Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Desire of Identity Groups for Recognition a Key Threat to Liberalism?



newyorker |  It turns out that liberal democracy and free trade may actually be rather fragile achievements. (Consumerism appears safe for now.) There is something out there that doesn’t like liberalism, and is making trouble for the survival of its institutions.

Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, ISIS, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump. It also explains the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Communism, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism, and the thought of Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Simone de Beauvoir. Oh, and the whole business begins with Plato’s Republic. Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it?

Why is the desire for recognition—or identity politics, as Fukuyama also calls it—a threat to liberalism? Because it cannot be satisfied by economic or procedural reforms. Having the same amount of wealth as everyone else or the same opportunity to acquire it is not a substitute for respect. Fukuyama thinks that political movements that appear to be about legal and economic equality—gay marriage, for example, or #MeToo—are really about recognition and respect. Women who are sexually harassed in the workplace feel that their dignity has been violated, that they are being treated as less than fully human.

Fukuyama gives this desire for recognition a Greek name, taken from Plato’s Republic: thymos. He says that thymos is “a universal aspect of human nature that has always existed.” In the Republic, thymos is distinct from the two other parts of the soul that Socrates names: reason and appetite. Appetites we share with animals; reason is what makes us human. Thymos is in between.

The term has been defined in various ways. “Passion” is one translation; “spirit,” as in “spiritedness,” is another. Fukuyama defines thymos as “the seat of judgments of worth.” This seems a semantic overreach. In the Republic, Socrates associates thymos with children and dogs, beings whose reactions need to be controlled by reason. The term is generally taken to refer to our instinctive response when we feel we’re being disrespected. We bristle. We swell with amour propre. We honk the horn. We overreact.