‘Identity’ by Francis Fukuyama | Book Review

William Condon 

In the Preface of Identity, Francis Fukuyama states that he would not have written this book without the election of President Donald Trump. Fukuyama examines the motivations behind this election and similar events around the world, such as Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. He argues that liberal democracy fails to adequately address the complex needs of society by examining nationalism, religion, and the democratization of dignity. The democratization of dignity entails that recognition is provided to everyone and not merely a specific class of people. The book builds on Fukuyama’s previous works and explores how differently dignity is defined and how liberal democracies fail to provide individuals the adequate means to exercise;  thymos: the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity, isothymia: the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people, and megalothymia: the desire to be recognized as superior.1 Fukuyama explains how these motivations can overpower basic desires like food, shelter, and safety. For example, isothymia explains why individuals are willing to fight for the interests of others in their identity group. They will often defend this person regardless of their difference in wealth and power because they perceive that society disrespected this person due to their shared social distinction. Liberal democracies also need to provide structured opportunities for megalothymia, in that the free market that provides sufficient outlets for these individuals. The political combination of isothymia and megalothymia has led to individuals weaponizing identity and its emphasis on equal recognition for their gain. This demand for recognition of one’s identity is the master concept that explains the rise of megalothymia leaders who portray their success as the success of the identity of their constituents.

Overall, the book draws heavily on classical philosophers such as Martin Luther, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. However, because these ideas form the foundation of his arguments, he fails to include the views of contemporary philosophers or social psychologists. He looks to directly connect classical philosophy with current events painting the process of political unrest as cyclical. There is very little consideration paid to how the human experience has evolved through national and international legal precedent. The international community has determined that specific identity-based governmental actions are no longer appropriate, i.e., forced religious conversion, genocide, identity-based deportation. For the author, our current state of identity politics seems to have created a need to reexamine the core tenants of the liberal democracy. The only reason to view identity through a historical context is to examine the philosophers of that time. He only analyzes the revolutionary aspects of identity through contemporary events. This philosopher based examination of identity is compelling; however, a more historical event-driven paradigm may have created a more convincing narrative. Through predominantly philosophy, he determines that dignity and resentment are eternal concepts throughout human history, and we can establish patterns of behavior.      

Fukuyama makes a strong argument for how fostering a sense of national identity can create security, administer effective government services, facilitate economic development, promote a wide radius of trust that facilitates economic and political exchange, maintain a strong social safety net that mitigates economic equality, and bring legitimacy to the social contract of liberal democracy.2 He defines equality in the United States as both an equal negative freedom from government and positive freedom of self-government and economic exchange. National identity was responsible for facilitating the creation of social capital in the face of the shifts that were occurring during the industrial revolution. He asserts that identity is not a biological distinction, and we can universally translate lived experience into a shared experience. Fukuyama argues that diversity can not be the only basis for identity. We must instead maintain a creedal identity based on the conventional political principles of the enlightenment such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. In his view, this is the only way to unify a modern liberal democracy in a multicultural society. What he fails to acknowledge substantively is the blending of social and institutional mandates. As individuals generate social capital within a national identity, social forces can capture institutions, and this can separate identity from shared experience. As institutions formally recognize identities outside of the national identity, they officially recognize this reality through policy and strive to give all identities equal access to a shared experience. Fukuyama would have done well to address how the American creedal identity did not hold equal value within state and local institutions. This approach would have created a much more specific focus of the book and perhaps would not have done well with his global scope that centered around the parallels of identity in Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, he could have examined issues wherein the absence of the formal recognition of nonnational identities in an institution can create a vacuum in which specific identities have more informal power than others. A clear example of this is when we examine diversity issues in recruitment and retention within law enforcement due to informal identity preferences within institutions. He acknowledges that these problems need to be solved to promote a national creedal identity but downplays the role of identity within the institutions.    

He explains that understanding the legacy of developing this creedal identity can not undermine our prerogative to reform and improve it within the constitutional framework. The United States constitution is amended and not replaced because the stability it provides, regardless of its legacy, needs to be maintained. To disregard it would be to be intellectually dishonest about the benefits the system has created. Fukuyama acknowledges that the recognition of past mistakes is only as vital as it is necessary to improve our creedal identity. Acknowledging past oppression is not an act to seek justice by those who perceive themselves oppressed, but instead a stick of which we can measure our national progress. In this sense, I feel that he draws on a narrative of hope as opposed to a solution of punitive measures. He theorizes that societies with greater social cohesion waste fewer resources and promoting assimilation and engaging in the politics of victimization. His positive message is that we can confront our victimhood.

We determine the social toll it takes through our perception of it. Our nation’s resources are finite to the degree that we have to choose how and when we expend political capital. Issues of identity are often incapable of being addressed in a liberal democratic framework. Fukuyama suggests that Europe must redefine national identity to a European Union universal standard that would center around liberal democratic principles. This redefinition would incorporate a union-wide transition to a jus soli citizenship. This transition would raise the standard of assimilation to obtain citizenship. This “in for a penny, in for a pound” approach to national identity is a consistent theme throughout the book, and he makes a compelling case for an institutional approach to the assimilation process.  

This book offers its readers a way to further examine the role of identity in society and to shape the expectations of identity politics. It will force the reader to examine how identity has developed into our modern understanding and if society can effectively utilize these concepts to create greater social trust through national identity. Fukuyama examines how the expansion of national identity can address many of the problems we are facing. The development of national identity to increase our shared experience may limit the cultural autonomy of immigrants, but Fukuyama would attest that it would solve more problems than it creates. As national identity becomes stronger, citizens can build political coalitions based on identities of association and not of ethnic or religious identity. He theories that this is how we can reverse the weaponization of identity in a liberal democracy.   

 

 

William Condon was a Supply Officer with the United States Marine Corps before starting his graduate degree in Governance and Democracy at Georgetown University in 2018. He was a member of an infantry battalion and participated in two deployments to Japan and South Korea. As a graduate student, Will has had the opportunity to attend a variety of classes on governance and corruption, specifically in Latin America. Concurrently, he has been serving in the United States Marine Corps Reserves as a Logistics Advisor with Marine Corps Advisory Company A in Anacostia, Washington DC. Will is also an assistant editor of Democracy and Society.

Endnotes

  1. FUKUYAMA, FRANCIS. IDENTITY: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York , NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. xiii
  2. Ibid 128-131

Bibliography

FUKUYAMA, FRANCIS. IDENTITY: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2018.

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