The Politics of Identity in Post-Identity Europe and America

In Prospect, Francis Fukuyama on the challenges posed by immigrants with identities for societies that have ostensibly moved past identity and modernity:

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.