The cult of personal autonomy

The triumph of identity in politics, and everywhere else

We live in an age divided. This is partly an American story about Donald Trump and never-Trumpers, about red states and blue states. It is also about polarized views on signature issues like transgender rights or abortion where what you believe, on one side or another, defines who you are as a person. There are right answers and wrong answers, but it depends on who is asking the question.

Despite this polarization, it’s striking that there are echoes across the chasm, instances where the right and the left sound as if they are shouting the same slogans. The right attacks government regulations that impede businesses or stifle entrepreneurship. It complains of excessive bureaucracy, and overly onerous environmental or labour regulations, or the need for Indigenous consultation. The left attacks this kind of thinking as neoliberal—as the kind of individualistic corporate-serving rhetoric that damages our collective life as citizens.

Yet the left’s own rhetoric echoes this insistence on free choice and anti-regulation, albeit to fight different battles. The struggle for LGBTQ rights is also framed, for instance, as a battle against a form of regulation—in this case moral control. The problem is social norms, religious thinking, and restrictive laws that deny individuals the choice to live sexually as they see fit. The fight for trans rights reinterprets the very categories of sex and gender as regulatory impositions on individuals who simply want to be who they feel themselves to be on the inside.

It’s easy to get caught up in the opposing viewpoints and miss the shared language. The right-wing Cato Institute urges free trade in order to promote the “dignity and sovereignty” of the individual, using the kind of language that abortion-rights activists make about a woman’s control of her own body. Individuals are meant to be sovereign, whether to prevent unwanted pregnancy or to consume and trade irrespective of national boundaries. Progressive activists who lambaste governments for enforcing monogamy and heterosexuality may seem to have nothing in common politically with American Tea Party activists attacking Democrats for enforcing socialized medicine via Obamacare, but they make the same style of argument. In each case, both groups assume that social values and institutions—whether age-old marital and sexual values or newly created schemes for a fairer healthcare system—are illegitimate because they prevent the pure freedom of an individual to live as they see fit.

At the core of these polarized political viewpoints are shared assumptions about the sanctity of the individual self. The right and the left disagree on which restrictions ought to be eliminated and who exactly needs to be set free. But our political language and assumptions revolve, in ever more tightly spun circles, around the self. Politics has not always been like this. It is worth stepping back and asking how this came to be in the first place. How did we come to think of personal sovereignty as the highest goal of politics, and believe that the basis for political outrage resided in gauging whether any law or custom infringed on the pure and true experience of individual autonomy?

Francis Fukuyama’s Identity is an excellent historical primer on the origins of this modern idea of the self and how it has come to dominate our politics. Fukuyama became famous in 1989 for his “End of History?” essay in The National Interest that captured the zeitgeist of America at the end of the Cold War. Most recently, he penned a magnificent two-volume history of how humanity has governed itself from prehistoric times until almost yesterday. Although he has been known as a neoconservative, Fukuyama’s thinking is in fact more complex and he has spent much of the past decade offering a defence of government. His last couple of books explain to those who indulge in “fantasies of statelessness” that the central question of human government can’t be whether to have states at all (sorry, tech-friendly libertarians and left-wing anarchists) but how to create well-governed states, and ensure that they stay that way.

In Identity, he sets his sights on explaining the rise of Trump, Islamist fundamentalism, Brexit, and identity politics. He weaves each of these different strands together, arguing that “Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.” It is hard to disagree.

Our modern idea of identity emerged, Fukuyama writes, “out of a distinction between one’s true inner self, and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.” In all times, individuals have been at odds with their societies. “But only in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former.” And when it comes to conflict between self and society, “It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.” This idea lies behind some of the key progressive changes of the last century. The switch is perhaps clearest in our approach to disability. If someone in a wheelchair can’t access a building, it isn’t just their individual problem, it is society itself that needs to change by designing cities better to accommodate the disabled. In this example the liberating potential of this view of the self is clear, as is its moral appeal.

There are lumpers and splitters in the world of ideas, and Fukuyama decidedly sides with the lumpers. He links, for example, the collective assertions of national recognition or religious belonging with demands to end the gender pay gap or to have one’s gender identity recognized. All of these have to do with according dignity to the self—in demands that society recognize who someone is and whichever group they feel a part of (religious, sexual, national). To some, this argument will be a step too far. But one of Fukuyama’s most important insights is that the quest for recognition takes both collective and individual forms, and that the two are connected.

Fukuyama is on solid ground here, explicitly drawing on the groundbreaking work of perhaps Canada’s most important thinker of the twentieth century, Charles Taylor. In Sources of the Self and then in several other key works on modern alienation, multiculturalism, and the politics of recognition, Taylor argued that the modern era saw the elaboration of a new idea of the self. Where other writers in the 1970s and 1980s were diagnosing a growing selfishness and narcissism, Taylor suggested that there was much more to the story. He argued that the sanctity of the self was itself the West’s new moral imperative. To be true to yourself: this mattered above all else.

Fukuyama gives a more selective history than Taylor, seeing the origins of this politics of recognition in Luther and the Protestant Reformation and in classical ideas of dignity. But both agree that it was Rousseau who set out a series of assumptions that have become “foundational in world politics.” In the late eighteenth century Rousseau insisted that “a thing called society exists outside the individual, a mass of rules, relationships, injunctions, and customs that is itself the chief obstacle to the realization of human potential, and hence of human happiness.” This assumption challenged, among other things, older ideas of social recognition. In an earlier age, honour was due to individuals who sacrificed themselves for something greater—whether in battle or in service of the state. We see echoes of this today in the idea that soldiers or firefighters are due a special recognition. But the modern age saw this idea thoroughly democratized so that recognition was due to individuals not for anything they had done but simply for existing—for being human.

This is such a common unspoken assumption now that it is easy to forget how relatively new it is historically. When Napoleon’s armies swept across Europe in the early 1800s, they took with them liberal ideas of rights and sovereignty for both nations and individual citizens. The recognition demanded, and eventually accorded, was still exclusionary. Revolutionaries hotly debated whether women and other “races” could share in the rights of citizenship, mostly siding with a broader but still sexually and racially restrictive notion of citizenship. By the end of the First World War, a universal male citizenship, proven on the battlefield, had asserted the individual rights of white men at least. The monuments at the end of the Great War were not to the generals but to the everyman, the unknown soldier. The rise of a human rights paradigm and anti-colonial struggles in the twentieth century pushed to universalize this idea of citizenship and end exclusions: There shouldn’t be sexual or racial barriers to who can vote and who can be a citizen. These movements extended the politics of recognition to its logical conclusion—that each and every human being was owed a certain fundamental recognition of their unique value.

What Fukuyama is doing in Identity is trying to show how so many of the key contemporary battles of today are rooted in this history of recognition. While the theory of liberal recognition won out long ago, in practice, inequalities abound. This is why so much of modern politics is about validating the experiences of different groups who have historically been marginalized. The politics of recognition inspires human rights movements, the struggle for LGBTQ rights, disability rights, and gender equality. While the left frequently talks of group identities and collective struggle, the focus is always on resisting some imposition on the selves within that group or on expressing and validating those individuals’ experiences. Witness the popularity of the term “lived experience” in academic, activist, and increasingly, journalistic circles. The struggle is against social forces—the state, social convention, morality—that fail to recognize the experience of marginalized peoples. So group rights are invoked, but always to break down the power of an even larger group. Underneath it all is the free-choosing self, deserving of recognition.

Even economic issues are now primarily framed in terms of inequality among selves. That is, it isn’t so much about absolute poverty, and defining how much someone actually needs to live, as it is about economic differences between different groups of citizens. How much more money is controlled by the top one percent compared to others? Is this fair? And what are the psychological and other costs that come with these disparities?

Authenticity matters to this modern politics of the self. Social institutions or religions no longer provide, in themselves, standards of decency or right and wrong. Our moral sense instead comes from being authentically true to ourselves, and ensuring that others are allowed to authentically be who they are. This idea has especially gained ground since the 1960s. The message of almost every children’s book today is the same: be yourself. Don’t listen to social convention or to peer pressure. The true answers are found within. What matters in this kind of politics isn’t necessarily evidence or reason, but how you feel. And when personal inner truth is what’s being expressed, it isn’t the content of what is expressed that matters so much as who is doing the expressing. That turns debate into an encounter of power relations where, as Mark Lilla wrote in his 2017 book The Once and Future Liberal, “the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.”

That may sound like a description (or dismissal) of any number of Twitter progressives, but it also sounds rather a lot like the so-called leader of the free world. The great irony is that while “being yourself” has often been a progressive idea, its most triumphant modern exponent is Donald J. Trump. As much as Trump is hated by those on the left, or perhaps because of this, he is also a nightmare mirror image of exactly what they have argued over the last several decades.

Trump practises his own brand of identity politics, appealing to a white working class that feels left out of the mainstream, forgotten by history and by globalized trade. These are people who feel unrecognized. Moreover, they know who is to blame: the mainstream political, media, and economic institutions. Like their opponents on the left, they convey a message that social institutions are intrinsically untrustworthy. In trampling all standards of decency and social respect that are supposed to govern presidential behaviour, Trump also embodies the ideals of a society that broadly no longer wants to be guided by social convention. He is demonstrating the extent to which the ethic of authenticity has destroyed the set of shared social standards, agreed to by even those of different political viewpoints, that had previously silently guided the political realm.

This is where Fukuyama’s book bleeds over into Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, one of the most controversial books of the past year. Lilla had a discomfiting message for American liberals: Trump wasn’t the crisis; liberalism itself was in crisis. If liberals want to understand Trump’s success, they only have to look to themselves. Lilla was excoriated in some reviews, accused of being an apologist for racism and an ivory-tower version of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Lilla is none of these things, but his book clearly hit a nerve. His tone is polemical and, in full attack mode, he can be blistering, displaying little sympathy for those whom he himself excoriates. Yet there are uncomfortable truths that echo Fukuyama’s own analysis.

Lilla argues that after the 1960s progressives “lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match.” Instead of an earlier politics that sought to unite Americans underneath a civic identity in which all deserve equality, he contends, the left celebrates social movements and political change by judicial fiat, and denigrates the institutions of democracy itself. As a result, even during the Obama years it was Republicans who gained ground at the local level, in cities, state legislatures, and Congress—the places where democracy actually plays out.

We all know that Reagan-era neoliberalism helped to create an age of market values and rapacious individualism. Lilla insists that over the same period the left’s embrace of identity politics only reinforced the individualistic logic of the post-Reagan era. In the wake of the retrenchment of the welfare state at home, and the collapse of communism abroad, the left increasingly embraced the politics of recognition and identity as its raison d’être. Both the left and the right in these years embraced a Rousseau-inspired individualism that saw society and the state as impositions upon a natural human freedom. Where conservatives focused on market and consumer freedoms and on excessive bureaucracy and taxation, liberals attacked social conventions and religion and social and state restrictions on sexuality, gender, race, and the free expression of the self. As Lilla convincingly puts it, “Identity is Reaganism for lefties.”

Contemporary identity politics, of course, emerged out of the kinds of struggles for recognition that have improved the lives of many—an idea that Fukuyama explores satisfyingly in his book, but which Lilla elides. Where Lilla is best is in dissecting the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot ­righteousness of identity liberals. Although Charles Taylor wrote about identity as a moral issue several decades ago, we still tend to think of morality as a relic of the Victorian past, something progressives, at least, have outgrown. Yet a preachy and controlling moral righteousness is again becoming a dominant feature of our political discourse, this time embraced by the left. It’s not surprising, Lilla points out, that the word “woke,” used (sometimes ironically) by progressives to designate someone who is “on side” politically, evokes the evangelical “Great Awakening.” This, argues Lilla, “is a giveaway that spiritual conversion, not political agreement, is the demand.” The much-hyped battles on university campuses are only tangentially political; they are really evangelical fights over moral purity.

This is a morality deeply tied in with authenticity. For the left, the very idea of the mainstream is now inherently unappealing, best used as a foil against which to position someone else’s presumably more authentic and non-mainstream experience. In a Rousseauian world where truth is found within, why defend social norms, which are always society’s impositions on a more genuine individual experience?

So it is not surprising that those who feel left out of this kind of politics have taken up their own self-serving version of it. You might dispute, as some do, the evidence for white working class disaffection. You could point to statistics on employment levels, police violence toward African Americans, and even to the historic importance of a free press in supporting democracy. But these arguments don’t fit with how Trump supporters feel—and in our times the validity of a claim depends on how it lines up with one’s own particular experience. When individual experience is prized above all else, unwoke personal experience counts just as much as woke. After all who gets to decide who is and isn’t marginalized? Not you—at least not for me.

There are self-abnegating versions of this non-mainstreamism—the left allies of marginalized people who forcefully repudiate the privilege of their own gender or sexual or racial identity in order to stand alongside their “allies.” And then there are the right-wing rebel versions, those who eschew the mainstreamism of elites or the government. One side fights to take down statues of John A. Macdonald and the other supports the new Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s “stick-it-to-the-downtown-elite” brand of politics. What unites them is this insistence that they are the true outsiders, standing aloof from the corrupted mainstream.

So is the best approach to use more reason—to point out the futility and imprecision of the whole identity game? This is what Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests in the aptly titled The Lies That Bind. Appiah urges a skeptical stance and a rethinking of what is, but mostly what isn’t, true about our identity claims. Appiah is an anti-essentialist. He is the kind of thinker for whom pointing out one or two complications to an argument is proof that the whole thing is bogus. So we simply need to know that there are some humans who are born without the usual XX or XY chromosomes in order to see that our usual way of dividing the world between men and women just isn’t right. And if we know that the categories don’t always fit, then we can hold on to them more lightly.

Appiah, a British-born philosopher and writer of mixed British-Ghanaian origin who is based in the United States, succinctly summarizes a lot of recent thinking about identity, introducing readers to ideas of intersectionality and the fluidity and hybridity of any identity claim. He urges a kind of worldly cosmopolitanism, where we recognize that identities are never pure; they are always made up even if they can be invested with a great deal of meaning. He sees danger in those who essentialize about identity, and suggests that this usually happens to exclude or to dominate. Each chapter opens with an anecdote about an individual who lived complexly between cultures and categories. Although he suggests that we take class and social status more seriously as markers of identity, he ends up insisting that the range of identities any particular person can take on means, ultimately, that it is the individual that matters most.

Although Appiah might be alarmed at the comparison, this is exactly the argument made by Jordan Peterson in attempting to discredit feminism or the Black Lives Matter movement. Identity leads to more identity, more intersections, until people are cut through in so many ways that the only thing left is the individual.

In real life, of course, humans are usually quite happy with identities and assumptions that mostly work. Our brains have evolved to make these kinds of “good enough” assumptions quite quickly and to stick with them even when presented with conflicting evidence. There is a huge psychological literature on this which is brilliantly summarized, and applied to the political sphere, in Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0. Heath’s own argument is that it is usually better to trick our irrational brain into acting in its own best interests. So if we want to dampen down divisive strife between competing social groups, we have to face the fact that this kind of tribalism seems to be baked into our evolutionary identity. If we can’t change it, we can choose to create a kind of work-around. Heath calls this a kluge, an inelegant fix that gets us a result we want even while not solving the basic problem in the first place.

One answer, in this case—and the one proffered by both Lilla and Fukuyama—is citizenship. Both writers are trying to break free of the usual partisan bickering and to find a way forward. They come to essentially the same position—that we need a work-around, a kluge, that better sits with what we know of human nature. The politics of recognition isn’t going anywhere. And given how much good it has done in combatting injustice, that’s probably a good thing. But it can be tweaked. Lilla urges Democrats to embrace a broad identity that can be used to forge bonds of allegiance and alliance across divisions. Think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights message that the inequalities faced by African Americans were unacceptable simply because they were Americans.

Where Lilla is impassioned and polemical, Fukuyama is rationally precise. If we are ever to overcome the limitations of identity politics, he argues, we need to do two things. First we need to actually deal with the real inequalities. Where citizens are being gunned down by police based on the colour of their skin, then this clear breach of the rule of law needs to be eradicated. After all, identity politics is, at its basis, often a genuine call to end injustice. But attached to this should come an equal focus on shared citizenship. Fukuyama argues that for all its imperfection, non-ethnic types of national identity are incredibly useful and important in modern life. In this book—but even more in his last two books on the history of human government—he demonstrates how a strong shared national identity improves the quality of government so that state officials put national interests above their own; it helps with economic development when countries focus on broad interests and not simply the interests of a particular family or ethnic group; it creates a broad “radius of trust” when larger groups of people see themselves sharing similar interests; it helps to support a social safety net so that those at the top of the economic order see themselves sharing an identity with the less fortunate; and, perhaps most importantly of all, it is essential for liberal democracy itself.

Our political institutions depend on unspoken customs and shared values—such as a belief in the free press, free speech, and certain codes of civilized speech. All of these shared customs are under assault right now from both right and left, often in the same language: the media is corrupt; it’s all fake news; and liberal democracy is just hogwash meant to disguise the oppression at its core. How do we live together if each side assumes that the game is fixed, and the only legitimate standards of truth are based on their own unique experience?

We are only beginning to come to terms with what our modern morality of the authentic self is doing to our collective life. Since the Enlightenment, this idea that each individual is owed recognition simply by virtue of being themselves has been the intellectual cornerstone of progressive and liberating changes to our collective life. But in the twenty-first century it is becoming increasingly clear that this individualizing politics threatens many of the shared values that underpin our democratic institutions. Our freedoms aren’t only based on what is unique and valuable about each of us individually. They are also rooted in what we agree to hold in common.