Modern mythologies: from Trump to COP21

The walkway between the runway and Gatwick Airport’s north terminal is filled with the sound of running water. Tired passengers are treated to HSBC’s ‘A Living River’ installation, featuring images and sounds from along the river Yangtze. Promoting its partnership with the WWF, the bank has recognised an important truth about the human mind. Statistics are all well and good, but photos and ambient noise? That’s something to pay attention to.

Every political cause needs some kind of story. Without an emotional narrative – and the themes and motifs that go with it – campaigns and interest groups don’t get very far. This is simply because of the way the human mind works, latching onto images and evocative ideas sooner than dry fact.

We might view this as the political manifestation of Daniel Kahneman’s thesis on human psychology; the dual aspects of our brains he calls System 1 and System 2. The latter lets us work through complex problems rationally and make a reasoned decision. This takes cognitive effort, something the human brain tries to avoid. So we function throughout most of our daily lives using only the System 1 portion. System 1 is impressionable, instinctive and makes decisions hastily. Kahneman spends much of his book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – in demonstrating this idea, fooling the reader time and again with optical illusions and mental puzzles.

Upon reflection, one ought feel rather concerned about this. To the extent that many people engage with politics at all, public political life tends to operate on a System 1 basis. Slogans and propaganda speak to this less critical human faculty.

Even if attempts are made to bring facts and objective data to the table, facts can still be spun appropriately in order to manipulate suggestible minds. Take the debate over the coming referendum in Britain on membership of the EU. The national media has played host to some laughably contradictory claims from opposing sides. When the content of ‘fact’ becomes contingent on the opinion one holds in the first place, we’re back squarely in System 1 territory.

Implicit in much political commentary is the assumption that people do not fully think things through when throwing their vote behind one cause or another. Those who most closely appeal to this type of politics are referred to as ‘populist’.  The pejorative suggestion is usually that such movements appeal more strongly to emotion (outrage, hope) than to considered policy design. Are they therefore fundamentally unsuitable to govern?

In a long piece in The Atlantic, David Frum discusses the ‘Great Republican Revolt’, citing the many grievances driving voters in the United States to support Donald Trump. “You hear from people like them in many other democratic countries too,” he points out. Too true, on both the left and the right. Would Mr Trump actually enforce his blanket ban on Islamic immigrants? Similarly, it is uncertain that all of his supporters would back the policy if it came down to it. I am firmly in the camp that reviles the real-estate mogul as a political reprobate. However, the point is moot. Certainly, appealing to symbols – like his proposed wall between the US and Mexico – has earned Mr Trump the loyalties of disaffected voters all across America.

Philosophically speaking, a great deal of public life in our post-Enlightenment world remains rather unenlightened. The appeal to uncritical thought seen in so many a democratic campaign and an ideology of the primacy of Reason do not make ready bedfellows. At times, we seem awfully distant from the world of intellectual self-realisation envisaged by pretty much every philosopher post-Descartes and Spinoza.

Terry Eagleton explores this issue in his book Culture and the Death of God. He argues that the Enlightenment failed to remove our reliance on the religious and transcendental. Indeed, he points out that this wasn’t even the purported goal of many theorists, who were more concerned by the corrupt and unjust authority of the church here on earth. Deists like Voltaire hardly denied the existence of some form of creator. Instead, the Enlightenment thinkers elevated their hallowed Reason to divine status. Nature’s rational laws became the surrogate for an interventionist Christian God.

Eagleton takes us through the following progression of Western philosophy, through the Idealists and the Romantics. Importantly, both understood the deficiencies of the cold, unfeeling system of thought the Enlightenment theorists had fought for. Put simply, common people have little reason to care about societal order in a rationalist universe, something the fear of God had accomplished for centuries. As Eagleton writes, “rationalism was able to damage the credibility of the clerics, but not to step into their shoes.”

In his treatment of the Idealists, Eagleton refers to their appeal to a ‘new mythology’ to fix this rift. With the philosopher as a new, secular form of priest, society might yet understand the world through the power of reason; at the same time, traditional values of ‘faith’ and social loyalty need not be foregone. What kind of thing would this mythology be? Maybe a reverence for the product of our work, for social connections, and for the seemingly wondrous technology that brings us the living standards we now enjoy.

Unless it proffers some higher sense of meaning to the life of the everyman, any philosophy will make for shoddy ideology. This idea goes a long way towards framing why stories and narrative hold such sway over a modern populace.

A particularly intriguing quote belonging to Karl Marx, also in Eagleton’s book, brings us back to Gatwick Airport, conservation and the environment. I’ve written somewhat pessimistically about the politics of populism above. But I see one area where a good dose of mythology wouldn’t go amiss. Discussing the myths of antiquity, Marx asks:

Is the view of nature and of social relations that underlies the Greek imagination… possible with automatic machines, railways, locomotives and telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning conductor, and Hermes against the credit mobiliser?

His comments imply that material development makes a modern mythology implausible. Not so, if HSBC’s initiative is to be believed. The climate and environment is one sphere where images and motifs are still hugely important. Consider the COP21 in Paris in November: the meat of such international agreements is often ultimately symbolic. The power of campaigners lies in their ability to pressure democratic groups through emotive themes and messages. Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech in acceptance of his Oscar for The Revenant – a film full of stirring environmental imagery – spoke to the same mythology of nature.

Marx head and trees
Cold stone and gentle nature: Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Photo/Roberto Maldeno

Factual work remains critical to speak to key stakeholders in the fight to change our treatment of the planet. A recent publication by academics claims climate damage could reduce global investment portfolios by 10% – $7tn – over the coming decades, with a 5% probability. This is excellent and valuable work. But as I have argued above, the democratic polity obeys different principles.

Environmental advocacy groups cannot discard the mythologies populations subscribe to. The establishment, too, should pay heed to this symbolism. It is precisely in this respect that the Paris agreement is promising. The nasty surprise suffered by the US Republican Party awaits those who lapse. That’s cause enough to resist Marx and embrace our System 1 (although perhaps to resist it during presidential elections). If not, droughts and rising sea levels will be the penance, and it will be all of us who suffer.


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