Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment

By D'Ambrosio, Paul J. | Philosophy Today, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment


D'Ambrosio, Paul J., Philosophy Today


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

In the wake of what many Western intellectuals consider to be the twin liberaldemocratic failures of 2016 a huge swath of theories has been presented to explain just how such disasters could occur. At this point the most trodden paths include (1) the isolating nature of social media and its promotion of fake news and (2) the rise and whetting of populism and identity politics. Francis Fukuyama's latest book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, homes in on the latter. Fukuyama summarizes his position: "Do you respect group identity, or do you respect people as individuals? The moment that you shade over into the belief that it is the group that you are respecting that's when identity politics begins to really seriously conflict with some basic principles of a liberal society"1

In this context "individual" refers to the person as an autonomous rational agent, not to be confused with an "authentic self." In fact, Fukuyama comes down quite harshly on authenticity. Referencing Charles Taylor's The Ethics of Authenticity (1992), where Taylor famously delineates our "age of authenticity" Fukuyama writes: "Trump was the perfect practitioner of the ethics of authenticity that defines our age: he may be mendacious, malicious, bigoted, and unpresidential, but at least he says what he thinks" (119). In its modern development authenticity is characterized by "expect[ing] the outside society to be the people that change, not that inner self."2 In other words, "the modern self says 'No I'm right, my authenticity is what is important and if you, everyone around me, thinks that I'm wrong [then] you're wrong. You are the ones that have to change"3 Individualism in this context, or viewing oneself as a rational agent, does not necessarily entail constructing particularistic identities. As the authentic self pursues recognition for all its idiosyncratic elements identity itself becomes an existential and political issue.

Fukuyama defines identity as "based on the universal human desire to have one's dignity recognized"4 Following Plato, and linking him to Hegel, Fukuyama argues that thymos, the part of the human psyche or "soul" that seeks "dignity" or "recognition"-and can fuel "resentment"-has come to the fore in contemporary identity politics. The other two major parts Plato describes (i.e., desire and reason) are widely acknowledged, and capitalized on in economics. But thymos has largely been overlooked. Fukuyama argues, "[m]uch of what passes for economic motivation is . . . actually rooted in the demand for recognition" (xv). For example, an individual's happiness is more closely correlated to their relative wealth than their absolute wealth. For Fukuyama this point "has direct implications for how we should deal with populism [and identity politics] in the present" (xv).

A good deal of Identity is devoted to tracing the move from what Lionel Trilling calls "sincerity," or "role-based" understandings of people, to individualism and authenticity. In modern times this shift arose from a general disillusionment with older forms of social and political organization. In premodern times people were largely defined by their social roles, with identity and recognition thickly woven into the very fabric of social conditions. However, these structures often took the form of rigid hierarchies with little room for individual choice. The transformation to modern democratic forms of politics granted basic rights while simultaneously focusing recognition on the identity of the individual as an individual-not merely their roles. But this tendency is taken too far in today's identity politics. Fukuyama explains:

Often times, however, if you can take democracy for granted you start worrying about other things, and in particular you begin to be concerned with partial forms of recognition. …

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