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Identity politics and why it’s engulfing us


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Not so long ago I wrote about the resurgence of right-wing nationalists all over the world as well as the rise of traditional authorities here at home. These are elements borne out of identity politics — we must ask why this form of politics is engulfing us now.

It seems that the demands of identity define world politics today. Anti-immigrant populism, the upsurge of politicised Islam, the fractious environment of many universities, and the re-emergence of white nationalism — all are rooted in challenges to the universal recognition that is the basis of liberal democracy. And according to Francis Fukuyama, too many now gravitate towards restrictive forms of recognition based on nation, religion, sect, race or ethnicity.

These are fuelled by leaders such as Donald Trump who represent a broader trend in international politics, towards what has been called populist nationalism. They claim direct charismatic connection to the people, who are often defined in narrow ethnic terms that exclude big parts of the actual population.

They don’t like institutions and seek to undermine the checks and balances that limit a leader’s personal power in a modern liberal democracy. These include courts, the legislature, an independent media and a nonpartisan democracy.

This reminds me of our own former president Jacob Zuma and his ilk seeking to undermine courts, the legislature, Chapter Nine institutions, constantly questioning and suing the media and generally undermining our Constitution.

Other contemporary leaders that can also be put in this category are Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

According to Fukuyama, in 1970 there were only about 35 electoral democracies, a number that steadily increased over the next three decades until it reached nearly 120 by the early 2000s.

Since the mid 2000s, he says, the trend has reversed itself, and total numbers have declined. What was far more unexpected was that threats to democracy should arise from within established democracies themselves. Here we can refer to the surprise votes in Britain and the United States for Brexit and Trump, respectively.

The two countries were the architects of modern liberal democracy and the liberal international order, and the countries that led the “neoliberal” revolution under Reagan and Thatcher. Yet now, they themselves are turning towards narrower nationalism.

In his book, Identity, Fukuyama makes the point that neither nationalism nor religion were about to disappear as forces in world politics. This is because contemporary liberal democracies had not fully solved the problem of thymos. Thymos, Fukuyama says, is the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity.

In a South African context, one can say he is referring to the millions of unemployed youth, the homeless under our bridges and in sewage pipes, and the people still expected to use pit latrines, 24 years after the advent of democracy.

Fukuyama says that on the other hand, isothymia is the demand to be equally respected. Again, in a South African context, I think Fukuyama could have referred to black South Africans who still feel as if they are second-class citizens in their own country. Those that still feel that white South Africans have benefited with the advent of democracy have never apologised for their wrongdoing to the black man and in fact have further enriched themselves tenfold over the years, still at the expense of the black masses. And farmworkers who feel they are invisible people in comparison to their white farm owners, and rural masses who feel they are lesser citizens compared with their urban counterparts.

Isothymia will therefore continue to drive demands for equal recognition, which are unlikely ever to be completely fulfilled.

Finally, Fukuyama says megalothymia is the desire to be recognised as superior. The South African government desperately tries to rid itself of this identity but alas, many on the African continent already view us as the new colonisers; they already murmur about us wanting to dominate them through our peace-keeping and peace-building military exercises. Our expansion of local business ventures is equally viewed with disdain.

Modern liberal democracies, Fukuyama continues, promise and largely deliver a minimal degree of equal respect, embodied in individual rights, the rule of law, and the voting franchise. What this does not guarantee is that people in a democracy will be equally respected in practice, particularly members of groups with a history of marginalisation.

Fukuyama says megalothymia thrives on exceptionality: Taking big risks, engaging in monumental struggles, seeking large effects, because all these lead to recognition of oneself as superior to others. In some cases it can lead to heroic leaders such as a Lincoln, a Churchill or a Nelson Mandela. But, he says, in other cases, it can lead to tyrants like Caesar or Hitler who led their societies into dictatorship and disaster.

And so, demand for the recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today. Fukuyama concludes that according to Hegel, human history has been driven by a struggle for recognition. Hegel argued that the only rational solution to the desire for recognition was universal recognition, in which the dignity of every human being was recognised.

Universal recognition has been challenged ever since by other partial forms of recognition based on nation, religion, sect, race, ethnicity, or gender, or by individuals wanting to be recognised as superior.

The South African government, through its foreign policy, does indeed attempt to put human rights first and centre in all its dealings with the world, and in a way tries to foster universal recognition, but as you know, foreign policy is merely an extension of domestic policy. As such, we have some serious introspection to do in order to address some of our very own identity politics with all its negative connotations.

The rise of identity politics in modern liberal democracies is one of the chief threats they face, and unless we can work our way back to more universal understanding of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict.

Not only in the world, but also in South Africa. DM


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