What is Brexit but a clash of stories, or narratives. In the first, UK is a part of a collaborative European Union that arose out of the ashes of the World Wars to establish an island of peace and commerce that is a beacon to the rest of the world. In the second, UK frees itself from the tyranny of an overseeing and threatening superstate, and goes forth free again to trade on its own terms with the world, as in some mythical past times.
These two stories are so completely incompatible that the country is now riven. We are in the midst of a narrative war. Of course, we always are. The conventional left-right prism in politics is a characterisation of two stories – we are all in it together, or we are self driving and independent individuals that owe nothing to anyone.
These thoughts were provoked by Tim Jackson’s review of Robert J. Shiller’s book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events – well worth reading (the review, that is). I quote from Tim’s review:
“Stories are more powerful than statistics… The irrationality inherent in financial exuberance (and despair) defies the neat territory of numbers and demands a deeper excursion into the decidedly unruly world of narratives”
Tim goes on to quote economic historian Deidre McCloskey in 1990:
“Economists are tellers of stories and makers of poems”
As in economics, so in politics and other areas of human affairs. Our world is really a world of meaning and story, not a world of atoms and molecules, as materialists would have us believe.
In recent years social media have clearly increased the ability for the stories accepted by large sections of a population to be manipulated by unknown actors, and beneficiary politicians appear reluctant to do anything about it. The battle of narratives is the battle of our times.
“We must all choose carefully which stories we live by.”