Modern liberal societies have weak collective identities. Postmodern elites, especially in Europe, feel that they have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation. But if our societies cannot assert positive liberal values, they may be challenged by migrants who are more sure of who they are
Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. This piece is adapted from an article first published in Journal of Democracy 17:2 (2006) © National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press
Modern identity politics springs from a hole in the political theory underlying liberal democracy. That hole is liberalism's silence about the place and significance of groups. The line of modern political theory that begins with Machiavelli and continues through Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the American founding fathers understands the issue of political freedom as one that pits the state against individuals rather than groups. Hobbes and Locke, for example, argue that human beings possess natural rights as individuals in the state of nature—rights that can only be secured through a social contract that prevents one individual's pursuit of self-interest from harming others.
Modern liberalism arose in good measure in reaction to the wars of religion that raged in Europe following the Reformation. Liberalism established the principle of religious toleration—the idea that religious goals could not be pursued in the public sphere in a way that restricted the religious freedom of other sects or churches. (As we will see below, the actual separation of church and state was never fully achieved in many modern European democracies.) But while modern liberalism clearly established the principle that state power should not be used to impose religious belief on individuals, it left unanswered the question of whether individual freedom could conflict with the rights of people to uphold a particular religious tradition. Freedom, understood not as the freedom of individuals but of cultural or religious or ethnic groups to protect their group identities, was not seen as a central issue by the American founders, perhaps because the new settlers were relatively homogeneous. In the words of John Jay (in the second "Federalist Paper"): "A people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles."
In the west, identity politics began in earnest with the Reformation. Martin Luther argued that salvation could be achieved only through an inner state of faith, and attacked the Catholic emphasis on works—that is, exterior conformity to a set of social rules. The Reformation thus identified true religiosity as an individual's subjective state, dissociating inner identity from outer practice.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written helpfully about the subsequent historical development of identity politics. Rousseau, in the Second Discourse and the Promenades, argued that there was a big disjuncture between our outer selves, which were the accretion of social customs and habits, and our true inner natures. Happiness lay in the recovery of inner authenticity. This idea was developed by Johann Gottfried von Herder, who argued that inner authenticity lay not just in individuals but in peoples, in the recovery of what we today call folk culture. In Taylor's words, "This is the powerful ideal that has come down to us. It accords moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost… through the pressures toward social conformity."
The disjuncture between one's inner and outer selves comes not merely out of the realm of ideas, but from the social reality of modern market democracies. After the American and French revolutions, the ideal of la carrière ouverte aux talents was increasingly put into practice as traditional barriers to social mobility were removed. One's social status was now achieved rather than ascribed; it was the product of one's talents, work and effort rather than an accident of birth. One's life story was the search for fulfilment of an inner plan, rather than conformity to the expectations of one's parents, kin, village or priest.
Taylor points out that modern identity is inherently political, because it demands recognition. The idea that modern politics is based on the principle of universal recognition comes from Hegel. Increasingly, however, it appears that universal recognition based on a shared individual humanity is not enough, particularly on the part of groups that have been discriminated against in the past. Hence modern identity politics revolves around demands for recognition of group identities—that is, public affirmations of the equal dignity of formerly marginalised groups, from the Québécois to African-Americans to women to indigenous peoples to homosexuals.
It is no accident that Charles Taylor is Canadian, since contemporary multiculturalism and identity politics were in many ways born in Canada, with the demands of the francophone community for recognition of its rights. Law 101 of 1977 violates the liberal principle of equal individual rights: French speakers enjoy linguistic rights not shared by English speakers. Quebec was recognised as a "distinct society" in 1995, and as a "nation" in 2006.
Multiculturalism—under- stood not just as tolerance of cultural diversity but as the demand for legal recognition of the rights of racial, religious or cultural groups—has now become established in virtually all modern liberal democracies. US politics over the past generation has been consumed with controversies over affirmative action for African-Americans, bilingualism and gay marriage, driven by formerly marginalised groups that demand recognition not just of their rights as individuals but of their rights as members of groups. And the US's Lockean tradition of individual rights has meant that these efforts to assert group rights have been tremendously controversial—more so than in modern Europe.
The radical Islamist ideology that has motivated terror attacks over the past decade must be seen in large measure as a manifestation of modern identity politics rather than of traditional Muslim culture. As such, it is familiar to us from earlier political movements. The fact that it is modern does not make it less dangerous, but it helps to clarify the problem and its possible solutions.
The dilemma of immigration and identity ultimately converges with the larger problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity. The rise of relativism has made it harder for postmodern people to assert positive values and therefore the kinds of shared beliefs that they demand of migrants as a condition for citizenship. Postmodern elites, particularly those in Europe, feel that they have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation and have arrived at a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, postmodern people find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.
Immigration forces upon us in a particularly acute way discussion of the question "Who are we?", posed by Samuel Huntington. If postmodern societies are to move towards a more serious discussion of identity, they will need to uncover those positive virtues that define what it means to be a member of the wider society. If they do not, they may be overwhelmed by people who are more sure about who they are.
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