‘Identity — Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition’ and ‘Mistaken Identity — Race and Class in the Age of Trump’ reviews: Moving beyond identity politics

In his 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously argued that liberalism had triumphed over other political ideologies. The essay, written a few months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and published in The National Interest journal, shot him into world fame with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He was celebrated as a philosopher who predicted the imminent collapse of communism, the last remaining ideological alternative to liberalism.

So with the universal spread of liberal institutions and consumer culture, it can be argued that history has reached it goal — that was his “end of history” argument. However, as it turned out, the triumph of liberalism in early 1990s was neither universal nor long-lasting. Certainly, history continued. It brought the same Fukuyama back to explore the crises within liberal societies almost thirty years after the essay was published.

Discontent in democracy

In his latest book, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, Fukuyama is dealing with a liberal world that’s facing the surge of illiberal populist politics. There’s a global trend of right-wing populists being elected to the helm of states — Donald Trump in the U.S., Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and so on. Quoting Larry Diamond, Fukuyama says “the global surge towards democracy that began in the mid-1970s has gone into a... global recession.” Why? In his view, the rapid changes that happened in societies over the past many years, partly due to globalisation and increasing inequality, have set the stage for the strongman populism to thrive.

In Fukuyama’s words, people have a craving for dignity, which he calls thymos, the third part of the human soul as described by Plato. Liberal democracies offer this dignity to the people, but in times of economic distress, the people who are left behind would perceive such crises as a loss of identity rather than a loss of resources. The growing inequality of the globalised world has changed its politics.

The Left, which was fighting for the working class in the last century, concentrates on “promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized,” while the Right “is redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion.”

In such a scenario, identity politics “has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality,” writes Fukuyama.

Interestingly, the last chapter is called ‘What is to be done?’, the title of a novel by the 19th century Russian revolutionary Nikolay Chernyshevsky, which Vladimir Lenin also used as the title of a pamphlet he wrote in 1902. Fukuyama, however, has nothing in common with Lenin. He advocates for greater integration of different identities into creedal national identities built around the foundational ideas of modern liberal democracy. “Liberal democracy has its own culture, which must be held in higher esteem than cultures rejecting democratic values,” he writes.

Fukuyama realises that liberal democracies by default do not provide economic equity and the lack of equity can create crisis within societies. But his solution is superficial. He leaves the structures of liberal democracy or capitalism which is its economic philosophy untouched and focusses on the superstructure of some vague liberal culture, which he hopes can subsume multiple identities of people, including victims of racism, xenophobia, violent majoritarianism and patriarchy.

The other view

Asad Haider moves a step further in problematising identity in his book, Mistaken Identity. Haider, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California and a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, is looking at identity politics from a leftist point of view. If Fukuyama has attacked both the identity politics of the victims, say victims of racism, and rightwing, ethno-nationalist populists like the Trumps or Erdogans, Haider doesn’t do that balancing act. He positions himself with the victims and asks whether liberal identity politics can actually liberate people from their material hardships.

‘Identity — Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition’ and ‘Mistaken Identity — Race and Class in the Age of Trump’ reviews: Moving beyond identity politics

His conclusion is that “liberal identitarianism” lacks the emancipatory potential that’s required to change societies. In his view, identity politics is “neutralization of movements against racial oppression. It is the ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy in service of the advancement of political and economic elites.” He stands for a more radical solution.

Towards emancipation

Haider says identity politics needs to move from its liberal paradigm and assume an anti-capitalist universality for it to be emancipatory. He cites interesting examples. One is the life of Amiri Baraka, American Black rights activists and writer. Baraka, who once said the White people can help the fight of the blacks “by dying” transformed into a mass labour organiser. The project Baraka initiated was to break with identity and move toward mass organisation, Haider reminds the proponents of identity politics. He calls for an “insurgent universality” in which people would no longer be passive victims but “active agents of a politics that demands freedom for everyone.”

In another example, he writes about the successful Haitian insurrection against slavery and French colonial rule. In 1799, Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture was asked by France to write on the banners of his army a few words praising the French people. He refused, and wrote a letter to Napoleon Bonaparte: “It’s not a liberty of circumstance conceded to us alone, that we want. It’s the absolute adoption of the principle that no man, born red black or white can be the property of his fellow.”

It is this broader vision Haider is asking proponents of identity politics to follow. “Our world is in dire need of a new insurgent universality. We are capable of producing it... What we lack is program, strategy and tactics,” he writes.

Identity — Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition; Francis Fukuyama, Hachette India, ₹499.

Mistaken Identity — Race and Class in the Age of Trump; Asad Haider, Verso, ₹1,093.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 11:28:39 PM |

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