Briefing Overview

Title: Competing Narratives: past vs future
Author: Peter Kingsley
Approx. Reading Time: 7 minutes


Competing Narratives: past vs future

Populist nationalism has changed the political landscape in just two years, sending shockwaves around the world.

Right wing populists are setting agendas, evoking history to create a false sense of security.  Their readings of the past may be selective, but they have a crucial advantage: they can call on an endless pool of evocative stories that recall former glories and mythical worlds.

Liberal leaders risk underestimating the long-term disruption to the world order, international institutions and security if they fail to develop competing narratives.  It is easy to say that new narratives are needed, but in a radically changing political landscape, nationalist narratives have inherent emotional strengths at grass root level against appeals for loyalty to international institutions, economic prescriptions and global common interests that offer distant, or secondary benefits.  The imagined past is more coloured, comforting and more real than futures that are clouded by fears about runaway artificial intelligence (AI), automation, mass unemployment and climate change.

For right wing populists and Western liberals alike, this is a competition for hearts and minds.  It is about who has the most compelling, sustainable narrative.  As things stand, whilst populists have framed the agenda, no-one has a sustainable advantage.

The Present Condition

The populist backlash against the prevailing world order did not come from nowhere.  As we put it in Propaganda Futures, propaganda, demagogues and isolationism flourish in particular conditions.

Inequality, climate change, the financial crisis and austerity and fears about mass automation and long-term jobs, together with growing bewilderment about complexity, uncertainty and rate of change, have all played a part.  Crucially, these factors have exposed flaws in mainstream ideologies and the lack of political vision and leadership.

In the context of multilateralism, the flaws of the ideology go back to the architects of globalisation itself.  It was understood then that there would be winners and losers.  The idea was that national governments should deal with the downsides by increasing labour mobility, protecting the lower paid and providing safety nets.  They failed.

The result is that as Dominique Moisi has argued, the West is experiencing fear; the Middle East, humiliation; and much of Asia, hope.  Emotion, more than ever, pervades politics.

The Power of Nostalgia

The fundamental challenge for liberals is that populists have stolen the idea that they alone represent national interests and ordinary people.

Populist rhetoric is rooted in selective readings of the past—a re-imagined, secure, stable past—that act as a defence against the anxiety and fears of an uncertain future.  If fear dominates public sentiment, then nostalgia, for leaders as diverse as Trump, Xi Jinping, Erdogan, Modi and Brexiteers is the antidote.

What makes nostalgia so powerful?  The answer is in a sense of place, cultural identity above all narrative.  We think in stories.

Take two illustrations: India and Russia.

As Diana Ek explains in India, A Sacred Geography,  ‘anywhere one goes in India, one finds a living landscape in which mountains, rivers, forests, and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of gods and heroes.  The land bears the traces of the gods and the footprints of the heroes.  Every place has its story, and conversely, every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place.’

It is this ‘storied landscape’ that underpins Narendra Modi’s appeal to Hindu pride.  It is echoed in disparate cultures around the world and gives roots and expression to Benedict Anderson’s argument that ‘imagined communities’ are the defining characteristic of national identity.

It is echoed, too, in Putin’s Russia.  As Judith Devlin, professor of history at University College Dublin, puts it in a review of Masha Gessen’s The Future is History,  ‘nostalgia for the stability and predictability of the Soviet past accounts for much of Putin’s appeal.’[1]  Fiona Hill argues that Putin’s underlying narrative is that “He wants the rest of the world – but most particularly, the leader of the United States – to acknowledge Russia as a sovereign country that defines and defends its own vital interests as it sees fit and is not ‘pushed around’ by others.”[2]  In other terms, Putin might borrow Donald Trump’s myth-making and ‘Make Russia Great Again’ through his appeal to what he called in a 2013 speech ‘history, values and traditions’.  The rhetorical hook has similar features.

This is now pervasive.  A growing academic literature argues that nostalgic, wishful thinking is a deeper, sustainable, even permanent cultural reality.   Zygmunt Bauman, in Retrotopia, quotes Svetlana Boym:

 ‘by the twenty-first century the passing ailment turned into the incurable modern condition. The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia.’

Bauman himself argued that the ‘promise to rebuild the ideal home lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding’.

This is largely a failure of political imagination and foresight.  After all, the signs of stress in the system were clear.  Bauman said ‘There’s no new dream to replace it because we can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got’ and ‘the future is transformed from the natural habitat of hopes and rightful expectations into the site of nightmares: horrors of losing your job together with its attached social standing, of having your home together with the rest of life’s goods and chattels ‘repossessed’.

Populist narratives, then, are focused on rebuilding the past, rather than inventing the future – the core technocratic mantra.  This illustrates popular appeal and the persistent gap between the haves and have-nots.  For the disadvantaged, ‘the future’ is not about progress, but a kind of yearning for more stable norms and values.

The ‘imagined future’ for many is an aspiration to re-imagine the past.  As Arjun Appadurai argues, the future is a cultural reality.  If the future is a source of anxiety, fear and powerlessness, then for the poor, the past may appear a better place.   It creates, as he puts it ‘awe, vertigo, excitement, disorientation, anxiety, defensiveness, regression to ‘safe’ spaces’.  In other words, imagined futures and the narratives that describe them are closely linked to differences in wealth, knowledge and prospects.

Two Unsustainable Narratives

This is the background for two competing narratives.  Neither are sustainable.  They do not work at all levels, from headlines at the top of a pyramid to substantive foundations at a deeper level.

The populist narrative, for all its viral power, is flawed.   It is a reading of the past that denies and slows progress, limits creative imagination and puts up barriers against the emergence of a radical future.  It is isolationist and stands against creating global common agendas to adapt to everything from nuclear proliferation, to mass-automation and climate change.

Even so, the narrative is gaining ground because of failures in the liberal narrative – an ideology that has been revealed to be unsustainable under pressure because it has not provided equality, empathy, or security.  Any radical, new liberal or progressive vision, whatever form it may take, risks being interpreted as more empty promises from an out of touch elite.

In the eyes of many people, the mass consumerism that dominated the Western model for decades and was the cornerstone of ‘progress’ has produced inequality, destroyed the environment and ratcheted up international tension.  The price of openness, for all the benefits of global trade, has been too high in social terms.

The problem is that at a time when a clarity of vision is paramount liberals have little to offer (see ‘No Vision’).  The narrative is at best more of the same, a defence of how things were.   There are so far few signs of a sustainable, socially inclusive, enlightened narrative that resonates with the prevailing sense of national and public interest and reconciles it with the arguments in favour of globalisation and global common interests.

The Way Ahead

If liberal leaders are to take back the agenda from the populists, particularly in Europe, they need a compelling narrative vision of a future world that reconciles the idea of the ‘nation’ and multilateralism on critical global issues.

What is needed is structural re-adjustment towards domestically focused ‘stakeholder capitalism’ that protects the vulnerable from the excesses of ‘shareholder capitalism’.  (see ‘Walled Gardens’ scenario).  In other terms, the vision must restore the idea of ‘subsidiarity’, which is that problems should be tackled as locally as possible, leaving only the vitally important global challenges for international institutions.

Climate change itself may be the catalyst that transforms the shared global agenda, but maybe not.  It is not a prerequisite if all countries do everything they can, in their own self-interest. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals gave hope, as did the Paris Climate Agreement, but global governance may only emerge when the full scale of the climate crisis takes hold.

In other words, the answer for beleaguered liberal leaders may be to develop an enlightened, inclusive nationalism in a new technological landscape, that remains open to the best of the outside world and avoids isolationism.  This is what the architects of globalisation originally envisaged.

The prospects of a liberal defence will remain weak unless a vision is created of a future world that is at once aligned to the emotional needs of the wider public and avoids the suspicion that the future will be a return to the worst that globalisation created.

The challenge is to develop visions so powerful and evocative that they counter our default psychology, creating ‘memories of the future’ strong enough to counter forces of the storied past, of nostalgia, cultural history and embedded narratives.


[2] ‘Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand’


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