Identity politics is about our quest for recognition

Keep out: Migrants climb over a border wall into the United States from Mexico. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Keep out: Migrants climb over a border wall into the United States from Mexico. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Author Francis Fukuyama writes that the rapid changes in the political and economic landscape have seen people around the world losing their sense of dignity and thus their identity


Sometime in the last decades of the 20th century, world politics changed dramatically. The period from the early 1970s to the mid-2000s was what political scientist and academic Samuel Huntington labelled the “third wave” of democratisation, when the number of countries that could be classified as electoral democracies increased from about 35 to more than 110. In this period, liberal democracy became the default form of government for much of the world, in aspiration if not in practice.

In parallel to this shift in political institutions was a corresponding growth of economic interdependence among nations, or what we call globalisation.
The latter was underpinned by liberal economic institutions such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor, the World Trade Organisation. These were supplemented by regional trade agreements such as those of the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Throughout this period, the rate of growth in international trade and investment outpaced global gross domestic product (GDP) growth and was widely seen as the major driver of prosperity.

Between 1970 and 2008, the world’s output of goods and services quadrupled and growth extended to most regions of the world, and the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries dropped from 42% of the total population in 1993 to 17% in 2011. The percentage of children dying before their fifth birthdays declined from 22% in 1960 to less than 5% by 2016.

This liberal world order did not benefit everyone. Particularly in developed democracies, inequality increased dramatically, and many of the benefits of growth flowed primarily to an elite defined primarily by education.

Because growth was related to the increasing volume of goods, money and people moving from one place to another, there was a huge, disruptive social change. In developing countries, villagers who previously had no access to electricity suddenly found themselves living in large cities, watching TV or connected to the internet via ubiquitous cellphones. Labour markets adjusted to new conditions by driving tens of millions of people across international borders in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families; others moved because they sought to escape intolerable conditions at home.

Huge new middle classes arose in countries such as China and India, but the work they did replaced work that had been done by older middle classes in the developed world. Manufacturing moved from Europe and the United States to East Asia and other low-labour-cost regions. Women were displacing men in a new service-dominated economy, and low-skilled workers were being replaced by smart machines.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum towards an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter and then went into reverse. This shift coincided with two financial crises, the first originating in the US subprime market in 2008 that led to the subsequent Great Recession, and the second emerging over the threat to the euro and the EU posed by Greece’s insolvency. In both cases, elite policies produced recessions, high levels of unemployment and falling incomes for millions of workers around the world.

Because the US and the EU were the leading exemplars, these crises damaged the reputation of liberal democracy as a whole. Democracy scholar Larry Diamond has characterised the years after the crises as ones of a “democratic recession”, in which the aggregate number of democracies fell from their peak in most regions of the world.

Authoritarian countries, led by China and Russia, became more assertive: China began promoting its “China model” as a path to development and wealth that was distinctly undemocratic, and Russia attacked the liberal decadence of the EU and the US. A number of countries that had seemed to be successful liberal democracies during the 1990s slid toward authoritarian government, including Hungary, Turkey, Thailand and Poland.

The Arab Spring of 2011 disrupted dictatorships throughout the Middle East, but then profoundly disappointed hopes for greater democracy in the region as Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria descended into civil war. 

The Arab Spring of 2011 sparked hopes of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East, but instead led to the rise of war and the Islamic State. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The upsurge that produced the September 11 attacks was not defeated by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather, it mutated into the Islamic State, which emerged as a beacon for profoundly illiberal and violent Islamists around the world. What was as remarkable as the Islamic State’s resilience was that so many young Muslims left lives of comparative safety elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe to travel to Syria to fight on its behalf.

More surprising and perhaps even more significant were the two big electoral surprises of 2016: Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as president of the US. In both cases, voters were concerned with economic issues, particularly those in the working class who had been exposed to job loss and de-industrialisation.

The Brexit decision and the election of President Donald Trump  were based largely on nationalism and fear of the other. (TobyMelville/Reuters)

But just as important was opposition to continued large-scale immigration, which was seen as taking jobs from native-born workers and eroding long-established cultural identities. Anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties gained strength in many other developed countries, most notably the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Alternative for Germany, and the Freedom Party in Austria. Across the continent there were both fears of Islamist attacks and controversies over bans on expressions of Muslim identity such as the burqa, niqab and burkini.

Twentieth-century politics had been organised along a left–right spectrum defined by economic issues, the left wanting more equality and the right demanding greater freedom. Progressive politics centred on workers, their trade unions and social democratic parties that sought better social protections and economic redistribution. The right, by contrast, was primarily interested in reducing the size of government and promoting the private sector.

In the second decade of the 21st century, that spectrum appears to be giving way to one defined by identity. The left has focused less on broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of a variety of groups perceived as being marginalised — black people, immigrants, women, Hispanics, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex grouping, refugees and the like. The right, meanwhile, is redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion.

A long tradition dating back at least as far as Karl Marx sees political struggles as a reflection of economic conflicts, essentially as fights over shares of the pie. Indeed, this is part of the story of the 2010s, with globalisation producing significant populations of people left behind by the overall growth that occurred around the world. Between 2000 and 2016, half of Americans saw no gains to their real incomes; the proportion of national output going to the top 1% went from 9% of GDP in 1974 to 24% in 2008.

But, as important as material self-interest is, people are motivated by other things as well, motives that better explain the disparate events of the present. This might be called the politics of resentment. In a variety of cases, a political leader has mobilised followers around the perception that the group’s dignity had been affronted, disparaged or otherwise disregarded.

This resentment engenders demands for public recognition of the dignity of the group in question. A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity carries far more emotional weight than people simply pursuing their economic advantage.

Thus, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has talked about the tragedy of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and how Europe and the US had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness during the 1990s to drive Nato up to its borders. He despises the attitude of moral superiority of Western politicians and wants to see Russia treated, as former US president Barack Obama once said, not as a weak regional player, but as a great power.

Hungaria’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated in 2017 that his return to power in 2010 marked the point when “we Hungarians also decided that we wanted to regain our country, we wanted to regain our self-esteem, and we wanted to regain our future”.

Xi Jinping’s Chinese government has talked at length about China’s “100 years of humiliation” and how the US, Japan and other countries were trying to prevent it from returning to the power status it enjoyed over the past millennia of history.

When al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden was 14, his mother found him fixated on Palestine, “tears streaming down his face as he watched TV from their home in Saudi Arabia”. His anger over the humiliation of Muslims was later echoed by his young co-religionists volunteering to fight in Syria on behalf of a faith they believed had been attacked and oppressed around the world. They hoped to recreate the glories of an earlier Islamic civilisation in the Islamic State.

Resentment at indignities was a powerful force in democratic countries as well. The Black Lives Matter movement sprang from a series of police killings of African-Americans in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and other cities and sought to get the outside world to pay attention to the experience of the victims of seemingly casual police violence.

On college campuses and in offices around the US, sexual assault and sexual harassment were seen as evidence of men not taking women seriously as equals. Sudden attention was paid to transgender people, who had previously not been recognised as a distinct target of discrimination. And many of those who voted for Trump remembered a better time in the past when their place in their own societies was more secure and hoped through their actions to “make America great again”.

Though distant in time and place, the feelings among Putin’s supporters over the arrogance and contempt of Western elites were similar to those experienced by rural voters in the US who felt that the urban bicoastal elites and their media allies were similarly ignoring them and their problems.

The practitioners of the politics of resentment recognise one another. The sympathy that Putin and Trump have for each other is not just personal, but rooted in their common nationalism. Orbán explained: “Certain theories describe the changes now taking place in the Western world and the emergence on the stage of a US president as a struggle in the world political arena between the transnational elite — referred to as ‘global’ — and patriotic national elites”, of which he was an early exemplar.

In all cases a group, whether a great power such as Russia or China or voters in the US, believes that it has an identity that is not

being given adequate recognition — either by the outside world, in the case of a nation, or by other members of the same society. Those identities can be and are incredibly varied, based on nation, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender. They are all manifestations of a common phenomenon — that of identity politics.

The terms identity and identity politics are of fairly recent provenance, the former having been made popular by the psychologist Erik Erikson during the 1950s, and the latter coming into view only in the cultural politics of the 1980s and 1990s. Identity has a wide number of meanings today, in some cases referring simply to social categories or roles, in others to basic information about oneself (as in “my identity was stolen”). Used in this fashion, identities have always existed.

In my book, Identity, I use identity in a specific sense that helps us to understand why it is so important to contemporary politics. Identity grows, in the first place, out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules; norms that do not adequately recognise that inner self’s worth or dignity. 

Individuals throughout human history have found themselves at odds with their societies. But only in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former. It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.

The inner self is the basis of human dignity, but the nature of that dignity is variable and has changed over time. In many early cultures, dignity was attributed to only a few people, often warriors who were willing to risk their lives in battle. In other societies, dignity is an attribute of all human beings, based on their intrinsic worth as people with agency. And in other cases, dignity is a result of one’s membership in a larger group of shared memory and experience. Finally, the inner sense of dignity seeks recognition. It is not enough that I have a sense of my own worth if other people do not publicly acknowledge it or, worse yet, if they denigrate me or don’t acknowledge my existence.

Self-esteem arises out of esteem from others. Because people naturally crave recognition, the modern sense of identity evolves quickly into identity politics, in which individuals demand public recognition of their worth. 

Identity politics thus encompasses a large part of the political struggles of the contemporary world, from democratic revolutions to new social movements, from nationalism and Islamism to the politics on contemporary American university campuses. Indeed, the philosopher Georg Hegel argued that the struggle for recognition was the ultimate driver of human history, a force that was key to understanding the emergence of the modern world.

Riot police clash with demonstrators in front of the Greek Parliamen in 2011. The Great Recession starting in 2008 upset stability in the European Union and elsewhere. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP)

Whereas the economic inequalities arising from the past 50 or so years of globalisation are a major factor in explaining contemporary politics, economic grievances become much more acute when they are attached to feelings of indignity and disrespect. Much of what we understand to be economic motivation actually reflects not a straightforward desire for wealth and resources, but the fact that money is perceived to be a marker of status and it buys respect.

Modern economic theory is built on the assumption that people are rational individuals who all want to maximise their “utility” — their material wellbeing — and that politics is simply an extension of that maximising behaviour. Yet, if we are ever to interpret properly the behaviour of people in the contemporary world, we have to expand our understanding of human motivation beyond this simple economic model that so dominates our discourse.

No one contests that people are capable of rational behaviour, or that there are self-interested individuals who seek greater wealth and resources. But human psychology is much more complex than the rather simpleminded economic model suggests. Before we can understand contemporary identity politics, we need to step back and develop a deeper and richer understanding of human motivation and behaviour. We need, in other words, a better theory of the human soul.

Francis Fukuyama is a professor at Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies. This is an edited extract from his new book Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition (Profile Books)

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