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Politics is all about managing the present. What people need is a story of the future

Unthinkable: In an aimless world, people need a coherent storyline to give us hope

No offence to Fine Gael’s new leader but Simon Harris: The Movie is unlikely to be made. Ryan Gosling’s phone will never ring with the offer to play Ireland’s youngest Taoiseach – the boy-next-door who promises to bring “a new energy” to the running of Government. As storylines go, the latest transfer of power barely quickens the pulse of political nerds let alone the wider public. I say that not to belittle Harris but rather to highlight a concern of political theorists in recent years that there is a “loss of narrative” in western democracies.

“Genuine political narratives open up a perspective on a new order of things; they paint pictures of possible worlds. Today, we singularly lack such hopeful narratives of the future,” writes Byung-Chul Han, the Korean-born German philosopher, in a new book The Crisis of Narration.

“We lurch from one crisis to the next. Politics is reduced to problem solving.”

Within global affairs, the Cold War is typically cited as the last great “meta-narrative” for humanity, leaving a storytelling vacuum in its wake. Writing a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, political scientist Zaki Laïdi proclaimed in A World Without Meaning: “Political actions no longer find their legitimacy in a vision of the future, but have been reduced to managing the ordinary present.”


Twenty years on, that sense of aimlessness has intensified. The stories we told ourselves about a progressive future have turned out to be myths. It appears we don’t live in an “international community” respectful of human rights. It turns out democracy is no guarantee of political stability. Nor of rationality or even humanity, as Israel’s actions in Gaza show.

With the old tales no longer credible, new and more dangerous stories fill the void. What’s needed now, we’re increasingly told, are strong men to “take back control”.

Laidi identified this risk of bad actors peddling tall tales. But he also warned of a more insidious decline in social cohesion. “Social actors avoid taking on their own responsibilities or some responsibilities because, in the absence of a project of meaning, responsibilities are measured only in cost terms.”

The political malaise is mirrored by a loss of direction felt by many people in their personal lives. Han attributes this largely to a decline in religion, particularly Christianity, “a meta-narrative that reaches into every nook and cranny of life and anchors it in being”.

Time itself changes form without faith, he says. The Christian calendar is now “de-narrativised; it becomes a meaningless schedule of appointments”.

Of more profound significance is the gap left by a heavenly overseer. The story I was taught growing up is “God loves you”. A common refrain people hear today, in the cruel world of social media, is “No one loves you” but that isn’t true either.

One of the tools used by psychologists to tackle anxiety and depression is “narrative therapy”. It allows people to decipher meaningful episodic threads to their lives and to reject false scripts, such as the idea that you are fundamentally bad.

The key is narrating together rather than apart, says Han. The dominant stories in our culture today are about individual success and material gain. But “consumers are lonely. They do not form a community. Nor can the ‘stories’ shared on social media fill the narrative vacuum”, he says.

But what can fill the vacuum? In western culture there has always been a tradition of the “good myth” or the “noble lie”, as Plato called it. Defending mythology, Benedictine monk Mark Patrick Hederman describes it as “a third way of truth between fiction and fact”. However, myths seem ill-equipped to guide us on complex issues such as global inequality or climate justice.

The story of “where we are and where are going” must be believable and rooted in facts. For inspiration, one might look to the oft-cited “seven basic plots” of storytelling: “overcoming the monster”, “rags to riches”, “the quest”, “voyage-and-return”, comedy, tragedy and rebirth.

The world is stuck on plot 1 (take your pick of monsters) with plot 6 (tragedy) making frequent appearances. However, the kind of story we desperately need is less cinematic and more gradual, something like, “Putting the world on a more sustainable and just footing” or “Being kind to yourself, others and the world around you”. Call these plots 8 and 9, if only to remind us that much good work goes on in society outside of “heroic” tropes.

Selling a more humble story to the public is no easy task. “The time has come to set aside childish things,” said Barack Obama in his inauguration speech when first elected US president. Today his country is fed a diet of fairytales by the man who succeeded him in the White House and who may return there in a few months.

For responsible politicians, the challenge is great. And for Irish political leaders, there is the added disadvantage of knowing the Government is a relatively small character in the great scheme of things, with limited control even over its own economy.

Ahead of the next general election, political parties will set out their respective storylines, and voters need to be grown-up in assessing their merits. What is clear, however, is that, in a world troubled by deep inequalities and on the brink of climate catastrophe, “managing the ordinary present” will not do.