A narrative void begets a void narrative

We continue watching, each day, to see how the magic duel is going between the narrative of elected government, and the narrative of Republican conspiracy theories. So far, Trump’s wizards are doing very badly on points, but if the bizarre spells they’re casting don’t win this duel for them, they are still poisoning the opposing narrative permanently.

In this regard, we already know the outcome, conclusively: “You’ve already lost,” America.

A growing number of people seem to realize that there is no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. It’s still a relatively tiny minority which understands this. Interestingly this minority includes participants at Marcy Wheeler’s mostly deep-in-the-legal-weeds blog. Marcy herself has asserted that “We need a new story about America.”

I also believe that, whatever more stable configuration may eventually replace the ungovernable present United States, it will involve some new narrative magic which binds society together in a way that the old narratives just don’t.

As I have spent time engaged in and thinking about politics, it seems more and more inescapable that narratives are incredibly influential compared with what most people focus on (peer to peer contacts, policies, etc.). Fundamental narratives—enduring basic beliefs about the world and how it exists—are more powerful than almost any message or even real event.

The underlying belief of our culture and of many individuals that order is found in balance, between a symmetrical political world of Republicans and Democrats, e.g. seems unshakeable by any information or experience short of the complete destruction of known order. That’s probably coming up as a consequence of Republican exploitation of this belief, yet even now people cling like leeches to the idea that Republicans would like to do the right thing for the common good, and are simply cowards. That’s also baloney, but a more accurate narrative, that Republicans are delusional and/or indifferent to suffering, just doesn’t serve people’s desperate wish for here-and-now reassurance.

At an even deeper level it seems like the basic narrative of western neoliberal society is failing, in America and many other places.

This is generally a bog of a subject area, and I’m not here to wade into that quagmire. I think it’s important to note that arguments about optimal policies miss how much people are not only willing to suffer, but eager to do so, to a degree which just can’t be denied amid this plague landscape.

I believe and have asserted that voting to keep their side on top, in what is for them effectively a sectarian/race war, motivates many voters’ support for Republicans despite corruption and a toxic policy agenda. I also think that one has to see additional factors, first, because toxic autocracy is battering liberal democracy in more places than I think can be fully explained by white Americans’ race rage, and second, becuse if one even hopes that there can ever be a solution, one has to imagine that some alternative narrative could conquer that of a sex-and-race caste system.

One go-to response, at this point, is usually: “simple, abandon racial solidarity, embrace class solidarity, implement democratic socialism, problem solved.” As this is not really a new idea, though, I would say again that something must still be missing, whatever you want to call it.

I don’t think that I have the answer, and I’m not sure that this is something which even can be intentionally crafted and promoted and accepted after debate and persuasion.

I do think one of the things we need to do, though, is better recognize the problem of the western neoliberal narrative. I think the problem is that it has not only failed too many people, materially, but that it has also failed people as a belief system.

People, again, are willing to suffer materially. Willing to suffer a lot for some sense of purpose. Since the Cold War, though, what compelling sense of shared purpose has replaced the purpose of winning the competition against the evil empire?

Jane Jacobs proposed, profoundly, that America made the job into the center of individual life and social organization. She sensed that this model was failing, and in her last book pondered if the then-recent Global War on Terror might replace it as a national purpose. That, thankfully, didn’t happen for long, but instead we have a void of compelling narrative of purpose, into which has stepped race rage, conspiracy theories, and the raw nihilism of deaths of despair, whether from opioid abuse or pro-pandemic “fuck it” culture.

I was asked the other day if I had any ideas what to do about rural America’s embrace of toxic narratives, and my first response was that I really don’t, even though I’m from a small town in Iowa. Upon reflection, though, it occurs to me that maybe there’s some general observation worth making in the fact that I have never really given a thought to my hometown’s politics, because I scarcely even think of my hometown as a part of the contemporary world. I have never explicitly considered it this way, but for practical purposes, Anamosa long ago became a place within the receding past, which I visit occasionally to see people of my past.

I have no doubt that there’s plenty of racism in my overwhelmingly white home town. I also know that it’s a place of little contemporary purpose, within the modern western neoliberal narrative, and no convincing future. My small hometown is doing relatively well, in fact; in recent years it has built a new library, school, and hospital, and it’s within practicable commuting distance of a modest urban center. But Anamosa has also seen one of its only significant employers pack up for another part of the country. (The state prison, tellingly, may be the largest one left.) I know that plenty of rural towns and cities don’t even have anything like this much going for them. In general, our contemporary economy has no use for these places, and our contemporary culture has no persuasive narrative about what they’re supposed to do.

I also know that, in this, rural America seems to have quite a bit in common with decaying urban communities including Cleveland. The western neoliberal narrative seems irrelevant to both. In Anamosa, many have turned to voting for Trump; in Cleveland, many have turned to voting for no one. While I work hard to persuade people to vote, and vote for Democrats, I also think we have to recognize that the prevailing approaches aren’t working. They can be improved. Investing in ongoing organizing seems plainly undervalued relative to stuffing resources into individual campaigns like fattening a goose for paté. But I don’t think either peer-to-peer engagement, nor any assortment of small business grants and broadband expansion and job training, will compensate for the deeper failure of the western neoliberal jobs-and-voting narrative.

For what it’s worth I really do not believe that the solution involves re-centering life on patriarchy and theocracy, either. But I confess to not knowing what new religion could successfully heal the void, left when various forces began turning the job from a reliable staircase through life, for most people, into a rigged game of Tetris.

In terms of policy details, I’ll guess that America probably could solve much of the problem simply by catching up to modern countries which are relatively successful within the framework of market economies and representative democracy.

But the much larger problem seems to be how this broken, toxic plague state can again move in any coordinated direction, at all. Being really honest, it seems more likely that collapse of this volatile contraption into some new, eventually more stable order will lead to a new narrative, rather than the other way around.

Thinking about what might be a new, convincing narrative still seems about as worthwhile as any other activity outside of attending day to day needs.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation