The End of History-fame controversial pop-philosopher Francis Fukuyama is back with an evocative, enigmatic and entertaining pint-sized, novella-like political pamphlet, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Using Plato’s relatively unknown philosophical notion of thymos – the desire for recognition – and Hegel’s master-slave didactic, and exploring the historical evolution of the puzzling nature of identity through Locke and Rousseau, to modern gender politics, Fukuyama provocatively argues that demands of identity politics are at the root of anti-immigrant populism, the upsurge of politicised Islam, xenophobia and the re-emergence of white nationalism and the hostile ideological environment of college campuses in the US, Europe and elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In the earth-shattering eschatological thesis of The End of History, Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy over the totalitarian rivals. But in this apocalyptic, science-fiction-like book on identity, he rails against the ‘political correctness’ of identity politics and savagely criticises multiculturalists and so-called deconstructionist nihilists who have opened the gates of western liberalism to the voices of women, African Americans, Black Lives Matter, native Americans, immigrants, gays, lesbians and other marginalised points of view, including proponents of #MeToo. Given his neo-conservative past and Straussian philosophical moorings, this is not a surprise.
Here I must confess that Fukuyama’s world is, indeed, allegorical and there is also something deeply alluring and magical in his flawed Socratic pronouncements. So you need to guard against Fukuyama’s wizarding world of philosophical charms.Writing with a sense of visceral urgency and sublime depth of philosophical argumentation, Fukuyama recognises that identity politics is undoubtedly a celebration of recognition, especially of marginalised groups and their demands for social justice. But it is also true that particularistic forms of identity politics mask imperial dreams, hide necrophilic political fantasies and justify ethnic cleansing of various sorts, including dividing people into vegetarian and non-vegetarian camps. This also partly explains that identity politics has led to ‘democratic recession’, leading to rise of more authoritarian governments in various parts of the world. Blaming both right-wingers and the left-wingers for letting us descend into the dystopian politics of recognition that often degenerates into a politics of isolation, anger, grievance or what Nietzsche called ‘ressentiment’, Fukuyama warns us against the dangers of identity becoming a nihilistic case of cynical narcissism or self-love for self-preservation and survival. Suffering intense feelings of rage or inferiority, this self-absorbed love for identity has resulted into a Hobbesian “state of war of all against all”.
Whether we like it or not, but apocalypse happens in several ways; it can be natural or self-inflicted. In other words, Fukuyama presents in his latest potboiler a dark apocalyptic world of identities in the post-globalised world populated by neo-Bolsheviks and patron- saints of ‘post-truth politics’. In this surrealistic vision of horrors of a new kind of tribalism, Fukuyama convincingly argues that identity politics has uprooted whatever is left of so-called universal humanity and solidarity. This horror has its traditional moments of blood-spilling, but the most terrifying part of this tale is that it makes monstrous megalomaniacs out of ordinary leaders in democracies.
Consider the language of moral superiority, racial privilege, national pride, and also a sense of humiliation that mark the politics of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Xi Jinping, Ergodan; they are all creatures of what Fukuyama calls megalothymia – the tyrannical impulse of the soul to be superior to others. Why is the desire for recognition, the third part of human psyche (soul) — or identity politics, as Fukuyama calls it — a threat to universal human solidarity? Using a dialogue between Socrates and Adeimantus and his brother Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, Fukuyama explains why modern theories of interest or human psychology fail to explain suicide bombers or gay marriages.
It is common knowledge that people not only sacrifice the world’s goods for recognition; they kill others and also die for recognition. Following Socrates’s novel way of describing human worth, Fukuyama discovers thymos at the root of contemporary struggle for politics of recognition or identity. Thymos is ‘the seat of judgments of worth’, and it possesses both anger and pride and “it is neither desire nor an aspect of reason but an independent part of the soul (spirit)”. And this part of the soul demands that we recognise the basic equal worth of all human beings.
While Socrates associated thymos primarily with the class of guardians, he considered that all human beings possessed three parts of the soul. In other words, thymos is the driving force of struggle for recognition in all human beings. Fukuyama quite persuasively argues that the rise of modern democracy is the story of the displacement of megalothymia, the tyrannical ambition to be superior to others, by isothymia — the powerful human drive to be seen as “just as good as everyone else”. So even if I cannot play the piano and can’t not pretend that I am the equal of Glenn Gould or Arthur Rubinstein, I must not be denied the dignity or equal human worth that I deserve. This radical shift in the idea of modern self is the root cause of contemporary quests for equal recognition by groups that have been marginalised by their societies or cultures.
Fukuyama is equally harsh on left and right spectrums of politics. According to him, the left has focused less on universal economic equality and more on promoting particularistic interests of marginalised groups. In contrast, the right has reinvented itself as “patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion”.
Citing examples of Syria, Afghanistan, Kenya and historical cases of breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Vienna, Fukuyama argues that diversity is a virtue in itself and critical to resilience of human life. Yet, when narrowly imagined, national identities assert themselves, diversity becomes “a paroxysm of violence and intolerance”. Not that he is opposed to all forms of ethnic belonging. He supports India, France, Canada and the United States as examples of inclusive cases of national identity. In fact, Americans have developed what Fukuyama calls ‘creedal national identity’ that rejects all forms of essentialised identity and celebrates ‘a new birth of freedom’ envisioned by Abraham Lincoln and one that Americans celebrate on the holiday he created, Thanksgiving. He forcefully submits that “national identity has to be related to substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, rule of law and human equality”. No wonder, Babasaheb Ambedkar, fully supportive of civilisational diversity of India, had submitted a proposal before the constituent assembly of India for making India as ‘United States of India’ to underline the importance of what he called maitri or fellowship towards all.
Multiculturalists like Will Kymlicka and communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor have celebrated the ethics of differences and solidarity. But the claim that multiculturalism undermines social cohesion has led to several European leaders like Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron to blame politics of recognition for failing to promote a sense of common identity and encouraging Muslim segregation and radicalisation. Given the backdrop of the fractious nature of debate over the refugee crisis in Europe, Fukuyama argues quite ferociously that “desire for equal recognition can easily slide over into a demand for recognition of the group’s superiority” and often results into explosion of illiberal forms of identity such as nation and religion. Fukuyama reminds us rather tragically that let’s not forget that liberating the inner potential of thymos is also fraught with dangers. Nietzsche saw it clearly in the pursuit of personal liberation or dignity; it could easily pave the way for rule of narcissist strong over the weak. To conclude, Fukuyama, who outlines a typical assimilationist national-service proposal for immigrants, unfortunately ends his brilliant political pamphlet on a pessimistic note, believing that megalothymia cannot be eradicated; it can only be moderated. Thus, in the end, Fukuyama is trapped in a dark tunnel — of unending end of the history — of his own making!
(Ashwani Kumar is a poet, political theorist and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai)