Review: Frances Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Francis Fukuyama, former deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, follows up his last book on Political Order and Political Decay with a book that relates personal identity to political identity, entitled Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. He is the author of The End of History and the Last Man (1992) as well as Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (1995) and The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (1999).

In the latter he argued that it is human nature to reconstitute social order when it is disrupted by such dramatic changes as the growth of the information society. Low paid jobs in the service sector may be our future, though Fukuyama believes, much in the same way as classical economists, that a just economic equilibrium is pre-ordained (by God, by fate, who knows?), for whatever comfort that may give.

Fukuyama once was a proud neo-conservative but since the administration of George W. Bush he has backed well away from the label. He believed that the fall of communism would usher in a period when the whole world would become much like the U.S., but now he retracts that position too. In his last two books he describes this new recalcitrant reality. As to where the U.S. fits into the world scheme of things, or what right members of any other culture have for criticizing the U.S., or what right we have for criticizing them, all this he leaves for others to work out. Of course, Fukuyama is not the only person to write on nation-building and its economic consequences. Bo Rothstein, an expert on, among other things, the economic effects of governmental corruption, published The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust and Inequality in International Perspective in 2011. There he emphasized the non-economic sources of trust, and how this affects the economy, and the provision of social goods such as health, the environment, and poverty reduction.

Rothstein concludes that improvements in Quality of Government functions as a lagging indicator, a kind of luxury that kicks in when nations get rich, because the forces that produce High Quality of Government are not strong enough to prevail unless robust economic growth, that includes its soothing effect on appeasing the powerful, already occurred. Also, people are more willing to pay taxes if they see useful public services result, rather than their payments be wasted through governmental inefficiency and corruption. The conclusion is that neoclassical economic theory does not explain how effective markets originate, since the latter requires knowledge of how social trust comes about. Similarly, Stein Ringen, in Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience (2013) emphasized what comes before is the ability to gain the support of the citizenry and of the bureaucrats who administer policy. Like Rothstein he contends that basic government services, which encourage trust, is necessary for sustained economic growth.

And so we turn back to Fukuyama. To his Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (2014) let’s apply the notion of industrial democracy. America remains the stronghold of shareholders who think of themselves as owners though, if they don’t like how a company is run, they sell their stock rather than try to change the management. But for the workers even this level of influence is an empty dream, certainly compared to the level of Industrial Democracy that German workers enjoy. There workers through their works councils possess co-determination rights regarding hours, piecework rates and bonuses, performance monitoring, working conditions, job design, hiring, firing, transfer, job classifications, and training and retraining. American workers have no such rights.

Fukuyama doesn’t deal with social class issues, except in a moralistic sense when he criticizes class conflict for interfering with economic efficiency, and with his fretful frame of reference, which is “Why can’t everyone get along?”   His grasp of economic issues tends to be somewhat basic, charitably put. He deals instead with politics in long historical perspective. He wags a prim finger against living beyond our means and empowering tyrants. He recounts standard ideas on good government and avoids predictions. Part of his newfound conservatism is to avoid a deterministic philosophy of history, which, given his woeful track record, is a welcome idea. Still, he does put a rather middle-class American notion of economic and political efficiency (for whatever purposes) on a pedestal. The basis of political order is the state, rule of law, and mechanisms of accountability. He warns of the loss of political efficiency through institutional rigidity (self-serving behavior by politicians and government bureaucrats), and a return to clientalism and patronage politics. He wants citizens to be both morally concerned and economically efficient.

For him the pressure points for social change are those that middle-class Americans are comfortable with, honest government, leading to efficient markets, leading to buying our way out of most of our problems. People more conservative than he is might also emphasize religious revival as an alternative to the nihilism that appears together with, or as the result of, economic growth and that upsets their vision of a stable, conservative capitalist utopia. His critique consists mostly in moralistic scolding of apparent backwater states such as Italy and Greece for carrying on clientelistic practices.

He reluctantly recognizes that patronage politics in 19th century America provided a short-term solution for immigrants whose problems were shrugged off by their social betters, while in Europe left-wing political parties paid more attention to more long-term solutions that eventually resulted in the welfare state. He admits all this to be the case, but doesn’t explore it. If the era of unlimited economic growth, is indeed behind us, he fears America is seeing a reinvigoration of social class tensions because of increasing maldistribution of income, but he offers no useful advice. It is realistic to expect that to the extent that American society is evidencing a growth of a harsh and overt class system, then we should somehow be prepared to help the working class improve their quality of life.

In his new book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment his emphasis is on what he calls the search for dignity as an explanation of the weakening of community, rather than class analysis. His emphasis is always on community woes, not poverty or economic injustice. He starts out with a discussion of populism, negatively construed. I will add that there can be positive populism, a popular revolt (not necessarily violent, or even illegal) against corrupt or irresponsible leaders, as well as a negative populism closer to mob rule or demagoguery. There can also be combinations of these two tendencies. He doesn’t trust contemporary populist leaders, and seems to put Donald Trump in that category. He no longer believes the fall of the Soviet Union is a portent of democratic capitalist success over the world. Nor does he believe great failures are inevitable. It is hard to tell what he believes, other than that our present is a mess, for which we hardly need his services to point out.

But like all establishment pundits he is glib at describing what good government, and what good personal character is supposed to be. He doesn’t really describe what an alternative to populist upsurges might be. He writes that rich countries like America can afford a tradition of expressive individualism, but that a new crisis of identity has spurred ever more insecure people to search for a common identity that will tie the individual to a rigid social group, one that stands for clarity in moral standards and accompanying political goals. This is how he explains the rise of nationalism, including a brand of Islamic nationalism that considers Western religions and secularism as pure hypocrisy. Of course, our nationalists say the same thing about them.

Fukuyama asserts that the invisibility of the poor is their true indignity, more than their lack of financial resources. That might be true if the poor ever were enabled to stop worrying about their financial problems. Fukuyama says Islamism and secular nationalism are rooted in attempts to recreate a sense of community that would provide not only economic resources, but a sense of individual worth. Those individuals who seek out affinity groups, and individuals who crave authoritarian loyalties, both blame the government for its inefficiencies. Some may call this disenchantment with democracy.

An example of a society without democracy is the administration of President George Washington when as a celebrated figure in a small and more intimate society (especially among those who counted), he was nominated President by acclamation. There were no permanent political parties, and the leaders of the nation were communal notables, not professional politicians whose political workers would be supported through patronage jobs. One reason George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson arose was because this was still a traditional society in which their moral suasion tended to matter over their many mediocre political supporters already developing an itch for patronage jobs, wasteful spending, and expansionist militarism. This moral influence lasted about two generations, until the administration of Andrew Jackson. Those criticisms of the British Parliament that led to the American Revolution, that it was run through patronage (provided by the King), wasteful spending that bought the loyalties of the rich, and outright militarism as the outlet for this spending (think of the British Empire) thus returned to plague American politics. Mass democracy became more important, through expansion of the right to vote, as elections became the main check upon avaricious political elites.  These ideas come from Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789 – 1829 (University of North Carolina Press, 1984).  Francis Fukuyama somehow manages to believe in both mass democracy and the moral suasion of elites.

Fukuyama has left his neo-conservative roots behind, and now he is more of a classical conservative, bemoaning the lack of virtue among leaders. He doesn’t have much to say on how a rebuilding of a sense of moral community will occur. That he takes on faith. To the extent his formerly fervent belief in American Exceptionalism is wavering, what seems to be replacing it is the classical Protestant (perhaps even Calvinist) notion that in the time of peril or even doom, only the Elect will be saved. I hope he doesn’t believe this means only the rich.

Nowadays there are neo-liberals who think, unlike traditional liberals, that markets can supplant government in all but the most essential functions, and there are classic liberals some of whom think perhaps the nation-state will become obsolete. For them perhaps the nation-state can become replaced such as by one world-spanning welfare state. The rise of the European Union is one example of this kind of enterprise, and at the same time it is the site of popular resistance when citizens perceive that the EU reflects the interests of elites who seek cheap labor and too-big-to-fail banks and firms as their major criterion. As to some of the lessons of history, unfortunately one of the lessons of history is how rarely we have learned lessons from history. Otherwise we’d have a lot fewer wars.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1