” There and in the book it spawned, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Fukuyama dared to suggest that the USSR’s fall marked the last link in the chain of ideological conflicts that had driven historical development. Capitalism and democracy, taken together, were the final form of human organization; in the absence of competitors, the West’s “universal and homogeneous state” would gradually envelop the globe. In 2001, Fukuyama and his neocon colleagues at the Project for the New American Century were fierce advocates of invading Iraq on grounds of “democracy promotion.”

Fukuyama’s dismay at the ensuing debacle caused him to turn toward the liberal center, and subsequent disasters would push him deep into the liberal Left. The 2008 financial collapse ensured his vote for Obama; the bank bailouts and rise of the Tea Party turned him into a proto–Sanders Democrat. Identity continues its author’s long tradition of disappointment with the Left, yet it also registers as a subtle display of his own leftist tendencies. Only the serene quality of his writing separates him from the pages of Jacobin—that, and a greater sympathy for the logic of “identity politics.” For Fukuyama, identity politics, however effective at an electoral level, are always valid expressions of a basic human longing.

Readers of The End of History will find themselves reacquainted in Identity with his central concept of thymos, defined by Fukuyama (after Plato) as the natural and irreducible component of human beings seeking social recognition of their subjective worth. Thymos, in 1992, had arrived at its ultimate destination: a society of citizens, their equality secured by common law, upholding individual and collective recognition through the competition of elections and the market. A quarter century later, the utopian consensus first affirmed by Fukuyama has fallen on hard times. Western Europe and the United States, whose mature industrial economies and secular liberal democracies he had taken as stable models to be inevitably adopted by the rest of humanity, had witnessed the wholesale revival and major success of an explicitly racist politics. “This book would not have been written had Donald J. Trump not been elected president in November 2016,” he writes in the preface to Identity.

He begins by getting back to basics. Defining “identity politics” as the politics of thymos, as opposed to politics rooted in economic issues, he writes, “Political actors do struggle over economic issues. . . . But a lot of political life is only weakly related to economic resources.” Since thymos will always be with us, so will identity politics, for good or for ill. To Fukuyama, the most significant, and most potentially destructive, forms of identity politics are those pertaining to the nation. Following the scholar Ernest Gellner, he views nationalism as a distinctly modern phenomenon, “born out of the acute anxieties bred by industrialization.” Life and labor in the capitalist city shatter old community bonds; nationalism eases the trauma of modernity by offering a new mass identity to replace the local one dissolved by economic transformation. For him, it is the “thymotic” battle to break out of invisibility, rather than strictly material concerns, that impels the various political currents of the moment.

Fukuyama finds a similar dynamic at work in the American culture wars. Identity argues that recent movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are calls not for economic redistribution but for acknowledgment of personal dignity. As with nationalism, these demands take benign and malignant forms. Borrowing from Philip Rieff and Christopher Lasch, Fukuyama narrates how the Anglo-American conception of individual rights, originally enshrined in constitutional law, was elaborated in the postwar era through the therapeutic discourse of self-esteem. The mandate of reducing harm to self-esteem was collectivized during the ’60s, when it converged with movements of racial minorities and women calling for legal acknowledgment of their victimization and corresponding structural reparations. Their identity politics split between demands for equal treatment under the law and demands for legal recognition as a protected class with a unique lived experience. The former case, for Fukuyama, is democratically healthy, while the latter triggers the formation of a right-wing identity politics.

Identity is Fukuyama’s attempt to grant noneconomic politics a history and a future. Yet, in doing so, he falls prey to the same error that he charges identity politics with committing. His origin tale, based in thymos, for what he views as noneconomic politics leads him to continually misconstrue the element of economics, which is as crucial to thymotic “struggles for recognition” as thymos itself is crucial to human nature. Consider his assertion that “a female lawyer who is passed over for partner or is made vice president but at a salary 10 percent lower than that of her male counterparts is in no sense economically deprived”: Her anger “is not so much about resources as about justice,” because in her case, “Salary is a matter of recognition.” It is true that this lawyer is not destitute, but she is, literally, being deprived economically. Her struggle for resources is her struggle for justice. Salary is indeed a matter of recognition, but the converse is equally valid: Recognition is a matter of salary.

In fact there is no example cited by Identity as a potent manifestation of identity politics that is not strongly linked to economics—even the activists mobilizing around injured dignity at elite universities can be properly seen as trying to get their money’s worth. (Did they pay such exorbitant tuition merely for the privilege of being insulted?) Fights for status and fights for goods being all but inseparable, Fukuyama’s definition of identity politics, already broad, is in reality so large that it signifies all politics, and thus lacks meaning. None of this detracts from the need to foreground the necessity of wealth redistribution; but the higher concentration of minorities and women in the working classes means that supporting social equality and promoting economic equality must succeed together or not at all. The flaw in liberal identity politics is not identity, but a liberalism that demands equality within only one class (the upper-middle class) while upholding inequality between classes.

“Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate,” Fukuyama writes, concluding the book with a proposal for a renovated US nationalism capable of uniting disparate identities under a single banner. Genuine equality, achieved through the American nation-state: Fukuyama’s politics may have changed since history’s end, but his core belief remains untouched. We can entertain his assertion that “a progressive narrative can also be told about the overcoming of barriers and the ever-broadening circles of people whose dignity the country has recognized, based on its founding principles.” But we can do so seriously only by dispensing with the axioms of backlash theory, particularly his assertion that “identity politics as currently practiced on the left . . . has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right.” The American Right never needed lessons from the Left on mobilizing around common sentiments of aggrieved victimhood. Resentment of the metropole’s arrogance, particularly in its support for colored Untermenschen, is as American as the Fourth of July. The grievance study called the Declaration of Independence censures the English king for both his tyrannies and his alleged backing of “merciless Indian savages.” The same resentment took on new life in the Civil War, envisioned by the rebels as a second American Revolution against the black-loving North. If Fukuyama cites the Civil War’s “new birth of freedom” as proof that an inclusive nationalism is possible, he neglects to mention how, in the wake of defeat, the dream of Confederate nationalism remained and expanded. The belligerent culture of the white South, with its demands for safe spaces, curtailed discourse, violent restoration, and special recognition as a class—more than any other, it is the persistently indignant logic of this identity politics, predating campus activism by a century, on which the Republican electoral dominance culminating in a protofascist president has been based.

It is a testament to Fukuyama’s intelligence and the depth of his commitment to democracy that, despite beginning from the incoherent, crumbling premises of centrist punditry, the political program that emerges from his recent publications can only be described as a concerted push for socioeconomic justice. “The sense that political correctness has run amok everywhere,” he insists, is “greatly exaggerated.” Progressive identity politics, by and large, combat genuine, pernicious social evils. Income inequality must be cut down by taxation and redistribution. Citizenship should be predicated on mandatory civic service, and there must be “an agreement to give undocumented aliens without criminal records a path toward citizenship.” If carried out, these programs would constitute a positive and lasting transformation of American society.

But will they be carried out? If Fukuyama is the foremost public intellectual of the past two generations, he has achieved that status because, unlike his peers, he accepts the evidence of new events. When the world proves his analysis wrong, he sides with the world. That he is alone in doing so reflects poorly on his class, but since his corrections are personal and his errors systemically entrenched, the record of his past misreadings of reality doubles as a summary of the obstacles to progress in the present. His career since The End of History has seen a dawning realization that, far from converging as he originally thought, unlimited capitalism and true democracy are incompatible; the casuists of neoliberalism continue to equate deregulated markets with healthy societies. The Iraqi catastrophe taught him prudence; his former neocon allies push a new Republican administration toward war with Iran.

Perhaps worst of all, the electoral coalition forged by the Republican Party to which he once belonged not only endures in the Trump administration, but has been successfully exported overseas. As American democracy was globalized, so, too, was the Southern strategy: the electoral domination of a party financed by provincial-minded nouveaux riches whose leader mobilizes provincial smallholders around the hatred of ethnic and religious minorities and ressentiment toward more established secular liberal elites. Netanyahu’s Israel, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Orbán’s Hungary, Modi’s India: With democracies like these, who needs dictatorships? So long as its privileges are secured, the nature of the state is a matter of indifference to capital. The example set by these illiberal strongmen suggests that Fukuyama’s implicit faith that the Trumpist Right will accept defeat at the polls, its constituencies peacefully acquiescing to a permanent loss of status and wealth, is likely to meet with a brutal rejoinder. As he may recall from his neocon days, the affective logic of the resentful parvenu hardly lends itself to a respect for one’s foes.

Frank Guan is a writer in New York.