Fukuyama on Politics, Rights, and Recognition

Francis Fukuyama at Fronteiras do Pensamento São Paulo. Photo by Greg Salibian

In his work “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” Francis Fukuyama navigates the intricate maze of identity politics. He presents a compelling argument that the pillars of liberal democracy are being increasingly tested by the growing clamor for identity recognition. Fukuyama’s critique provides a robust intellectual context that enriches our grasp of the shift in political priorities, from the older emphasis on economic equity to a newer focus on identity affirmation.

Over two decades ago, this concern received various responses, the most emblematic of which might be that of Nancy Fraser. From a progressive standpoint, Fraser was concerned about the emergence of what she coined as the “post-socialist condition” and proposed a theory that harmoniously integrated redistribution and recognition.

However, this is not the normative position taken by Fukuyama. Far from focusing on the structures that enable the participation of all individuals in a nation in the democratic process, Fukuyama concentrates on the need for human recognition as the structuring reason for the deep divisions that exist in liberal democracies, particularly in the United States.

The Shift in Recognition Policies

Francis Fukuyama’s observation that the principle of universal recognition has shifted towards the special recognition of particular groups is a compelling critique of modern liberal policies. This shift marks a significant departure from the foundational principles of liberalism, which emphasized universal human rights, equality, and the rule of law as the bedrock of a just society. In the traditional liberal framework, the focus was on creating a society where all individuals, regardless of their background, could have equal opportunities and be judged based on their merits rather than their identities.

However, the rise of identity politics has led to a change in focus. Now, policies often aim to recognize and celebrate the unique experiences and challenges faced by specific groups, particularly those that have been historically marginalized or oppressed. While this approach has the noble aim of redressing historical injustices and providing a platform for underrepresented voices, Fukuyama argues that it has also had unintended consequences.

 One of these consequences is the erosion of the sense of collective solidarity. In the past, the struggle for economic equality and social justice was a unifying force that brought people together across various divides. The focus was on common goals, such as reducing poverty, improving education, and ensuring healthcare for all. However, the shift towards identity-based recognition has led to a form of ‘tribalism,’ where the fight for social justice is fragmented into multiple battles fought on behalf of individual identity groups.

 Immigration and Identity Politics: A Complex Interplay

 Immigration has become a contentious issue in many countries, and its intersection with identity politics adds another layer of complexity. According to Fukuyama, the economic decline experienced by majority groups is often attributed to immigration and identity-based policies, fueling resentment and resistance. This perspective is particularly prevalent in countries where the native-born majority feels economically threatened and culturally displaced due to increasing numbers of immigrants.

The rise of identity politics has exacerbated these tensions. On one hand, progressive policies aim to protect the rights and cultural identities of immigrants, often framing this as a moral and social imperative. On the other hand, these policies can be perceived by the majority as favoring minority groups at their expense, thereby generating a sense of loss and insecurity. This feeling is especially potent when economic conditions are challenging, and resources are scarce.

The Therapeutic Turn and Its Impact on Public Policy

 Francis Fukuyama posits that the “triumph of the therapeutic” has significantly influenced the rise of identity politics in liberal democracies like the United States. As traditional religious frameworks have waned, psychotherapy has stepped in to fill the void, focusing on individual self-actualization and the pursuit of an “authentic self.” This cultural shift has had profound implications for public policy, particularly in how governments approach social issues.

In the therapeutic era, the role of the state has evolved from being a guarantor of basic rights to a facilitator of individual well-being. Public policies increasingly aim to validate individual experiences and identities, often prioritizing emotional well-being and psychological health. While this has led to greater awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, it has also contributed to the fragmentation of larger social goals into individualized projects of self-improvement.

 This focus on individual well-being can sometimes detract from collective responsibilities and broader social justice objectives. For instance, policies aimed at boosting self-esteem in marginalized communities may not address systemic issues like poverty or lack of access to quality education. The state, in its new therapeutic role, risks becoming an enabler of individual quests for self-actualization at the expense of communal and economic imperatives.

 Francis Fukuyama identifies a critical tension in modern liberal democracies: the need to balance the protection of marginalized groups with the pursuit of overarching societal objectives. He argues that the current focus on identity politics, while well-intentioned, risks undermining the fabric of collective action and communication. In a society increasingly fragmented along lines of identity, the common ground needed for democratic dialogue and cooperative action becomes elusive.

Fukuyama’s proposed remedy is the cultivation of an inclusive national identity, one that respects the rich tapestry of individual and group identities while also emphasizing shared values and goals. This is not a call for assimilation but rather an appeal for a form of unity that respects diversity. By fostering a sense of collective identity, societies can create a framework within which individual identities can coexist without causing social fragmentation.

However, the implementation of this solution is fraught with challenges. It requires a delicate balancing act from policymakers, who must navigate between the Scylla of erasing individual identities and the Charybdis of promoting a form of nationalism that excludes minorities. Moreover, it demands a reevaluation of educational curricula, public narratives, and even political rhetoric, to ensure that they are aligned with this vision of inclusive nationalism.

Fukuyama’s Take on Identity Politics: Strengths and Weaknesses

 Francis Fukuyama’s essay on identity politics in liberal democracies is both insightful and flawed. On the positive side, it offers a robust framework for understanding the complex issues shaping today’s political landscape. Fukuyama’s call for an inclusive national identity as a solution to the divisive nature of identity politics is particularly noteworthy. However, the essay has several shortcomings that merit attention. First, Fukuyama’s claim that advocates for identity recognition have abandoned economic equality is problematic. This overlooks the interconnectedness of economic and identity issues, suggesting that the struggle for identity recognition is often aligned with broader economic reforms. Second, the essay is marred by sweeping generalizations that can obscure the nuanced realities of identity politics.

These broad strokes can be misleading and reduce the complexity of the issues at hand. Lastly, Fukuyama’s proposed solution focuses mainly on newly arrived immigrants, leaving the broader issue of democratic inclusion of all identity groups unresolved. This narrow focus suggests a limitation in his approach, as it fails to address the complexities of a society made up of various identity groups, some with long-standing historical roots. In summary, while the essay serves as a valuable starting point for discussions on identity politics, it also invites critical scrutiny. Its merits and limitations both contribute to the ongoing discourse, emphasizing the need for a more nuanced and inclusive approach. 

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Ph.D. in Philosophy (Université Paris Sciences et Lettres). Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal, specializing in political theory and pluralism. Editor of Politics and Rights Review.

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Ph.D. in Philosophy (Université Paris Sciences et Lettres). Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal, specializing in political theory and pluralism. Editor of Politics and Rights Review.