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In his new book, American political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama makes the case for imposed national identities. By failing to engage with identity politics at a grass-roots level, however, he misses the opportunity to discover new ways forward.

In Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, the ground level disputes between identity groups that we would generally understand as identity politics are barely touched upon. Postmodernism, the theoretical foundation of identity politics, is only mentioned in passing, and the relationship between identity politics and civil rights is explored from a distance, where mentioned at all. Instead, Fukuyama is interested in his own definition of identity politics, crafted from an academic, bird’s-eye point of view. His particular focus is the way it plays out in international politics and government. 

Fukuyama remains committed to liberal democracy and the free market economy, the socio-economic end-goal he once labelled ‘the end of history.’ One wonders, however, whether he couldn’t step off his ideological train and survey a little of the ground on foot. Might this not lead to more acute insights into identity politics and a fresher approach to the problem?

A failure of the left?

In the west, Fukuyama says, nationalism has gained political traction in response to the left’s inability to ‘capitalise’ on rising national economic inequality. This failure has been due to the left’s focus on ever more marginalised identity groups, prohibiting a united movement. Meanwhile, the right has succeeded in usurping the ‘language of victimisation’ to appeal to larger, and therefore more democratically influential, groups of the disenfranchised workforce, cultivating a populist sense of national identity. 

The solution Fukuyama proposes is to impose strong creedal national identities and enforce assimilation by means of standardised education, national service and limited levels of immigration. Such solutions are already under way in many parts of the world and often, such as in the case of the Muslim assimilation camps in Xinjiang, appear in violation of basic human rights. But should we really shape peoples for the convenience of a political order? Would it not be more reasonable to shape a politics that serves the needs of the people?

The two faces of identity politics

For Fukuyama, religion and nationalism are the two faces of identity politics. By religion he means militant Islam, and particularly its rise within western, democratic states. He sees a parallel between politicised Islam and western nationalism in that they promise a meaningful sense of identity in an increasingly confused cultural climate. Furthermore, they both peddle victimhood, lay the blame on groups of outsiders, and provide an ideology to explain the deep waves of societal discontent.

Conspicuously absent from this analysis is any inkling of the dynamic relationship between the two ‘faces.’ First, the role of Anglo-American foreign policy in shaping militant Islamic identity (a curious omission considering Fukuyama’s advisory role in the Reagan administration and subsequent turn against militant neoconservatism under Bush). Second, the way that nationalist fervour in the west has been provoked by Islamist attacks. 

Is it not possible that we stand to repeat such dynamics of division if we simply decree national identity upon a nation’s diverse peoples? 

Food for thought

Identity’s most nutritious food for thought is the idea that identity politics has become a ‘cheap substitute’ for serious thinking about socioeconomic inequality in liberal democracies, especially among progressives; that it prohibits a united left while triggering more successful identity campaigns on the right; that it signals a return to a definition of identity based upon fixed characteristics that the civil rights movements of last century worked so hard to dispel; and that it threatens free speech. These threats are particularly convincing because they remain relevant at all levels of political discourse, from the local to the international. 

Towards the end of the book, Fukuyama looks into the role of technology in shaping contemporary identity politics and proposes, albeit briefly, a more fluid concept of identity. It would be of considerable interest if these ideas were taken further. Research into more progressive and inclusive concepts of identity would have been a more fruitful exposition than the dry, academic map of identity’s conceptual evolution that opens the book. Moving beyond social media’s ‘filter bubbles’ and fake news, it would have been pertinent to explore the way in which new technologies could lead to greater social cohesion.

In a central chapter, Fukuyama mentions the 1987 Stanford University protests over the Western Culture curriculum. He argues that the protesters were not fighting for the course to include works by female, coloured and non-European authors due to the value of the texts themselves, but because it would ‘raise the self-esteem of marginalised students.’ 

Whatever the original intention of the protestors, surely a more important issue has been missed by Fukuyama, who only extracts his more philosophical arguments from the pantheon of European intellectual heavyweights. If our higher education system and other institutions represented a more diverse history, it would do far more to strengthen a sense of commonality and nationhood than, say, enforced national service.

It is a shame that, in Identity, Fukuyama doesn’t grapple more directly with his subject. Chained to his ideological agenda, he has risked overlooking potentially profound insights that may lead, in a more organic way than the enforced legislation of government, to a cohesive social and economic future. 

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, by Francis Fukuyama, is published by Profile Books. £12.99.

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