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The politicisation of identity

Public life today is dominated by the politicisation of identity. The grand narratives of the age of ideology have given way to a cacophony of demands for validation from the latest cause-seekers to enter the marketplace of identities. So no sooner is white privilege denounced for its ‘colourblind’ insensitivity than insecure members of this privileged group start to frame their concerns through the medium of a hastily constructed white identity.

Francis Fukuyama’s very readable book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, attempts to reckon with out identitarian moment. He wants to explain how it is that we have reached the point where identity has assumed such a powerful influence over public life.

Identity continues from where his influential The End of History and the Last Man left off — namely, with the victory of a global system based on liberal democratic ideals. Then, Fukuyama tempered any triumphalism on the grounds that the Platonic problem of thymos, our craving for the recognition of our dignity, has not been solved. Now, in Identity, he deepens his portrait of this craving, adding the concepts isothymia, the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people, and megalothymia, the desire to be recognised as superior. He argues that these different manifestations of the desire for recognition constitute the main drivers of identity politics. The demand for recognition, he concludes, is the ‘master concept that unifies much of what is going on in the world today’.

Framing the demand for recognition as a master concept allows Fukuyama to treat otherwise disparate political phenomena as one problem. So resentment at the indignity of not being validated or recognised underpins Russia’s assertive foreign policy, militant Islam, the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, the rise of populism in Europe, and the proliferation of identity-based groups in Western societies. There is no doubting Fukuyama’s ambition. However, in casting the net so widely, he risks losing sight of the specific dynamics and contexts informing different events. Can phenomena as different as Brexit and trans activism really be explained in the same terms of an ‘identity that is not being given recognition’? Moreover, what is this identity that is always searching for recognition?

Identity’s history

Fukuyama argues that identity grows out of the ‘distinction between one’s true inner self and the outer world of social rule’. People’s inner self constitutes the foundation for human dignity, which in turn is always in search of recognition. The tension and disjunction ‘between one’s inside and one’s outside’ provides the basis for identity. Fukuyama argues that the idea of identity was born during the Reformation, when Luther valorised the inner self over external institutions.

Luther’s affirmation of people’s conscience and inner life undoubtedly did play an important role in freeing the individual from external constraint. Yet the Lutheran focus on one’s inner life did not lead directly to a demand for recognition from other people or institutions. Yes, his exploration of his inner self may have prompted the question ‘Who am I?’, but that had little in common with the way that identity has been conceptualised over the past 50 to 60 years.

As Gerald Izenberg, in his magisterial study Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea, pointed out, Luther would have found the contemporary concept of identity ‘incomprehensible’. Luther resolved the tension between inner self and external conditions through a moral orientation that used already existing universal terms. To the extent that identity had a meaning in Luther’s time, it meant little more than self-sameness. Contrast that to today, where identity often refers to a consciousness of difference and uniqueness.

Concern with the nature of selfhood is a recurrent theme in history. But it was not until after the Second World War that it was framed in terms of identity. The most exhaustive and authoritative account of the historical specificity of identity is to be found in Marie Moran’s Identity and Capitalism. As Moran explains, identity is a very new idea: ‘[It] never “mattered” prior to the 1960s because it did not in fact exist or operate as a shared political and cultural idea until the 1960s.’ She continues: ‘Until the 1950s, or even the 1960s and 1970s, there was no discussion of sexual identity, ethnic identity, political identity, national identity, corporate identity, brand identity, identity crisis, or “losing” or ‘finding” one’s identity.’

Since the 1960s, identity has become a central category in the social sciences and is widely cited in both academic and popular monographs. Matters were different before the Second World War. As the intellectual historian Philip Gleason points out, the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in the early 1930s, ‘carried no entry at all for identity’. It did have an entry titled ‘Identification’, which dealt with fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation. Whatever the significance of the demand for recognition before the Second World War, it was not perceived or represented through the medium of identity.

Far from being a universal concern, the need to ‘possess an identity’ has been absent in public and cultural deliberations throughout most of human history. Izenberg claims that the first use of the term identity in the contemporary sense is to be found in Virginia Woolf’s interwar novel, Orlando. Sigmund Freud famously talked of his Jewish identity, in reference to his inner self, in a speech in 1926. Indeed, Freud’s passing reference to identity can be construed as an acknowledgment of his uncertainty about his place in the world, which arguably anticipates the current usage of the term. As Izenberg argues, it was the disruption to people’s sense of who they were, caused by the First World War, that led to questions being raised about one’s identity. However, it would take until the 1940s and 1950s for the idea that identity was in crisis to crystallise.

The reason why attending to the historical evolution of the meaning of identity is so important is because it helps illuminate what is genuinely distinct and unique about our own era. The contemporary individuated, commodified and fragmented version of identity is a relatively recent development, fuelled by a combination of four important interlocking and mutually reinforcing influences.

These are: the unprecedented growth of consumer culture and its promotion of lifestyle as a key component of personal identity; the powerful influence of therapy culture, which has played a significant role in society’s preoccupation with the self and self-esteem; the extraordinary erosion of any moral consensus, which has led to a loss of meaning about people’s place in the world; and, finally, the unravelling of influential political movements and ideologies, which has weakened the universalist impulses in public life.

These developments have forged an environment in which the particularist imagination is rarely contained. In its most radical form – in the Anglo-American sphere – the consolidation of particularist sentiment has merged with the preoccupation with the self. In our time, in many instances, beneath the affirmation of a collective identity lurks the sentiment of ‘it’s all about me’.

In most historical societies people did not need a concept of identity because they knew who they were. It is worth noting that when Plato elaborated his view of thymos, dividing up the soul into different parts, he was not interested in the problem of identity, at least not in the way we understand it today. Plato’s interest in the self was motivated by questions such as whether or not the soul survives bodily death. Treating the demand for recognition in a trans-historical manner is the main theoretical weakness of Fukuyama’s Identity. At times it can lead to sheer anachronism. So, after considering the effects of the 19th-century transition from agrarian village life to an urban industrial existence, he concludes that ‘this was the moment in which the personal became political’! Now, the newly emerging class of workers might have felt alienated and disoriented, but it is unlikely the motto ‘the personal is political’ would have meant very much to them.

The personal could only become political once the wider humanistic impulses that inspired the movements of the post-Enlightenment era were seemingly emptied of meaning. The politicisation of the person in the 1960s and 1970s was not simply the latest version of the Romantic quest for the authentic self; more importantly, its emergence was made possible by the exhaustion and unravelling of the political left and its acquiescence to, and celebration of, what came to be known as the politics of difference.

The contemporary focus on the personal lends politics a hitherto unprecedented subjective and, therefore, arbitrary character. The constant proliferation of identities exposes their fragile and transient character. Paradoxically, those demanding validation today are not always certain who they really are and how they want to be recognised.

The question of sovereignty

Fukuyama recognises the divisive influence of identity politics and the need to ‘achieve common goals via deliberation and consensus’. He rightly argues that such a consensus can only be achieved within a national framework, and calls for ‘national identities’ that can be built around ‘liberal and democratic political values, and the connective tissue around which diverse communities can thrive’. He even points out that the very existence of liberal democracy presupposes the existence of a national identity.

Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s support for national identity is qualified by his reluctance to endorse the ideal of national sovereignty. His estrangement from sovereignty is captured in his criticism of populism. The demand to ‘take back our country’ or ‘to take back control’, he says, expresses fear and hostility towards foreigners and immigrants. No doubt insecure and nativist sentiments have motivated some citizens in the US and Europe. But in many instances, the notion of ‘taking back our country’ serves as shorthand for (re-)gaining democratic control over a community’s destiny. It is a pity Fukuyama does not engage with this democratic deficit, because it is this that has estranged so many people from public life, and given rise to our populist moment, rather than the deus ex machina of rising xenophobia.

Of course, a keen political observer like Fukuyama is aware of the pernicious effect of the democratic deficit on public life. But his solution – at least in the case of Europe – is a technocratic one. He writes that ideally the European Union should develop a citizenship law that could supersede national citizenship laws. That would further diminish the meaning of being a citizen of a nation, and deepen people’s alienation from their political institutions. Instead of seeking a ‘remedy for the populist politics of the present’, as Fukuyama suggests, we should be trying to fix Europe’s democratic deficit.

It is the devaluation of sovereignty – national and popular – that is often responsible for creating the conditions in which the politicisation of identity flourishes. Fukuyama is right that the most effective antidote to identity politics is consensus, but a consensus can only be reached by a sovereign people. For too long, governments in Europe have not taken their citizens seriously, often bypassing them when making important decisions that have determined the shape and nature of their communities. These political elites, scorning the meaning of sovereignty, have made little attempt to promote a national vision. Instead of forging a common consensus, they embraced the lazy idea of multiculturalism. The inevitable consequence of multiculturalism is cultural insecurity, which is precisely the psychic terrain on which identity politics flourishes.

In his final chapter, ‘What is to be done?’, Fukuyama concludes that, ‘European countries need to shift their popular understanding of national identities away from those based on ethnicity’. His call for a sense of nationhood based on civic values is one that all liberal-minded and pro-Enlightenment thinkers would endorse. However, a sense of belonging cannot be based on rules and procedures alone. They lack the moral depth to motivate and inspire. It is only when members of a community possess some pre-political ties that bind them together that they feel like they belong. This does not mean that each citizen needs to have links to his or her community’s ancestors. But citizens do need to have a common sense of place, values and an appreciation of their community’s legacy. Such citizenship cannot be entirely inclusive and embrace the whole of humanity. However, by providing people with a sense of commonality, the politics of democratic citizenship can provide a powerful antidote to the divisive consequences of identity politics.

Fukuyama rightly reminds us that ‘we will not escape from thinking about ourselves and our society in identity terms’. The challenge we face is how to neutralise or at least minimise the current compulsion to invent, dramatise and politicise identities.

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, by Francis Fukuyama, is published by Profile Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Published by spiked


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