Identity Crisis

By Archie, Andre | Modern Age, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Identity Crisis


Archie, Andre, Modern Age


Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment By Francis Fukuyama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

The phrase "identity politics" gained momentum during the '60s and was often used as a term of opprobrium referring to parochial interests motivated by the social background or orientation of a particular demographic group. Race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation became powerful vehicles through which the personal became the political. One only needs to think about the African American civil rights movement and the gay rights movement to understand what's distinctive about identity politics. Both movements sought equal protection before the law for their respective communities, and for their individual members to be treated with dignity and respect. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail is a powerful indictment against segregation precisely because it appeals to the same founding American documents and Western philosophical texts that some southerners used to support segregation. Early gay rights activists, too, appealed to founding documents like the Declaration of Independence to argue for individual rights. While it is true that identity politics informed the demands of these two communities, it is also true that both movements, at the time, appealed to a more comprehensive and inclusive national identity. Such an identity helped each movement gain much needed support from a broad swath of America.

Francis Fukuyama's Identity loosely expounds on this line of thinking by arguing that liberal democracies are healthiest when they foster inclusive national communities, rather than a bunch of narrow identities among the aggrieved. In the end, Fukuyama offers several proposals designed to mitigate the pernicious effects of identity politics while also promoting an inclusive national identity. Encouraging citizens to commit to national service--either in the form of serving in the military or in a civilian capacity--is one such proposal. Ultimately, Fukuyama's proposals amount to a "healthy nationalism" that is creedal in orientation. His promotion of a creedal American identity seems to account, in part, for his shortsightedness in not addressing existing policies, like affirmative action, that foster an especially pernicious type of identity politics.

Identity consists of a preface and fourteen self-contained chapters, most of which have been published previously in some form or another. Accordingly, there is no coherent argument that gains depth and clarity as one reads from chapter to chapter; rather, the book revolves around themes: the ancient Greek concept of thymos, recognition, dignity, identity, immigration, nationalism, religion, and culture. Fukuyama's approach to each presupposes that human behavior is motivated by factors other than just the ones commonly espoused by neoclassical economists. The economists argue that human beings are "rational maximizers" always in pursuit of their own preferences and utilities. These preferences tend not to be rationally ordered in terms of a highest good, but are ordered emotively and only rationally pursued. On this view, material incentives are the main sources of human motivation.

Classical Marxists share the free-market economists' view. The difference is that the Marxists believe classes rather than individuals pursue their economic self-interest. In this dispute, it seems the free-marketeers were right. In Communist China, for example, productivity on collective farms was low because peasants could not keep the surplus of what they produced. When the incentive structure was changed in the 1970s to allow peasants to keep their surplus, output soon doubled. We also see, according to Fukuyama, the role material incentives played in the 2008 financial crisis. Investment bankers were rewarded for risk taking and short-term profits--and that is what they pursued at the expense of stability.

So Fukuyama does not reject economic reasoning entirely. …

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