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The power of political storytelling: A response to George Monbiot (part one)


September 28, 2017   3 mins

In the battle between any pair of opposing ideologies, there are combatants for whom the other side reserves special derision. In some cases, the mockers choose wisely, picking a target who represents the opposition at its least impressive. But in other cases, the choice of target does a lot more to expose the mockers’ own deficiencies.

An example of an unwisely-chosen target is George Monbiot – a man of the green left, but interesting with it. To the annoyance of his detractors, he doesn’t just criticise capitalism, but also the underlying culture of consumerism. To an extent now quite rare on the left (and indeed the centre and right), Monbiot has opinions on how we ought to live, not just on the wickedness and privilege of a distant elite.

This is why he attracts such flak from the right, especially the libertarian right: How dare he tell us what to do with our lives! What his detractors don’t get is just how many people do want to be told. There is a unfulfilled appetite here, not for a personal challenge to one’s own conduct, but for a broader vision of a justly ordered society and the valued place that each of us would have within it.

In an essay for the Guardian, Monbiot argues that the most powerful way of communicating such a vision is through that fundamental building block of culture – the story:

“When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something ‘makes sense’, the ‘sense’ we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?”

Neoliberalism is a story. So was social democracy before it. And laissez faire capitalism before that. Obviously these dominant and once-dominant ideologies are also expressed as economic theories, political manifestos and government programmes; but the source of their power lies in the stories told about them.

Even when a story is overshadowed by real events – as neoliberalism has been by the financial crisis and other manifest failures – it can persist if no one tells a better story:

“You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace one story with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum.”

This is spot-on and explains the political developments and non-developments of the last decade. In the immediate wake of the financial crash, a surge of support for the parties of the centre-left was expected. But, for the most part, it didn’t happen. Indeed, the trend across the West has been in the other direction. That’s because they failed to tell a different story. The centre-right parties weren’t telling a different story either, but at least their version of it made more sense (batten-down the hatches as opposed to carry on spending).

But if, in the longer-term, people yearn for change, telling an old story – even the best version – leaves you vulnerable to a new one.

Not just any new story, though; George Monbiot has some editorial guidelines:

“Without a new story that is positive and propositional, rather than reactive and oppositional, nothing changes. With such a story, everything changes…

…there is nothing to be gained from spreading falsehoods, it must be firmly grounded in reality.”

Unfortunately, negative storytelling can make a difference. As for spreading falsehoods, those who spread them have plenty to gain. Monbiot had it right the first time when he emphasised the power of “narrative fidelity” over “rationality” and “facts”.

A consistent story doesn’t have to be true. Indeed, consistency is easier to achieve in fiction; which is why populist politicians with little regard for the truth can run rings around their more scrupulous opponents.

Responsible leaders face the challenge of finding a fresh and compelling counter-narrative, but one nonetheless based in reality – a true test of the storyteller’s art.

George Monbiot believes that he has just such a story. But to get my take on it, you’ll have to wait until the next exciting episode of UnPacked

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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