Identity politics and ‘The end of history’


Francis Fukuyama has written another book, to be published in October this year (2018). In one of his previous books, the much discussed "The End of History and the Last Man", Fukuyama saw the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of ideological conflict in the world. He said that Western liberal democracy was the final ideological phase of human evolution. Democracy had won. A courageous belief. He warned us in the book, however, that he may have overestimated the ability of liberal democracy to provide peace and personal satisfaction. He says in "Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment" that we can now see that this expression of uncertainty was necessary. He has decided that the main difficulty we have is the perception among people that peace and relative prosperity, which normally accompany liberal democracy, are not sufficient. People also want dignity, recognition of their personal difficulties. The absence of this recognition creates resentment. And so we come to the politics of identity so common today. His new book apparently describes the difficulties we have as a result.

Before considering identity politics, however, we should consider his original statement - that Western liberal democracy was the final ideological phase of human evolution. Having seen the fall of one of the two main ideologies (and we must note, only in the West) to imagine that the ideology that survived would forever remain the only ideology, was a fantasy. Yes, liberal democracy has spread throughout the world over the years, but not without any setbacks. We have seen in North Africa the unfulfilled promise of a democratic spring. We have seen the resurgence of China. But we have also seen other countries - in the past, supporters of the ideology of communism - transformed into beacons of that other type of ideology, oligarchy. In fact, one could say that oligarchy became the true ideology of the so-called communist countries shortly after their foundation. In the same way, we can justifiably say that the fall of the so-called 'communism' was just the removal of the disguise that it wore. In fact, it seems to me that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two same ideologies still existed - liberal democracy and oligarchy unmasked.

We also see in his original claim an example of the confusion of thought clearly explained many years ago by Karl Popper in his book 'The Poverty of Historicism'. Fukuyama imagines that from present circumstances we can foresee how life will change (or not) in the future.  There is the same confusion when someone (like Boris Johnson) draws a conclusion about the future from ancient history. They make the same basic assumption - that things move in preordained ways. It is a common mistake, but a very important one. There is no appreciation in their thinking of the chaotic nature of psychology and of human life that prevents us from predicting the situation more than a few moments into the future. It is true that we have psychological tendencies, but for each person these tendencies are somewhere on a bell curve. And even the shape of the bell curve varies according to the person’s age, era, country and many other factors. And then, as former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan explained, there is the unpredictable influence of 'events' - "Events, dear boy, events". So to imagine that a political prediction is a form of scientific truth is madness. It can only be a possibility, a desire, a fear.

But it is true that we do live in a different period, a period in which there are many distinct groups, each of which is seen as a collection of people connected by an insufficiently recognised and unfair disadvantage. They therefore have a special, exceptional, identity that deserves an identity policy that responds to their needs. Unfortunately, a special identity is easy to create. I am of Welsh origin, but was forced to grow up from the age of 7 near Birmingham amongst people (including teachers) with an impenetrable Black Country accent. I could quite rightly say that I, as an individual, was disadvantaged by our move.  I was an exception in my school. But it also means that I belong to a minority group that shares the disadvantage of being moved to an area where others speak a different language or with an accent which is difficult to understand.  I could invite my fellow sufferers to join me in a campaign to recognize this disadvantage. We could say that no one who had not been in that position could understand the life we lived as a consequence - 'Strangers of the world Unite!'.  Often, though, all that is needed to create a special group is that you are not white. This distinction is at the base of the accusation of cultural appropriation. When we analyse it, however, there is nothing in an accusation of cultural appropriation that, if made, for example against a Maori copying his white neighbours, would not be considered ridiculous.

Clearly, however, there are groups that have suffered for a long time, even for centuries, and who still suffer from a very obvious disadvantage. They have the right to request that we take this prejudice into account in our personal attitudes and in our politics. But even here there is a tendency to demand that we accept that every member of the group, both women and black people, have suffered the same disadvantage, when obviously that it is not true. And there is the recent phenomenon that everyone has the right to act in accordance with the gender that is claimed as his or her ‘real’ gender. To oppose this is a mortal sin, even if it puts women who are genetically women at risk. The trans community apparently has the right to absolute protection, due to its minority status.  I have the impression that we have allowed identity politics to become rather over the top. There are others who obviously have no meritorious cause, who have not suffered any real disadvantage, but who have decided to get in on the act anyway. And they are equally forthright about their rights. Not only do "black lives matter", but in the United States it now appears that white lives must be shown to matter to the same extent. People who are victims of armed crime have a voice, but those who carry arms are even more noisy in demanding the continuation of that 'constitutional' right.

We have just seen an encounter between a woman complaining about her alleged treatment (35 years ago) by the man nominated by President Trump to become a Supreme Court judge.  We will never know who was in possession of the truth of what happened.  But the event was somehow a nexus between the treatment of women by men through the centuries, the desire of some women and some men to prevent women from having an abortion and the desire of most Republicans to prevent any attempt to dilute the right to possess all the weapons they want to have. All discussed without any sign of rationality or humanity. All in all, we now see a fragmentation of society, exaggerated by the Internet, which has become very difficult to manage. When, if ever, we will see a shift towards political mental health, I cannot predict.  I'm not convinced that Fukuyama is the man for the job either.


3rd October 2018

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