Francis Fukuyama and Identity

While I was compiling a list of my favorite books of the year, I realized that I needed a separate blog post to discuss Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Recognition

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama (2018)

My interest in Francis Fukuyama originally came from his debate with Shanghai-based Fudan University professor Zhang Weiwei, a prominent proponent of the Chinese political model. After spending a lot of time reading Fukuyama’s work, his political research—despite all the controversies—seems very enticing to me. Identity came out shortly after I finished Fukuyama’s acclaimed book, The End of History and the Last Man, so I immediately got a copy in early September.

Among three essays published on The American Interest celebrating the 25th anniversary of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, the one by political scientist Francis Fukuyama—titled “Huntington’s Legacy”—is the most noteworthy. Fukuyama, a student of Huntington’s, famously proposed his version of the “end of history” theory in his 1989 essay “The End of History?” published on The National Interest. The year after, Huntington wrote on Foreign Affairs “The Clash of Civilizations?” in response.

Both later became books: The End of History and the Last Man was published in 1992; Clash in 1996. This year, I had the chance to reëxamine both of their arguments through the two texts.

Fukuyama wrote in his August essay regarding their “debate”:

“Since Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations has been contrasted with my own End of History in countless introductory International Relations classes over the past two decades, I might as well begin by tackling at the outset the issue of how we’re doing vis-à-vis one another. At the moment, it looks like Huntington is winning.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

But Fukuyama still believes that only the world of Islam has “identifiable numbers of people who think in such civilizational terms.” He suggests that identity, in lieu of civilization, should be the core of Huntington’s arguments. 

“Identity is a much broader and more flexible concept with which to understand contemporary politics rather than religiously based culture or civilizations. Identity is the modern concept that arises out of the belief that one has a hidden inner self whose dignity is at best being ignored or at worst being disparaged by the surrounding society. Identity politics revolves around demands not for materials goods or resources, but for recognition of the dignity of one’s ethnicity, religion, nation, or even one’s unique characteristics as an individual.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

He transitions into his criticism of identity politics—which he delineates in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

“In both the United States and Europe, the Left which had been built during the first part of the 20th century around working class solidarity came to embrace these new identity groups, even though this tended to alienate older working class voters.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

Fukuyama blames both the Left and the Right, arguing that alt-right white nationalists have also fit themselves into an identity group that is in opposition to marginalized minority groups on the Left:

“The rise of identity politics on the Left has stimulated and legitimated new assertions of identity on the Right. Donald Trump has received support for being politically incorrect, that is, for not respecting the identity niceties that characterize contemporary American political discourse. In doing so he has greatly abetted the rise of white nationalists and the alt-right, which see themselves as persecuted and marginalized minorities in much the same way as the leftwing identity groups.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

A key point in Fukuyama’s End of History is that mere economic satisfactions do not suffice humans. We see this argument coming back in Identity, in which Fukuyama bases his arguments on the philosophical debates of dignity and recognition. He returns to the concept of thymos, Plato’s third part of human soul.

He uses the word “invisible” to describe Donald Trump’s voter base: The prevalence of identity politics marginalizes a certain group of conservative WASPs—not only are they victims of unemployment and other economic problems, they are also looked down upon by liberals. 

In the last chapter of End of History, Fukuyama contended that while megalothymia (the desire to be recognized higher than others) is inherent to human beings, it can be achieved via channels other than politics—such as business. Guess who was the lucky real estate developer that he had handpicked? 

He argues that, if only driven by economic interests, Trump’s supporters should have supported social liberalism—i.e., the Democratic Party. But mere economic interests do not satisfy them, as human beings naturally desire political recognition. 

Fukuyama has interesting political views. On one hand, he is a liberal—he has publicly supported Barack Obama’s presidency and the Democratic Party; but he sure isn’t a conventional one. While he believes in a strong state—on which he wrote extensively in Political Order and Political Decay—he also favors a strong national identity. He believes that America’s creedal national identity (i.e., a de-ethnicized version of Protestant values), not multiculturalism, should remain America’s shared national identity. He wants immigrants, children of immigrants in particular, to assimilate to American culture through public education.

Fukuyama contended that the American creedal identity actually justifies his pro-immigration stance: 

Compared with Europe, the United States has been far more welcoming of immigrants, in part because it developed a creedal national identity early in its history. As the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out, a U.S. citizen can be accused of being “un-American” in a way that a Danish citizen could not be described as being “un-Danish” or a Japanese citizen could not be charged with being “un-Japanese.” Americanism constitutes a set of beliefs and a way of life, not an ethnicity.

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”
“Against Identity Politics” on September/October 2018, Foreign Affairs

In “Against Identity Politics,” an essay he wrote for Foreign Affairs this September, he argued that Europe’s multiculturalism “minimizes the importance of integrating newcomers into creedal national cultures”:

“Today, the American creedal national identity, which emerged in the wake of the Civil War, must be revived and defended against attacks from both the left and the right. On the right, white nationalists would like to replace the creedal national identity with one based on race, ethnicity, and religion. On the left, the champions of identity politics have sought to undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasizing victimization, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are in the country’s DNA. Such flaws have been and continue to be features of American society, and they must be confronted. But progressives should also tell a different version of U.S. history, one focused on how an ever-broadening circle of people have overcome barriers to achieve recognition of their dignity.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”

In the Ezra Klein Show, Fukuyama calls out Ta-Nehisi Coates. He maintained that Coates’s argument of racial discrimination being in America’s DNA neglects the progressive efforts in American history. 

In a book review published on The New Yorker, Louis Menand perfectly summarizes the view of Fukuyama’s critics:

“Fukuyama acknowledges that identity politics has done some good, and he says that people on the right exaggerate the prevalence of political correctness and the effects of affirmative action. He also thinks that people on the left have become obsessed with cultural and identitarian politics, and have abandoned social policy. But he has surprisingly few policy suggestions himself.

[…] Fukuyama concedes that people need a sense of national identity, whether ethnic or creedal, but otherwise he remains an assimilationist and a universalist. He wants to iron out differences, not protect them. He suggests measures like a mandatory national-service requirement and a more meaningful path to citizenship for immigrants.”

Louis Menand, “Fukuyama Postpones the End of History”

While I do not agree with some of Fukuyama’s standpoints, I do believe that he’s made a remarkable point here: 

The Democratic Party, in particular, has a major choice to make. It can continue to try to win elections by doubling down on the mobilization of the identity groups that today supply its most fervent activists: African Americans, Hispanics, professional women, the LGBT community, and so on. Or the party could try to win back some of the white working-class voters who constituted a critical part of Democratic coalitions from the New Deal through the Great Society but who have defected to the Republican Party in recent elections. The former strategy might allow it to win elections, but it is a poor formula for governing the country. The Republican Party is becoming the party of white people, and the Democratic Party is becoming the party of minorities. Should that process continue much further, identity will have fully displaced economic ideology as the central cleavage of U.S. politics, which would be an unhealthy outcome for American democracy.

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”


Paul Graham: What You’ll Wish You’d Known

January 2017, Boston Common. Photo credit: Tianyu Fang.

Paul Graham is definitely one of my favorite essayists. He wrote a piece which was originally a speech draft to a group of high school students in 2005. As an American high school student, I personally resonate greatly with many of his points in the essay as I juxtapose my own blueprint with Graham’s thoughts.

If I were back in high school and someone asked about my plans, I’d say that my first priority was to learn what the options were. You don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.

It might seem that nothing would be easier than deciding what you like, but it turns out to be hard, partly because it’s hard to get an accurate picture of most jobs. Being a doctor is not the way it’s portrayed on TV. Fortunately you can also watch real doctors, by volunteering in hospitals.

The curricula of most high schools are shallow. However, it is crucial to get an extensive understanding of different sectors, disciplines, and occupations. I was interested in tech entrepreneurship in my freshman year, so I ended up working at a startup over the summer because I had a lot of spare time. That was a good opportunity for me to get to know what these intangible ideas actually were.

But there are other jobs you can’t learn about, because no one is doing them yet. Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years didn’t exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.

It’s very hard to foresee our society’s employment demands in the next decade. I was born in Manchuria where my mother went to high school. Because everybody in her hometown thought that the Soviets would be the superpower at some point, my mom chose to learn Russian instead of English as her second language. No one had anticipated the breakdown of the Soviet Union, but if one had mastered the methodology of learning languages (not just learning one specific language), it shouldn’t be hard to pick up a new language.

It’s hard to predict the trend, so be adaptive, get ready & be prepared for new things. Don’t waste your time on how to pass a calculus test (computers can easily solve the problems for you), learn to understand how to logically solve a problem instead. Be ready to surprise others, and don’t wait for the world to surprise you.

The best protection is always to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn’t. Hard means worry: if you’re not worrying that something you’re making will come out badly, or that you won’t be able to understand something you’re studying, then it isn’t hard enough. There has to be suspense.

Spot on. Challenge yourself.

If you’d asked me in high school what the difference was between high school kids and adults, I’d have said it was that adults had to earn a living. Wrong. It’s that adults take responsibility for themselves. Making a living is only a small part of it. Far more important is to take intellectual responsibility for oneself.

Yes! Responsibility. But I think it’s not just about intellectual responsibility. I go to a private school with many upper-middle-class Americans of my age, and many are not conscious of their privilege of attending an “elite” independent school in Massachusetts. I believe that we should take the equal amount of social responsibility as the privilege that our society has bestowed upon us.

When I ask people what they regret most about high school, they nearly all say the same thing: that they wasted so much time. If you’re wondering what you’re doing now that you’ll regret most later, that’s probably it.

The only way not to waste your talents is to try your best and stop wasting time.

You may be thinking, we have to do more than get good grades. We have to have extracurricular activities. But you know perfectly well how bogus most of these are. Collecting donations for a charity is an admirable thing to do, but it’s not hard. It’s not getting something done. What I mean by getting something done is learning how to write well, or how to program computers, or what life was really like in preindustrial societies, or how to draw the human face from life. This sort of thing rarely translates into a line item on a college application.

Spend time on things that are meaningful, challenging, and have long-term impacts. This is also the reason I think American high school students need to get off campus and leave their homes more often and see what our society needs. (Paul Graham describes it as a “day job”.) Find a niche in society aside from being a young adult in your family and a student in high school: writing, programming, designing, painting, lobbying, or becoming an advocate for the causes that you support.

Right now most of you feel your job in life is to be a promising college applicant. But that means you’re designing your life to satisfy a process so mindless that there’s a whole industry devoted to subverting it. No wonder you become cynical. The malaise you feel is the same that a producer of reality TV shows or a tobacco industry executive feels. And you don’t even get paid a lot.

This might be obvious to many of us, but I’ve seen too many people who set their ultimate goal of high school life as “getting into a good college”. Getting into a good college is supposed to be something a high school graduate is entitled to as one gradually becomes a responsible individual. I’m pretty sure you will most likely get rejected by your dream school if you walk into their admissions office and tell the officer that your dream is to get in there. Similarly, if you spend all your time thinking about how to make billions, unlikely will you become a billionaire in the end. (Work hard, be smart, and make sure if one day someone offers you a billion-dollar paycheck, you’re prepared for it.)

When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.

Find a question! Find something that you like. Curiosity turns work into play.

But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Pretty much summarizes how important curiosity is. Good entrepreneurs, writers, engineers, and elites in their respective fields are not just good because they challenge themselves, but more crucially they enjoy what they are doing. Math may seem boring, but if you find economics really appealing to you, you should be grateful for having the opportunity to learn algebra (a lot of people don’t).

The important thing is to get out there and do stuff. Instead of waiting to be taught, go out and learn.

Your life doesn’t have to be shaped by admissions officers. It could be shaped by your own curiosity. It is for all ambitious adults. And you don’t have to wait to start. In fact, you don’t have to wait to be an adult. There’s no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.

This may sound like bullshit. I’m just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it’s restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

This! Take initiatives. Take responsibilities. You’re doing things for no one but yourself.

Please, please, please read Paul Graham’s entire essay, regardless whether you are or aren’t in high school. Many of his thoughts are also applicable to people of other life stages.