Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition
London: Profile Books, 2018
Francis Fukuyama is the most eminent living neoconservative intellectual. I have admired and benefitted from his work since 1992, when he published his first book, The End of History and the Last Man. Thus I was a bit worried to learn that he had authored a new book with the express aim of taking the wind out of the sails of white identity politics.
Has Fukuyama found a fatal flaw in White Nationalism that would require us to rethink or abandon our positions? The answer is no. In fact, Identity is an extremely useful book for White Nationalists, because Fukuyama concedes practically every essential premise of our position, but his arguments for resisting our ultimate ethnonationalist conclusions are extremely weak.
Right Identity Politics is Based in Human Nature
The most important concession that Fukuyama makes is to argue that identity politics is based in human nature and thus can never be eradicated.
The modern liberal-globalist outlook believes that politics is ultimately founded in rational self-interest. If life is all about using reason to satisfy one’s desires, liberalism and globalism follow immediately. Liberalism is simply a framework to facilitate individuals pursuing private interests by bargaining with one another. But since reason is a universal faculty, and all men have the same basic desires, there is no reason why the liberal system should not encompass the whole globe.
Liberalism, therefore, is opposed to any political identities that would impede its global expansion, especially attachments to particular races, nations, ethnic groups, and religious communities that make exclusive truth claims. Liberals regard such attachments as simply baseless sentiments and superstitions inherited from the past, which we can and must shake off as we progress into a perfected liberal future.
Liberals have a twofold strategy when dealing with these partial, collective attachments.
First, they seek to dissolve “collectivist” identities in an acid of egoistic individualism. Individualists are taught to regard any unchosen identities and obligations as essentially a form of violence done to them by their parents and society. Collective identities are merely burdens to be cast off as soon as individuals are able to choose their own values and construct their own identities.
Second, because broad-minded sentiments cannot be entirely uprooted from the human soul, their objects must be universalized into all-inclusive collectives. Thus, if you insist on thinking of yourself as more than a selfish producer-consumer, you are encouraged to see yourself as a member of “one race, the human race,” as a “citizen of the world.” And if you can’t resist the temptation of faith, then you are offered something suitably ecumenical, eclectic, and tolerant.
There’s a problem, however. Our attachments to partial collectivities are not merely a baseless residue of the past. They are not false opinions that can be superseded by truths. They are not inadequate tools that can be replaced by better ones. They only look that way to liberals because they have an oversimplified vision of the human soul as having two parts: desire and reason, which is defined simply as a technical-instrumental faculty that satisfies desires.
But the human soul is more complex. As Fukuyama points out, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that the human soul has three irreducible parts. In addition to reason and desire, there is also a third part of the soul which Socrates calls thumos and which is usually translated as “spirit.” Thumos is not “spirit” in an ethereal or ghostly sense. It is more like “team spirit,” “esprit de corps,” or “fighting spirit.” Thumos is the capacity to passionately identify with particular things.
One can form a thumotic attachment to one’s own self-image, which is one’s sense of honor. One can also form thumotic attachments to one’s own family, community, city, sports team, political party, ethnic group, etc. One can even form thumotic attachments to one’s own nation-state, empire, or races. Thumos can, therefore, be described as love of one’s own: the natural, normal, and completely moral preference for what is close to what is far off, what is familiar to what is strange, kin over strangers, countrymen over foreigners, etc.
Some people even form thumotic attachments to humanity as a whole, other species, and the entire planet. Even liberal universalists who have never heard of thumos have thumotic attachments.
Because thumos is a passionate identification with something particular, there is always the potential of violent clashes with those who passionately identify with different particularities. Therefore, for Plato, thumos is the foundation of politics. Because thumos is a passionate identification with particular collectives which can always clash, thumos is the basis of Carl Schmitt’s claim that politics is always about us and them, friend and enemy.
This is true even of liberal universalists, who claim to represent all of humanity, to have no enemies, and to love everyone. For in fact liberal universalists do have enemies: everyone who is attached to smaller collectives. Liberals hate nationalists with a special intensity as enemies of humanity.
If politics is rooted in passionate identification with collectives, then all politics is inescapably identity politics. There is no alternative to the politics of identity. The only alternatives are (1) whether we own up to the identitarian nature of politics or deny it, (2) whether the identities we assert are real or fake, and (3) whether a given identity can be the basis of a workable political order.
Fukuyama is most persuasive when arguing that liberal individualism fails as a political theory by not taking thumos into account. But there are problems with Fukuyama’s account of thumos.
First of all, he presents thumos primarily in terms of Hegel’s struggle for recognition. Thumos is, of course, at the root of the struggle for recognition. But it is more than that. It is a passionate attachment to one’s own, including one’s sense of self, as well as collectives with which one identifies. The struggle for recognition arises only when self-images or groups clash.
Second, Fukuyama accepts Hegel’s account of how the struggle for recognition leads from a society in which one man is free, to a society in which some men are free, to a society in which all men are free. Basically, more and more men will demand that others respect their dignity and encode this respect in law, until all men receive such protections.
But contra Alexandre Kojève, there is no reason to think that broadening the recognition of human dignity points to a “universal homogeneous state”—as opposed to a world in which there are many different peoples and states which recognize the freedom of all men. A single homogeneous state would only emerge if the demand for greater political recognition were connected with a radical individualism that severed all passionate identification with particular collectives.
But Fukuyama identifies equal recognition with universal recognition, which seems to mean the recognition of all men, but also the recognition of all men by a single universal state. Then he concludes that demanding particular recognition is incompatible with democratic equality:
[Hegel] argues that the only rational solution to the desire for recognition was universal recognition, in which the dignity of every human being was recognized. Universal recognition has been challenged ever since by other partial forms of recognition based on nation, religion, sect, race, ethnicity, or gender, or by individuals wanting to be recognized as superior. The rise of identity politics in modern liberal democracies is one of the chief threats they face, and unless we can work our way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict. (xvi)
But there is no necessary conflict between democratic equality and strong racial, ethnic, or national bonds. Indeed, in the 19th century, nationalism was often aligned with the forces of liberalism, republicanism, and democracy. And today, the rising tide of nationalism that so alarms Fukuyama is also strongly populist, i.e., genuinely democratic. One can believe that all human beings have basic rights but also believe that other races and cultures are not good fits for one’s society. But they can find or create a society that is more fitting to them because recognizing universal human rights does not entail a single, universal, one-size-fits-all political order.
Identity politics is only a threat to liberal democracy if one conceives of liberal democracy as inherently multicultural. A racially and ethnically homogeneous state could simultaneously be attached to its unique identity and be highly democratic and egalitarian. Identity politics is a threat to a liberal democracy only if it is racially and ethnically diverse, in which case different identities would cause political conflict, undermining the unity necessary to every functioning state, thus leading to the desire for more abstract common principles as sources of unity.
Fukuyama treats multiculturalism as a given because his overriding goal is to show how specifically multicultural, multiracial forms of liberal democracy can protect themselves against white identity politics, which seeks to restore or create more homogeneous societies.
Left Identity Politics is Fake
As I noted above, if identity politics is unavoidable, and we own up to this fact, the only choices left to us are (1) whether identities are real or fake, and (2) whether particular identities can be the foundations of workable political orders.
Another surprising concession to White Nationalism is Fukuyama’s argument that, although some forms of identity politics are rooted in nature and are thus ineradicable, other forms of identity politics are rooted in a false Protestant-Liberal-Romantic conception of human nature that divides us into inner (natural) and outer (socially constructed) selves and claims that the inner self is the seat of value and must give its authorization to everything it undergoes at the hands of others. This is the root of modern expressive individualism and the most radical form of identity politics, in which the bored, alienated, or mentally ill simply invent or choose identities for themselves and demand that society accept and affirm them.
Fukuyama hints that he accepts the idea that the self is basically a social construct. This replaces individual subjectivism with social subjectivism. Social conventions are, of course, more consistent with workable political orders. But I reject the very idea that the self is constructed, either individually or collectively. Instead, the self is first and foremost an objective reality, which forms when egg and sperm combine and then unfolds over an entire lifetime.
Our first nature is genetic. Culture is our second nature. But our genes place limits on the culture we can absorb. Furthermore, although our culture may try to dictate an identity to us, if it does not fit, it will be rejected. Our parents and peers will try to tell us who we are as children, and that can clash with who we really are. But over time, individuals increasingly adjust their self-images and their lives to their objective natures. Thus our second nature becomes a medium by which our first nature actualizes itself. Ideally, our culture should fit and flatter our nature like a well-tailored suit.
In short, on this Greek conception of ethics, there is a meaningful distinction between the inner and the outer self. But the inner self is objective. It moves from potentiality to actuality. It is not constructed. Furthermore, even though self-actualization is the goal of life, the inner self is not the locus of all value. Society is more valuable than the individual. Thus self-actualization needs to accord with virtues and laws that are consistent with the common good of society. Thus if a pimply snowflake emerges from the nursery and declares that he’s actually a pansexual unicorn, a decent society is entitled to say “No”—and perhaps send him to military school, to blow the stink off him. A decent society does not say “Become who you are” to sociopaths and born losers.
Expressive Individualism as Nihilism
A third highly valuable concession is Fukuyama’s argument that expressive individualism destroys social order and plunges individuals into a crisis of meaning, which lays the groundwork for the resurgence of nationalism and normative cultures:
The problem with this understanding of autonomy is that shared values serve the important function of making social life possible. If we do not agree on a minimal common culture, we cannot cooperate on shared tasks and will not regard the same institutions as legitimate; . . . .
The other problem with this expansive understanding of human autonomy is that not everyone is a Nietzschean superman seeking to revalue all values. Human beings are intensely social creatures whose emotional inclination drive them to want to conform to the norms surrounding them. When a stable, shared moral horizon disappears and is replaced by a cacophony of competing value systems, the vast majority of people do not rejoice at their newfound freedom of choice. Rather they feel an intense insecurity and alienation because they do not know who their true self is. The crisis of identity leads in the opposite direction from expressive individualism to the search for a common identity that will rebind the individual to a social group and reestablish a clear moral horizon. This psychological fact lays the ground work of nationalism.
Most people do not have infinite depths of individuality that is theirs alone. What they believe to be their true inner self is actually constituted by their relationships with other people. (pp. 55–56)
Note that Fukuyama rejects the idea that individuals construct their own identities for the idea that societies construct and impose identities upon them. The individual is just a tabula rasa on which society writes. (Of course if society is just a collection of blank slates, it is hard to figure out where the determinate content it imposes on us comes from.) This radical form of social constructivism is not argued for. It is simply asserted, but as we shall see, it is the key assumption upon which his civic nationalist alternative to White Nationalism depends.
From a biological point of view, every individual does have a nature that is his alone. Talk of “infinite depths” is just liberal-Romantic claptrap. Every real identity is finite. But from a biological point of view, the true self is very much connected with other people, not because they inscribe an identity on our blank slate, but because they share the same genes.
As I argue in The White Nationalist Manifesto, in the chapter on “What’s Wrong with Diversity?,” the basis of nationalism is genetic similarity. According to J. Philippe Rushton’s Genetic Similarity Theory, affection, harmony, and altruism between individuals—all of which are crucial to the flourishing of society—are functions of genetic similarity. Thus the most harmonious societies will be of genetically similar people, and the most disharmonious societies will be of genetically diverse people—even if these people share the same language and culture. Cultural diversity simply adds a whole new array of problems. Fukuyama’s preferred civic nationalist position, namely to impose an artificial cultural uniformity on increasingly genetically diverse liberal democracies is, therefore, superficial. It is not even a half solution.
Genetic Similarity Theory is a powerful tool for determining which identities are consistent with workable political orders. Marxists claim that economically defined classes are the major agents of history. But nations proved stronger than classes. The New Left has largely abandoned the white working class and sought to organize women, sexual minorities, and non-whites as new historical agents. But it is increasingly clear that race trumps both “sisterhood” and the largely fictional community that is supposed to exist between sexual minorities. This means that the struggle between Left and Right will increasingly take the form of a struggle between whites and non-whites.
But the increasing racialization of politics should not blind us to the fact that races as such are not natural political units. The ideal political unit is a culturally distinct people. Racial commonality is a necessary condition of nationhood, but it is not a sufficient condition. Race alone is merely a biological genus. Only a culturally specific people is a political agent.
The Problems with Left Identity Politics
Another important concession to White Nationalism is Fukuyama’s admission that the Left has abandoned the white working class in Western nations for refugees, immigrants, non-whites, sexual minorities, and feminists.
Fukuyama asserts that “there is nothing wrong with identity politics as such; it is a natural and inevitable response to injustice. It becomes problematic only when identity is interpreted or asserted in certain specific ways” (p. 115). According to Fukuyama, “Each marginalized group [has] a choice of seeing itself in broader or narrower identity terms. It could demand that society treat its members identically to the way the dominant groups in society were treated, or it could assert a separate identity of its members and demand respect for them as different from the mainstream society” (p. 107).
Fukuyama clearly thinks that the coalition of the margins organized by the Left should demand to be treated exactly the same as everyone else in Western societies. He offers a number of objections to contemporary Left identity politics.
First, Fukuyama laments the Left’s turn from economic Marxism to cultural Marxism: “The left’s agenda shifted to culture: what needed to be smashed was not the current political order that exploited the working class, but the hegemony of Western culture and values that suppressed minorities at home and developing countries abroad” (p. 113). Thus, “Identity politics for some progressives has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the thirty-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality” (p. 115).
This worries Fukuyama, because he recognizes that Left-wing identity politics is driving Right-wing identity politics. Thus, although Fukuyama is entirely committed to the neo-liberal paradigm favored by the oligarchy that pays him to write, he pretends for a minute to be concerned with rising social inequality. He clearly wishes the Left would go back to fighting for the working class, not because he cares about social justice, but because he believes that White Nationalism is a greater threat to the present system than the Old Left.
Fukuyama’s second objection to Left identity politics is that its “focus on newer and more narrowly defined marginalized groups . . . diverts attention from the older and larger groups whose serious problems have been ignored” (p. 116). Specifically, Fukuyama laments the Left’s abandonment of the white working class. Again, Fukuyama is not concerned about white people or social justice per se. He merely wants the Left to speak for white workers because otherwise they will defect to the populist Right.
Fukuyama’s third problem with Left identity politics is that by encouraging the proliferation of different identities making non-negotiable demands for social recognition it “can threaten free speech and, more broadly, the kind of rational discourse necessary to sustain a democracy” (p. 116). He’s talking about political correctness, of course. But again, his main objection to political correctness is that it is a powerful campaign tool for the populist Right: “By taking on political correctness so frontally, Trump has played a critical role in moving the focus of identity politics from the left, where it was born, to the right, where it is now taking root” (p. 119).
Fourth, Fukuyama points out that Left identity politics is now fracturing the Left-wing coalition, making it weaker. This is an argument offered by Fukuyama’s friend and fellow neocon Mark Lilla, who actually speaks as a liberal. In Fukuyama’s mouth, of course, it is obviously insincere. He does not care about harmony in the Democratic Party. He merely wants to convince the Democrats to dial back identity politics because it is feeding Right-wing populism.
In his fifth objection, Fukuyama finally lays his cards on the table: “The final, and perhaps most significant, problem with identity politics as currently practiced on the left is that it has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right” (pp. 117–18). Then Fukuyama trots out the bogeymen of Trump, Unite the Right, and European fascism.
Fukuyama grants that Left identity politics is a winning hand when the white majority plays by universalistic rules and concedes again and again to Leftist demands. But as soon as the white majority starts thinking in terms of its own identity politics, liberal democracy will be crushed between white and non-white identitarian blocs:
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. (p. 122)
Fukuyama’s alternative to identity politics of the Left and Right is:
. . . not to abandon the idea of identity, which is too much a part of the way that modern people think about themselves and their surrounding societies. The remedy is to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of liberal democratic societies. (p. 122)
What makes it possible to “define” more inclusive identities? Ultimately, it is social constructivism. Recall that Fukuyama opposes himself to identities based on “race, ethnicity, or gender . . . based on fixed biological characteristics.” Note the sloppy language here. Nobody claims that ethnicity is a “fixed biological category,” and referring to “gender” as opposed to “sex” is all about denying that sex is a fixed biological category. Contrary to this view, Fukuyama asserts that “identities are not biologically determined” (p. 122). This gives technocrats a clean slate for the construction of a new identity suitable for liberal democracy.
What is this identity? Fukuyama’s answer is: liberal democratic universalism, the Universal Homogeneous State, i.e., the original anti-identity politics, now rechristened in a truly breathtaking bit of brazenness, as itself a form of identity politics.
To make liberal democracy the “identity” of any society is basically to adopt a suicide pact. Imagine if Norway were to drop anything specifically Norwegian from its national identity and commit itself instead to liberal democracy, including maximum openness to strangers and immigrants. Imagine every other nation doing the same. Then wait a couple centuries for migration, miscegenation, and commerce to work their magic.
In the end, there will be no Norway or Sweden or Denmark. There will be no Europe, Africa, or Asia. There will simply be a Universal Homogeneous State, populated by a Universal Homogeneous Brown Favela-Dweller, because the global average IQ will be too low to sustain a modern First World civilization. But, like every Third World society, it will be able to sustain a small but fabulously wealthy and utterly sociopathic oligarchy that will preach liberal democracy to the serfs on its global plantation.
Want to opt out of this future? Then start practicing identity politics today.
To be continued . . .
 My citations are to the UK edition. The US edition has a different, more tendentious subtitle: Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).
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