Divided We Stand: How Did We Become in Thrall to Identity Politics-And What Does It Mean for the Future of Liberal Democracies?

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), September 28, 2018 | Go to article overview

Divided We Stand: How Did We Become in Thrall to Identity Politics-And What Does It Mean for the Future of Liberal Democracies?


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition

Francis Fukuyama

Profile, 240pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling]

The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Profile, 272pp. 14.99 [pounds sterling]

Francis Fukuyama's sense of grievance, expressed in the preface to his new book, is patent. Ever since he published his essay "The End of History" in 1989, he writes, he has been asked whether this or that event didn't invalidate his thesis. The event could be "be a coup in Peru, war in the Balkans, the September 11 attacks, the global financial crisis, or, most recently, Donald Trump's election and the wave of populist nationalism":

   Most of these criticisms were based on a
   simple misunderstanding. I was using
   the word history in the Hegelian-Marxist
   sense--that is, the long-term
   evolutionary story of human
   institutions that could alternatively be
   labelled development or modernization.
   The word end was meant not in the
   sense of termination, but "target" or
   "objective". Karl Marx had suggested
   that the end of history would be a
   communist Utopia, and I was simply
   suggesting that Hegel's version, where
   development resulted in a liberal state
   linked to a market economy, was the
   more plausible outcome.

It must be frustrating to spend nearly 30 years battling vainly against what you consider a simple misunderstanding of the idea at the heart of your work. But if Fukuyama's idea of the end of history has not been understood, one reason may be that it is incoherent. He tells us that it is not a terminus but instead an objective. At the same time he says history is the evolutionary story of human institutions. As understood by Darwin, however, evolution has no objective. The chief achievement of the theory of natural selection is to expel teleology from biology and explain the development of life without reference to objectives.

The inexorable implication is that if history is an evolutionary process, it has no objective either. Fukuyama's end of history remains what it has always been, a farrago of Hegelian metaphysics and ersatz evolutionary theory.

Even if we allow Fukuyama his confused concept, it is unclear why anyone should accept his particular version of it. Is "a liberal state linked to a market economy" the only possible alternative to communism? If the world's economies converge on any single system--an unlikely prospect--might it not be something like Chinese state capitalism or the oligarchical capitalism that currently prevails in the US? Might not the political systems that prevail be mostly tyrannies and illiberal democracies?

Continuing his complaint, Fukuyama writes: "My critics missed another point. They did not note that the original essay had a question mark at the end of the title." Like the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who dropped the question mark in later editions of their eulogy to Stalinism Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935), Fukuyama eliminated the interrogative in the book that followed his original essay. Is he now reinserting it?

It would seem not. In Identity, he still posits that liberal democracy is what in his original essay he called "the final form of human government". But now he recognises the possibility of liberal democracies "decaying or going backwards" and reiterates a claim made in his earlier work: that liberal democracies have not solved the problem of thymos. Thymos, Fukuyama explains, is the part of the soul that "craves recognition of dignity"; isothymia is "the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people"; and megalothymia is "the desire to be recognised as superior":

   Modern liberal democracies promise and
   largely deliver a minimal degree of equal
   respect, embodied in individual rights,
   the rule of law and the franchise. What
   this does not guarantee is that people in
   a democracy will be equally respected in
   practice, particularly members of groups
   with a history of marginalisation. … 

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