Fukuyama Understands Identity

Fukuyama_review_20191025Francis Fukuyama. 2018. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Macmillan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The issue of identity is on everyone’s lips today. In the absence of the unity provided by Christian faith, American lives are shrinking into ever-smaller communities of self-interest facilitated by media-friendly cell-phones and social media. As day-to-day, face-to-face interactions, our kids’ social skills leave them ill-prepared to deal with the normal ups and downs of life that threaten their self-worth. Without a solid identity, they are anxious and often leave adolescence with more pills than their grandparents. When I found out that Francis Fukuyama had a book on this subject, I snapped it up.


In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment Francis Fukuyama writes:

“In this book, I will be using identity in a specific sense that helps us understand why it is so important to contemporary politics. Identity, in the first place, out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.”(9-10)

In a world where the poorest of the poor anywhere on earth can turn on a television and see how the rich live anywhere else, the sense of what’s fair and what’s not becomes immediately obvious to everyone. Those disrespected through circumstances, law, or persons no longer can be told that that is just the way things are. Dislocation, war, and conflicting demands make it even hard to realize a stable identity and sense of dignity. Fukuyama concludes that the “Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unified much of what is going on in world politics today.” (xv)

Origin and Organization

Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama (1952-) is an American political scientist, political economist, and writer. He is best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which argued that the spread of liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the West could end sociocultural evolution. Fukuyama earned his BA at Cornell University, studied at Yale University, and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is currently on the faculty at Stanford University.[1] Fukuyama writes in fourteen chapters:

  1. The Politics of Dignity
  2. The Third Part of the Soul
  3. Inside and Outside
  4. From Dignity to Democracy
  5. Revolutions of Dignity
  6. Expressive Individualism
  7. Nationalism and Religion
  8. The Wrong Address
  9. Invisible Man
  10. The Democratization of Dignity
  11. From Identity to Identities
  12. We the People
  13. Stories of Peoplehood
  14. What is to be Don? (vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by notes, a bibliography, and an index.

The Dignity Problem

The visibility of inequities has become more obvious. Fukuyama writes:

“Between 1970 and 2008, the world’s output of goods and services quadrupled and growth extended to virtually all regions of the world, while the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries dropped from 42 percent of the total population in 1993 to 17 percent in 211. The percentage of children dying before their fifty birthdays declined from 22 percent in 1960 to less than 5 percent by 2016. This liberal world order did not, however, benefit everyone. In many countries around the world, and particularly in developed democracies, inequity increased dramatically, such that many of the benefits flowed primarily to an elite defined primarily by education.” (4)

Economists talk about the law of one price—with free trade, the price of a good or service should be the same everyone, adjusting for shipment, storage, and other costs.

Fukuyama notes the tension created, writing:

“Huge new middle classes arose in countries such as China and India, but the work they did replaced work that had been done by older middle classes in the developing world…women were displacing men in an increasingly service dominated new economy and low-skilled workers were being replaced by smart machines.” (4)

Inequities create indignities because no one enjoys change and we have seen massive changes. Fukuyama notes: “economic grievances become much more acute when they are attached to feelings of indignity and disrespect.” (11) He sees issues like the #MeToo movement and gay marriage as being driven by the desire, not for economic equality, but the desire for equal respect (19).

The Identity Connection

Fukuyama develops his concept of identity writing:

“The modern concept of identity unites three different phenomena. The first is thymos, a universal aspect of human personality that craves recognition. The second is the distinction between inner and outer self, and the raising of the moral valuation of the inner self over outer society. This emerged only in early modern Europe. The third is an evolving concept of dignity, in which recognition is due not just to a narrow class of people [like soldiers and first responders], but to everyone.” (37)

He sees this question of equal dignity motivating the French Revolution and resent uprisings, like the Arab Spring. He tells a story:

“On December 17, 2010, police confiscated the produce from a vegetable cart of a Tunisian street vendor name Mohamed Bouazizi, ostensibly because he did not have a permit. According to his family, he was publicly slapped by a policewoman, Faida Hamdi, who confiscated his electronic scales as well and spat in his face…Bouazizi went to the governor’s office to complain and to get his scales back, but the governor refused to see him. Bouazizi then doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting, ‘How do you expect me to make a living.’” (42)

Bouazizi was not a protester or political prisoner, but had been abused and his story set off an uprising—The Arab Spring—that spread across several continents. The problem of indignities of this sort struck a nerve.


Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment pictures our current political climate with rare clarity. He writes with philosophical and historical precision and tells a good story. I enjoyed this book; perhaps you will too.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Fukuyama.

Fukuyama Understands Identity

Also see:

Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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