[BOOK REVIEW] Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment

Source: Vox

In 2014, the New York Times bestselling author of The Origins of Political Order and American political scientist Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama published his analysis of “identity politics” in “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.” Content Writer Mariana Henriques Martins reviews the book for TNGO.

The type of identity politics increasingly practiced on both the left and the right is deeply problematic because it returns to understandings of identity based on fixed characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and religion, which had earlier been defeated at great cost.

Francis Fukuyama

Identity Politics has been dominating the political arena. The demand for recognition of certain marginalized and shared aspects of our identity has sparked a radical and essential transformation in the world of politics. Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politic of Resentment offers an explanation for this turn of perspective. One of the main concerns of his work is to clarify the rise of the right-wing populist-nationalist forces in many parts of the western world in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, such as in Russia, Hungary, Poland, and the US, and many others whose radical right parties, albeit not in power, are gaining space in the parliaments.

It comes as no surprise to Fukuyama the failure of the class-based left to hinder the rise of the nationalist and religious parties or politicians in the second decade of the twentieth-first century. According to the author, “parties of the left have been losing out to nationalists for well over a hundred years, precisely among those poor or working-class constituencies that should have been their most solid base of support”. The class-based left, once eager to address socioeconomic inequalities, gradually became, throughout the 90s, accepting of the market economy and, consequently, closer to their center-right counterparts.

Besides, throughout the years, the nature of the fight has dramatically changed. If once the collectivist nature of the working-class struggle for better conditions was at the core of the left-wing parties’ motivations, today, there is an ever more emphasis on identity, be it nation or religion on the right, or marginalized/ underrepresented groups on the left. The author believes understanding this shift in the political scenery can shed a light on the initial thorny question.

The rise of the nationalist right, the fall of the class-based left

Europe and right-wing nationalism: A country-by-country guide - BBC News
Protesters in support of right-wing nationalist politicians Marine Le Pen (France) and Matteo Salvini (Italy). Source: BBC

Francis Fukuyama introduces the reader to the link between identity and economic motivations. Dignity and recognition (the ancient Greek concept of thymos) are directly affected by injustice. The author asserts that “salary is a marker of dignity”, as well as “a matter of recognition”: to be poor is to be invisible to others, and invisibility can be more atrocious to human beings than economic difficulties. To prove his point, the author gives the example of a woman who is promoted in a law firm but still gets 10 percent less than her male colleagues. Her demand for equality is less about the economic resources than it is about dignity and justice.

The connection between these two concepts – identity and monetary conditions – can enlighten the reader on the triumph of nationalist or religious conservatives to attract such a high number of followers in comparison to the left-wing parties based on economic class struggles. The formers validated their followers’ sense of identity (either through nation or religion) beyond addressing an economic issue. In essence, people’s religious or national identity entitles them to an economic position that was lost, and, for that reason, their social status and personal dignity are threatened. Fukuyama argues that immigration, regardless of its potential positive impact on a countries’ economy, is a current aspect in the identity politics of the right precisely because of the point just made. Immigration is assumed to threaten people’s cultural identity and who they are as members of a country. As stated by the author,

When economic decline is interpreted as a loss of social status, it is easier to see why immigration becomes a proxy for economic change.

Nonetheless, Fukuyama does not consider this the best explanation for the ascension of the nationalist right in the last years. During the twentieth century, the leftist parties were effective to answer the economic demands instigated by technological developments and globalization. They have also appealed to a shared struggle for recognition in a capitalist system that exploits and oppresses the working class. In the United States, for example, the proletarian class supported the Democratic Party from the 1930s until the ascension of Ronald Regan. Then, what happened? Why is the left losing its followers to nationalist parties? According to the author, the roots of this dilemma can be found in the identity politics of the contemporary left. Fukuyama believes the problem with the contemporary left has been their choice to extol particular identity groups, oftentimes in favor of universal and equal recognition.

The emergence of modern identity in politics

The 1960s History - HISTORY
Washington D.C. in the 1960s. Source: History

In the chapter “Democratization of Dignity”, Fukuyama associates the birth of the modern understanding of identity in politics with the therapeutic turn of the 1960s. It promoted a widespread celebration of self-esteem, imbued in social policy in the US, other liberal democracies, and the Universities’ curriculum. Fukuyama sees the modern sense of identity as the heir of the western eighteenth-century Russeauvian idea that “we have deep interior spaces whose potentialities are not being realized, and that external society through its rules, roles, and expectations is responsible for holding us back”. During the therapeutic turn, it became notorious that the need for individual self-realization was superior to society’s requirements and pressures.

The model was targeted with acute criticism. The scholar Christopher Lasch, for example, was concerned with the potential narcissism embedded in the new stress on self-esteem. Also, Lasch claimed this model could incite emotional dependence instead of a viable individual liberation, and the assertion of psychological problems as a substitute for the fight for social justice. Despite the criticism, the new therapeutic model inevitably intruded into politics, which gradually instituted the struggle for recognition and dignity. Modern democracies assumed the role of improving their citizen’s self-esteem, which, in turn, incited a backlash from the more conservative side (such as Nixon and Reagan, in the US). Fukuyama concludes that the therapeutic model was the spur of modern identity politics in liberal democracies.

Similar to the right-wing identity politics centered on religion and nation (which was arguably a reaction to the contemporary left identity politics), these modern identities are often validated by an individual’s sameness to other people: group identity. According to Fukuyama, there are two options available for a group identity to connect with the external mainstream world: demanding society to see them as members of a group that deserves to be identically treated to the mainstream, dominant group; or, demanding to be seen, recognized, and respected as a separate identity from the mainstream, with a lived experience that is inaccessible to those out of the group identity. The author alerts the reader to the negative implications of the latter option overrunning in current politics.

The implications of identity politics

How the World Is Protesting Racism and Police Brutality | Time
Source: Shutterstock

In any circumstance does Fukuyama rejects the importance of embracing identity politics. He considers it to be fundamental the extension of equal recognition to every group identity, “a natural and inevitable response to injustice”. The racial equality movement, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution movement, the environmental movement, the minority, and immigrant rights movement, the LGBTQI+ rights movement, the disability rights movement, all of these emerged from the vital need to make liberal democracies equally recognize the dignity of all citizens. Each of these movements intends to represent people that were invisible and marginalized over the years, and incite a public understanding of their intrinsic value, or, in other words, a recognition of their self-esteem.

Still, Fukuyama argues that an overfocus on identity politics (both the left and the right) can be problematic in some respects. Firstly, it can become a substitute for discussing socio-economic inequality. The author points out a decrease in socio-economic reforms aspirations with the adoption by the contemporary left of identity and multicultural politics in the last decades of the twentieth century. Secondly, Fukuyama claims that overfocusing on a narrow, marginalized group diverts the attention from older and larger groups that are dealing with economic difficulties and, therefore, inevitably feel invisible and unimportant. Subsequently, this might motivate them to embrace the right-wing side of identity politics to feel heard and seen. Indeed, the nationalist/ religious right has adopted the same language and identity locus of the left in its politics: the idea that their group is being underrepresented and their suffering is invisible to the mainstream social structure, which, in turn, needs to be held accountable and, ideally, dismantled. The author concludes,

Liberal democracies have good reasons not to organize themselves around a series of ever-proliferating identity groups inaccessible to outsiders. The dynamic of identity politics is to stimulate more of the same, as identity groups begin to see one another as threats. Unlike fights over economic resources, identity claims are usually nonnegotiable: rights to social recognition based on race, ethnicity, or gender are based on fixed biological characteristics and cannot be traded for other goods or abridged in any way.

An alternative proposed

Fukuyama believes identities can be useful in current politics. However, the author proposes thinking about identity in a more inclusive way: to define “larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.” The author goes on to explain how national identities can be divorced from the bad connotation of ethnonationalism, which is exclusive and intolerant. Instead, he suggests the basis of a new meaning for national identities, one that is built according to liberal and democratic political values. He also presents a way to do it.

Fukuyama’s work might not be the fully noncontroversial approach one dreams of in a potential solution for the tense and close-minded dialogue predominating current politics. However, in his work, the reader will find new insights, ideas, and understandings of the modern sense of identity and its prevalent influence in political and cultural discourse. Besides promoting awareness on the subject, the author’s potential solutions, centered on democratic and liberal values, are undoubtedly worthy of attention and deliberation for anyone seeking inclusive discussion.


This article is part of TNGO’s “Book Reviews” Series. No sponsorship or affiliation to the book’s author(s), its publishers, or sponsors has been disclosed by the author of the article.

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