Identity politics (a summary)

samfloy~11 January 2020 /Philosophies

This week I’m writing down some thoughts I’ve had after reading a book.

It’s one that I’m trying to distil my thoughts on, and so thought why not share it on the newsletter to hear what you think also..!

The book

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition is the latest book by Francis Fukuyama, a political theorist who has been writing for 30 years (he also wrote The End of History).

Identity is ~180 pages in length, spread over 14 chapters, and is written succinctly keeping a good pace throughout.

Identity is at the forefront of politics today

The book starts by saying it wouldn’t have been written had Donald Trump not become President and so straight away felt more relevant than political books released before 2016 when the paradigm of thinking struggled to account for Brexit and Trump’s election.

Dignity, Fukuyama asserts, is a critical part of the human psyche overlooked by political theorists and social commentators. The absence of feeling acknowledged overrides other factors (e.g. increased wealth from higher social security payments) which doesn’t fit with most analysts’ rationale for how people decide who to vote for.

In the USA/ UK, the Democrats/ Labour used to be the party of the poor, but recent elections have shown populations vote against policies that would increase their incomes in favour of politicians who more vocally recognise them.

Demanding dignity is (historically) new

The early chapters chronicle how political philosophers over time have considered “the self” in relation to broader society.

The short version is that once people believed there could be a better future (i.e. left rural stasis and into growing/ developing metropolises) they saw how they had agency over their actions, control in their destiny and fundamentally that they had value. 

This “discovery” ultimately led to democracy whereby people demanded the state acknowledge their dignity by giving them a say in how society is run.

The birth of national identity

As countries began to industrialise the value of cohesion between strangers increased. In a fragmented rural economy it’s fine that most people speak local dialects, and only trust those whose father’s father’s father they knew.

In a situation where heaps of strangers are piled together in factories speaking different tongues and probably looking different, it’s difficult to get anything done if people are only willing to work with people, on the surface, “like them”.

This drove the imperative of expanding who “we” are, and led to efforts to have a standardised language and a set of values and beliefs common to all in the broader group. Ultimately, this led to nation-states that people felt so affiliated with that they would die for “it”, even though nationhood is just a concept.

Develop without an identity at your peril

An interesting subtext is that Fukuyama believes that a strong sense of national identity is a precursor for a country to develop.

Countries like Japan and South Korea have a strong sense of “Japan-ness” and “South Korea-ness” meaning that as they pushed for growth, all people (and especially politicians) felt they were fighting for the same goal.

Contrast this with countries in the Middle East, or like Kenya and Nigeria where national identity hasn’t been established, and you end up with politicians jostling for power to then favour their sub-national group (i.e. tribe) ahead of the broader national population they are meant to represent (see It’s Our Turn To Eat)

Interestingly, the attaching of your identity to the nation isn’t bound to living in a democracy. As Fukuyama states: “National identity begins with a shared belief in the legitimacy of the country’s political system, whether that system is democratic or not”.

Expressing economic decline in nationalism/ religion

The power of Trump/ Vote Leave, Fukuyama argues, has been the ability to translate a loss in relative economic status in nationalistic terms.

Those on the left look to promote equality which translates to raising groups who have historically been suppressed. Those who were “there first” (in UK/ US typically, white working-class) can then feel invisible to the comparative attention gained by those formerly marginalised.

Trump et al’s power have been to translate a loss of (relative) income as a loss of identity.

“The foreigners/ immigrants/ governing elite are trying to push you down. You used to be a core member of our society but now you don’t feel at home in your own country”.

Fukuyama explains an almost identical story can be said for religion.

Holding multiple identities

As the threads begin to come together Fukuyama brings in the concept of multiple identities.

That someone may identify as a black, gay and female means they might feel an affiliation to multiple “groups”, each of which they share with others who have that experience. 

Recently there has been a move to define identities in ever narrower categories which, Fukuyama says, is problematic, as it restricts the ability for effective communication between groups (for fear of saying something politically incorrect).

What is to be done?

The closing chapter has recommendations based upon the arguments he’s set up.


Fukuyama also proposes policies to strengthen individuals’ sense of ownership in the state. Namely a form of national service (not necessarily military) whereby citizens would work together with people from different backgrounds (but who all share the same citizenship) in a manner to foster public-spiritedness.

He also believes Europe should strive for a set of values that define European citizenship. This would supersede mere nationality to form the larger group by which multiple identities can identify with and allow for greater healthy integration.

His closing thought: identity politics is inescapable – it can be used to divide, but it can also be used to integrate

You can read more on the book here

In other news…

This was my first full week at the new co-working space in Copenhagen.

It’s all quite nice, and the room I work from has a friendly dog (brought in by one of the other co-workers) who I’ve been getting to know.

One of the offers when joining was a free yoga on Mondays and Wednesdays. I went along on Wednesday and have to say it was the weirdest yoga class I’ve ever done.

The yoga exercises themselves were excellent, though the teacher dispensed with various life advice throughout the class that I’m not attuned to hearing. Such as:

All this aside, it was an excellent session. It did, however, last for 2 hours (a bit more than I bargained for) and so I think I have a legitimate excuse should I decide not to return… 

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