Many Western intellectuals look back to the classical age with reverence, as the time when modern civilisation started. Fukuyama – the political scientist who came to world attention with his book The End of History and The Last Man – is no exception. In Identity he writes at length about the Athenian philosophers Socrates and Adeimantus, who he says came up with the notion of thymos, a personality trait marked by a hunger for recognition that drives humans to do seemingly irrational things. It is these men that Fukuyama leans on to support his own logic.
The pace picks up after the initial chapters and it’s a thrill to wheel about with the American professor as he picks out patterns in global history and prescribes remedies for the world’s current fixation with identity.
Fukuyama believes this fixation is a modern phenomenon, caused by the uprooting of rural dwellers from their communities. Thrust into an urban setting where they become unanchored and anxious, they are exhilarated by their freedoms but no longer sure who they are or what is their purpose.
This is what happened to European peasants during the industrial revolution and it has happened again more recently to Muslim immigrants who find themselves stranded in cities or overseas, says Fukuyama. As both groups reel in their loss and confusion, nationalism and Islamism present themselves as seductive identities.
To remedy the dangers of both these ‘isms’ being taken to extremes, Fukuyama believes Western nations need to focus less on championing the increasingly narrow identities of particular groups – although he accepts the positive contributions made by groups such as Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement – and instead search for solutions to economic inequality. At the same time, we should aim to create creedal national identities that all citizens can connect to regardless of their ethnic origins, religious loyalties or other identities. Fukuyama is clear that diversity itself isn’t enough to base an identity on. ‘It is like saying that our identity is to have no identity; or rather that we should get used to our having nothing in common and emphasise our narrow ethnic or racial identities instead.’
‘It's a thrill to wheel about with the professor as he picks out patterns in global history’
He points to countries such as the United States, France and India – where Gandhi and Nehru managed to unite thousands of divergent castes, tribes, sects and religions under a common ‘idea of India’ – as heading along the right lines. Then again, some are showing worrying signs of reversion as the national conversation is taken over by an obsession with immigration, instead of the ways in which immigrants might be better integrated.
It’s fine for nations to have borders, adds Fukuyama. ‘A democratic political system is based on a contract between government and citizen in which both have obligations. Such a contract makes no sense without delimitation of citizenship,’ he writes. But in order for larger power blocks such as the European Union to work, they need to create a shared sense of citizenship which supersedes that of nations, and then sell their inhabitants the new brand – somewhat difficult when states like the UK are already halfway out the door.
It’s fascinating to see Brexit told by a stateside outsider. He views it not only as part of a global phenomenon in which groups that feel misunderstood seek recognition, but also as an outpouring of the English exceptionalism that has formed part of British identity since Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church. ‘If one listens to the rhetoric of the Brexiteers, the continent is still enslaved,’ writes Fukuyama. ‘This time not by the Pope or Emperor but by the EU.’
At times it’s difficult to see how any nation could retain the vitality offered by diversity while simultaneously shedding its painful divisions. This is especially true in an era where debate is often curtailed by the hurt it causes. But we must try, urges Fukuyama. Both to include and to listen without becoming offended. ‘Our very liberal democracies depend upon it.’
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