Francis Fukuyama: “If you don’t have a sense of national identity, you can’t have a democracy”

  • The prestigious American political scientist discusses his latest book, Identity, with VilaWeb’s editor-in-chief

Vicent Partal
10.02.2020 - 07:59
Actualització: 10.02.2020 - 08:58

Francis Fukuyama is one of the big names in political science worldwide. He is a professor at Stanford University, where he directs the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy. Fukuyama’s call to fame came in 1992 with The End of History and the Last Man, a landmark essay that has often been misunderstood and for which he took a great deal of flak. In his book Fukuyama hailed the victory of liberal capitalism, a proclamation that has since been put into question by the rise of authoritarianism in the West. Since then he has written several other books, the latest of which, titled Identity, is a particularly interesting and well-documented essay about the role of identity politics across the world.

I meet professor Fukuyama in his Stanford office, a room crammed full of books. On his desk there is a Ukrainian ceremonial mace that is as beautiful as it is menacing, which the professor will put away before we start talking. Our conversation is not easy: he is well aware of being interviewed by a journalist from Catalonia. Professor Fukuyama has a very structured discourse on identity, nations, the management of differences and democracy, but at the same time he measures his words very carefully. At times I am unable to accept some of his points and I argue back, but he never shuns the debate.

-At the beginning of your book you explain that, in your opinion, what is known as “identity politics” poses a threat to liberal democracies. 
-Just a certain form of threat…

-Yes. That’s because you insist on the fact that individuals, not groups, make democracy work. But don’t you think this has been always the same? Labour unions were groups, not individuals. Suffragettes were groups, not individuals. What is different now?
-The big difference now is that many of the groups that people are organising around are based on fixed characteristics that are not voluntary. If you join a labor union, this is your choice as an individual. You can join it or not. You can pick which one you join. But if you express solidarity, let’s say, with your racial group based on your race, this is not a voluntary thing. In this country if you cross the street and a black man is coming, you think “he is black”, you don’t think “he is Joe” or any other personal characteristic. And I think this identification based on race or ethnicity is a problem. In a democracy we have the idea that every individual is an agent, meaning that he makes choices for himself. People can cooperate with groups, can voluntarily associate themselves. They must do it to make society work. But, ultimately, it is the individual who has autonomy and not the group.

-But maybe you are black and you don’t have the conscience of being black. And identity politics only works if people are conscious of their own identity…
-This kind of racial, ethnic or gender-based identity politics has a legitimate purpose. Usually, it begins because groups are marginalised in broader society, they are not taken seriously for their particular identity because of some prejudice… So there is nothing wrong: people are stereotyping members of one group and these fight back, they claim justice for their group, [they want to be] recognised and be considered equally. So I don’t have any problem with that.

-In my opinion the problem comes when that identity becomes a kind of essential quality, the single most important thing you know about that person, when everything this person decides or does revolves around membership of that group. And it becomes problematic when that group begins to behave intolerantly or aggressively towards other groups. This is the problem with nationalism in general.

-Do you think nationalism is intolerant, as a general rule?
-I think the first major manifestation of identity politics in the world was European nationalism, starting after the French revolution. The French revolution has a liberal side, that was the rights of man; and it also has a nationalistic side, which was the defence of the French people. And these two principles fought each other and, unfortunately, the national principle won. Or you can think about the German people. They were scattered across Central and Eastern Europe and they had the idea to come together in the same state and to govern themselves. But then this idea became intolerant when they didn’t accept non-Germans within their country and finally they became aggressive towards non-Germans outside their country. So this is the problem. This kind of movement can start with a basic legitimate claim, but it can also evolve into something intolerant.

-But this is only a chance. It is not necessarily going to happen. You have aggressive nationalisms, but you have also tolerant ones, defensives ones…
-In Europe, especially on the left, the idea of nationalism is very deprecated. Most people associate nationalism with, let’s say, national-socialism and very intolerant forms of political movements.

-What about you?
-I think that’s a mistake. There are forms of political nationalism that are compatible with democracy. Not only that: I think that if you don’t have a sense of national identity, you can’t have a democracy in the first place. Because you will never share anything with people living in the same geographical space. This is what is happening in the Middle East, where groups are focused on their own ethnicity and they don’t really want to live together with other groups in the same state. And it is very difficult to have a reasonable democracy under those circumstances.

-Let’s get down to basics. How do you define what a nation is today?
-This is why I was worried about being interview by a Catalan journalist!

-Because I don’t know the answer to that question.

-Does it have an answer?
-This is one of the questions that modern democratic political theory does not provide us with a good answer to. I think that the nations that exist today were almost all created in pre-democratic times and many are the product of considerable violence. Britain, France, Germany… all of them created their national identity by ethnic cleansing, by forced assimilation, terrible methods! And then these same nations democratised. So —especially in Western Europe—, you can build democracies over relatively homogeneous nations, like France or Italy or Spain. But then it turns out that this nation is not so homogenous and so it works in authoritarian periods, but it is much more difficult during democratic times. You should persuade people of what the national language  must be, build a kind of common history, common symbols and this —I think— is pretty difficult to do democratically.

-Joep Leerseen defines Europe saying it is a domino: France invents the nation, which forces Germany to became a nation, then Russia, then Poland and so on… That highlights the idea of a dynamic perspective of nations in history and raises the question of whether the international community has any rules, any tools to deal with this dynamic. Don’t you think the problem is this lack of rules? Maybe the problem is not identity, but how to deal with these identities…
-This is an important question. You want practical politics to operate according to certain general principles and, for instance, on the question of the boundaries of a nation, there exist a lot of choices that could be made. But the theory doesn’t give particularly good guidance. Ernest Gellner argues that Europe created nations in the XIX century because of economic development. The economy’s bigger units were more efficient and you need a common language, for instance, to work properly. That was one of the reasons why language-based nationalism took off. He argued that one of the reasons why you have this culture-based form of organisation has an economic logic as well.

-But what’s happening now? In your book you insist on the big changes taking place in the world due to globalisation, the new economy, the internet, and so on. Is it possible to keep this old order when everything around it is changing so much? To what extent do you think this idea of identity that implies dignity —as you say in your book— can be seen as a kind of positive upgrade for our democratic societies, just because our environment is changing so fast?
-Globalisation and the growth of global markets fail to respect old borders and communities that people organised in previously. A lot of people are living very uncomfortably in a world where their jobs, for instance, depend on choices made in some very distant places. Part of the populist backlash is based on this…

-People feel they are losing control of their lives, of their societies.
-Yes. This is another problem created by globalisation because political units no longer correspond to economic units and, therefore, they cannot exercise sovereign control over their economic lives. And that’s going to be a permanent problem because it is very hard to build larger units that can correspond to these economic orders.

-That’s the European Union…
-The European Union is the most ambitious effort to do that. Individual European countries cannot compete against the United States or even China, so Europe needs a larger governance unit. But to do so the state must give sufficient sovereign control to the EU to work efficiently

-This should not be a problem, in principle. The problem is how the European Union works. Take Greece, for example. People vote in a government and they vote against the austerity policies in a referendum, but then the Eurogroup —something that doesn’t even have a formal legal existence— imposes austerity on the Greek people. 
-The European Union, indeed, has big legitimacy problems. The strongest parts of the EU’s structure are the least democratic. The Commission, for instance, or the EU bureaucracy. The Parliament, far more legitimate, has always been much weaker. There is a real crisis there.

-Funnily enough, the European Court of Justice are becoming the revolutionaries, expanding the rights of the people as European citizens. We have seen that in the recent case of Catalan MEPs or with same-sex marriage in Romania.
-I’m familiar with the issue, from the migration cases where national governments found themselves being forced to observe the rules of the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights. But, ironically, these courts are completely unaccountable democratically speaking, and they are intruding on national sovereignty.

-I don’t know if “intruding” is too strong a word. Because in the final words in your book, you defend that identity can be used to divide but also to integrate…
-If you look at national identity formation, there are different routes for it. Bottom-up is a route where you have a national language, you have poets, musicians, films, there is a narrative of the nation and people have a common set of references. But you have also the top-down route where governments using the education system to create a nation-building narrative in schools. That’s why a lot of conflict over nationhood is a conflict over history. And the persistence of this argument is surprising. I thought that here in the United States this debate was coming to an end, but it is not. We are still debating about the Civil War!

-To understand your position better, let me bring the issue of women into the argument. Here in the United States or in Spain, the far right is being more and more aggressive against women. To what extent is it possible to reconcile this aggressive behaviour with the idea that people have rights, that people deserve respect? 
-There is no simple formula for that. Sometimes, you can persuade people. Sometimes, it requires some terrible incident. Remember the civil rights movement. You have these incidents where civil rights workers were killed and people were shocked by this and that helped to change their minds. In any case, the use of force creates an illegitimate situation that is not sustainable for a long period. The moment the force is removed, it all came back.

-So force it is not a real alternative… 
-If you look at the successful cases of nation-building, they are more based on positive incentives, not force. For instance, in France or the USA the ability to speak French or English is a huge economic advantage for individuals. If you look at the way France was united linguistically in the 19th century, that was the result of the fact that the French language gave you an economic advantage and access to a higher culture. It was trendy. So people voluntarily wanted to learn French.

-It was not voluntary. There was a lot of oppression. We Catalans were forced to speak French using terrible methods…
-Yes, there was a coercive element, especially because of the centralised school methods there, but at the same time it was attractive for so many people. This is happening today in the United States. Very few immigrants want to keep themselves speaking Vietnamese or Cambodian, for instance. The English language is seen as a tool for a better life. They want to get jobs, be part of the national community and that’s one of the ways identity is formed.

-But It is not the same situation. If you are forced to change your identity by coercion that creates a problem in society, and personally, it is hard to resolve…
-Yes. But if you look at how many languages have disappeared in the world in the last three hundred years, you cannot claim that this is not real and it is not happening.

-Are you comfortable with languages disappearing?
-I think this is part of globalisation. It is like complaining you don’t live in little villages anymore. We can argue about it, but it is not a real debate in our world full of big metropolis.

-I disagree very much, but let me try again. Let me come back to the debate on women. Do you consider the position that some movements on the right hold against not only feminism but women is a disdain against difference? And how dangerous is this for democracy, considering democracy is based on individuals and individuals must be respected…
-I think this is part of this big adjustment to the very different social and economic conditions we are living in. Beginning in the sixties, the number of women in the workplace begins to grow very rapidly and this created very different gender relations. Because you are now working with other sex people in offices or factories, but you are carrying over the social habits originated when women were only in the house with the family. But because of economic reasons and economic necessity, as we moved from industrial to post-industrial society, it was inevitable that women would enter the workplace and so it is also inevitable that you have this adjustment in social norms. But there are certain irreducible biological differences between men and women that you cannot ignore. There are real differences.

-What about personal feelings?
-There is one wing in the identity movement that wants to deny that this is all based on biology, which I think is a little bit crazy, but it is true that it is going to be one of the current ideological struggles.

-An interesting one, don’t you think?
-Yes. But it comes with a price: it is dividing the feminist movement because there is part of it that is comfortable highlighting that women are different from men and other people defend this is only a socially-constructed difference, it is a manner of choice, etcetera.

-One century ago the avant-gardists taught us that our regard, our vision, was the basic way to understand the world, for instance Picasso or Stravinsky. Isn’t the final consequence of that cultural vision, where we are living today, that in the end what is relevant is what I want to be?
-The rise of modern individualism has stressed one aspect of human personality and this is the ability to choose. The trouble is that in reality we are not completely autonomous, we live in societies, we depend on other people, we have to follow rules if we want to reach our objectives and we need to know also our limits. I would love to be a basketball player, but I’m too short! Seriously: I think the reality is that we all have serious limits to our autonomy and it makes us unhappy.

-But what the society understands today as normal is evolving all the time, so we cannot be sure of where this thing will lead us …
-That’s right! I myself wrote a book on biotechnology and agree with you on this.

-Identity can change with time. Look at what is happening in Hong Kong, where identity is becoming a proxy for democracy. They are using local identity, the so-called Localism, as a proxy to defend themselves against authoritarianism. In Taiwan, this position is even clearer…
-Identity here is playing a positive role. There are many cases like this one. Kurds in Irak and Turkey. They are facing very nasty authoritarian governments and I believe that this kind of national identity, this separatism, is a way to defend their ability to have a democratic choice. Most countries living under Soviet rule used this national identity as a way to protect themselves.

-So that use of identity would be acceptable for international society?
-Most people would support the independence movement from a region, if the larger political entity was an authoritarian government. I think this is not the case in Spain because Spain is a democratic state, a member of a larger democracy, which is the European Union. So the moral calculus becomes more complicated. Although I am aware that there is an ongoing discussion about whether Spain is a real democracy or not.

—And I imagine that you are also aware of the fact that the EU itself now recognises that countries like Poland or Hungary are not true democracies. And they are part of the EU. Nowadays being part of the European Union is not enough to say you’re a democracy…
-Unfortunately, yes. You’re right. It is not so simple.

-I understand you don’t want to take sides in the Catalan debate…
-No. It is very difficult for me, both personally and theoretically, to speak about this question because I don’t see a clear set of principles that allows me to adjudicate between the two sides in this dispute. And personally speaking, I have Catalan friends and Spanish friends and I’m interested in what they say.

-I was told that you spoke with president Torra some time ago. Is that true?
-Yes, I did. I try to speak with as many relevant people as I can.

-Throughout your book you insist time and again on the role of dignity in politics…
-Hegel said that the whole historical process is the struggle for dignity. I don’t want to discount economical motivations in most human struggles, but especially in our modern world a lot of politics is dignity politics. It is about what nation you respect, what race, what gender.

-But then when people understand that someone deserves dignity, that always has political implications. And it invites a fight. 
-That’s why I think nationalism is so dangerous!

-But this contradicts the fact you accepted a moment ago that the civil rights movements in the US required fighting and needed confrontation and polarisation to shake society. Dignity movements need polarisation in order for society to understand their position.
-To some extent. Anger is the way you mobilise populations to enter in the political space and participate. But you can have too much anger and reach a point where you simply cannot bargain or negotiate because you’ve made such an emotional investment in your dignity that it becomes problematic. Essentially a democracy is a system of rules that people use to manage how to disagree among themselves. If these disagreements are so sharp that you cannot find common ground, this is dangerous for society.

-And what happens, if this is the case?
-We must recognise that sometimes when you establish liberal institutions not based on identity, the identity conflict is so severe that, finally, everybody realises that this is an impossible way forward.

-Europe created the European Union after World War II as a solution for avoiding more war. The problem is that people tend to forget that and complain about other things. For children born today in Europe, war is an abstract perspective, something they do not ever expect to live.

-Are you worried that we are headed in the wrong direction?
-Oh, yes! For example, I think the single most important event this year will be the American elections. Because if Donald Trump is reelected, it’s going to be bad not only for America and its constitutional order, but for the whole world, as America is still the most influential country. If Trump gets a second term, it will be like Modi in India. He feels he is legitimated to do all these stupid things he does against immigrants and so forth. And if this happens in America, that will set a pattern for every other would-be authoritarian elected leader.


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