Terry Eagleton said that “‘culture’ is one of the most complex words in the English language”. The result is that it is often misunderstood. It defies definition, if not description. Eagleton’s version: “Culture can be loosely summarised as the complex of values, customs, beliefs and practices which constitute the way of life of a specific group”.
One prevailing idea is that culture is slow to change. Another, that it is about history, the idea that somehow the past can be recreated, and nostalgia.
Yet over the last decade and more, anthropologists have gathered evidence that in times of chaos and volatility, culture can, contrary to conventional wisdom, change fast. They have also begun to belatedly recognise that ‘imagined futures’ are cultural realities that shape present-day decisions.
This is transforming how cultural forces are understood.
Put the two ideas together and the story reads: culture can change fast during periods of heightened complexity, when imagined futures create a sense of fear and radical uncertainty. In other words, the culture wars pervading present-day politics and economics are clear indicators of coming shocks.
Cultural Change in Times of Chaos
In times of chaos, competing narratives vie to create transformational change. New narratives compete with the old, displacing established norms and patterns of action. This explains why the expression ‘culture wars’ has gained ground and, more important, why ‘cultural meanings are highly articulated’, rather than remaining implicit – because they do not ‘come naturally’. 
More recently, according to Michele Gelfand, one of the most important predictors of how cultures evolve and are ‘tight’ (meaning rule-dominated) or ‘loose’ (meaning open) is ‘how much threat the groups face’. As she puts it ‘Some countries experience a lot of drought, famine, hurricanes, and some countries have constant invasions’. In these contexts, ‘you need strong rules and punishments to help people coordinate to survive’.
Imagined Futures, Narrative and Cultural Realities
In The Future as Cultural Fact, Arjun Appadurai focused on the growing recognition in anthropology and sociology that the role of futures thinking was not only poorly understood, but grossly underestimated. Since then Jens Beckert has explored the role of imagined futures in the micro-foundations of economic behaviour.
Futures, simulations, predictions and stories operate at all levels, from neurobiology, to political systems. As Mary Catherine Bateson said ‘… we live storied lives in storied landscapes’. To put this in context, when our brains are idle, daydreaming is our default cognitive and emotional state. It is dominated by time-travel in the mind. We are barely aware that our interior life is shaped by simulation. In other words, imagined futures are innate. We simulate and predict to navigate uncertainty, by nature.
As Lisa Feldman Barrett puts it:
‘Intrinsic brain activity is millions and millions of non-stop predictions’
More recently, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto focused on the importance of relationships between ‘memory and anticipation’.  He argues that imagination and ideas are ‘the main motors of change in human cultures’ and the ‘pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas’. Open cultures generate rapid evolution, not ‘settled lives’.
Taken together, these arguments mean that interpreting cultural shifts is key to exploring future worlds. In other words, in the current complex, fast-moving, radically uncertain world, culture is more important than politics, or economics.
Take some practical examples.
Financial Markets: climate and future shock
In December 2016, some of the major energy companies came under sustained investor pressure to explain their long-term strategies in the context of changing narratives about climate change and the transitions to electric vehicles, solar and wind power.
This pressure was not about short-term performance, but about projected events five, ten and more years in the future. It was about imagined futures and the narratives that described them. The future once again showed it can deliver shocks in the here and now. In other words, shocks emerge when underlying narratives break down, or when key groups lose confidence.
This is just one example of a wider and important phenomenon: we act in the short-term on imagined futures. Or fail to. As we put it in ‘Inventing the Big Hedge’, written in 2017:
“The world’s financial institutions have barely explored risks to the global system as investors position themselves in the short-term against the long-term climate change scenarios – well before the events themselves emerge.”
Since then, the financial markets have not invented the big hedge, particularly against the extreme climate scenarios, though momentum has grown. Forward-looking data and models are beginning to deliver scenario-based assessments of the world’s most vulnerable coastal regions and the secondary, systemic impacts on everything from municipal bonds to infrastructure, real estate and corporate resilience.
Deeper insight does not necessarily lead to action. Uncertainties remain, particularly about timing, say of inundation of major cities such as Miami and parts of the Florida Keys. The result is that whilst research may be accepted as ‘fact’, responses to the looming crises are different. They are cultural.
To illustrate, the idea of managed ‘retreat’ to higher ground means different things to different people. The reports of long-term threats of sea level rise and flooding to coastal communities may be widely accepted, but the narratives and sense of meaning quite different. Groups interpret facts and imagine competing futures.
To environmentalists, growing numbers of academics and scientists, retreat to higher ground is seen as a positive, creative, long-term response to an irreversible, growing crisis. In contrast, to many developers, investors and city leaders, deeply invested in the status quo, retreat means accepting defeat. In the absence of strategies to protect for the long-term, short-term interests dominate. Ashley Dawson quotes Liz Koslov, who says that politicians ‘tend to discourage retreat. It is not a viable adaptation option for them, but rather a useful threat to encourage alternative courses of action, such as mitigation or building levees and seawalls’.
Cultural shocks are also emerging from the public realisation that action on climate change may be ’too little, too late’. The Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg’s campaign and the Green New Deal in the US all reflect an imagined future in which the end of civilisation as we know it is emerging, with it the prospect of devastating impacts on people’s lives, unless urgent, radical change translates into action.
At risk of generalisation, younger generations around the world rank action on the environment as their top political priority. They are adopting, according to Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, post-materialist values that emphasize secularism, personal autonomy, and diversity at the expense of religiosity, traditional family structures, and conformity.
If narrative and language are key to predicting cultural shock, then the current momentum of phrases like ‘climate catastrophe’, ‘climate crisis’ and ‘uninhabitable’ in our analysis of global media, rare three years ago, could not be more explicit.
AI, Robotics, Jobs
Climate change challenges cultural norms because at a deeper level, it means that humans must admit that they do not have control over nature.
From another perspective, fears that man-made artificial intelligence, robotics and mass-scale automation may have devastating impacts on jobs are not just about early-stage short-term realities. They stem from extrapolations that focus on possible, long-term worlds. Some are well-founded concerns, others fanciful. Once again, there are multiple, competing, conflicting narratives. The future is contested.
Many ignore the nature of social learning, through which knowledge about the potential of technology to create disruptive change is codified, concerns addressed and barriers established. Fears that radical innovation will transform industry prospects and livelihoods are reactions to the imagined future worlds projected by inventors, investors, political and corporate leaders.
Politics: culture wars
This could not be clearer than in politics. According to Christopher Wylie, an architect of the psychological profiling and targeted advertising at Cambridge Analytica, the underlying philosophy of the business was rooted in Stephen Bannon’s belief in the so-called Breitbart doctrine. As he put it, Bannon ‘believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture.’
Bannon’s purpose was, by many accounts, to destabilise the political system. Trump and Brexit campaigns combined values-based cultural profiling as a political weapon, matched with emotionally charged language and short narratives.
Both played on fears of the future, variously about jobs, immigration and globalisation. They created a sense of chaos, a precondition for accelerating cultural change. In other terms, they amplified the sense of complexity and ‘radical uncertainty’, setting the scene for populist leaders that promise, often through use of nostalgia, to deliver a more stable, secure future. The neo-liberal era that had produced inequality, climate change and fears about hyper-globalisation provided the backdrop: structural weaknesses and vulnerability.
This is not new. Evidence of the Russian intervention in the 2016 US elections revealed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller makes clear what has long been known. Russia’s objective, echoing Bannon’s agenda, is to destabilise and create a chaotic, cultural free-for-all. The instrument: targeting voters with messages tuned to their cultural values. This aligns with Eagleton’s attempt at a definition, quoted earlier:
‘…. the complex of values, customers, beliefs and practices which constitute the way of life of a specific group’.
From another perspective, the failure of Democrats in the US election and ‘Remain’ campaigners in the UK to counter the so-called populist insurgency has multiple causes, but one stands out: they have accepted what George Lakoff, in Don’t Think of the Elephant, calls ‘the frame’. Trump and Brexiteers set the rhetorical agenda, opponents then fell into the trap, anchoring their responses to that same agenda. Democrats and Remainers failed to articulate a coherent, distinctive and self-contained response, rooted in their own cultural values.
This illustrates how the exercise of political control, manipulation and disruption uses cultural and narrative tools to meet the challenge long ago articulated by Machiavelli. As he put it:
“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”
Groups intent on preserving ‘the old institution’ are engaged in a rear-guard action, with a clear purpose: to maintain wealth and power in the face of existential threats. In other words, the primary source of turmoil is found amidst the underlying culture wars. Imagined futures, values, beliefs and fears shape political power.
The fact is that imagined worlds are, as Appadurai put it, cultural realities: they influence present-day political policy-making, news agendas, decision-making, investment priorities and, in the financial markets, judgment about future value.
Imagined futures, values and beliefs can be manipulated, at scale and in ways that cannot be easily detected. The influence of manipulative systems, hidden beneath the surface in social media networks, is now common currency. The potential for even greater revolutionary change is now emerging not in the psychological profiling and simplistic targeting that we have seen so far, but in the development of AI-driven storytelling, propaganda and ‘deep fakes’ – images and text so realistic that they cannot be distinguished from the real.
What is new is that there is no turning back. The methods now widely adopted by political leaders around the world are less technology and cyber interventions, than the manipulation of cultural messages. They will define the future.
Culture or Economics?
Culture is not only ‘upstream of politics’, but upstream of economics. This goes some way to answering the question raised by Dani Rodrik of whether economic or cultural factors best explain the rise of populism.
They are deeply interconnected, but culture dominates, hard as it is to measure. Economic policies, worldviews and norms have cultural roots, some reflecting generational shifts. New understandings of these connections partially explains the emergence of ‘narrative economics’, articulated by Robert Schiller, George Akerlof and Dennis Snower, amongst others. Economics, a social science, is shifting from the science of econometrics, to the social anthropology of culture. We explore this in more detail in ‘Imagined Futures, Narrative and Cultural Realities’.
Culture: operating at multiple levels
For good and ill, imagined futures dominate our lives, from the fundamental micro-structures of our individual neurophysiology, to shaping the macro-level dynamics of complex systems. They pervade global cultures, economics, the financial markets and politics.
In other words, they pervade our lives at all scales. They find expression through narratives and stories, in myriad cultural forms and in everything from central bank minutes that move the financial markets, to corporate advertising, the film and the arts, political rhetoric and propaganda. They are both explicit and implicit, calculated and loaded with emotion and operate at conscious and unconscious levels.
Narratives may seem to be about the past, but the defining characteristic is that they look forward. Their intrinsic structures and emotional power lead us to explore possible futures, looking for endgames. The underlying question, particularly important in times of crisis, or after what film theorists call the ‘inciting incident’, is ‘how do we get out of this?’ This drives our curiosity and so the narrative, whether we are watching a movie, or simulating the future of energy.
This matters because until recently, the importance of imagined futures and narrative have not been recognised, either as driving forces of human systems, or as ways of improving predictive power and foresight.
George Lakoff talked about ‘metaphors we live by’ as the micro-foundations of our lives. He was partly right: ‘narratives we live by’ is better. Now narratives, long integral to scenario development and specialist forecasting, have the attention of academics, financial market analysts, regulators, central banks and Nobel prize-winning economists.
- Terry Eagleton: The Idea of Culture ↑
- Anne Swidler, American Sociological Review, 1986. ↑
- Jens Beckert: Imagined Futures ↑
- Lisa Feldman Barrett: How Emotions are Made ↑
- Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Out of Our Minds ↑
- Ashley Dawson: Extreme Cities ↑
- Cited by Dani Rodrik, Project Syndicate: What is Driving Populism? – https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-and-cultural-explanations-of-right-wing-populism-by-dani-rodrik-2019-07 ↑
- George Lakoff: Don’t Think of The Elephant ↑
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