Dissect most modern electorates and chances are you will find a loose coalition of sub-groups, each one held together by varying degrees of outrage or wounded pride based on religion, sect, ethnicity, race or gender. These are the voters who put Donald Trump in the White House, who backed Brexit and in South Africa, who toyi-toyi to the angry beat of the EFF.

You say that you wouldn’t have written Identity if Trump had not been elected. Why?

Donald Trump represents the most serious manifestation of a global trend towards populist nationalism that has occurred in Europe, North America and other parts of the world. It represents a real threat to liberal democracy. It represents the rise of elected leaders who don’t respect the kinds of boundaries set by constitutional government and therefore have eroded a lot of the institutions of a real, liberal democracy. This is the case with Hungary under Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, under the Law and Justice Party in Poland, under Erdoğan and his AK Party in Turkey and it’s now spreading to other parts of Europe. I think it is also a threat to American democratic institutions. This is the underlying issue: trying to understand why this is happening was the real motive for writing the book.

We’re basically social creatures who like the comfort of community...

Your analysis begins with the argument that human beings are not just about money and economics, but crave recognition, dignity and respect?

There is a Greek word called ‘thymos’, which refers to a part of the human psyche which craves the approval of other people. It craves respect and recognition and oftentimes this respect will come at the expense of material self-interest. For example, a lot of the Brexit voters in Britain wanted to get out of the European Union because they didn’t like all the foreigners coming into the country that they felt were stealing their country’s national identity. When told that Brexit would be very costly in economic terms, they said, that’s fine, if that’s the price we must pay for maintaining that sense of identity. That’s an example of thymos in action: it’s a universal human characteristic, but I think it’s driven a lot of the anger and resentment politics that underlies the current wave of populism.

Identified at least as far back as Plato, ‘thymos’ operates at two levels – ‘isothymia’ – the desire to be seen as ‘just as good as’ everyone else… and ‘megalothymia’ – the desire to be perceived as ‘better than everyone’… Why is that distinction important?

Isothymia’ – the desire to be recognised as equal – is a more universal characteristic. Virtually everybody becomes resentful and angry if they’re treated worse than other people. ‘Megalothymia’, on the other hand, means having great ambitions, wanting to be seen as superior to other people and I think that’s not quite as universal. It’s also potentially destabilising for a democracy because a democracy is, in a way, built on isothymia, it’s built on the equal recognition of people. We recognise people as equals in a modern, liberal democracy by granting them equal rights and if you have extraordinarily ambitious people, that’s a threat to the equality that underlies the democratic political system. A lot of constitutional systems are designed precisely to check megalothymia, to check the really ambitious people.

From Plato, you move to the French enlightenment philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the distinction between the inner and outer self. And then you remind us of the 1992 US Supreme Court decision which held that “…liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” What’s so wrong with that and how does it lead to nationalism?

The premise of modern liberalism is that individuals should have autonomy. They should be able to make choices. In the early versions of liberalism, those choices had to do with voting, with being able to express opinions in a democratic, political setting and that would lead to consensus decisions about the direction the community would take. But as time went on, the belief in autonomy deepened to the belief that we ought not just to be able to make choices in a framework that was set by the society and its institutions, but we should be able to choose the institutions and the underlying values themselves. It’s in a way the origins of multiculturalism: we are agents not just in agreeing to accept certain values set by society but we should be the ones to determine those values. That’s what’s behind that quote from Justice Anthony Kennedy. But if you think about it for a minute, you can’t actually have a society if everybody gets to make up their own rules. If half the people decide to drive on the left and half the people decide to drive on the right, you’re going to get a lot of traffic accidents. You really can’t have a society unless there is general agreement about the basic rules, which means that people’s autonomy cannot extend to the rule-making itself, except within the framework of a democratic polity that has institutions and procedures for defining those rules.

Virtually everybody becomes resentful and angry if they’re treated worse than other people.

This is the challenge that’s being posed to many liberal societies: people’s expectations for their agency have expanded. How this leads us to modern collective identities is that when given this freedom to choose, most individuals discover that they are not Nietzschean supermen that want to revalue all values. We’re basically social creatures who like the comfort of community and to be given roles. We like to participate in communities which are bound together by traditions, language, customs and social connections. Over the last several decades in modern democracies, people are given freedom and the freedom leads them to desire connections that are oftentimes based on shared ancestry or traditions or other things of that sort. That is what has really given us the opening to modern identity politics.

Where does the trend of ‘lived experience’ – that I, as a white male, cannot understand a black person, male or female, a woman, etc. – fit into this?

That’s part of it. It’s a correct observation that each individual’s lived experience, based on the way that they are perceived by society, based on race or gender or sexual orientation, shapes their experience in ways that makes it hard for people that don’t share that experience to understand. This has been ideologised into a hard doctrine that says people are confined to these experiences and can’t empathise across these kinds of divides. That gets very problematic in a democracy, where we accept the idea that we have pluralism but we also need to act collectively to be able to deliberate to make decisions in common. If nobody can share experiences, that process becomes very difficult to carry out.

Which brings us to the difference between national identity – a good thing, perhaps – versus ethno-nationalism – a bad thing?

Nationalism, in most people’s minds, is associated with the aggressive ethno-nationalism that Europe experienced in fighting two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. This is a form of nationalism based on biology, that says that every nation has a certain racial stock or a certain dominant ethnic group and the goals of that group are not just to gain equal respect and recognition but also then to dominate other nations in a zero-sum competition. But national identity does not have to be centred on race or ethnicity. You can also have what I call a creedal or a civic identity which is shaped around ideas. If they are liberal ideas, then the identity can actually work in a multi-cultural, multi-racial society. You have the sense of an overarching set of beliefs in – let’s say – democratic equality or the rule of law or constitutionalism that constitutes the core of what you hold in common with your fellow citizens.

Both South Africa and the United States have had terrible problems around race...

Where does immigration fit into this?

Immigration can potentially challenge national identity because it shifts the population towards other people that have different cultural traditions, different religious traditions, different practices. Here you must be very careful because, in many respects, we accept cultural differences as part of an individual’s heritage and you ought to be able to celebrate that. The problem arises when some of those values contradict the underlying values that are the basis of a liberal democracy. For example, one of the issues that has come up in Europe is in very conservative Muslim communities, the family wants to send the daughter back home – an extreme version of that would be an honour killing, where the brothers or the father kills a daughter for having dated somebody that they don’t approve of – but the more legal form is to send the girl back to Morocco or Pakistan for an arranged marriage when she doesn’t want to do that. That’s the point at which cultural difference affects the deeper underlying democratic value, because a liberal democracy is committed to the individual agency, it doesn’t recognise group rights to set rules within one single community, it recognises the rights of individuals and in a modern democracy, women are considered fully capable agents and not simply people to be protected by their male relatives. That’s a case where such a degree of cultural difference should not be acceptable in a liberal society.

You suggest that if the US and/or countries following the same path continue down the path of ever-increasing identity division, that way lies state failure and civil war?

Ultimately, yes. Look around the world: that’s what’s happening in the contemporary Middle East right now. Several countries – Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, have all experienced, essentially, state failure, civil war, and massive instability because of out-of-control identity politics. In Syria, you’ve got the sectarian differences between the Alawites and the Sunni community and different versions of Sunni Islam that are all contending with each other. All of them are more loyal to their particular sect than they are to any larger construct called Syria. That’s a very extreme example and I’m not saying that any modern democracy is close to getting to that point, but it’s a warning of where identity politics, if not restrained by a broader sense of national identity, can end up.

So how do you change it? How do you balance the wishes of the far right which wants to send all immigrants home and the far left which wants to accept just about anyone who comes through the door?

There are several levels on which you can answer that. One has to do with better leadership that emphasises symbols and traditions, rituals and democratic ideas that can be held in common by all the diverse groups within the society. How you instantiate that is complicated. A lot of the time it must be done through the educational system and the way you teach the history of your country. Both South Africa and the United States have had terrible problems around race and these problems continue and so it’s a challenging task to be able to tell the story in a way that gives people some sense that there’s been progress towards a genuinely multiracial and equal society.

National service is in general a good idea because in a modern democracy, people don’t just have rights, they also have duties and obligations. Having something like national service would, in a way, make people aware of their fellow citizens by having to do things in common with them.

On the immigration side, it’s not so much a question of building national identity as removing some of the irritants to the community that are fuelling some of the anger. Neither in North America – or at least in the United States – nor in Europe do you have a functional immigration system. A lot of the cultural anxiety around immigration stems from some people with racism and xenophobia. That’s something you can’t accommodate, you should just oppose. With other people, it’s more complicated – they worry that a lot of the immigration is outside of the control of the state, it’s illegal and it doesn’t seem to be controllable. The final worry is that the newcomers will not ultimately assimilate to the basic values of the society that they’re joining.

The latter two are legitimate concerns and if you adjust policy to accommodate them better, you may take some of the wind out of the sails of the anti-immigrant, populist forces.

How do you see this playing out? You talk about what ought to happen – what do you think is going to happen?

I don’t like being put on the spot in terms of making very precise predictions but I think we’re in a moment where there’s been a blowback against democracy. The big question is does this lead to some permanent shift in people’s thinking about democracy or is it something that will correct itself? I still tend to think it’s the latter – ultimately, social evolution is towards the more modern understanding of global order and that there’s a problem of sustainability in the populist policies. Trade nationalism is a good way of impoverishing people if it gets out of hand. I think that there may be a self-corrective element to this. If you just look at the Brexit fight that’s going on right now in Britain, a lot of people are having second thoughts about it because at the time of the referendum, the pro-Brexit people argued that it would not be economically costly, it might be beneficial in many ways. As Britain gets closer and closer to a chaotic exit, a lot of people are having second thoughts. In the end, populist nationalism tends to produce a crony capitalism which leads to corruption and is not good for economic growth. The economy is one of the brakes on this kind of politics.

What can business do to assist in this process?

·      Being aware of a degree of social responsibility is important. Most corporations now have corporate social responsibility offices and some regard this as just a PR operation while others take it more seriously.

·      Businesses need to recognise that they are members of a broader political community and should take account of the needs of other stakeholders, even if they’re not shareholders or direct owners of the business.

·      This is important in moderating some business practices that otherwise could be quite destructive.

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, by Francis Fukuyama, is published by Profile Books at R295.

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