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From "The End of History" to the era of "Identity"

01.03.2019

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the bipolar world, political reality has only seldom fulfilled predictions. This was also true for the thesis in "The End of History", where Francis Fukuyama posits the definitive victory of liberal democracy. According to the American intellectual, the term "identity" is what best describes the current situation.

This is something of a never-ending and two-faced story which has been following Fukuyama since 1989. After he published the essay "The End of History?" in "The National Interest" that year, and followed with the book "The End of History and the Last Man" in 1992, he was heralded as an intellectual superstar at the age of just 40. Communism lay destroyed on the ground, and liberal democracy and market economy had asserted themselves as the ultimate state system - allegedly for good; so that after the long phase of ideological and intellectual disputes, things might even grow dull from all the consumer orientation and purely economic calculations, according to Fukuyama at the end of his essay.

The fact that history then took a different turn and democracy now tends to be on the retreat was cause for criticism and scorn from critics. While Fukuyama has not discarded his original thesis, he has continuously adjusted them and explained them anew - most comprehensively in the two books "The Origins of Political Order" and "Political Order and Political Decay".

Even in the introduction of the newest book, Identity, he refers to this issue. While he admits to errors in his wording, the political scientist also accuses his critics of ignoring the question mark in the title, or not reading the last chapter in his most famous book. This chapter made reference to the fact that neither nationalism nor religion were likely to disappear from the global stage any time soon, and also that liberal democracies had not solved the problem of "Thymos". The Greek philosopher Plato used this term in the Republic to describe the part of the human soul which yearns for recognition and dignity.

Explanation for differing phenomena

This is also the springboard for the new book, which was published in 2018. The desire for respect and recognition serves as a collective explanation for differing phenomena such as rising nationalism, politicized Islamism or many civil rights movements such as "Black Lives Matter" and "MeToo". According to the political expert, what is needed nowadays is a theory which explains what drives people beyond the rational. The economic mind-set, which dominates in the West at the least and understands material self-interest as the main motivation for human action, is not a sufficient explanation. To say that Mother Teresa and a hedge-fund manager are both just maximizing their utility disregards a key part of their respective motivations.

This motive runs through the book like a red thread. It brings together different strands from the history of ideas to form a theoretical structure without losing itself in too-abstract excursions. In some respects, the idea of identity in the West was born during the reformation. The Augustinian monk Martin Luther first expressed this: "Luther was one of the first Western thinkers to articulate and valorize the inner self over the external social being", says Fukuyama. The expert continues the idea of dignity and identity in the Enlightenment period and in modern times, with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. At the same time, he keeps going back to the Hegelian thesis that the fight for recognition is the driving force behind human history.

The new attention paid to marginalized groups brings opportunities, but also dangers, says the expert. One problem is that the clutter of new identities, which often overlap, can result in a fragmented society. When the problems of older, bigger groups are overlooked, it can lead to serious problems for liberal democracy. At present, right-wing populists understand this better than left-wing politicians, and use this to escalate the discourse surrounding identity, and thus to their advantage. The right-wing forms direct, charismatic connections to the "people" - which is often very narrowly defined along ethnic lines, and excludes large parts of the population.

No giving up on idea of identity

"Liberal democracies have good reasons not to organize themselves around a series of ever-proliferating identity groups inaccessible to outsiders", says Fukuyama. The solution is not however to give up the idea of identity. Rather, it would be important to define bigger and more unified national identities, which took into account the diversity of liberal democratic societies.

In 14 compact chapters, Fukuyama draws a line from the "The Politics of Dignity" to "What Is To Be Done?", which is dedicated to possible solutions for right-wing populism. The author intentionally avoids any overly bold predictions. However, the ambitious attempt to describe the global situation in a word is successful - even if it cannot possibly answer all questions or resolve all contradictions.

Thanking Donald Trump for anything will remain a double-edged sword in these times. In this case, the American president is indirectly responsible for a book which offers an intelligent and stimulating contribution to the contemporary public debate.

Fukuyama mentions this in the first sentence of the preface. "This book would not have been written had Donald J. Trump not been elected president in November 2016."

Service: Identity by Francis Fukuyama appeared in 2018. Fukuyama is due to hold a lecture on Thursday, March 7, titled "Identity Politics - The Demand for Dignity and the Nation State's Future" in Vienna. The APA will be broadcasting the event via livestream as of 7.30 p.m. Livestream under: https://erstestiftung.streaming.at/20190307

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