'Identity' by Francis Fukuyama

'Identity' by Francis Fukuyama
AP Photo/Heng Sinith

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Today when we think of “identity politics” we tend to think of right-wing racists or left-wing student radicals. But in his new book Identity, Francis Fukuyama sees identity politics as a much broader trend indicative of deep and longstanding developments in liberal philosopshy and society. Fukuyama is well known for his analysis of the postCold War world in The End of History and the Last Man. In Identity, he attempts to understand individual and collective identities. Our politics today, Fukuyama argues, is less based upon economic motivations, as was the case during the twentieth century, and more upon identity. It is the search for identity  for individual and collective recognition and dignity— that has helped produce Donald Trump, the resurgence of nationalism, as well as far-left identity politics.

Going through the intellectual and economic history of Europe, Fukuyama focuses the alienation of the individual in modern society. In chapters on Hobbes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, Fukuyama describes how the conception of the individual changed through the course of European intellectual and economic history. He argues that modern individuals have become increasingly alienated and turn towards nationalism and religion, especially Islam, as a means of forming new collective identities. Part of his explanation, for example, for radical Islamic terrorism is the alienation young Muslims feel living in Europe.

Fukuyama sees contemporary identity politics on the left as an intersection of the desire for recognition, a culture of therapy, and disillusion with attempts to use state power for economic progress. According to Fukuyama, the decline in traditional Western religion had led people to seek out a quasi-religion in psychotherapy. Our culture has become obsessed with self-esteem and feeling that one is properly recognized. Further, the failures of the welfare state to decrease inequality, as well as more general failures of government in Vietnam and Watergate, led the Left away from economic policy. The shift in focus had was associated with a shift in philosophy. Unlike traditional Marxists who embraced Enlightenment values and believed in the epistemic norms of science, the identity-driven left is relativistic and completely anti-traditional. It regards Christian culture, for example, “as the incubator of colonialism, patriarchy, and environment destruction,” Fukuyama writes.

Fukuyama’s argument could be stronger if he spent more time considering alternative explanations for some of the developments that occupy him. Perhaps Trump’s rise to power, for example, has been fueled not by identity politics, but by purely economic motivations. Similarly, Fukuyama’s discussion of the rise of a therapy culture does not take into account the empirical literature on actual increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Still, Fukuyama provides a provocative framework in which to understand contemporary politics and identity. Popular discussion on this issue, which is often ahistorical and superficial, stands to benefit from Fukuyama’s informed philosophical perspective.

Max Diamond is an investigative reporter at RealClearInvestigations.

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