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Identity politics is nothing new

A conversation with Francis Fukuyama, professor, writer and public intellectual. Interviewer: Maciej Makulski

November 13, 2019 - Francis Fukuyama Maciej Makulski - Hot TopicsIssue 6 2019Magazine

Photo: Fronteiras do Pensamento (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

MACIEJ MAKULSKI: I would like to focus our conversation on your new book Identity Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment and to give our readers a proper context of what your new book is about. Why, in your opinion, is the concept of identity so central now? In your book you provide a very interesting history of how the concept of identity has evolved over the centuries, which means, for me, that identity has been present within the public debate for a long time. Why, then, it is so relevant for politics in the 21st century?

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: I think that the politics of the present has shifted from 20th century politics. In the 20th century the big political divisions were really over economic ideology. It was divided by a left that was social democratic, and in some cases Marxist, that wanted greater economic equality, more redistribution and more social protections; and a right that was more oriented towards the free market and towards individual freedoms.

That has been changing in recent years towards an axis that is defined more by identity – meaning one’s membership in groups that are usually fixed by biology – in terms of ethnicity or race – and sometimes religion. This shift has been taking place over time but it became most evident in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom: these were both right-wing populist movements based on identity. Trump has pursued conservative economic policies, but his real appeal is in attacking foreigners, attacking immigrants and wanting to close the United States off from flows of people, and his very illiberal trade policies – he said that he liked trade wars and thought they were easy to win. This is a kind of conservatism that is very different than the one that existed under Ronald Reagan who was in favour of immigration and promoted free trade. In fact, Reagan had a very internationalist foreign policy.

I think that this rise of populist nationalism is also seen in many other countries – you have a version of that here in Poland. There is also a version in Hungary, and we can see it clearly in Turkey. And that is basically why I wrote this book. It was in reaction to this rise of populism and trying to understand why it was happening.

I would like to try and reach the core of the problem related to identity. I got the impression by reading your book that this is connected to many other concepts. In one chapter, you argue that identity and the politics of identity are not bad as such, but the problem is when identity is a substitute for true public discussions about serious social problems, such as economic inequality or immigration as you just mentioned. In other words, should we avoid the instrumentalisation of identity?

The question is really what kind of identity one is advocating. I think one of the trends that has been taking place in identity politics as a whole has been a focus on narrower and narrower identities rather than larger and more integrative ones. In progressive politics in the United States, for example, the left has redefined itself away from worrying about the broad working class to worrying about specific injustices related to African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled or indigenous peoples. These are real social justice issues, but they also have tended to fragment the left. Sometimes there are internal conflicts among these groups because they do not actually agree on a common agenda. This has moved the focus away from the broader issue of inequality. On the right, it has been very negative because the right-wing identitarians define national identity in ethnic terms. In the United States there has been a rise of white nationalism and this idea that real Americans do not include all of the diverse minorities that actually make up the country.

In other countries it may take the form of religion. In Sri Lanka or Myanmar we see a militant form of Buddhism that has been very intolerant. In India the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP represents a shift from a liberal vision of India towards a Hindu nationalist one. From the standpoint of liberal democracy, these cases represent negative developments.

What is your opinion about comparing our contemporary political and social reality to different periods in history? Many experts have suggested that the current political atmosphere is now similar to the interwar period, especially in terms of the rise of nationalism in Europe. Do you find such comparisons useful? Can we learn from history?

We never truly repeat the same historical patterns. But, yes, identity politics is nothing new. I think the first major manifestation of this type of politics was seen in 19th century European nationalism. The dynastic politics of medieval Europe began to give way to states that were organised on cultural grounds, by language and by cultural background, and which was obviously a very traumatic period that ultimately led to two world wars and the undermining, self-undermining, of European civilisation. The interwar period was simply the last phase of that protracted struggle.

I would argue that things are different now. There is a return to nationalism in certain quarters, but there are also much stronger institutions in place. There are large structures like the European Union and within each individual democracy are constitutional structures that attempt to put checks on powers. So that it would be much harder to stage a takeover the way that Mussolini or Hitler succeeded in doing in the 1920s and 30s. In that regard, things are different. The experience of that earlier form of nationalism really has created a kind of inoculation against its return in the most virulent form.

In your book you write that theory and theoretical thinking are important and people tend to forget about this. I agree with this statement and would like to ask a more theoretical question. How do you understand the relations between nationalism and modernisation? These two concepts are discussed together in your book. Do they always come hand in hand, or is one a condition of the other or a consequence of the other?

One of the traditional historical interpretations of why nationalism emerged after the French Revolution has to do with economic modernisation. When you shift from an agrarian to an urban industrial society it is very disruptive. This is what Ferdinand Tönnies referred to as the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft – from a village society to an urban/industrial society. People lose their social connections once they leave their little peasant village and move to the big city and they feel alienated and socially unmoored from their familiar surroundings.

One of the arguments about nationalism was that it filled that void. It told people who they were – not just Hans living in a particular little village, but a German living in a large country called Germany and connected to people by a common language and culture. Ernest Kellner, the great social theorist, argued that this is why we now see a rise of Islamism in the Muslim world, because a similar process of urbanisation and social disruption is taking place there. This can also take the form of people moving from Morocco or Pakistan to Western Europe. They lose their connection with their local village life and they begin asking this question of who they are. This is especially pertinent for second generation of children who feel less connected to their parents’ or grandparents’ culture while, at the same time, not integrated into European society, leaving them more vulnerable to an appeal by a Muslim preacher, to be recruited into a certain Islamist political circle that provides them an identity.

I would like to shift the conversation a little bit to get your opinion on what is happening in relation with Russia through the prism of the politics of identity. My impression is that very often we hear voices claiming that Russia should be somehow westernised. That this is the only way to normalise relations between the West and Russia. But what if Russia does not accept the values and rules of the West? Can you imagine a different way to build good relations with Russia?

Yes, but it really does require a shift in the way the current Russian government thinks about national identity. I think that Vladimir Putin rose to power because he appeared at a moment when Russia was extremely weak and suffered a great humiliation of having lost not just its great power status and the breakup of the Soviet Union but even a greatly diminished power base within the Russian Federation. He compensated for that loss by telling Russians that they should take pride in themselves, which is a normal thing for leaders to do. But the version of Russian national identity he chose was unfortunately one that involves a kind of imperial notion of Russia needing to dominate the countries in its immediate neighbourhood. This has led to the occupation of territory in Georgia, Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; and the interference into the politics of all of its neighbours. I was recently on a panel discussion with Alexei Navalny who argues that Russian national identity is important. But you can have a Russia that does not see its own dignity lying in the domination of its neighbours; one that acts as a normal European country, that does not want to take over territory or assert itself in the Middle East. In fact, there is no reason why that could not happen. I do not think it is necessarily somehow in the genes of Russians to be imperialistic. It just happens that this is the course that Putin has chosen.

But that would require a lot of time. Putin has chosen to build this myth based on the Soviet victory in the Second World War and the fact that Russia is a very old country with a rich culture, arguing Russia has always been a global power. So to change that narrative, it would require a grassroots approach to convince Russians that their identity can be built on other elements…

True, but these things can happen rather quickly. If you think about what Mikhail Gorbachev did in the 1980s, it was a rather rapid shift. In many ways you have a younger generation of Russians that really are not happy with their current situation. They do not want to be isolated. They do not want the sanctions and are worried that their economy is stagnating, or that they’re living in a kleptocracy where the senior leaders in the society walk off with most of the wealth. It seems to me that change is possible…

When talking about identity and liberalism, Columbia professor Mark Lilla wrote in his book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, that among the different processes that influence liberalism, the most detrimental is education based on identity, which helps strengthen the separation of groups within society. Do you agree with this?

I largely agree with Lilla and I think that we need to specify when this form of identity politics goes wrong, because it grows out of social movements that are basically trying to seek justice for certain groups that have been marginalised and disrespected – and there is nothing wrong with that, in fact those are good causes. The problem arises when these identities become seen as essential and more important than any other characteristics. In other words, the fact that someone is white is more important than the fact that he or she has good ideas or certain talents. That is the point in which this type of politics becomes a source of intolerance, not of pluralism and liberalism. And it is not a general characteristic. You see it in universities, in the arts and certain areas of culture – where it becomes even more intense.

If we realise that there are some problems with the educational system related to identity issues, I think we can also see education as a tool for making it more effective. The question would be how should we think about education?

This is a very complicated discussion. It’s not just a question of institutionally changing the way we educate. It is really much more about the content. In the United States, in the humanities, we have had this rise of postmodernism as the dominant mode in which a lot of literature departments or anthropology departments think, which basically begins from a premise of extreme cultural relativism that you cannot make any judgments about one culture being more sophisticated or more complex than another culture (this, in particular, refers to western culture). In other words, there is no reason to privilege western culture over the culture of some obscure tribe in the South Pacific. Making cultural generalisations is not permissible. That has led to a real problem. A lot of schools have stopped teaching basic courses on western civilisation because this is regarded as the domain of dead white men. That is what I mean by the point at which identity politics becomes essentialistic. If the only thing you know about Plato is the fact that he’s a white male, and not that he’s a great philosopher, there is something wrong.

This is the main problem I see in contemporary education. It is more powerful in certain places than in others. In anthropology departments there is an extreme form of this. In cultural anthropology there really was a whole ideology attached to non-judgementalism, especially on any subject that touches upon things like race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It is really not subject to a rational debate anymore.

Instead it is a substitute for a real discussion about the content of education…

In this sense, yes.

At the end of your book, you write that we cannot escape from politics based on identity. But you also give some hints, or even recommendations, for both the European Union and the United States as to what can be done to make the politics of identity more palatable. What is the most important task ahead of us? What kind of recommendation is the most important?

I think we need to work on creating more integrative identities, which, for better or worse, has to be done on a nation-state level. In the European Union there was hope after the Second World War that you could move into a post-national era where being European would supersede being German or Italian or Dutch, etc. That simply has not happened. In a way, it will not happen because the real locus of power still is a nation state. The nation state is what organises police forces and armies and coercive mechanisms. Some power has been delegated to the EU on economic matters, but fundamentally, people do not see themselves first as European and then, only secondarily, as Polish or German. As long as that is the case, I think we have to pay attention to national identities. But they have to be liberal ones. They have to be ones that are open to the diversity of the people living in these societies. This is threatened in two directions: first, by a left that does not care about national identity at all; and second, by a right that wants to define national identity in ethnic terms. Neither of those is an appropriate response.

This interview took place during the 2019 Boris Nemtsov Forum which was held on October 9-10 2019 in Warsaw.

Francis Fukuyama is an American professor, public intellectual and writer. His most recent book is Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

Maciej Makulski is a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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 Listen for more: This interview will also be featured on the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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