Narrative vs Propaganda In Australian Politics

This is a subject that seems as close to group psychology as it is to politics. What may be happening in Australian politics at this moment is that a significant amount of the public is realizing the emptiness of the sales job done by their politicians. It's doubtless not the whole story but what is fascinating is the inability of the political class (by which I mean both politicans and the mainstream media around them) to accept that there is a failure of communication at all in any way.

Narrative has become a dirty political word now. It was specialized into jargon by the security services decades ago. The "story" is a framework running the gamut from truth to complete fabrication, meant for operational use, often a matter of life or death. The best-developed narratives are meant to protect an operative for an extended period undercover, the simplest aren't meant to fool anyone for long. Propaganda, as we think of it, is also a dirty word but no less successful in its general aims, but it plays less lip-service to half-truth for protective purposes, and is usually dedicated to the Big Lie repeated often and loudly for short-term gains. Propaganda is an attempt to shift perceptions suddenly: narrative in the political sense is a sustained effort to shift the whole framework of discussion to one that benefits your aims. Narrative is what the defence establishment use to get funds for bombs or to fund certain scientific research. Narrative is what political think-tanks like the IPA use to further its aims. The full effect of good narrative is one that you can yourself believe in even as you know it is a cover story, which makes you more believable. Propaganda sells something specific; narrative sells itself. When narrative fails, it is seen as being "pushed"; one imagines someone being force-fed, and some have actually used that metaphor.

Having defined the terms, the problem confronting our political class seems to be that they have mistaken narrative for propaganda. Politicians are possibly the worst candidates for successful narrative. When they are skilful, they become victims of their success, as Adam Curtis' series The Living Dead has demonstrated. There is more than one unsettling coincidence between that series and what is happening now. Anyone who has seen part three will no doubt have shuddered upon hearing that Tony Abbott has resorted to talking to a bust of Winston Churchill as if to reanimate the same ghosts (and nightmares) that Thatcher conjured. We lefties have been joking for years about Howard living in the 1950's but Abbott truly appears to wish them upon us. But Abbott also demonstrates what happens when the truly incompetent attempt narrative: it doesn't simply stink of propaganda, it's also a disturbing insight into their political fantasies.

But narrative cannot succeed without the complicity of the mainstream media. The biggest challenge to the MSM is the struggle to present some kind of framework for what is happening now without admitting that they should have seen it coming and should have examined the policy platform that precipitated it. That they're trying to blame the victim of their failure, the electorate, for it is a rare glimpse into the solidarity of the MSM with politicians that the electorate should be more aware of. When journalism degrades into PR for political interests, it exposes the hollowness of the narrative. There is the daily sideshow of the commentariat who harangue over the same issues to their choir. What has happened is that a political party took this narrative seriously as policy and attempted to implement it. Neither they nor their think-tanks and MSM choir of journalists can understand why this has been rejected. That is astonishing.

Several insightful bloggers and commentators have already sniffed out underlying issues: the collapse of any coherent policy program by the major parties, with a related result being the shift to personality politics particularly from PMs. The "small target" strategy of just refusing to say anything that might be "wrong" and hurt ones chances in polls or attract adverse commentary from their media backers has been nothing short of corrosive to healthy engagement from the electorate who now suspect that all they get is lies. Most importantly, the economic narrative is beginning to fall apart and there are no new ideas either party can steal from the US or UK to stop its deterioration. Abbott will be seen as the image of this failure, but observers don't think Shorten has anything to gloat about.

In the debacle of the last year, several carefully ignored truths have resurfaced, much to everyone's surprise, in the mainstream media, usually the bulwark of the narrative. Now commentators are openly saying the Liberal party has had no other purpose but to oppose organized labour and serve the interests of the powerful. In the leadership crisis of the last month it has also become apparent how helpless the party is without a leader to rally behind, and leader in a much wider sense than the ALP's style. For Labor, the leader has always stepped out from the caucus, having risen through the ranks and done their apprenticeship; PMs like Rudd are a recent phenomenon. But the Liberal party was literally created from the ashes of former parties by a great unifying leader in Menzies and he is their leadership template. They cannot function without this template, but are dependent on a form of social Darwinism to achieve it from their ranks. Only occasionally has this succeeded, and the price of the lastest success, Howard, has been a literal generation of stunted political growth. The collapse of narrative has been very damaging to both parties, but to the Liberals it is especially hurtful because of their need to maintain a unifying fiction about themselves and their aims.

To make any sense of what the Liberal party means for Liberals is an effort of sustained narrative. Much of it is simply oppositional to Labor, eg the individualist vs the collective, the so-called "broad church of ideas" that, mystifyingly, repeatedly fails to be broad when the Federal parliamentary wing dislikes them. It is, in short, an authoritarian, hierachial dreamworld of standing shoulder to shoulder with captains of industry as efficient managers. Managers who often never take responsibility for their failures, presenting themselves as mere employees of the corporation and quietly exit with shares options vested. The politicians-as-managers narrative has slowly degraded over time to be just as ridiculous but the Liberals still cling to it for dear life.

The "economic managment" narrative is the most damaging dogma to fail them now because the electorate suspects that it's a cover for taking something away from them. This is why Abbott is rushing to that other narrative, national security, another favourite of authoritarians when threatened. That's only achieved a closer look at the policy failures in that arena. Among many other issues, it has given rise to the self-pitying cry that the messaging must have gone wrong. The "messaging" is now what they have to call the narrative because that is now a dirty word. It doesn't seem to be getting through to any of the leaders of the party that it was their actions, not messaging that caused their problems. Note that this fails for the ALP too; it's not just the "small target" strategy that prevents Shorten from spinning his own economic narrative, economic narrative itself has failed.

Whatever they call narrative now, it is not likely to go away as a tool, or as an issue itself. John Ralston Saul wrote Voltaires Bastards decades ago and yet we're still coming to grips with the reality that national governments have a limited economic scope and cannot encircle markets in the old way. Yet they still sell economic policy as if they do. Unemployment is a tool of macroeconomics: they teach this in MBAs yet governments pretend its a failure of individual enterprise. Governments generate their own money as well as tax for revenue purposes yet still pretend they run the economy like a household budget. These and other economic narratives need to die if the country is to do positive things as a population. The electorate is tired of propaganda-as-narrative, but there seems no one to sell us a good narrative any more. Politicians are out of ideas, and so is the MSM. We live in interesting times.

Last updated: 2016-05-14

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