Identity Politics – Books by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Francis Fukuyama
Identity Politics – Francis Fukuyama and Kwame Anthony Appiah take on identity politics
Two leading thinkers explore the deep roots of populism and resentment in the West
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 240 pages; $26. To be published in Britain by Profile Books in October; £16.99.
The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Liveright; 256 pages; $27.95. Profile Books; £14.99.
ONE of the most remarkable recent developments in Anglo-American politics is the reification of the white working class. Google Trends, a website that tracks how often particular words or phrases are typed into the search engine, shows a huge spike in interest in that group when Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. Interest has never quite subsided since. What is more, the white working class has gone from being mostly ignored to being assumed to have a consistent set of views, even a political agenda.
Many of the books published after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Mr Trump’s election tried to explain why this group in particular had turned on the political establishment. For example, “Us vs Them” by Ian Bremmer and “WTF” by Robert Peston found the answer in the travails of former industrial towns and the arrogance and selfishness of elites. Now come two more reflective takes. “Identity” and “The Lies That Bind” suggest that Western countries not only have deep economic and social problems, but philosophical ones too. People are looking at themselves and others in the wrong ways.
Francis Fukuyama’s account begins in the distant past. Ancient Greek philosophers conceived of people (or, at least, privileged people) as having a longing for recognition and respect, which they called “thymos”. In the 16th century Martin Luther drew a distinction between people’s inner lives and their behaviour, the former being more important. By the 18th century European and American thinkers had added the idea that everyone not merely wanted but deserved to be treated with dignity. These ideas have since been stirred together and spiced with resentment.
What has happened recently, Mr Fukuyama argues, is that many people have concluded that society does not adequately value their inner worth. That is society’s fault, not their own. So the world must change and grant them more respect. Mr Fukuyama spies this craving in many groups, from the working-class whites who are drawn to populism in Europe and America to the Arabs who rebelled against their rulers in 2010. The women who launched the #MeToo movement are impelled by a similar desire for respect; so even are Islamists.
Some of these movements are more admirable than others, Mr Fukuyama finds. But he is troubled by even the worthiest ones, because they so often begin by claiming that a group has been done down. To demand justice for one marginalised group is often to overlook the higher goals of equality and respect for all. Besides, right-wingers have learned to play the grievance game just as well as left-wingers, leading to an endless cycle of claim and self-righteous counter-claim.
His chief cure for this disease of identity politics is the nation. Though left-wingers may deride national identities, and right-wingers twist them to racist ends, they are the best hope for unifying people and giving them a broad sense of purpose. Mr Fukuyama favours national identities based on creed, like the American one, rather than identities based on race or heritage. He is keen on national service and suspicious of dual citizenship. Still, he does not seem entirely confident that countries can steer away from a politics of resentment that has been many years in the making.
The ladder and the mountain
Kwame Anthony Appiah shares some things with Mr Fukuyama. He lives in a liberal coastal city of America. He, too, dislikes both right-wing populist nationalism and identity politics at both ends of the spectrum. He also suspects that the present political turmoil in countries such as Britain and America is rooted in long-developing habits of mind. But whereas Mr Fukuyama drives to the heart of the problem, Mr Appiah rises above it.
“The Lies That Bind” ranges even more widely in time and space than “Identity”, and has fewer signposts for the reader. Among other things, it takes in the Epistles of St Paul, medieval Arab philosophy, 18th-century English novels, Michael Young’s book “The Rise of the Meritocracy” and Mr Appiah’s upbringing in Ghana. It quotes from the Bible (as he puts it) “more or less at random”. Several pages are devoted to an African, Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer, who was plucked from his home in 1707, aged five, and sent to Europe. After a top-notch education, he became a philosopher.
The point of this entertaining, meandering journey is that identities are less solid than is frequently thought. Religions change constantly, rethinking old traditions and incorporating new doctrines. Many widespread ideas about race derive from 19th-century distinctions between negroes, caucasians and orientals, which have been discredited by science (Amo Afer is interesting because he was born before those racial categories had hardened). Social class is less like a ladder than a mountain, with many routes to the top.
Nobody has a single identity, Mr Appiah adds, being only middle-class, only a woman, only British or only white. All of our identities are refracted through our other ones. Nor do people’s identities truly dictate their thoughts or behaviour. “In general”, he writes, “there isn’t some inner essence that explains why people of a certain social identity are the way they are.” Identities are not inherited like genes. Rather, they are worn and styled, like hair.
It is not clear what Mr Appiah would change, if he had power—though, like Mr Fukuyama, he is keen on national identities built on creeds. His book implies that people should study history more, and be more careful when lumping themselves and others into groups. Both are splendid ideas, though they resemble pea-shooters against the bombast of Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and their ilk. What if populist nationalism and the various kinds of identity politics appeal to people not despite their gross simplifications and errors, but because of them?
There is another way of thinking about Brexit, Trumpism and other political convulsions, which does not fill a book. It is to remember that history does not travel in a straight line. Nations can become divided; groups of people can grow resentful; demagogues can gain power; ruinous political decisions can be made. But the reverse can happen, too, when conditions are right and a talented politician appears. Just look at France. Liberal democrats who fear that populism is on the march, and their ideals will never again prevail, should recall that the opposite was once common wisdom.
As it happens, that was partly thanks to Mr Fukuyama. He is best-known for arguing, in “The End of History and the Last Man”, published in 1992, that the world was heading towards liberal democracy. China’s rise and democratic backsliding in Russia and elsewhere scotched that hope. The episode does not show that Mr Fukuyama was foolish, just that the future is hard to predict. It is devoutly to be wished that he will also be proved wrong about the ascent of intolerant identity politics.