“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”—Erik Erikson
Erikson’s quote can be very well understood when reading Francis Fukuyama’s book Identity – The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Fukuyama says that movements linked to nationalism and religion are not about to disappear as forces influencing world politics. All these movements vibrate with questions of identity such as “who am I?” and “To what do I belong to?”
For any nation, political stability is number one for national prosperity and the wellbeing of the population. Fukuyama’s book, organised into 14 chapters, centres on some key ideas and the three key concepts of thymos, isothymia and megalothymia to address the issue of identity-based politics. To him, economics alone does not satisfy humans; they crave for dignity and recognition.
In Identity, Fukuyama emphasises two proposals. Firstly, there is a need to develop a sense of national identity to overcome the challenges posed by identity politics and the struggle for recognition. Secondly, he suggests the development of a very ambitious social programme to help the poor and the underprivileged, although such a programme may not be good enough on its own. Problems arise because of the inability of liberal democracies to fully solve the problem of thymos – that part of the
soul that craves recognition or dignity; isothymia, the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people and megalothymia, the desire to be recognised as superior. These three concepts are the chief drivers of modern politics.
He argues that the demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today and therefore cannot be solely satisfied by economic means. Using the Hegelian thought that human history has always been driven by a struggle for recognition, Fukuyama urges for a more universal understanding of human dignity if we are to avoid continuing conflict. Movements such as “America First” campaign of Trump, Black Lives Matter, 2008 HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) movement in Malaysia demanding respect, the 2019 Malay Dignity Congress held in Malaysia, the Dalits campaigns in India, the struggles of the Penans in Sarawak, Malaysia can be better understood when you understand the political struggle for recognition and the thymotic desire. There have been numerous revolutions of dignity starting with the Arab spring of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, not forgetting the French revolution. Fukuyama charts the major revolutions in the United States and France through to the Civil Rights movement, to show how dignity moved from belonging to the few to belonging to the many until, in the present day, ‘each marginalized group had a choice of seeing itself in broader or narrower identity terms. It could demand that society treat its members identically to the way that the dominant groups in society were treated, or it could assert a separate identity for its members and demand respect for them as different from mainstream society.’ Democratic societies became characterised by multiculturalism and growing pluralism.
According to Fukuyama, embracing identity politics was understandable and needed because the experiences of different groups and identities needed to be acknowledged and any form of injustice to them had to be weeded out. Identity politics becomes a problem only when identity is interpreted or asserted in certain ways. Identity politics has threatened free speech and the social fabric of society by ignoring the need for public dialogue. Emotions have taken over rationality. Finally, Fukuyama argues that the most problematic aspect of identity politics is that it has given rise to extremes on the political right blaming the political leftists. Unfortunately, not many politicians are aware of this growing need as they are blinded by their short-term pursuits of power and the benefits that come with it. This book must be compulsory reading for any aspiring politician and public servants.