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  • Geoff Mulgan

Stories for the future and the power of 'generative opposites’


This piece looks at the role of stories in social and political imagination, from analogy and metaphor to the universal patterns found in stories across the world.  It suggests a common, paradoxical pattern in some of the most powerful progressive stories.


These use what I call 'generative opposites'. They combine a promise of both return (to an idealised past) and advance (to an idealised future). And they promise both short-term retreat, struggle and setbacks, and long-term triumph. Their emotional power comes from these tensions, which echo aspects of the human condition.


It was given as a talk to the Storytelling Institute at University of Arts London, alongside a group of their story-telling fellows.





Why stories matter


Much of social change comes from shifts in metaphors, analogies and stories and anyone seeking to encourage progress needs stories as well as arguments.  Stories are also essential to using evidence.  Most of us find it easier to understand patterns using anecdotes and examples rather than abstractions or general theories. 


It has probably always been part of our nature to understand things better with narrative arcs, than just with dry facts or theories.   Perhaps this is even more true now, in an extraordinary time when we are surrounded by millions, even billions of stories, where even a few centuries ago most had access only to a few stories from their family, village, tribe or religion. 


This explosion of stories has been both positive, giving voice to so many who had been silenced or excluded, and negative, in that it has allowed the spread of lies, falsehoods and misleading stories of all kinds.   


It has also been an ambiguous gain in another sense.  We have lost much of our confidence in stories that connect past and present to a better future.  Dystopias have squeezed out utopias; narratives of anxiety and fear have displaced narratives of hope.  We are, understandably, suspicious of positive stories that are too bland, too neat, too complete, which is one reason why the few examples of recent utopian writing (like Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry of the Future’, or Stephen Markley’s ‘The Deluge’) are deliberately messy, full of problems as well as solutions. 


So how should we use stories to promote thoughtful hope and our shared ability to shape the future?  Here I suggest some of the resources we can use, some frameworks for shaping stories, and some protections against bad or misleading ones.  


Analogy


A starting point is analogy.   For example, instead of seeing society as a pyramid we can see it as a family or as a team, an exercise in solidarity rather than obedience.    Or we can use analogy to pose questions. Why can’t a company be more like a social club or a family?  What can’t gay people have rights to marry?    Why shouldn’t politicians be trained, just as we expect doctors or teachers to be?  Sometimes simple analogy can be a useful prompt.   In Europe, over 70% of paper is recycled. So why should barely 1% of clothing be recycled?  Is there not an analogous solution?


Social science has seen many detailed accounts of the role of analogy. Max Weber  believed that the idea of thinking through analogies came originally from magic, and then passed  into law.  Much of law derives from the idea that if, when we do x to y, something happens, then applying x to z will achieve a similar result.  So legal reasoning works through seeking similarity and analogy, looking for parallels and showing why they are relevant (Georg Simmel also wrote well on analogy, while Sartre suggested the idea of an ‘analagon’, an object that stimulates imagination).


There is no doubt that analogy is, in the words of Emile Durkheim, ‘a precious instrument for knowledge and even for scientific research. The mind cannot create a new idea out of nothing’.[i]   But analogy can also be deceptive and false: Knut Wicksell argued that it only through experiment, and only in hindsight, that we can be sure if an analogy is appropriate, and analogies can be almost too appealing, giving the appearance of understanding rather than actual understanding.  So, for example, in the case of recycling, although it might seem that clothing is a good analogy for paper, a deeper analysis shows that the materials themselves, the business models and the processes are all very different, while the challenges of recycling electronic equipment are just as different again.


Metaphor


Metaphor is an equally common approach and equally useful, though it too has  potential weaknesses. If we see the brain as like a computer, or indeed a whole society as an organism, this may help us to think.  It transfers from one domain to another.  Bernard Mandeville’s 18th century ‘fable of the bees’, which argued that private vice and selfishness can have collective benefits, is perhaps the most famous example in social science, and anyone wanting to spread their ideas is well-advised to use an image or metaphor to promote it. 


Such metaphors can be useful tools for thinking that stretch analogies.   Do we see government as a machine or a brain?  How do we imagine a community’s immune system?    

We can’t help but think in metaphors.  Ideas can be illuminating and bright, fizzing and incisive, or flat and dull.    Societies can go through winters and springs, sickness and rebirth.  Metaphors are the tools that make thought richer and more vivid.


From metaphors to stories


The more developed variants of analogy and metaphor turn them into larger stories.  These may be stories with a problem and solution; a passage from oppression to liberation; or some account of potential realised.  We talk of nations rising (and falling) and of peoples ‘breaking free’ from constraints and bondage.  We talk of restoring harmony with nature, and perhaps can’t help but think through metaphors and narratives.     Some talk of purifying their societies – driving out toxic behaviours, or other races.


Karl Marx had a vivid turn of phrase and turned the proletariat the hero of an extraordinary struggle that echoed Christian ideas of redemption.  The 19th century utopians reached large audiences because of their skill with narrative. Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done? published in Russia in 1863, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward were huge best-sellers.  


Compelling stories


So how can a story of the possible future be made compelling?  Many theorists have tried to define what makes a good story. Vladimir Propp argued that many folk stories had a similar structure.  There’s a hero who seeks something, a villain who opposes them, a donor who provides an object with magical properties, and an array of helpers and hinderers along the way. In the end the hero is rewarded for their efforts.  This narrative structure has obvious echoes for anyone trying to advance a new idea, product or venture.  


A few decades later Joseph Campbell took a similar approach, synthesising many myths and legends into what he called ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’: a universal, archetypal story that was then used as a template for the Star Wars film and many others, and can be used to map possible journeys for new ideas as they set out from a meagre start without resources or much hope, face down enemies and threats, and finally triumph.  William Storr’s more recent book ‘The Science of Story Telling’ takes a slightly different stance, showing how many of the most compelling stories involve a flawed person facing a unique challenge and then in some way growing as they overcome the challenge.


Common frameworks for stories include revenge and payback; restitution and purification; healing of something sick; the birth of the new or the rebirth of something old and lost.  There are stories of underdogs standing up to power and sometimes overthrowing it.   Some of these stories amplify the darker sides of human nature – with vicious punishment of enemies who are dehumanised. Others are more generous, seeing others as ends and not just means.


The most compelling narrative arcs involve struggle and barriers, enemies and demons.[ii]  The drama and the dynamic come from the tension these create, the sense that victory is unlikely: Davids against Goliaths; the little man and woman struggling against monstrous states and bureaucracies and systems that crush their humanity.    Others emphasise apocalypse, the need for action to prevent it. Often, they emphasise loss and the need to restore a cosmic and local balance (nature, community, care),[iii] a potent combination of fear and hope.


Sometimes these stories are fragmentary.  But it can be interesting to attempt to make them more comprehensive, and this is a crucial part of the work of making fictions, with the use of worldbuilding methods[iv] in TV and film, and even more in interactive games, that seek to construct a complete world that makes sense.[v]   Ursula LeGuin wrote that science fiction serves as training for the imagination, and familiarity with these methods can be useful to open up thinking that may have become too tied down in particular social science disciplines.


Social science stories


All of history is essentially a way of combining analysis with narrative to make sense of patterns of change, but other social sciences are less comfortable with stories, sometimes for good reasons as I discuss below.


But the result can be a failure to engage.  A common complaint about social science is that it turns light into grey, squeezing out the character, charisma and charm of things. Economics is derided as the ‘dismal science’ and a recent study commented that ‘if leadership is bright orange, leadership research is slate grey.’[vi]  Narrative is part of how the magic is brought back in and most of us find it easier to digest ideas in the form of narratives than through prose that lacks a narrative arc, or just through data.


Narratives also play a much bigger role in social science than is often admitted: they explain by simplifying.  Deirdre McCloskey wrote brilliantly about the role of stories in promoting particular economic ideas – showing that they spread, and then stuck, more because of their narrative structure than any corroborating evidence.  Some of the greatest thinkers were brilliant at distilling their ideas into neat vignettes that were easy to remember.   Adam Smith’s parable of the pin factory crystallised the idea of a division of labour, while Keynes used many vivid images and stories, like the ‘paradox of thrift’, helped, perhaps, by his social circle, the Bloomsbury set of novelists, poets and thinkers, who saw art and science as interwoven.


The stories that are most helpful for understanding a social reality have: a limited number of interacting characters (people or organisations or abstract categories); they are treated as independent, conscious and self-motivated, rather than just as vehicles, and their actions result from their own deliberations; and they are realistic about motives, capacities and resources.


But stories are not always good either as explanations or designs. Much of social life works through mechanisms that do not function as stories.  Causal mechanisms may be indirect, unintended, incremental, collective, systemic and often shaped by non-human environments.  Relying too much on narrative can blind us to these mechanisms.


Political stories


Stories also play a central role in political life.   Charles Tilly analysed how ‘‘political entrepreneurs draw together credible stories from available cultural materials, create we-they boundaries, activate both stories and boundaries as a function of current political circumstances, and manoeuvre to suppress competing models.’’ [vii]  Their stories ‘‘embody ideas concerning what forms of action and interaction are feasible, desirable, and efficacious’ and ‘by implication what forms of action and interaction would be impossible, undesirable, or ineffectual’.  ‘‘When life gets complicated, stories take over the bulk of relational work’, he suggested and [viii]they mark a ‘‘membership in a shared community of belief’’ [ix]and they ‘‘include strong imputations of responsibility, and thus lend themselves to moral evaluations’’, including credit and blame.[x]    So we get the familiar stories of blame and treachery, of leaders messing things up, losing touch and showing contempt for the people, and the more positive stories of restoring balance, righting wrongs and reasserting deeply held values.


Albert Hirschman provided a good analysis of some of these patterns, focusing on the  dominant stories of the resurgent right of the 1980s and its leaders, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.   Theirs were what he called ‘rhetorics of reaction’.[xi]  He showed that their theories and arguments tended towards three common patterns, presenting all attempts at social progress as liable to futility (they simply won’t work),  to jeopardy (if they have any effect at all it will be to destroy something we value) and to perversity (the claim that if any attempts at improvement had effects these would not be the ones intended, so that, for example, wars on poverty leave behind a dependent underclass). 


Perhaps it’s not surprising that the collective minds of particular eras converge on common patterns, and it doesn’t take long to find other clusters, such as the ‘rhetorics of progress’ that mirror the rhetorics of reaction.[xii]  These include arguments for righting wrongs and meeting needs, whether these are for pensions or affordable housing, which draw on fundamental moral senses of fairness.  They draw on claims that change is cumulative and dynamic and that new reforms are needed to reinforce old ones, or to prevent backsliding. So, for example, new rights to maternity leave are essential to make a reality of past laws outlawing gender discrimination. They use claims of tractability: that social action works, and that whether the problem is unemployment or climate change, the right mix of actions can solve it.  And sometimes they use claims of inevitability – that progress is bound to happen, whether towards new rights or sometimes towards the triumph of new technologies.


The power of generative opposites


Often the most compelling stories combine opposites, and these seem to be particularly important for progressive stories.   A very common approach combines the promise of progress to a better future and return to a lost past.   In 17th century England a favoured story was the idea of the Norman Yoke.   The campaigners advocating radical, and very modern ideas of rights and democracy, presented them as a return to a halcyon past before the arrival of the Normans, with their oppressive laws, castles and hierarchies.    In this way the radicals could present themselves as more authentically patriotic, and more truly grounded in tradition, than the monarchs and Lords.  Green ideas too often combine this sense of progress and return, progressing to a world without carbon emissions, waste or pollutants, while also returning to a more harmonious relationship with nature.


These stories also use opposites in another way, one that echoes the ‘hero with a thousand faces’.  They often emphasise struggle and difficulty on the way to resolution.  The promise is of the sunlit uplands in the future.  But on the way to it things will get worse; there will be battles and struggles; setbacks and failures.


This seems to be a common pattern in the most emotionally engaging stories which mobilise these 'generative opposites'. They combine a promise of both return (to an idealised past) and advance (to an idealised future). And they promise both short-term retreat, struggle and setbacks and long-term triumph.


Their power perhaps comes from the way these tensions echo aspects of the human condition: the fact that through our lives we seek and a return to some of the simplicities of childhood, and that we learn through life that most things which are truly worthwhile require sacrifice along the way, some pain before the gain.






Bad stories


So stories are unavoidable and often useful.  But this doesn’t imply that all stories are equal.   We know that many people – and nations – get trapped in disfunctional, misleading narratives that make it harder for them to thrive. They are vehicles to be used and transcended, not to be stuck in. 


Much of our world is influenced by powerful but deeply misleading fairy tales: for example, on the American right, the claim that capitalism has uniquely given the world freedom, prosperity and good health, or the counter view that capitalism is uniquely wicked, the cause of greed, inequality, poverty and environmental destruction.


Bizarre stories can easily become common currency.  A century ago, the story of the ‘Protocol of the Elders of Zion’, which purported to show a global Jewish conspiracy, was widely believed, long after it had been proven to be a fake.  Even the Russian Tsar, whose own secret police had invented the story, was convinced it was true. 


A 2020 Ipsos poll showed that 17% of Americans believe that a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring exercise control over politics and the media – another story that resists disproof, since any disproof simply shows the power of the conspiracy. Meanwhile many nations still take comfort in stories that emphasise the uniqueness of their values – their invincible soul or spirit.


But we can only grow up and grasp the world as it is if we learn to question, and then transcend these stories.  Indeed, we can assess stories, particularly stories that try to make sense of history, by their quality: how much do they fit the available evidence?  Are they logical, coherent, or disproved in any way?  A convincing story in social science should include all the major actors relevant to it; should present accurate present cause-effect relations; and should connect the story with relevant places, actors and actions around it. 


Most don’t.  Yet we will continue to be creatures of stories: and if we lack stories of hope, pathways to a better future, this space will be filled with darker, more atavist ones.

 

[this piece was given as a talk at the Storytelling Institute in the University of Arts London in January 2024. It draws on my books 'Another World is Possible' and 'Prophets at a Tangent']

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Durkheim 1978 55-56

[ii] This is of course why narrative also so easily becomes exclusionary or xenophobic.

[iii]See Haraway, D. J., 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, NC: Duke University Press

[v] Project Hieroglyph for example tried to reignite a more positive and optimistic strand of science fiction https://hieroglyph.asu.edu/  and various communities of sci-fi writers share methods and insights, such as the London Science Fiction Research Community: http://www.lsfrc.co.uk/

[vii] Charles Tilly 2003, p. 612.

[viii]  Tilly, 2006, p. 173

[ix] Tilly 2006, p. 27, The Work Stories do: Charles Tilly's Legacy on the Provision of Reasons, Storytelling, and Trust in Contentious Performances

[x] Tilly 2008b, p. 21.

[xi] A. O. Hirschman (1991) The rhetoric of reaction. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[xii]  These rhetorics are described in my book ‘The Art of Public Strategy’, Oxford University Press, 2009

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