Dignity and the Modern Nation

Two things primed me to write a blog about Francis Fukuyama’s new book Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. First, last week I gave a lecture to students on our MSc in Nationalism Studies on the key theoretical ideas of Liah Greenfeld.  I was explaining to them the central role of the expansion of ‘dignity’, from a preserve of aristocratic elites, to a general property of the members of the nation.  For Greenfeld, it is the equal right to dignity that gives the modern nation it’s restless quality, as people are no longer content with their station in life, and must struggle endlessly and competitively to assert their social status.  The next day I was at a seminar lecture by David Goodhart (author of The Road to Somewhere) in which he was arguing that the ‘knowledge economy’ in the UK (especially) allowed the more highly educated and fortunate to achieve dignity and recognition, but tended to leave those less cognitively adept adrift, with a kind of status deficit.  For him, a lack of access to ‘dignified’ work helps explain support for Brexit, and more general alienation from the current economic and social order in Britain.  The weekend before all this, I had listened to David Runciman’s excellent Talking Politics podcast in which he interviewed Fukuyama[1].  That told me enough to know that this theme of dignity and modern politics (national and otherwise) featured there as well, and spurred me to buy the book and read it.  Dignity was in the air.

Fukuyama is trying to explain the rise of identity politics, relating this to modern nationalism.  His argument (as usual) draws especially on the Hegelian concept of ‘recognition’ as the driver of human history.  The human need for the recognition of others, moreover the recognition of equals worthy of granting recognition, underlies the emergence of ideals of equality and democracy in the modern era.  He elaborates by referring to Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates articulates the idea of thymos, that part of the soul which seeks recognition of its own dignity.  In premodern societies (like ancient Athens) the warrior class has a monopoly on entitlement to dignity, to be recognised as superior.  Fukuyama labels this megalothymia.  In modern liberal democracies there can be no such monopoly—all are entitled to dignity and respect.  This is the condition of isothymia.  With this conceptual tool kit, Fukuyama diagnoses the fraught state of identity-driven politics today.

From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, Fukuyama sees successive waves of popular demands for dignity from governments that withheld this recognition.  Over the past two and a half centuries people have invested themselves in movements, especially nationalist ones, that asserted claims on recognition as members of national communities of equals. Current Islamist movements seek the same thing under a different form of identity, to rectify a lack of dignity, especially among middle class men from Islamic backgrounds living in western European countries where they feel unrecognised.  Fukuyama sees Trumpism as the development of a whole style of identity politics in the US in which politics is premised on the demand for recognition by groups that feel they have been denied it.   But whereas the left has fragmented this quest across a range of identities based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, the right under Trump has unified this impulse in a more traditional nativist nationalism. 

In the last three chapters Fukuyama turns from diagnosis to prescription.  He suggests that while complaints from the right of inundations of immigrants are inflated and often hysterical, nonetheless greater control over immigration processes are needed, and a degree of assimilation into the creedal liberal culture by immigrant populations needs to be more actively pursued.  He suggests re-building a more unified national identity in the US through new institutions such as a national service (with military and civil options), to cultivate wider social exposure and shared experience.  In short, it is a call for a reassertion of the liberal, pluralist conception of the nation, based on common interest and shared civil life, not ethnicity.  But neither can the nation be a blank and neutral space in which identities become ever more differentiated.  It is a call for a cohesive liberal nationalism to counteract both reactionary populist nationalism, and a disintegrating identity politics.

Whatever word we use for it—status, dignity, recognition—this theme identified by Greenfeld, Goodhart, Fukuyama, and others, is an important one.  It is clearly a key part of the ideological processes that are shaping populist nationalisms these days.  And this sketch doesn’t do justice to Fukuyama’s subtle understanding of the history of western thought, especially the long-term emergence of the modern idea of individual identity, via such key moments as Martin Luther’s inward struggle with faith, and Rousseau’s valorisation of the inner self estranged from society.  But this strength also points to where his analysis frustrates, especially the historically minded sociologist wanting more substance to the social dynamic.  Beneath the claims and counter-claims to dignity, there have been changes to the structures of social organisation that are consequential for identity formations, and identity struggles.  So some final words on war, and economics.

Given the argument made early in the book that dignity was once the reserved privilege of aristocratic warrior classes that risked their lives in defence of communities, it is curious that the role of modern war in nation building is never touched upon.  The spread of dignity to wider populations of citizens is bound up with the growing mobilisation of citizen armies.  Clearly one of the basic social effects of the trials of WWII was to bestow a unifying shared national dignity on those that served and suffered, both on the battlefield and at home.  This is of course especially true of the key victors, the US and Britain.  There was a missed opportunity for Fukuyama to examine how this experience shaped national unity through shared dignity in war, and how the decline of large citizen militaries, and recent lack of more morally unambiguous wars, has perhaps contributed to the dignity deficit that sowed the seeds for Trump and Brexit.

Worrying for me is that claims from the right to remedy the situation often rest on a simplistic understanding of contemporary capitalist economics.  Both the US and UK have economies that are substantially less industrial, and more reliant on financial and service sectors, with dynamic but small ‘knowledge economies’.  Altogether these have a limited capacity to generate large numbers of stable, high quality jobs.  Short term measures may boost some industries and business investment, but without a more active governmental role in planning economies and mobilising resources over the long-term to create employment, this most fundamental source of modern dignity, the dignity of labour, will continue to stagnate in these advanced capitalist economies.  Generations have been weaned on a false doctrine of the naturally just and beneficent nature of capitalism left to its own devices.  Alienation has been exacerbated by a naïve faith in an abstracted notion of the capitalist economy that fails to recognise its historical and amoral nature, and its fundamental interdependence with the modern state.  Without this recognition, I fear calls to restore dignity merely at the level ideas will be only a sticking plaster[2].  


[1] https://www.talkingpoliticspodcast.com/blog/2018/120-francis-fukuyama

[2] I would concede however, that Fukuyama’s ‘national service’ might be understood not simply as a mechanism to achieve ideological integration, but also as a kind of ‘New Deal’ measure to compensate for chronic employment stagnation.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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