When dominant policy narratives fail, look to the space opening up for more complex metanarratives


Policy narratives fail to stabilize the assumptions for decisionmaking for a variety of reasons. Some narratives are internally self-refuting (think: “Everything is relative”). If all policies need to be evaluated to determine whether or not to continue them as originally stated, does that mean we might one day conclude no further need for any such assumption? Or: “Climate change is a problem of unimaginable scope and magnitude.” Well, not thoroughly unimaginable, it seems.

Far more policy narratives are externally refuted. It’s a truism that gaps arise because the beginnings, middles and ends of policy statements do not congrue with the very messy, in medias res of actual policymaking. If that failure weren’t bad enough, all policy narratives entail their semiotic opposites, as in “A thing is defined by what it is not.” If you assume in your policy or management strategy that “a” leads to “b” and “b” to “c,” it is inevitable someone will seek to find refuting cases where, e.g., not-a leads to not-b but both lead to c nevertheless (or at least don’t stop “c” from being realized by other means). And a world of 8+ billion people is complex enough to delay you in assuming otherwise.


This means that stabilizing the assumptions for policymaking requires active efforts to handle refutations. Efforts often seek to foreclose their occurrence; other professionals recognize such control is not possible and seek instead to better manage them.

Two ways to foreclose refutation are obvious, though one more familiar than the other. The less familiar is to identify new or more urgent crises to grab our attention, even if only for a time until–surprise!–the next news-grabbing crisis comes along. For example, if the drain on productivity because of hay fever, headaches and heartburn in the workplace was about the $150 billion drain two decades ago, just think of what the costs must be in 2022! Now that’s a crisis in health care and we’re doing nothing about it as a nation, are we?

The more familiar way to foreclose the chances of refuting a policy narrative is for policymakers to dismiss or lie about the difficulties; another is for them to exaggerate by convincing themselves that stopping short of the full complexities is ok–“keep it simple” for the time being, until when we can scale later, and anyway nothing we do now can’t be corrected later on. This strategy–if you can call “control over time” a strategy–is especially tempting when the policy is passed off as a promise to reduce the originating complexity and uncertainty.

Another way, and the one I prefer, is to recast the complex issue so as to render the original and its continued lying and exaggeration moot. Whether the reframing manages to reduce the need for dissembling is a case-by-case question, and there are certainly no guarantees the reframed problem is more tractably manageable even though just as complex. That said, I do not see how we can conclude recasting isn’t worth the management effort because lying and exaggeration come anyway with seeking greater control via policymaking.


So what’s new?

If policy narratives fail to stabilize the assumptions for decisonmaking because their refutations aren’t managed via recasting the issues more tractably, then narrative and its failure are better thought of as conditions for change and not just the results of having not changed. Or to rephrase it more positively: What are the conditions under which you–we–want the prevailing policy narrative to fail?

For example, as any public health official will remind you, it’s not vaccines that work, but vaccinations. (It’s not airplanes that fly but airline companies, as Bruno Latour put it.) In this view, the development of a vaccine (or better plane) is only the first or one step in managing the spread of disease. The conditions under which we actually want the prevailing policy narrative to fail is when we take a necessary change in focus to be from, say, developing the COVID-19 vaccines to an even wider and deeper panoply of vaccination processes.


This in turn begs the question about the metanarratives for these shift-points or changes in the dominant narratives. What broader narratives, if any, exist for how shifts and changes are triggered from one policy narrative to another?

One such metanarrative is that for sustainability, where techno-managerial elites guide and decide what is necessary by way of achieving and ensuring global sustainability. Since any such narrative entails its opposite and since there is no one set of techno-managerial elites, the other equally clear metanarrative is far less palatable:

If only the elites could get their shit together, if only they would truly decide to act in the public interest, if only our political dysfunctions could be suspended in the name of a common cause, if only we could elect smart officials with the right ideas, a new era of prosperity and power awaits the United States. But the political dysfunction is only a symptom of the underlying economic disease. So there will be no policy solution to the problems America—and the world— faces, because no such solution, at least on the national level, exists. But of course, that’s what war is for.



In other words, a complex world where metanarratives are posed just as starkly and clear–save the world or die by war (a semiotic binary, if there ever was one!)–must be a world that demands an even greater appreciation of how things are much more complex than that. Or to put the point another way, what looks to be an easy choice–anyone in their right mind would choose sustainability over war–isn’t even a choice. In a complex world, how can you, for example, avoid that other binary, What is neither sustainability nor war?

Answers to the latter question raise to view a different metanarrative about complex-all-the-way-down. In this metanarrative, there are many components, each having multiple functions, and with many interconnections among the components and functions, wherever one looks.

In this metanarrative, war and sustainability are notable engines of their own contingencies, surprises and unpredictabilities. In this metanarrative, war or sustainability promise a control neither can’t deliver, which in turn unleashes all manner of unintended consequences. In this metanarrative, choice can’t avoid considering those unintended consequences against the others associated with counternarratives far different and more nuanced than war or sustainability only for policy and management purposes.

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