An interview with Francis Fukuyama pt1: On identities

The interview covers Fukuyama's new book, as well as his takes on current affairs including the American retreat from Afghanistan, the German election, and the global pandemic.

By WANG Qing


Thirty-two years ago, in February 1989, Francis Fukuyama, then a researcher in Soviet foreign policy at think tank the Rand Corporation, gave a talk at the University of Chicago. It was a delicate moment in history. Mikhail Gorbachev had announced two months earlier that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene in the affairs of its Eastern European satellite states. The Cold War was coming to an end.

Fukuyama’s talk, published in the journal The National Interest under the title The End of History? predicted an “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” With the imminent dissolution of the Soviet Union, no ideological alternatives would ever be able to mount a viable challenge to Western liberal democracy. This, he said, would be “the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution” and “the final form of human government.”

Then came the Velvet Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Fukuyama, largely unknown to the public a year before, suddenly became a celebrity, a prophet, and an academic heavyweight. The article was expanded into the book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and became a must-read for students of modern history.

Thirty years after he prophesied the triumph of liberal democracy, the ideology seems to be losing ground all around the world, even within the traditional strongholds of democracy like the UK and the United States.

His most recent book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment was a response to Trump’s election victory. More broadly, Fukuyama tries to explain the global retreat of liberal democracy, embodied in, among many other things, the surge of nationalism, the rally of populism, and the rise of anti-immigration sentiment. Jiemian News talked to him before the release of the Chinese translation of Identity.

The interview has been trimmed and edited.


Jiemian News: In your latest book Identity you argue that there are good and bad kinds of identity. Can you explain the differences?

Fukuyama: There is a clear distinction between identities that are good – they promote the right set of values, peace and stability - and those that are not. Most 20th-century nationalism - in Germany, Italy and Japan, for example -  was based on an assertion of identity that was basically aggressive and exclusive. It was racially based, and it led to territorial aggression, as well as things like ethnic cleansing, and so forth.

The Balkans have been characterized for decades by extreme identity politics that exploded after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Different groups basically fought with one another. So definitely, that's a bad form of identity. The good form supports stability and legitimacy of institutions in a particular country.

I think liberal democracy is a very good form of government. In a liberal democracy, people have a sense of common purpose and identity in terms of where they came from, where they're going, and the institutions they respect. Contemporary identity politics is problematic because it denies the larger, democratic, “good” identity in favor of less inclusive forms based on religion, race, gender or sexual orientation.

Jiemian News: Race, gender, nationality and religion play important roles in identity politics. You devote a lot of space to nationalism and extremism,  but not to social class. Is class not important?

Fukuyama: Karl Marx defined the basic division in societies based on social class, basically the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The proletariat was oppressed by the bourgeoisie, a fundamental injustice that had to be corrected, and has been in many Western countries since Marx. The definition of oppression and inequality has shifted away from broad social classes to these specifics based on race, gender and sexual orientation. And for good reason.

In many market-oriented societies, the working class actually got richer. They really didn't have such a good claim to being oppressed by capitalists when they were all buying cars, owning houses, raising families. In a sense, the proletariat turned into a middle class. That led to recognition of other forms of inequality and injustice.

In the United States, because of the history of slavery and racial segregation, race is still a very important issue. Then there was the rise of the feminist movement in the 1960s recognized that women were being treated differently. It didn't matter what class they were in. You could be a rich woman but you could still be raped, disregarded, or paid less. Progressive thought has evolved. We no longer focus on this broad category, the proletariat, but on much narrower specific groups that are marginalized.

Jiemian News: In Europe, unemployment is high, and a lot of young people believe that it's very hard to have a life as good as their parent's generation. Progressive thoughts may be rising, but has class just disappeared?

Fukuyama: I don't think the class issue has disappeared. What has changed is the emphasis of the leftwing politicians, who are less interested in class but more interested in identity. In Europe, a lot of left-wing parties are very opposed to racism against recent immigrants. They consider it a more serious problem than what the working class is facing.

And in fact, for many on the left, the working class were co-opted. They basically accepted capitalism and the market economy. They accepted that they were employees and just wanted higher wages, more rights or better hours. And when they got those, they were satisfied.

Many on the left said that working-class people were now part of the problem. Underneath them, there is another layer of oppressed people that are of different skin color or different sexuality, who we're going to focus on now.

Jiemian News: Identity was published in 2018, not long after Trump was elected. Since then, we have seen Brexit negotiations and a wave of populism. However, Germany has just elected a new government and extremist parties like AFD didn't do as well as four years ago. Is populism losing its luster?

Fukuyama: Different democracies are in different positions. Some are doing better than others. Germany is one of the most successful democracies because they've managed to maintain a consensus around a set of moderate policies and parties that have remained in control, despite the populist threat.

The United States is in a different position. Joe Biden did get elected, but the 30-35 percent of Americans who voted for Trump has not gone away. In fact, a lot of them believe that the election was fraudulent, and Biden is not the legitimate president.

I don't think we can ever go back to the class politics that we had in the 20th century. Inequality is an issue. The size of social protection and the welfare state remain important issues, but if you look at what's really getting people angry in Europe right now, it's opposition to government mandates and to social distancing and this sort of thing.

These issues don't fit easily into the classical 20th century analysis that bases everything simply on class. The anti-vaccination movement has become powerful in many countries and I don't think it correlates to how rich or poor you are. It has other, perhaps psychological, sources.

Jiemian News: Your book talks about isothymia (the desire to be respected) and megalothymia (the desire to be recognized as a superior). Aren’t these two concepts mutually exclusive?

Fukuyama: Obviously. If I want to be superior to you and be recognized as superior, then you are going to feel bad about that. You're going to resent my effort to claim a higher level of respect. I think modern democracy is based on isothymia, that is to say it's based on the idea that everybody is due an equal degree of respect. In the old world, before the rise of democracy, you had aristocratic government by a certain class of people. Just being born into the right family got you privileges and a higher degree of respect.

Most of the world was organized into classes based on whether your distant ancestors had been warriors or whether they were just peasants or farmers that didn't risk their lives. With the rise of equality and democracy, equal respect became the norm. But human nature being what it is, many people are not satisfied by simple equality. They actually want to be recognized as superior.

They claim that we wouldn't have innovation, entrepreneurship, art, or any great activity if we didn't have people that actually wanted to be recognized as superior. There’s a permanent tension between the demand for equality and the striving for excellence, domination, or whatever.

Jiemian News: The last chapter of your book discusses what should be done. You suggest that we shouldn't reject identity, but actively shape it into a broader, more integrated group identity. Is that really possible? Hasn’t the EU failed to do exactly that?

Fukuyama: The modern world is based on nation-states with consolidated national identities. In many cases, identities were established centuries ago. China, Japan and Korea have strong senses of national identity that originate long ago. In China, this was more than 2,000 years ago; in Japan, a thousand years ago; Korea, hundreds of years ago. Where people share a language, they share a common history.

That’s one of the reasons, I think, why East Asia has done so well economically. They didn't have to settle the question, "Who am I?" They didn't have to ask, "What is our national identity?"

Now, you look at sub-Saharan Africa, they never had a nation-state before the Europeans arrived as colonial powers. Primary identities were tribal, ethnic, or even smaller things, based on ethnicity or race. Colonial powers arbitrarily grabbed a collection of different people that spoke different languages and had different customs, and administered them as a group. Then, at the time of independence, they said, "Okay. Now, you're a country."

That sense of national identity that East Asia countries have had just never existed there. It doesn't really exist in most parts of the Middle East. The Middle East has been the most politically troubled region in recent years. Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, all these countries have fallen apart in the last two decades because, again, they were largely created by the colonial powers. Iraq, for example, is really divided into three parts. There's a Shiite majority in the south. There's a Sunni group in the middle. And then there are Kurds in the northern part of Iraq.

So one of the big distinguishing characteristics between successful countries and ones that are not successful is this ability to generate a sense of a single nation that can then work cooperatively to achieve stability, defend itself from enemies, and then grow economically.

Jiemian News: In a recent edition of The Economist, you argued that the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan marks the end of American hegemony. Is identity politics playing a role there?

Fukuyama: Well, identity politics certainly played a role in Afghanistan itself. The country is a collection of tribes and ethnic groups that live in a place called Afghanistan but they're much more loyal to their particular ethnic identity. That is one of the reasons it's been so hard to govern the place.

But the question is not about Afghanistan: it's about American identity. I don't think that there's a fundamental issue of identity involved with the Afghan withdrawal. I think it's a strategic decision by the Biden administration that recognizes that this prolonged intervention was a mistake. It was consuming too much time, energy and attention and there are other foreign policy issues that need to be attended to.

I think that the American hegemony really only existed for about a 20-year period, between 1989 and 2008. And that was a kind of unusual period because power was very much unbalanced. The United States spent more on its defense budget than all of the rest of the world combined. That's not a normal world, and that's not the world that America has lived in for most of its history.

I don't think American identity depends on it being the biggest power in the world. American identity is based on other kinds of principles of democracy, like being a constitutional regime that has a strong rule of law. I think these are much more important to the American identity than the fact that it's got a bigger army than other people.