Summary of Fukuyama's "Against Identity Politics"

Francis Fukuyama in his article "Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy" analyses the identity movements in the USA and Europe, and its implications for democracy.

Summary of Fukuyama's arguments

1. The rise of identity: Human beings are not just motivated by a desire for material goods but also for dignity and respect. The rise in demand for dignity can be understood as emanating from two reasons: loss of dignity of the jobs of the working class due to globalization; identity-based movements like feminist movement race movements etc., having achieved significant success in civil and economic aspects, are now focusing on the issues that they face on a daily basis, the lack of dignity. 

2. The changing focus of the left: As the economic situation of the working class improved, the US left ran out of issues to mobilize people. It thus embraced identity movements as a new mode to mobilize people.

3. Dangers of identity politics: 

i) Diverts focus away from economic issues: "Tendency of identity politics to focus on cultural issues has diverted energy and attention away from serious thinking on the part of progressives about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality." Similarly, it has taken the focus off the problems of the major section like opioid crisis etc.

ii) The relentless identity-based division makes the democratic project unviable: "Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole. This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure. Unless such liberal democracies can work their way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, they will doom themselves—and the world—to continuing conflict."

iii) Makes compromise difficult in policy decisions: "Identity politics has made the crafting of such ambitious policies more difficult. Although fights over economic policy produced sharp divisions early in the twentieth century, many democracies found that those with opposing economic visions could often split the difference and compromise. Identity issues, by contrast, are harder to reconcile: either you recognize me or you don’t. Resentment over lost dignity or invisibility often has economic roots, but fights over identity frequently distract from policy ideas that could help. As a result, it has been harder to create broad coalitions to fight for redistribution: members of the working class who also belong to higher-status identity groups (such as whites in the United States) tend to resist making common cause with those below them, and vice versa."

iv) A threat to free speech: "Left’s identity politics poses a threat to free speech and to the kind of rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy. the preoccupation with identity has clashed with the need for civic discourse. The focus on lived experience by identity groups prioritizes the emotional world of the inner self over the rational examination of issues in the outside world and privileges sincerely held opinions over a process of reasoned deliberation that may force one to abandon prior opinions. The fact that an assertion is offensive to someone’s sense of self-worth is often seen as grounds for silencing or disparaging the individual who made it."

"Every society has certain views that run counter to its foundational ideas of legitimacy and therefore are off-limits in public discourse. But the constant discovery of new identities and the shifting grounds for acceptable speech are hard to follow. In a society highly attuned to group dignity, new boundaries lines keep appearing, and previously acceptable ways of talking or expressing oneself become offensive."

Fukuyama's solutions to the dangers of identity politics

1. Creedal policy: "Democracies need to promote what political scientists call “creedal national identities,” which are built not around shared personal characteristics, lived experiences, historical ties, or religious convictions but rather around core values and beliefs. The idea is to encourage citizens to identify with their countries’ foundational ideals and use public policies to deliberately assimilate newcomers."

2. Civics education in schools that promotes creedal policy.

3. Change citizenship laws: Make citizenship law territorial based (born in the territory) rather than based on ethnicity.

Will removing anti-defection provisions be effective?

The Anti-Defection act in India prohibits Members of Parliament from voting against party line if the orders them to do so, through what is called a whip. Understandably, many argue that this is against the spirit of democracy because MPs cannot represent their own views or constituent's views. Hence, many call for a recall of this specific provision.

Though I agree and support the proposal to recall this specific provision,  I am sceptical of the view that it would reverse the current situation in a significant way. The Indian political architecture makes it difficult for individual MPs to voice their opinion contrary to the party line, even without the anti-defection provisions. 

1. An MP's election depends significantly on winning the ticket to contest from the party. It's difficult to win as an independent candidate. It makes the party ticket crucial. But, the problem is that the distribution of the party ticket is not based on internal democracy but on the whims of the leader, winnability and a host of other reasons. Thus, any form of disobedience has huge costs as it affects the chances of getting a party ticket next time. In this context, I am not sure any MP would go against the party line on significant issues.

2. Many cite the US's case of Republicans opposing President Trump's proposals in the legislature as an example of legislators going against the head of the government. Indian case is however different. In the US, the presidential election and the legislators' election are de-linked. Both are separate elections. Hence, a US legislator is not dependent on the Presidential candidate to get elected. 

In the Indian case, MP's election and PM are interlinked. Indian MP cannot afford to go against the Prime Minister's stance as it can hurt PM's electoral prospects, thereby irking the PM.

3. Shorter election cycle time between the notification and result means that there is less time to persuade people on individual merit. One has to thus depend more on the party, leader image and other things. This dependence on party and leader increases the cost of going against the party line on significant legislative issues.

4. A large part of Indian legislators' work is to bear the burden of governance failure. In other words, due to delays and obstructions in governance (certificate distribution, registering FIR, getting land records etc), people approach the MP hoping to get things done with the MP's intervention. Essentially, the bureaucracy has a virtual veto over these things. They can stall the procedure as long as they want. They listen to the bureaucrat only as a matter of respect or out of the fear that the government might reprimand the bureaucrats if they do not listen to the governing party's legislators.

Going against the party line will reduce the legislator's capacity to get things done in government offices. Hence, no legislator can afford to go against the party line on significant issues.

5. A similar problem exists in the case of governmental contracts. Legislators help their supporters and funders get government contracts in lieu of supporting the legislator during the elections. Going against the party line reduces the legislators' capability to get contracts for their funders and supporters. Cannot get contracts for his funders.

6. Even if the legislator decides to go against all these and votes as per conscience on a significant matter, there is simply no benefit for doing so. Legislative work is not rewarded by people in Indian politics. It's not a metric based upon which people support or vote. As discussed earlier, addressing personal grievances, getting contracts for supporters and funders etc are significant factors in a legislator's election. 

7. Empirically, it would be interesting to see the number of cases where MPs voted against their party line when a whip (mandating vote along party lines) was not issued.

If we are to make the repeal of anti-defection provisions effective, legislators' dependence on the party and MP has to be reduced. It can be done by addressing governance failure in the provision of service and promoting internal democracy. They reduce the cost of going against the party line.

New e-commerce rules: Whither evidence-based policy?

There is a lot of talk about evidence-based policymaking. It is usually discussed in the context of development programmes and the effectiveness of interventions. Frankly, evidence-based policymaking is the toughest to do in the development sector. There are just too many variables around.

The disproportionate focus on development sector as a platform to promote evidence-based policies is making us skip the obvious places where there is a scope for the use of evidence. The most recent example being the new e-commerce rules (clarifications) that prevent marketplaces like Amazon and Flipkart to sell their own products on their platforms. One of the rationales behind such rule is that Amazon and Flipkart are resorting to predatory pricing.

Now, the allegation of predatory pricing is a very specific one. It can also be easily studied as compared to the development sector. One would expect some level of study to establish the predatory and unfair practices before bringing out regulations based on such claims. None of it was done in the e-commerce case! A mere assertion, probably based on anecdotes was good enough for coming out with such policy.

In summary, advocates of evidence-based policy should focus on the low hanging fruits first rather than exclusively on the messy development sector, where the is a question even on what constitutes evidence, leave aside the difficulties in collecting data and proving it.

It's time to address societal overreach, not just judicial overreach

We often talk of judicial overreach but not societal overreach. Judicial overreach is where judiciary goes beyond its mandate and encroaches the space of legislature - mandating national anthem etc. Similarly, societal overreach is when a section of society curtails the liberties of others by imposing their beliefs (horizontal overreach), or makes demands on the state, going beyond the mandate of what a citizen should and can expect the state to do (vertical overreach). 

Societal overreach usually takes three forms.

One, imposing one's beliefs on others in the social sphere. In an ideal world, people should be minding their own business. But, when a section society overreaches, it imposes their belief systems on others. Classic examples are not renting houses to non-vegetarians in a residential complex, not allowing girls into boys' flats etc. This is the horizontal overreach, where a section of society imposes their beliefs on fellow citizens.

Two, inviting government's interference in acts of personal failure, or acts that one thinks are not good. The recent event of a parent demanding the government to ban PUBG because their kid is wasting time is a good example. Here, the government is invited to interfere to address the personal failure of a parent. Other examples include demands on the state to ban books, movies and art that offends a particular section of society.

Three, demanding the government's subsidy for things that one think as expensive. Journalists' demand to exempt them from toll tax is an example of this kind.

The first form of societal overreach, horizontal overreach, where society acts on fellow citizens is well known and acknowledged. But the second and third form of overreach, the vertical overreach, where a section makes demands on the state beyond what a citizen can expect the state to do, is under-recognized.

It is interesting to compare the judicial overreach and societal overreach.

The root of judicial overreach is activist judges who seek to impose their personal beliefs on others through their judgments. Similarly, societal overreach is due to the expectation of a part of society to impose their norms and value judgments on others. The difference is that while judiciary uses its powers to impose its own beliefs on others, society expects the state to do the job for them. Usually, this takes the form of demands that seek the banning of books, movies etc. that one does not like.

The judicial overreach is justified citing the legislature underreach, in cases where the legislature failed to perform its duties. The societal overreach is justified citing the societal or personal underreach, where society or individuals fail to control themselves. The case of PUBG is an example of demanding the state to intervene for the personal failure of the parents.

Just like judicial overreach where there are some genuine cases that justify judicial intervention, there are cases that justify the state's intervention when individuals or society fails. But, just like the case where judicial overreach becomes problematic after a point, societal overreach becomes problematic too.

Several problems with societal overreach are as follows:

One, societal overreach encroach the liberties of the minority. Given the political compulsions that make it risky to anger the crowds, governments end up yielding to such demands from society. Such actions encroach upon the rights of the minorities.

Two, societal overreach creates a society that doesn't know how to take responsibility for one's own actions. It infantilizes the citizens. The practice of getting offended by everything and demanding the state to take action is an example of a societal overreach infantilizing citizens. In a mature democracy, citizens should be mature enough to tolerate counter opinion. Needless to mention, the usual disclaimers to free speech apply.

Three, societal overreach makes the state weaker by burdening it. States have limited capacity. By placing additional unwarranted demands on the stage, it reduces the capacity and bandwidth of the state that it can allocate to important issues.

In the case of demands involving subsidies, demands for subsidies on not-so-important aspects like toll tax reduces the state's spending capacity on other crucial aspects like education and health care.

Four, societal overreach drives the practice of social movements towards extinction. If the state is seen as the medium for change, there is no incentive for anyone to pursue social reform. Also, the state-centred solutions are top-down that can create unanticipated consequences. Of course, there is a legitimate need for state intervention when an individual's fundamental rights are at risk due to societal failure, as the case of social discrimination, there's a limit to such state intervention. The state cannot be invoked for every single personal and societal failure. The state cannot be the solution for everything.

Fifth, the worst combination is when societal overreach meets judicial overreach and both come down upon citizens with vengeance. It's when we kiss goodbye to the constitutional republic.

Addressing societal overreach requires a judiciary that upholds fundamental rights eliminating the constraints imposed by the society on the individuals, strong law and order to protect individual liberties. Apart from that, a societal reformation that teaches people to mind their own business and to make people realize that others are under no obligation to not do things that offend others. Unfortunately, we lack all the three, with occasional glimmers of hope from the judiciary.

On Oxfam's wealth inequality index

Oxfam's recent inequality report said that top 9 wealthiest in India own wealth equal to that of the bottom 50%. Note that it is not top 9%, it is top 9 individuals. Before proceeding further, it is important to distinguish wealth and income. Wealth is stock while income is flow. Income is what you get on a regular basis. If one saves or buys assets using that income, income turns into wealth.

The report has received several criticisms. In this specific example, Prof Ila Patnaik criticizes the report on two counts.

1. Since wealth is net of assets and liabilities, if one borrows a loan, their wealth decreases, that's reflected in wealth statistics. The loans increase their future income and hence is not necessarily bad, as the wealth statistics would make us believe.  Given that India pushed MUDRA recently, it is bound to decrease the wealth of the poor.

2. As the poor gain income, they do not use the additional income to save or convert it into assets. They instead increase their consumption. So, wealth statistics do not reflect the increasing incomes of people and the number who are out of poverty.

I do not find these two criticisms appealing, for the following reasons.

1. It is true that borrowing loans is good for the future, which is reflected negatively in wealth statistics. But, one must note that borrowing is not a new phenomenon. If it were to benefit in the future and result in accruing wealth, borrowing in the past would have reflected in the wealth statistics now. But, the Oxfam reports have consistently shown the same trend of wealth inequality. This puts the optimism of wealth accruing ability of loans in question.

2. The second criticism of wealth not capturing increasing incomes is unfair. The report says it measures wealth and does that. It doesn't measure income. Blaming a wealth index for not capturing income is akin to blaming a weighing machine for not capturing height. The interpretation of the index is the issue here and not the index itself.

Any index that tries to capture inequalities will have shortcomings. Moving beyond the technicalities, one must focus on the larger picture, which is the growing inequality in India.  Indices are only a constant reminder of this problem. The limitations of the inequality indices should not be used as a reason to brush aside the problem. 

Malabar Exercise: India's deferential approach towards China

Malabar exercise is an annual trilateral navy exercise between India-US-Japan in the Bay of Bengal. Its significance has grown in the context of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. India has repeatedly rejected Australia’s request to be part of the exercise. Some perceive this as a deferential approach towards China as India is concerned that China might get threatened if Australia is included. Including Australia will add a defence angle to the Quad.

At the same time, others argue that disproportionate focus is being given to this one metric. While Tanvi Madan argues that India’s decision on Huawei is a more important metric, Dhruva Jaishankar cites India’s other engagements in the IOR region to suggest that India is not being deferential.

While it is true that India has undertaken several other initiatives in IOR to balance Chinese threat, the Malabar exercise has special significance.

India’s all other initiatives are only diplomatic efforts and operational (like collection information) at best. None of these initiatives does anything concrete militarily and hence does not pose any concrete deterrence. Besides, India has a history of non-confrontational approach towards China in the IOR. For instance, India refused US’s offer for joint patrols in the South China Sea in 2016. Similarly,  after courting Mongolia for a while, India backed out of supporting Mongolia when it was choked by China, for the fear of Chinese retaliation. This suggests a clear pattern: India avoids any direct confrontation with China, a pattern of deferential approach towards China unless it’s upon our direct border as in Doklam.

India’s rejection of Australia’s request should be seen in this context. Counting the “number of initiatives” in IOR is not an appropriate metric because all of them do not pose the same threat to Chinese and hence do not send the same message. It is confusing quantity for quality.

It is true that India has done air exercises with Australia but Malabar exercise is different because of the involvement of 4 Quad nations giving it a more credible deterrence signalling capability.

In other words, if we look at the initiatives that pose a concrete threat to Chinese, there’s hardly any, and India has been backing out of all such opportunities.

One might argue that the decision to reject Australia’s membership in Malabar should be seen in the light of Post-Wuhan spirit. But, one must not forget that the Chinese temporary lull is tactical. It is just pausing its aggression as it is tied with trade war and does not want to aggravate it. Once the US-China tensions subside, China can be back.

In long term, India cannot compete with China economically. In that scenario, in the Indian Ocean, increasing the maritime threat in IOR is often advocated as a strategy to contain Chinese threat at India’s land border. With this deferential approach, there’s no hope that India would pursue such an approach.

While China has taken every opportunity to push India to the wall (Doklam, NSG, Azhar Masood, CPEC), India hesitates to take even small steps. China openly violates India’s sovereignty in PoK, but India is afraid to even include another country in naval exercises.

US and others gave a benefit of doubt to China hoping that prosperous China would become more democratic and less aggressive. Clearly, it has not happened, in fact, the reverse happened. It would only be detrimental to India’s interest to give any such benefit of doubt to China. India should pursue all opportunities to contain China!

Is trump upending the current liberal world order or inadvertently correcting it?

Laying down rules for co-existence and means to enforce them has been a perennial problem in human history. The concept of social contract and the state address this issue at a territorial level. The international equivalent of this is what's called the world order. World order simply is the "concept held by a region or civilisation about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world" (Henry Kissinger).

The ingredients of the current world order evolved post-WW-II, mainly as an attempt to prevent the mistakes of the past. This broadly includes sovereign equality, non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign states, and promoting values of liberty, democracy, fostering free trade, protecting human rights etc. This is sought to be achieved through a range of institutions and agreements such as UN, IMF, NATO, World Bank etc. The US played a major role in instituting this world order through its support to war-affected countries (Marshal Plan), extending security cover to its allies and so on. Hence, the current world order is often termed as "US-led liberal international order".

Owing to the recent events in international relations, there is a debate on the status of the current liberal international order. While some scholars like Graham Allison argue that there was never such liberal order, to begin with, a vast majority argue that there is a threat to the liberal world order. 

Some attribute the cause of threat to the rising assertion of China, while some attribute it to the US's actions under President Trump. While Chinese aggression does certainly pose a challenge, in this post, I focus on Trump's actions. In short, I am going to argue that Trump's actions are not upending the liberal international order to the extent claimed, instead they are inadvertently correcting the aberrations in the current order that were posing threat to the ideal of liberal international order.

To examine this, let's consider the concept of world order, the way US's actions are posing threat to this, and suggestions by scholars to correct this. In the end, I point out that Trump's actions are exactly same as the suggestions by the scholars to correct issues of the current world order, albeit it's not a result of grand strategy but a mere coincidence or a side effect of his America First policies.

New threats to India's social and economic order

A great social churning is going on in India, some of it publicly and some of it underground. Apart from the much talked about the factor of religion, there are other undercurrents in the social order.

1. Meritocratic hubris due to the increasing middle class: Standard economic and political theories suggest that as the size of the middle class grows in a country, it leads to increase in tax collection, more focus on public goods, and political maturity that focuses less on identity politics.

There's a downside to it too. The increasing size of the middle class leads to meritocratic hubris.  Michael Sandel describes meritocratic hubris as the belief of "I came to this better position in life because of my hard work alone. It is me and only me that made it possible." The implication being, those who are poor are in that state because they are not hard working.

This line of reasoning ignores the huge role of socio-economic constraints in people's lives. It emphasises merit over other social factors. Hence, there will be increasing pressure to reduce spending on social welfare programmes, as such programmes are seen as a waste of money spent on lazy people who are just living off the government. Any social welfare programme is now seen with contempt. The middle class thus delegitimizes the social welfare architecture. It attacks the fundamental morality of redistribution.

Added to this, the Indian middle class has found its own solutions for education, health and security in the private sector. They thus don't make any efforts to improve the public services in these sectors, which are the only available option for the poor.

If this delegitimization of morality of social welfare programmes and neglect of the public sector in critical areas like education, health etc. is seen along with the jobless growth and rising inequality, it's hard to say that it's not dangerous for India.

2. The proliferation of "tech-education" leading to insensitivity on social issues: India witnessed an IT revolution in the 1990s and 2000s. It resulted in a proliferation of engineering colleges and an increased emphasis on technical education.

We now have a large section of youth, graduates in technology, with no exposure to social sciences. Their worldview is simplistic and technocratic with no sensitivity and appreciation of social issues, and social factors that play a role in one's life. Any discussion on social injustices is met with scorn.  It is amplified by the fact that this tech zombies are the early adopters and often the influencers in social media, shaping the discourse.

A large section of population insensitive to the social context leads to a situation where even the deep-rooted social problems are not even recognized, much less addressed. When left unaddressed, the discontentment can explode in unpredictable ways.

The rising desire for authoritarianism as reported by several surveys and the emerging anti-reservation undercurrent are a manifestation of the simplistic and technocratic view of the tech zombies.

3.  The assertion of the upper castes against the so-called lower castes: The agrarian distress weakened the economic situation of the traditional upper caste feudal landlords giving them a sense of loss of power and identity. This, along with the economic progress of the so-called lower castes, might lead to a form of violent assertion of their traditional power, over the rest. 

4. Politics no more an avenue to assert equality: The typical urban elite has contempt for caste politics. They see it as a disease to be cured.

Such a view discounts the underlying reasons for the emergence of such politics. In a hierarchical society with deep social inequalities, where an individual is not seen as a social equal, the oppressed perceive politics as an arena to assert their equality. A person of their caste in a position of power gives them a sense of pride and confidence, to push back against the daily inequalities they face in the society. It is a strive for dignity.

However, two things happened in the past few decades.

One, caste politics have turned into caste-ist politics. Leaders used the issue of caste only for transactional purposes, the purpose of elections, leading to loss of their legitimacy.

Two, the emergence of the middle class, the tech zombies, and a narrative of "growth as the only purpose of politics", is deemphasizing the role of identity and more broadly the sociological role of politics. Politics is drifting away from being an avenue to seek refuge from the humiliation in social life. Politics is assuming a mere technocratic role.

When the sociological role of politics is diminished, with the social inequalities and daily humiliation intact, it removes an important avenue to vent out the steam of anger. The simmering anger can burst out in any form.

Ideas for solutions to these requires another post but some pointers below:

1. Social science-liberal arts education to make people more sensitive to the Indian social context so as to preserve the morality of redistribution and affirmative action.

2. Improving the policing and service delivery - the two important avenues where citizens face the most humiliation. This reduces the burden on politics to assume a sociological role.

3. Improving the quality of education and health. It must be emphasized that apart from improving the quality of education in schools and universities, university education should be made affordable. I explained it in a previous post here on the need to expand the definition of "basic education" from school education to university education.

Why does Indian foreign policy not reflect vengeance against its invaders and colonizers?

Francis Fukuyama in his new book “Identity” talks about the emergence of identity as the locus of many movements worldwide. As per Fukuyama, the issue of identity also explains the behaviour of states like China and RussiaThe NYT review summarizes it as
"Fukuyama suggests that we are living in an era in which the sense of being dismissed, rather than material interest, is the locomotive of human affairs. The rulers of Russia, Hungary and China are driven by past national humiliations. Osama bin Laden was driven by the treatment of Palestinians. Black Lives Matter has been driven by the fatal disrespect of the police. And a large swath of the American right, which claims to loathe identity politics, is driven by its own perception of being dissed." (emphasis mine)
This brings us to the question — Why does Indian foreign not reflect the desire to seek vengeance against its invaders and colonizers? (Or Does it?) The vengeance here necessarily needn’t be against particular countries. It’s more about a desire, in general, to assert and dominate the world, and to feel confident so as to heal the troublesome past wounds.
Consider this:
India was also once one of the prosperous nations. It was also attacked and destructed. colonized and humiliated.
The revival of the feeling of “we were a great once upon a time” took a turn of reviving ancient achievements, often exaggerated and false ones, but it did not turn into a desire to again become prosperous and seek vengeance.
The experience of colonization and thereby humiliation led to scepticism towards anything western in the early days of independence but it did not turn into vengeance against other states.
Memories of violent invasions took a communal turn but it’s not manifested in foreign policy in form of vengeance against those other states.
Why? What explains this? Some hypotheses on the top of my mind
  1. Is it due to the different nature of humiliation?
  2. Is it because the former humiliator, Britain is no more great, unlike the case of Russia whose rival is still in a position of power? Because, after all, what’s the use of vengeance against someone not great?
  3. Because of our inability to do so considering our economic state?
  4. Because we are too caught up with other problems that we did not find bandwidth for this?
  5. Because of leaders of the independence movement and early independence who did not promote hatred?
  6. Maybe we reacted but it took a different shape — nostalgia turning into religious rejuvenation etc?
  7. The generations that felt the humiliation has passed and new generations don’t remember?
  8. Is it because different regions of India had different experiences hence can’t articulate a unified version?
  9. Is the practice vengeance because of the autocratic nature in Russia and China? Or autocracy is the result of the need to become great?
  10. Maybe, is it because of the historical roots of India that makes it not look at the world in a hierarchical manner? As former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran says, India is comfortable with a cosmopolitan world and have no issues coexisting alongside multiple powers?