Identity Politics and Its Discontents

In the summer of 1989, the American journal The National Interest, published an essay titled “The End of History?” Its author, Francis Fukuyama, declared the triumph for liberal democracy as the final form of government for all nations. Fukuyama wrote, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

The thesis, as presented by Fukuyama, drew scepticism from a wide range of intellectual circles. Critics point to the events of September 11 and Islamic fundamentalism as proof of the global persistence of ideological conflicts. However, Fukuyama has dismissed many of the critiques as misinterpreting his use of the word “end” as the “termination of history” rather than in the sense of Marxist-Hegelian notion of universal history. In addition, Fukuyama laments, the critics fail to focus on the dilemma of Nietzsche’s Last Man, and the part of the human soul known as “Thymos” that desire recognition.

Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, published in 2018 addresses the growing threat of identity politics to the liberal democracy in contemporary world politics. In the book, he argues that “Universal liberalism isn’t impeded by ideology,” but by the desire of identity groups for recognition. It is an effort by a public intellectual to succinctly analyse the state of liberal democracy in the backdrop of Donald Trump’s “politics of resentment.”

Unlike the twentieth-century politics organized based on economic issues, Fukuyama writes, “the second decade of the twenty-first century… appears to be giving way in many regions to one defined by identity.” The left has focused less on broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of marginalized groups. And the right has redefined itself as patriots who seek to protect the traditional civilizational identity. Therefore, a politics of resentment, a perceived notion of a group’s identity being disparaged and that it needs to seek public recognition of dignity.

Identity and the Human Nature

The term “identity” has been popularized by the psychologist Erik Erikson during the 1950s. And the concept of “identity politics” emerged with the rise of cultural politics driven by black rights, gay rights, women rights, and environmental movements in the 1980s. Their appearance in the lingua franca appears to be recent, although their origins could be traced back to antiquity.

Drawing on Plato, Luther, Rousseau, Hegel and Kant’s philosophy of dignity and the desire for recognition, Fukuyama traces a brief history of how present-day identity politics attained prominence in our society. To him, the modern concept of identity unites three different phenomena. The first is thymos, the aspect of the human soul that craves recognition. The Second is a distinction between the inner- and outer-self. The third is an evolving concept of identity.

The key passage in Plato’s Republic, which divides the human soul into three parts. The first is a desiring part, which seeks to fulfil most of the human desires. The second is the rational part, which seeks to maximize personal utility. These two parts of the soul make up for “modern-day economics.” For Fukuyama, the thymotic part of the soul that enables humans to “crave positive judgements about their worth” makes up for primary political struggles in today’s world.

Contemporary identity politics is driven by the quest for equal recognition by groups that have been marginalized by their societies. But that desire for recognition can easily slide over into a group’s demand for recognition of the group’s superiority. This is a large part of the story of nationalism and national identity, as well as certain forms of extremist religious politics today.

To trace the origin of the concept of identity, Fukuyama discusses the disjunction between “one’s inside and one’s outside.” Humans believe that their true inner-self is somehow not being allowed to express itself. It is this, which drives them to question “Who am I, really? In the West, the idea of identity was born in Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. The Church at the time was seen as an intermediary between man and God. To Luther, Church acted only on the outer person – through confessions, penance and alms. His doctrine of faith was interested in man’s inner-self and its relationship with God.

In the writings of Charles Taylor, we can trace the definitive role of Rousseau’s secularized notion of inner-self.  Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, argued that human unhappiness began with the discovery of society. According to him, the first human being – man in the state of nature – was not sinful. With the rise of private property, humans began to accumulate jealousy, envy, pride and shame.

Rousseau writes, “Men no sooner began to set a value upon each other, and know what esteem was, than each laid claim to it, and it was no longer safe for any man to refuse it to one another.” This simple self-interest is transmuted into feelings of pride and the desire for social recognition. Both Luther and Rousseau played a crucial role in giving rise to the contemporary notion of inner-self that breaks free from tradition and convention.

The concept of dignity was further elaborated by the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. To Plato, the desire for recognition was restricted to a political community of warriors, willing to risk death in public service. It was Immanuel Kant, who presented a secular version of human dignity in his Groundwork to a Metaphysics of Morals.

Human dignity, according to Kant, is enshrined in the “Categorical Imperative,” a set of moral rules that all people must follow regardless of their desires. Other than goodwill, he remarked, there is nothing that is unconditionally good. Human dignity, according to Kant, revolves around human goodwill.

Identity and the Politics of Recognition

Fukuyama uses an in-depth analysis of the Arab Spring to explain the rise of contemporary identity politics. On December 17, 2010, a female police officer slapped Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, and confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart. This prompted Bouazizi to self-immolate, yelling, “How do you expect me to make a living?” News of this incident triggered what became known as the Arab Spring. Massive protests and violence across the Arab region lead to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.

Egypt arab spring protests
An Egyptian protester holds his national flag as he shouts slogans against President Hosni Mubarak at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011.

The central notion was that the state not treating its citizens as human beings: that is, a moral agent worthy of minimal respect, who, in parts, deserved justification of his living. Fukuyama notes, “The desire for the state to recognize one’s basic dignity has been at the core of democratic movements since the French Revolution.”

There are two important aspects to Fukuyama’s assessment of modern-day identity politics: Nationalism and Religion. Drawing on the writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder, a contemporary of Kant, Fukuyama notes that each human community is unique and separate from its neighbours. Herder sought to promote cultural authenticity, an appreciation for the unique customs and traditions of each of the world’s people.

Nationalism was born out of the acute anxieties bread by industrialization. These anxieties are perfectly captured in the story of a young peasant, Hans, who grew up in a small village in Saxony. Hans moves to an urban industrial locality, where he feels disconnected from his surroundings. Social theorist Ferdinand Tonnies characterized Hans’s story as the “psychological dislocation engendered by the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, or from village community to urban society.” This transition experienced by millions of Europeans gave rise to the question of identity. A new form of identity known as “nation,” which was based on shared culture and language, as in the case of Europe. This identity was, however, formed based on “religion” in the Middle East and Islamic states.

A slew of new populist politicians have pushed to promote the concept of national sovereignty in recent years. Putin of Russia, Erdogan of Turkey, Orban of Hungary, Kaczynski of Poland, and others are among these leaders. With the rise of ISIS, the Islamic Brotherhood, Hindutva, and Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka, religious fundamentalism is on the rise.

Fukuyama goes on to examine people’s economic conditions in order to comprehend their desire for recognition. He writes, “Middle-class people do not feel themselves to be at the margins of society; rather, they typically feel that they constitute the core of national identity.” The growth of populist nationalism around the world could be explained by the perceived loss of middle-class status.  The resentment fuelled by the perception of the lower classes’ invisibility could be viewed as a loss of dignity.

The Left and the Right Politics

The 1960s witnessed the emergence of a series of social movements, from Black rights movements in the United States to the feminist movement, to the same-sex revolution, to the environmental movement across the world. These new social movements were conditioned to think in terms of identity, with the goal of maximizing people’s self-esteem. Each movement focused on who has been invisible and suppressed, and whose dignity was not recognised. The Marxist Left’s objective changed away from economic equality and toward culture as a result of these developments.

This form of identity politics, according to Fukuyama, became problematic in terms of four aspects: First, identity politics for some progressives became a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the thirty-year trend in most liberal democracies towards greater socioeconomic inequality. He writes, “Many of the constituencies that have been the focus of recent identity claims, such as female executives in Silicon Valley or aspiring actresses and filmmakers in Hollywood, are near the tops of the income distribution. Helping them to achieve greater equality is a good thing, but will do nothing to address the glaring disparities between the top 1 percent and the remaining 99.”

Second, there is an increased attempt to focus on newer and more narrowly defined marginalized groups. This may divert attention from older and larger groups whose problems have been ignored. Third, the present-day understanding of identity threatens free speech, and more importantly the rational discourse required for the sustenance of democracy. Its manifestations are cancel culture and “political correctness,” both of which limit one’s freedom to speak freely about various issues.  Fourth, identity politics as practised on the left has paved way for the rise of identity politics on the right.

Fukuyama argues, “Identity politics on the left tended to legitimate only certain identities while ignoring or denigrating others,” such as national, rural, traditional identities. Working-class supporters’ anger of the left-political elites gave rise to Donald Trump. By taking on political correctness frontally, Trump exposed (and in parts, shaped) the resentment of the individual rural working-class Americans. Fukuyama writes: “What is notable, however, is how the right has adopted the language and framing of identity from the left: the idea that my particular group is being victimized, that its situation and sufferings are invisible to the rest of society, and that the whole social and political structure responsible for this situation needs to be smashed.”

What Is To Be Done?

The richness of Fukuyama’s essay on identity politics is somewhat let down by his simplistic solutions. Broadly, he provides two solutions. First, Fukuyama believes strong national identities built around liberal and democratic political values can help diverse communities to thrive under one roof. A strong national identity can provide: physical security, quality of governance, economic development, trust, and mitigate economic inequality. He elaborates: “We need to promote creedal national identities built around the foundational ideas of modern liberal democracy, and use public policies to deliberately assimilate newcomers to those identities.”

Second, Fukuyama calls for ambitious social policies that seek to alleviate poverty and improve the social conditions of the poor and underprivileged. To a broad scope of the work, Fukuyama’s essay confines its analysis to the United States and the West. Fukuyama spends little time examining how Asia and Africa’s third-world countries might lessen economic disparity both without and between nations.

Fukuyama’s work also overlooks the role of elites in shaping identities on a regular basis. And how those identities have been exploited to their advantage on occasion. He also ignores Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist values, which are deeply embedded in economic issues. There is also no mention of how social media plays an important role in shaping narratives, thereby shaping identity politics.  Despite these limitations, Fukuyama’s Identity is worth reading. It is an important work on how identity politics has manifested in today’s world.

Fukuyama’s essay captures its essence in its concluding passage, “We will not escape from thinking about ourselves and our society in identity terms. But we need to remember that identities dwelling deep inside us are neither fixed nor necessarily given to us by our accidents of birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate. That, in the end, will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present.” Identity is an ambitious work of a progressive political thinker of our times.


Fukuyama, Francis. Identity : Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for recognition. London: Profile Books, 2018.