Every Nation Needs a Narrative

From Planet 232

by Rebecca Brown

Rebecca Brown won our 2018 Young Writers' competition. In her winning article she reflects on how nations are piecing together new meta-narratives, after twentieth-century postmodernism shattered old certainties. She contrasts Trump’s Make America Great Again myth-making with endeavours in Wales to create a narrative of hope and intergenerational justice.

‘Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives […] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal’
Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

Every nation needs a narrative. A sweeping, noble and self-prophesying fable; eliciting everything from patriotism to nationalism. Be it ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ or the American Dream, these narratives belie the subconscious fears, hopes and dreams of a country and how they represent themselves to their neighbouring nations.

The postmodern notion that the ‘meta-narratives’ which previously dominated every aspect of our discourse, from Christianity to Marxism, had become fragmented and irrelevant became increasingly popular in the latter part of the twentieth century. As globalism and late capitalism surged in the final decades, it seemed that countries were abandoning isolated grand narratives in pursuit of intertwining stories. Many chart the rise of identity politics with this apparent mistrust of these previously accepted ‘universal truths’.

Reclaim the Power occupation of Ffos-y-Fran open cast coal mine, 2016. Image © Kristian Buus (CC BY 2.0) https://bit.ly/2QYWcOj

Reclaim the Power occupation of Ffos-y-Fran open cast coal mine, 2016. Image © Kristian Buus (CC BY 2.0) https://bit.ly/2QYWcOj

However, in this unchartered territory, some have now sought to reclaim the grand narratives of yesteryear for political or financial advantage. This is perhaps best witnessed in the rise of President Donald Trump. His ‘shock’ victory in the 2016 US election proved one thing: the power of the meta-narrative isn’t dead.

Trump, the living Mar-a-Lago embodiment of the late capitalist super-brand, exploited widespread feelings of discontentment, especially among those who felt left behind by the inequalities deepened by neoliberal economics. He essentially identified vast swathes of the American population who yearned for the security that a meta-narrative could offer. And so, Trump and his team offered MAGA. Make America Great Again. The core mythology of Make America Great Again is simple: The status quo is not good for working-class people. In tying together disparate threads of vexation, Trump manages to offer tangible villains (immigrants, liberals, Crooked Hillary) and safe solutions. Bring back industry. Build that wall. Cut those taxes.

Instead of seizing the opportunity to offer a new vision for the future, the unimaginative Trump defaulted to what the US does best: relying upon its deluded myths of grandeur. Because, let’s think about it objectively, when was America really great? You only have to look to the US’s host of ever-vocal conservative critics. Throughout every generation and every decade, there have been a steady stream of voices declaring the demise of America. From the McCarthyist fear of ‘pinkos’, to James Dean symbolising the death of everything wholesome, to the Fight Club era of the 1990s, which saw an attempt to reclaim an all-American masculinity from becoming just another target market, the US state has forever been in some form of crisis.

The US is founded on a myth not only of lost greatness, but also one of being a blank canvas, an equal playing ground in which anyone can prosper, or as Richard Slotkin writes in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier: 1600‐1860 ‘a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top’. This is a romanticised frontier thesis which lies at the very heart of Trump’s pumped-up rhetoric. Here is a man who constantly portrays himself as the self-made billionaire; the proof of the American Dream. He sees himself and his ‘success’ as a businessman as living proof of what can happen if he can just be allowed to get on with Making America Great Again.

Trump is a very modern ‘frontiersman’. The futile chasing of that ever-moving horizon. The constant expansive pursuit of growth. To those lamenting the demise of the American meta-narrative, Trump represents this repackaged in human form. He is a rebranded all-American hero, with oil flecks on his tailored suits and a Cadillac.

He is a man so uncomfortable with the prospect of a future which does not allow for his brand of archetypal hero, that his narcissistic solution is to offer a return to the past. It’s not unusual for those who are afraid of the future or unhappy in the present to assert that ‘things were better before’. How many of us have heard similar sentiments from our grandparents? The myth that things were better in the past seems a universal trait passed down from generation to generation among many nations. The narrative peddled by nostalgic UKIP voters and many conservatives here in the UK is that Great Britain was indeed ‘Great’ back in the day. But when pressed on the specifics, they can only seem to conjure an ideal preserved in an Enid Blyton novel or from an episode of Heartbeat.

The problem with longing for a version of the past that arguably never truly existed, is that in 2018 and with our current climate crisis, these spectres of the past are not only largely undesirable but mostly unviable. There’s a plethora of reasons for the demise of traditional industry, but returning to the past is not an option. As Naomi Klein points out, if we do not act in accordance with the Paris Agreement now and promote green industry ‘there won’t be opportunities to fail better’. Quite simply, ‘we don’t get a do-over on a drowned island’.

What does this all have to do with Wales? Despite our obvious differences in size and scale compared with the US, we have one shared historical love affair: coal. We too are suffering a generations-long hangover following our former industrial glories. But unlike the US, Wales is beginning to pursue a narrative of hope. Recognising the role we played at the forefront of the coal explosion and the industrial revolution, we can now opt to be at the frontier of a green future.

As part of a wider twenty-first-century phenomenon of gathering together the fragments left after postmodernism shattered previous certainties, Wales is reclaiming and rewriting its own alternative meta-narrative. However, this is one that does not fixate on the glories of a bygone past, but one which looks to safeguard the future and offer the best opportunities for our descendants. I would argue that Wales is embarking on this through the Well-being of Future Generations Act. I’m employed by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, so the reader may wonder if I’m simply promoting the organisation I work for. However, as a citizen I would make the case that its radical potential needs to be fully acknowledged.

A landmark piece of sustainable development legislation which came into force in 2016, this Act is the envy of many progressive countries across the globe, who long for the legal protection of future generations which Wales has put into statute. The Well-being of Future Generations Act places a legal duty on public bodies in Wales to ensure they are thinking about the long term; guaranteeing the ability of current generations to meet their own needs without compromising the lives of future generations. Through its implementation it can put the idea of intergenerational justice front and centre of decision-making in Wales, recognising the inter-connectedness of all our decisions on our people and planet.

The Act allows for the realisation that we live in a time of multiple, intersecting issues. These include unemployment, an ageing and increasing population, the rise in automation and technology, an uncertain economy, social incohesion and injustice, as well as climate change. The Act recognises that we cannot afford to fix these issues sequentially and calls for integrated solutions. Here one could draw parallels with the MAGA rhetoric – both arguably draw these crises together and demand a set of solutions based on a compelling narrative. The difference with the Welsh approach is that it is one based on positivity. Instead of looking for scapegoats and widening societal divides by pitting communities against each other, the Well-being of Future Generations Act offers the vision and the aspiration for creating a Wales united by what we have in common, based on the involvement of communities.

Many of the challenges within Welsh politics and Welsh public services since devolution have arisen because of the inability to see past the immediate goalposts, such as discussions around devolved and reserved powers, and the slow, bureaucratic process of devolution. The past twenty years have been so tied up in present issues, along with addressing the legacies of Wales’ past, such as poverty, that as a nation we have risked failing to secure a better future.

The Act goes beyond partisan politics altogether. If implemented correctly, this Act has the potential to completely revolutionise the way things are done in Wales. This isn’t just about tinkering at the edges of the status quo; this Act demands a rewrite of the rulebook when it comes to decision-making by the public sector.

Like the US, Wales has many disgruntled voters, who saw voting for Brexit as their signal of protest against an economic and political system which has abandoned them. However, there is growing acknowledgement in Wales that instead of looking to bring back jobs which no longer exist, Wales needs to define its own version of what prosperity can look like. The legal definition within the Act of what a ‘prosperous Wales’ should look like, is the following:

An innovative, productive and low carbon society which recognises the limits of the global environment and therefore uses resources efficiently and proportionately (including acting on climate change), and which develops a skilled and well-educated population in an economy which generates wealth and provides employment opportunities, allowing people to take advantage of the wealth generated through securing decent work.

This isn’t about increasing GDP in the pursuit of trickle-down economics. This is the acknowledgement that prosperity and quality of life, for current and future generations, is about more than measure of Gross Value Added or Gross Domestic Product, which hasn’t worked in Wales in the past and is not fit for purpose when it comes to planning for the future. This rewriting of Wales’ narrative as a nation recognises that we cannot effect change for those who have been left behind by a broken system through operating within that same model.

Wales is unique in this approach, and our narrative is distinctly different to that iterated by the UK government. There is a real chance here for Wales, as a small but ambitious nation, to reclaim our narrative in a way that suits us, and for the ripples of that change to be felt worldwide. Within the art of rhetoric, writers such as Aristotle and Plato talked about kairos: ‘a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved’1. Across the world, we are seeing the sparks of a global movement for change, for a rewriting of a narrative that is inclusive, progressive and one that includes future generations. For Wales, the kairos, or the moment of opportunity is now. People are questioning the way we’ve always done things and why. From discussions on gender, human rights, racism, privilege and the environment, the time is ripe for leaders within Wales to construct a future that works for everyone.

Despite Trump’s reclaiming of the MAGA meta-narrative, states like California and New York are standing defiant. While Trump looks to roll back environmental protections and regulations, there are states within the US which are refusing to look backwards, and are continuing with renewable energy products and progressive agendas, thereby refusing to bow down to Trump’s bloated meta-narrative.

Narratives like Trump’s hark back to a nostalgic past which arguably never existed, and he is of course not alone in trying to repackage legends of the past and sell them as viable options for the future. However, a vision like the one offered within the Well-being of Future Generations Act focuses instead on opportunities and solutions based on hope for the future: a future based on what we can achieve together, not one that looks to break us apart. It accepts that we cannot alter history, and that things are not as ‘great’ as they should be in the here and now. But all nations ultimately need a narrative, and the Act it empowers all of us to make things better, through looking determinedly forwards...