Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist at Stanford University. His latest book is “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” which came out in September. He recently spoke with The WorldPost’s editor in chief, Nathan Gardels.
WorldPost: Across Western democracies, the social cohesion that was once the foundation of political consensus has severely fragmented, giving way to a cultural and ideological diversity so robust that it thwarts a common sense of belonging. That, in turn, leads to a search for identity in ever more fragmented tribes, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, the return of the white power movement, or the LGBT movement and the many other acronymic specifications.
You discuss this in your new book, “Identity.” What led us to this point?
Francis Fukuyama: What we call identity politics grew out of the social movements of the 1960s, around the demands of African Americans, women, gays and lesbians and other marginalized groups for recognition of their dignity and concrete remedies to social disadvantages. These demands have evolved over the years to displace socio-economic class as the traditional way that much of the left thinks about inequality. They reflect important grievances but in some cases, began to take on an exclusive character where people’s “lived experiences” determined who they were. This created obstacles to empathy and communication.
We are now in a phase where identity politics have moved to the right. There are several factors conspiring to produce the wave of populism that has emerged in Europe and the United States. One has to do with globalization and its highly unequal impact on developed country populations. Outsourcing and technological change have not just impacted working-class incomes but have also led to a broad social decline that is perceived as a loss of status.
High levels of immigration have further challenged traditional notions of national identity, providing an opening for populist politicians who have blamed elites for this situation. In fact, elites are not blameless: their policy mistakes produced both the 2008 subprime crisis in the United States and the euro crisis in the EU, both of which hurt ordinary workers much more than the elites themselves. All of this has been abetted by opportunistic politicians from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Donald Trump, who see the stoking of these resentments as vehicles for their own ambitions.
WorldPost: The philosopher Georg Hegel understood that freedom was ultimately about the recognition of human dignity. That seems to have been lost during the long climb to economic prosperity. Today, what is surprising is to see that cultural self-assertion of marginal groups and the populist resentment in response — the identity vs. identity culture wars — has emerged in the most advanced countries where everyone is supposed to be homogenized in sated consumer comfort.
Does dignity trump material interest as the driving force in human affairs? What is the relationship between income and status, of others getting advantages that you don’t?
Fukuyama: People’s happiness is driven more by relative rather than absolute levels of income and by social recognition. As Adam Smith noted in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” the rich man “glories” in his riches while the poor man is invisible to his fellow human beings. Many who voted for populist politicians feel that they have been invisible to elites who are indifferent to their struggles and ready to favor immigrants, minorities and others “less deserving.” This perception is untrue but nonetheless lies behind much of the anger from members of former majority populations. This is why Brexit voters were willing to risk economic costs as long as they could “get back their country” and why Trump voters are often happy with his confrontational anti-elite rhetoric in the absence of concrete socio-economic gains for themselves.
More broadly, nationalism and politicized religious movements like Islamism are also based on offended dignity. Russia was humiliated by NATO moving east during a period of weakness. China is recovering from its “hundred years of humiliation.” And fighters for the Islamic State believe that they are winning back the dignity of repressed and abused Muslims around the world. All of these movements are obviously willing to sacrifice material interests for the sake of the recovery of group dignity.
WorldPost: It seems that, on the one hand, we are seeing the demise of socializing institutions (such as universal military service and public education in which all races, ethnicities and classes mingle) combined with the rise of polarizing norms and practices — with mainstream media playing to cultural niches in a highly competitive market, a business model of the big social media companies that maximizes virality by linking up the likeminded and the demagogic politics that amplifies tribal differences.
This result is the siloing of social imagination. Do you see the symbiotic interplay of these developments?
Fukuyama: It is clear the growth in information bandwidth has ended the dominance of the large American networks and European public broadcasters, leading to a factionalization of media spaces where people talk only to people like themselves — the so-called filter bubble. In recent years, this has been vastly abetted by the business models of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, whose self-interest lies in virality, which is often fed by conspiracy theories and personal abuse. It is very hard to disentangle cause and effect here: Clearly, Americans would be polarized without social media, and yet the decline of trusted integrating institutions has also contributed to polarization.
In my view, this problem can only be overcome if, first, the big platforms begin admitting and acting like what they are: media companies with a responsibility for curating the information the way that traditional media companies do. They also need to downsize, since it is dangerous to give this kind of power to companies that are global monopolies.
We also need more deliberate approaches to national integration, like a national service. There are very few places where Americans from different social class can interact with one another, as they used to in the days of mass conscription.
WorldPost: For the moment, the battle over immigration seems to be the master narrative of politics — in America and particularly in Europe. Don’t open societies require defined borders?
Fukuyama: Donald Trump says hundreds of ridiculous and spiteful things, but every now and then, he makes a correct assertion. One of those is that countries have a right to control their borders. Indeed, it is impossible to have a democracy in which the people are sovereign, if they themselves cannot define who “the people” are. The perception that the United States has lost control of its borders and the migrant crisis triggered by the Syrian civil war in Europe have driven many citizens to feel that their societies have lost control of a very important aspect of sovereignty.
Immigration has been good for the United States and could be very good for Europe as well. But immigration has to be managed properly. Immigrants need to be assimilated into a national identity that is defined in open and liberal terms rather than continuing to reside in self-regarding and separate cultural communities. Diversity can be a good thing, but too much diversity on basic issues regarding commitment to the nation’s underlying values becomes problematic. So both the United States and Europe have to work simultaneously to integrate immigrants and refugees and to make sure that the process reflects the outcome of a democratic process. Remember, Syria and Afghanistan are both diverse places, as are the Balkans, and none of these places have enjoyed a happy politics.
WorldPost: What can be done to rebuild the public square and repair the social consensus in pluralist societies? How do we get from the battlefield of identity politics to what you call “a creedal national identity” based on overarching shared values?
Fukuyama: There are several things that need to be done to create greater social cohesion. National identity needs to be defined in political terms that are compatible with the de facto cultural diversity that exists in most developed societies. Citizenship can no longer be defined by ethnicity or religion but needs to be related to liberal Enlightenment values like constitutionalism and the rule of law.
WorldPost: While the West fragments and decentralizes, China is thriving as a centralized, unified nation. How will that play out in geopolitics?
Fukuyama: China’s apparent success is fragile and enforced by an increasingly intrusive and dictatorial state. The scope of individual freedom has been disappearing steadily under President Xi Jinping. With the country’s new social credit system, big data and artificial intelligence are being recruited to enforce a kind of totalitarian control that we have not seen since the heydays of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Chinese citizens have no opportunity to push back against this system since it ruthlessly forbids any kind of collective action.
Xi’s ending of term limits removes the single best thing about the kind of authoritarian regime that emerged after 1978: the fact that the Chinese Communist Party had institutionalized its rule with term limits, mandatory retirement and collective leadership. All of this is being dismantled and the country is returning to the kind of system that Mao created prior to the Cultural Revolution.
The future of this system depends heavily on the continued working of its economic model. Growth rates have been pumped up by very heavy borrowing from provinces and municipalities. It is simply not possible that a country can invest about 50 percent of its GDP, as China has been doing in recent years, and not suffer huge setbacks down the road as these investments fail to earn real returns. The real test of the system will become apparent only when the country suffers its first real recession or financial crisis; we will then see how much social consensus there really is in the broader society.
Geopolitically, China’s rise has been accompanied by a much more aggressive posture internationally. After promising, for example, that it would not militarize the South China Sea, Beijing has gone on to do precisely this. It is using its Belt and Road Initiative to spread its influence across Eurasia, Africa and Latin America. The rise of China will be, in the end, the most serious challenge that the international system will have to face in coming years.