Patterns, narratives and stories

One of the philosophical projects that interests me is sketching out of the conceptual foundations for government affairs, or, what is more commonly known as ”lobbyism”. Lobbyism comes with a faint odor of the inappropriate, but as a discipline it is involved with some of the most fundamental and interesting questions about human nature, society and politics — and so certainly offers a very valuable area for philosophical study and inquiry.

Auditorium Hotel Lobby 
Architect: Adler & Sullivan (1881-1895)

Lobbyism – I will use that term interchangeably with government affairs – is a craft that seeks to effect political and social change in a society. As a craft it remains agnostic about what the basic building blocks of that society is, what kinds of mechanisms or institutions make up the society, and only concentrates on the question of change. Whereas most classical political philosophy has been focused on the conditions and nature of a perfect state or political order, lobbyism cares little for perfection and instead is interested in only how any given political order – however imperfect – can be changed. Lobbyism is also uninterested in the nature of that change – it does not seek to establish that one political order or state of affairs is better than another in itself, but is merely interested in the question of how one state of affairs can be changed into another.

Lobbyism is ethically as well as politically agnostic.

Rhetoric, or persuasion, is but one of the means of lobbyism. The closest to a traditional study of lobbyism or the conceptual foundations of lobbyism is the work we find on rhetoric, however, so we will return to that often in our investigations. As we study rhetoric we will have reason to make an observation that pertains to the above, however. Socrates, through Plato, derides the sophists as immoral because they did not care about what their pupils persuaded others of. Gorgias, in Plato’s telling, lacked moral standing and character. The same criticism has been levied against lobbyists over the years. They have been seen as morally ”empty” and perhaps even evil. This is a simple confusion: just because lobbyism is agnostic about the state of affairs and the moral impact of change, does not mean that the individual lobbyist needs to be.

It is not a contradictio in adjecto to be a moral lobbyist. Today, of course, most of the moral-minded lobbyists prefer to call themselves ”activists” or some such term, but the reality is that they are practitioners of the same art as any corporate government affairs specialist. And they are often more effective, because they are not held back by the organizational complexity that a corporation accrues over time. Nevertheless, it is important that this be said at the outset of this project, since the practice of lobbyism, government affairs and activism is likely to raise moral issues at the outset — and some of these issues are important (and we will return to them), but the main gist of this project is setting out the conceptual foundations for the field and thinking about how it can be developed more in depth.

One proposal that I want to explore more in depth is to use the concepts pattern, narrative and story to explore the conceptual foundations of lobbyism. I propose to say that patterns are basic social facts, social phenomena that we can generalize from different societies or social contexts. We will then continue and argue that narratives are specific, instantiated patterns and lastly that stories are narratives as they are told. The relationship between narrative and story is largely analogous with that we find with Saussure between langue and parole [See Wikipedia].

One example of this conceptual model could then be something like this.

We find in many societies a suspicion of large organizations – this pattern is recurrent through-out many societies and is the sum total of a number of narratives. When we study our society we see a fear of large companies, such as large pharmaceutical companies or technology companies – or banks – this narrative recurs historically. ”The banks have become too big too fail” is a story that we have seen in the press and that is frequently retold in everyday discourse.

There are many weaknesses in this model (as there are in all models), but we will continue to explore it. Even if it fails, I think it can fail in interesting ways. One reason to think so is that the idea of specific patterns, narratives and stories effectively outline the space of possible change in our conceptual foundations. If we believe that we are caught in a distinct pattern and consequently in a narrative, well, then that narrative determines the space of possible changes that we can accomplish. A narrative is not arbitrary and the change from one narrative to another is not arbitrary.

That last point is important. Look at today’s tech companies. They are moving through a chain of narratives: they started out in the honeymoon of the entrepreneur; everyone wanted to be seen with them, understand them and praise them for innovation and disruption. Then they quickly grew and became successful and entered what we can call the long dark night of antitrust; a time of trying legal battles and deteriorating public reputation. From this stage they can then evolve in several different ways, including evolving as a persistent innovator or entering the heat death of consultancy. But one thing they cannot do is to return to the honeymoon of the entrepreneur. All narrative and all patterns have entropy – they rarely shift into reverse.

One possible key insight that flows from this is that in many cases (not all) lobbyist should not try to battle a narrative as unfair or malicious, but either prolong it where it is useful or hasten it into the next narrative. Thinking about the next narrative is a key challenge for anyone engaged in lobbyism, as it is often very, very hard.

An interesting example of this sequence is given by Microsoft, who some have argued passed through all of these stages – then balanced on a knife’s edge between the heat death of consultancy and evolving into a persistent innovator and then shifted into a fourth stage: that of a responsible wise elder statesman bridging the worlds of technology and politics.

This highlights another key fact about patterns and narratives. A narrative exists within a larger pattern. In economics we would say that lobbyism is an n-person game, but as we look at the conceptual foundations of our craft it is more accurate to say that a narrative is limited by the macro pattern that it exists in. It is easier to be an elder statesman in an environment where there are young companies possible perceived to be more volatile and careless. The narratives in a macro-pattern reinforce and augment each-other in different ways.

This notion, the idea of a macro-pattern, raises an interesting question around the definition of a pattern. I increasingly have come to think that patterns are sets of narratives that are integrated in different ways – enabling and / or canceling each-other out. The study of patterns – the set of narratives operating on any issue we are interested in – may suggest that rather than changing a specific narrative we are worried about we may want to strengthen an alternative narrative that cancels the first one out.

MacDonalds has tried that in a campaign that they have run in what seems to be a fairly efficient way: they are aware of the fact that they are seen as a ”big US company” and they have decided, it seems, to lean into the narrative of bigness, by noting that they are ”big enough to make a difference” and so refocusing the public attention and discourse on their charitable initiatives. This is a pattern approach — looking at the sum total set of narratives and strengthen the positive ones rather than battling the negative ones.

Why, then, is it so bad to try to fight back against what one perceives to be an unfair narrative? Simply because of this very basic fact: you are not allowed to within the narrative – the narrative has set out a role for you as the crook or bad guy, and no matter what you do those actions will be interpreted through the narrative lens. Narratives exist to reduce complexity, and they excel at this important task. Fighting a narrative from within that narrative produces complexity that is quickly negated by the narrative itself.

Let’s digress into popular narrative to examine the point. Take Lord of The Rings. Sauron cannot convince us himself that he will be a benign ruler if he just gets that blasted ring. Or Star Wars. The emperors plan for the galaxy, told by the emperor, will always be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Darth Vader can only be redeemed through the re-emphasizing of the pattern, the sum of narratives, in which the narrative around Darth Vader as Anakin Skywalker gains ground and the pattern as a whole is re-weighted to the point where we forgive, or accept, that he murdered a class room of young jedi children. Many companies and organizations in the role of Darth Vader are arguing vehemently that they are not evil, but there is no Anakin-narrative to back them up. And the reaction is predictably cynical and reminds us of princess Leia at the start of A New Hope.

So, let us recap. Patterns are sums of narratives told in stories. Lobbyism is – to a significant part – the craft of managing, changing, chaining and sequencing narratives through stories in patterns. That is a start — but there is much more to do here for us to sketch out the conceptual foundations this field so badly deserves.

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