A Paean to Thymos

Over a year ago, I had written a post on identity politics as it exists around the world, including in India, and in it I had referred to an excerpt from Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity, that I happened to read online on Quillette. I had then said that I would like to read the book in its entirety, which I am happy to say I have, and hence this piece.

Identity: The Demand for Recognition and the Politics of Resentment examines the reasons for identity politics as we know and experience it today, and how these might have evolved over the ages. That said, for the most part it is an exercise in undermining the importance of economic issues that are at the heart of identity politics and seeks to place greater emphasis on psychological factors. Spirit and psyche are words you are likely to come across quite often in this book. At the same time, it is not a book on psychology, but an attempt to understand identity politics from the historical, philosophical, psychological and economic perspectives, and in that order, I must add.

At the heart of Fukuyama’s argument, lies the classical Greek concept of Thymos, a concept he tries to explain through a conversation between Socrates and Adiemantus from The Republic, in which Socrates himself is trying to understand the idea of the third part of the human soul, thymos. The first two parts of the soul as expressed here are desire and calculation, and the third part, thymos, is the spirited part which is the seat of both anger and pride, and of judgements in general. From here, he argues that it is this that determines man’s place in society in relation to others, and that the struggle for dignity is more important to him than economic considerations.

Fukuyama then proceeds to tell us that the distinction between the inner and outer self and the raising of the moral valuation of the inner self over outer society emerged in early modern Europe and traces this evolution of thought from Rousseau to Kant and Hegel. He tells us that according to Hegel, it was the struggle for dignity that led to the French Revolution. While he attempts to put forward an elegant argument, in highly readable language and form, I can’t help point to the danger of oversimplification right through the book.

The Storming of the Bastille, unknown painter; Image public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The struggle for dignity did lead to the French Revolution, but there is no denying that it was appalling economic conditions of the poor and the oppressiveness of aristocratic feudalism in France that caused it. It is not mere oversimplification, but flawed arguments as well that mar the beauty of such a book. Francis Fukuyama seems to make the mistake of confusing the trigger or the cause with its manifestation. In the case of the French Revolution itself, we must remember that it was not merely the first of the great class wars, it was the birth of the first modern nation state in the world, as we understand it today. Neither gets a mention anywhere in this book.

Instead, he starts the chapter, Revolutions of Dignity, with a historic leap from 1789 to 2010, comparing the French revolution with the start of the Arab Spring:

‘The demand for the equal recognition of dignity animated the French Revolution, and it continues to the present day.

On December 17, 2010, police confiscated the produce from the vegetable cart of a Tunisian street vendor named 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 as spat in his face. (That Hamdi was female may have increased his feeling of humiliation in a male-dominated culture.) 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 in gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting, “How do you expect me to make a living?”’

The Tunisian Revolution 2010; Image: M Rais public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In what was clearly an economic trigger for an outburst like Bouazizi’s, that caused him to take his own life in that manner, Fukuyama prefers to see only a struggle for dignity, overlooking the man’s struggle for survival. Indeed, a few paragraphs later, he does write, “Bouazizi… was not a protestor or a political prisoner mistreated by the regime, but an ordinary citizen who was struggling to make a living in the informal economy.” Yet, he chooses to ignore the economic considerations of survival, painting the incident as a fight for dignity. Most regular readers of international news, I am sure would agree, that Bouazizi, like millions in his country, was simply too ordinary and poor to count and that what sparked the Arab Spring was the oppressed poor classes of society rising up against their autocratic leaders who had ruled for decades with an iron grip. The poor had simply had enough.

And when discussing dignity and democracy in the context of the French Revolution, how is it that Fukuyama misses the most important subjects of class war and nation state? Why does he choose to ignore the most significant aspects that are directly connected with dignity and democracy, since he has chosen to link the two? It is obvious that he prefers not to tread into territory where his elegantly constructed arguments start falling apart or can’t hold water.

Class struggles are as much a dimension of the struggle for dignity as they are of economic survival and sustenance. To broach this subject, Fukuyama would have to, willy-nilly, wade into waters of income disparity, poverty, oppression, and economic survival. The democratic nation state too, was the creation of a new economic entity, one that entailed national identity and consciousness, language and culture as well as democratic rights for all its people.

Black Lives Matter 2015, Minnesota, US; Image: Fibonacci Blue CC by 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

In his discussion on nationalism in a chapter titled Nationalism and Religion, Fukuyama glosses over the significance of the changes that the idea of the nation state wrought upon the world order at the time of the French Revolution and well into the nineteenth century. Instead, he oversimplifies again, trying to explain the awakening of identity-consciousness through school and college-level examples that don’t do justice to the weighty subjects being discussed.

Nationalisms are of many kinds, and as Partha Chatterjee writes in his book, What Is Nationalism? most arise as a reaction to something: an event, a policy, demographic and social changes, imperialism, etc. However, even while reading that book, I remember thinking that not all nationalisms need to be reactionary, and I was thinking in particular about a kind of nationalism that emerged in South India and spread through the region. Quite distinct from the nationalism of North Indian states which tended to always be seen in relation to either British rulers, or our estranged neighbours in Pakistan, the nationalism of South India was expressed in purely cultural terms through a high efflorescence of poetry, music, architecture and language. It was a cultural chauvinism of a kind that expressed itself, not as a reaction nor offered as resistance, but simply an assertion of this is who we are, take a look at us. You could say this about Bengali nationalism as well, though here you would come across thorny issues of the division of Bengal and revolutionaries-turned-saints such as Aurobindo.

The question of identity itself is a complex tangle in India, with 28 states and 9 union territories, each with its own language and culture. And the most dominant dimension of identity politics in our country’s political life is caste, followed by religion. And with the recent move by the Indian government to link Indian citizenship to religion, through the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as National Register of Citizens, as I had written in a previous post, the legitimizing of our nationality with an extreme right-wing Hindu identity is complete.

It has its origins in the RSS (the socio-political wing of the Sangh Parivar) ideology propagated by Veer Savarkar and his Hindutva, as well as Golwalkar who drew even greater inspiration from the fascist ideology of Germany of the 1930s of nationhood as defined by blood and cultural identity.

In fact, so much of right-wing populism that we see today around the world which manifests itself as ethno-religious nationalism is of the dangerous and polarizing kind. And even when Fukuyama attempts to discuss contemporary identity politics, through examples of Trump’s America or the rise of extreme right-wing politics in Europe and UK, he erases the economic arguments almost entirely, preferring to dwell on the inner and outer self and attributing almost everything to thymos. Refusing to see globalization and rising inequality as some of the chief reasons for the rise of anti-globalisation and far-right ethno-religious nationalism is nothing, if not obtuse.

Unite the Right Rally, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA 2017; Image: Anthony Crider CC by 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

Amartya Sen, in his book, Identity and Violence, has this to say about the parochial versus the global:

“The misdiagnosis that globalization of ideas and practices must be resisted because they entail “Westernisation” has played quite a regressive part already in the colonial and postcolonial world. It incites a regionally narrow outlook, and also undermines the advancement of science and knowledge, cutting across borders. Indeed, it is not only counterproductive in itself, it can also end up being a good way for non-Western societies to shoot themselves in the foot – even in the precious cultural foot.”

I am thinking of Japan’s rise as an economic power, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and of China’s growth after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1979 in particular; both countries were agnostic as far as technological growth and markets were concerned.

In the last chapter of his book, What Is To Be Done? Fukuyama returns to his favourite subject, one that formed the theme of his famous book, The End of History: liberal democracy. I don’t know whether he fails to see the irony, that the world has only moved farther away from his vision of a rules-based, liberal world order run by market forces. He tries to offer a rationale for writing this book at the start, in which he says he hasn’t changed his mind since writing The End of History.

After reading Identity, I am inclined to think otherwise. I think that Fukuyama is so seduced by the idea of thymos, that he has decided to construct an entire book and all his arguments around it, at the risk of even forsaking some important ones. Sadly, many don’t fit the picture anymore.

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