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Fukuyama and the Question of Identity

Rahul Vaidya ( is an independent researcher based in New Delhi.

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama, Hachette India, 2018; pp xvii+218, ₹ 499.


In his most celebrated work The End of History and the Last Man (Fukuyama, 1992), Francis Fukuyama was touted to have articulated the zeitgeist of the world. This zeitgeist was refashioning and championing of Hegel’s version “where development resulted in a liberal state linked to a market economy” (p xii). The collapse of communism in Soviet Union and East Europe, the end of Cold War and emergence of United States (US) as the sole superpower, adoption of market economy by China and the march of globalisation—this rapidly unfolding chain of events was not just the victory of Reagan–Thatcher geopolitical or economic policies. It was a decisive resolution of ideological battles in the favour of the right. This was a repudiation of Marx and vindication of Hegel. No wonder, Fukuyama’s arguments were music to the ears of the powers that be. Not only the conservative or neo-liberal sections, but also many social democratic parties worldwide had adopted this idealist argument of a certain march of history in favour of market and liberal democracy since the days of Euro-communism; so it was no wonder that New Labour and Clintonite Democrats on both sides of Atlantic happily joined this euphoria.

However, this “desirable destination” of history was far from settled. As latter events showed, it was the “Clash of civilisations” kind of world view of the likes of Samuel P Huntington and Bernard Lewis that best articulated the dark side of consumerist neo-liberal market capitalism. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, Iraq–Afghanistan wars, rising Islamophobia, anti-immigrant xenophobia, European Union and its Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of White nationalism, neo-Nazi elements in Europe, the US and many parts of the world, Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election in 2016—all these have reversed the “global surge toward democracy”
(p xi). The liberal reaction to this rising tide of far right populist nationalism/fascism has been fairly consistent—horror, moral indignation and denunciation. However, it has failed to achieve much in material terms except much sound and fury through media and social media. Fukuyama has again joined this new ideological crusade on the side of liberal democracy to sift through the present morass called “identity.” Despite rehashing of many old arguments, his new book is pertinent not so much from the point of offering cogent solutions or honest introspections of euphoric neo-liberal/neo-conservative thought about how their magic tree of free market and globalisation bore such evil fruits of neo-Nazism and racist mobilisations; but rather as a symptomatic reading of how Fukuyama’s reflections reveal the structural compact that mainstream neo-liberal/neoconservative thought continues to share with far right politics.

Idealist Readings

It is important to highlight that Fukuyama constantly tries to put forth a linear conception of history and seeks to base it in spirit or idea of sorts. It is not surprising given the intellectual influence of Alexandre Kojève and his interpretation of Hegel on his works (Menand 2018).

“Twentieth century politics had been organised along a left–right spectrum defined by economic issues.’’ But, “in the second decade of the 21st century, that spectrum appears to be giving way in many regions to one defined by identity” (p 6). It is this identity as the politics of dignity and its recognition that is the central theme. Fukuyama rightly evokes Hegel who argued that the struggle for recognition was the ultimate driver of human history. In this reading, society is a manifestation or end product of the inner self or the “idea.” Hence, the material world or the economy is just a layout of status hierarchy, a master–slave dialectic of human labour and so on. However, both liberal and the communist utopias or the end destination shared the vision of “equality of recognition and thus human dignity and end of master–slave dialectic.” However, it is precisely the struggle for recognition that has now taken a dangerous turn and seems to threaten the liberal project today. So all we need to do is to come up with “a better theory of human soul” (p 11).

Fukuyama invests a lot in the concept of thymos derived from Plato. It is considered to be the third part of the soul apart from the desiring and calculating parts. It is both the seat of anger and pride. Identity struggles of the oppressed seeking egalitarian dignity (isothymia) or regressive reaction seeking exclusive hierarchical honour, domination (megalothymia) stem from the same seat of thymos. Democracy is the victory of isothymia over megalothymia and it includes everything: American slavery, the American Civil War, workers’ rights and their struggles, women’s liberation, etc. This is nothing but idealist labouring to stick every material development to a fictional spiritual code. Fukuyama argues that the protestant revolution of Luther and its “valorisation of inner self over the external social being” of Roman Catholic Church were of critical importance in shaping up the modern identity. What is more, he fudges on the question of modernity as a result of material changes in economy or sphere of ideas arguing for both being equally important and one cannot conclusively argue in favour of one over the other. At the outset, Fukuyama’s certain arguments like these may even seem Gramscian. But they are not. What is interesting is that not only his arguments stem from an idealist standpoint, but at times they take a biological, essentialist shape. The manner in which Fukuyama adopts a compromising stand towards genetic reductionists is telling as he argues that the “boundary line between nature and nurture is highly contested today, but few people would deny that the two poles of this dichotomy exist. Fortunately, one does not have to establish the boundary precisely in order to develop a theory that gives us useful insight into human motivation” (p 15). And he goes even further to trace feelings of pride to a chemical called serotonin in the brain and chimpanzees exhibiting elevated levels of serotonin when they achieved alpha male status, etc.

One is reminded of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism and his harsh critique of professors and philosophers and their cravings to conjure up an admixture of modern science and idealism to further reactionary ideas. The actors and locations have changed. The motivations and political battles have not. Fukuyama is representative of this tradition of modern liberal/conservative thought where the modern and the liberal are given an ingenious conservative spin. Pseudo-concepts like thymos are brushed up and put forth as crux/motor of human behaviour and society as such with class, caste, race, gender and other material social–economic categories being subservient to them.

Antinomies of Modernity

Fukuyama celebrates Rousseau’s secularisation of the inner self (and French Revolutionary politics) as a “critical stepping stone to the modern idea of identity.” His survey of how under capitalism, the modern individuality came into being retains some useful insights. He argues that modern liberal societies being left in moral confusion as a result of disappearance shared religious horizon. The expressive individualism which led to Nietzsche’s death of God, or Kafka and others in existentialism, nihilism, etc, is also responsible for modern crises of identity. Not everyone is capable or willing to constantly make a choice of values for themselves despite formal conditions for such choice coming into being under capitalism. The search for a common identity and shared values in vacuum left after the end of feudalism leads to the development of modern nationalism and political religion. Kant’s or Hegel’s liberal thought was not the only stream of thought operating in the 19th century. There was Herder’s emphasis on common and not individual identity and nativism which evoked and celebrated the distinct character of location/geography and its culture that gained traction over time. The root of all these developments can be traced to the process of alienation under capitalism. The shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft (from village community to urban society)—the uprooting of organic, mythically golden and reassuring past under the forces of capitalist modernity which had a cosmopolitan and alien character became a constant lament for German writers well before the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. The themes of ethnonationalism, radicalisation of religion and especially the discussion of the Roy–Kepel debate1 are key here: “is the rise of Islamist radicalism in the early 21st century best understood as an identity problem, or is it the by-product of the sociology of our age and the dislocations brought on by modernization and globalization?” (p 71)

While Fukuyama is right in invoking alienation as a cause for politicisation of religion or rise of nationalism, he does not sufficiently acknowledge the fact that liberal democracy and nationalism shared and shaped the conditions for capitalism together, and they were complicit in development of imperialism and the world wars. That Napoleon carried on ideals of the French Revolution was no accident or incidental detail in the long march and eventual triumph of liberalism. Time and again, the project of economic modernisation, nationalism/fascism and liberal thought (which legitimised them or overlooked them) crisscrossed paths (Singapore, US-backed dictatorships in Latin America, Franco’s Spain are some of the examples). There was no Chinese wall separating them.

Blaming Left and Right

In latter parts of the book, Fukuyama has deployed a favourite weapon from the arsenal of non-partisan intellectuals: to blame both left and right and maintain equidistance. His objection against the left is that despite the recurring economic crises, the people have not responded to its message of class struggle. Rather, the populist far right has galvanised in times of crises and mobilised the people. He argues that instead of introspection and addressing the challenge of identity directly, the left has tried to cover its political failure by blaming false consciousness of the masses. Furthermore, the left has given up on its core agenda of class struggle and its collective identity of workers which enabled solidarity of people from various backgrounds. However, this core project of class struggle was undermined with oil crisis in 1970s and post-World WarII welfare states in the West reversing their course towards neo-liberalism thereafter. Although Fukuyama notes these historical reasons, his main objection is to the post-1968 New Left which focused on identity. Seemingly here is a clear contradiction. Fukuyama’s objection to the Old Left was it did not acknowledge questions of identity. And he is objecting to the New Left in even more aggressive terms. What is at work here then?

He admits and welcomes the aspect of democratisation of dignity involved and enabled through struggles of the oppressed such as Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement for African Americans or women’s liberation movement. What is problematic is the inward- looking turn these movements later on take. The premium put on authentic inner being or lived experience is Fukuyama’s main objection. The therapeutic turn taken by state, religion and many other apparatuses which valorised this inner self and its novelty and exclusivity led to undermining notions of the collective and collective projects of enlightenment. Today, the public sphere has become increasingly obsessed with multiculturalism and political correctness which limits free speech and invites a reaction from the ultra right. This line of argument has a major problem of merely theorising the present without contextualising or historicising it. To argue that the struggles of the oppressed invite right-wing reaction is nothing but blaming the victims while ignoring the very oppression and injustice against which the oppressed raise their voice. Certainly one can take many issues with the multicultural project; but invoking the wrath of the right can hardly be one of them as the long history of anti-Semitism and racial hatred does not really begin with multiculturalism.

To resolve this, Fukuyama argues for building a common civil identity based on common values (and not language, religion, race) against multiculturalism’s celebration of multiple identities. He adopts a staunch assimilationist stand with strict citizenship laws, etc. According to him, this common identity based on national service (military or civil work like teaching, environment preservation) would turn the tide of the far right.
Either he is being naïve or cunning in suggesting this. We are quite familiar with how such common symbols of patriotism and national identity are adopted in the framework and functioning of majoritarian discourse: the tricolour flag used for threatening minorities, common civil code and rights of Muslim women, etc. In fact, the entire journey of capitalism from colonialism to globalisation has been to preach the universality of European enlightenment values and abstract equality while enforcing slavery, ghettos and oppression. The far right today is merely taking this mainstream process to its logical conclusion which seeks to retain the formal apparatus of liberal democracy while excluding its application to certain sections treated as the other. The sad part is that not only the likes of Fukuyama but also many voices on the left are pursuing this daydream of common civil identity in the fight against the far right. What is required instead is waging battles against social oppression from the platform of class struggle.


1 Debate between Oliver Roy and Gilles Kepel, two of the French leading experts on radicalisation.


Menand, Louis (2018): “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History,” New Yorker, 3 September,

Updated On : 12th Apr, 2019


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