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Narratives, Emotions, and the Contestations of the Liberal Order

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16.05.2019

Contesters of the liberal order are on the rise. Populists in established democracies, authoritarian leaders, conservative NGOs, right-wing transnational movements, and religious fundamentalist groups all rail against what they see as the elitist, cosmopolitan, progressive, and exploitative foundations of the global liberal script. While many of these contesters are not new to the domestic and international scene, this is the first time since the early 1990s that they are gaining broader popular support. Given this reality, International Relations (IR) scholars are increasingly turning their attention to the questions of how and why this global trend came about. So far, they have mostly singled out the features, failures, and deficiencies of the liberal order as their explanatory variables. Many thus argue that the liberal order is being contested because of the system-wide inequalities and corresponding grievances it produces (See e.g., Eichengreen, 2018; Gilens and Page, 2014; Manow, 2018; Mouffe, 2018). A growing number of scholars also argue that the backlash is caused by the rising authority and intrusiveness of international institutions, which are, in their essence, non-democratic, technocratic, and tend to harbor a strong liberal bias in their ideological and policy orientation (See e.g., Colgan and Keohane, 2017; Mead, 2017; Posner, 2017).

But do features, failures, and deficiencies of the liberal order exert causal power in a direct way as most of these scholars suggest? I argue they do not. To be causal, social processes and their features need to rest on an accepted interpretation. They need to be narrated as good or bad, as just or unjust. I, therefore, propose that the contesters of the liberal order are not on the rise because of the direct influence of some innate features, failures, and deficiencies of the liberal order, but because they have found a way of advancing a credible narrative that portrays this order as the main source of people’s grievances.

It should be fairly obvious that narratives about social orders, rather than some objective features of those orders, play a central role in the rise of contesters. If this was not the case, most social orders would tend towards equilibrium: flawed and failing orders would trigger dissatisfaction, and this dissatisfaction would lead to order adjustment. Yet this rarely happens. Instead, many flawed orders persist, and good orders often collapse easily. This happens because narratives about social orders are ethically flexible: what some perceive as a bad order can persuasively be narrated as a good order, and vice versa. The pivotal question then is what determines the success of a particular social narrative.

Emotions might be a key piece in this puzzle. Emotions make narratives meaningful. A narrative cannot just be heard; it has to be felt in order to resonate with its audience, and only when this resonance is achieved can a narrative become socially consequential (Solomon, 2017). However, a narrative’s success does not only depend on the narrative’s emotional underpinnings, it also hinges on the credibility of a narrator. An audience reacts differently to a narrator they trust than to a narrator they do not trust, even if they are telling the same story.

In the remainder of this article, I develop these points further and I suggest how they can help us better understand the current rise of the liberal order contesters. In the first section, I deal with narratives and their emotional underpinnings. My main concern there is the consequentiality and resonance of narratives, phenomena that I suggest depend on a narrative’s emotional range, its relationship with the truth, and its emotive power relative to competing narratives. In the second section, I take up the issue of the credibility of narrators. There, I am particularly concerned with hypocrisy and lying, moral failings proponents and opponents of the liberal order are accused of regularly.

How Narratives and Emotions Shape the Contestation of the Liberal Order?

A good case for demonstrating that it is narratives about orders rather than orders themselves that drive the rise of contesters is migration. Migration is one of the main topics populists, authoritarian leaders, and right-wing movements evoke when railing against the liberal order. Conflicts, poverty, and climate change are forcing more and more people to leave their homes and to settle in wealthier and more peaceful societies. However, this large-scale movement of people does not speak for itself and hence cannot be causal in any deterministic manner. It needs a narrative to give it meaning, and at least two such narratives are possible: the humanitarian narrative and the dangerous alien narrative. Those who use the humanitarian narrative portray migrants as people in search of a better life and argue for policies that would provide them with such opportunities. Those who use the dangerous alien narrative portray them as foreigners who increase crime rates, take jobs from domestic workers, and threaten local cultures. Their preferred policies include closing borders and building walls. If two radically different narratives can be proposed about migration, then the rise of one of its narrators will not be due to migration itself but to the persuasiveness of their narrative.

This is not to say that social reality outside of narratives is unimportant. It creates opportunity structures, but it is social narratives that shape the perception of social reality and thus its course. Jerome Bruner, an American cognitive psychologist, argued that narratives are indifferent to extralinguistic reality because there are no structural differences between fictional and factual narratives (Bruner, 1990: 44). A narrative’s persuasiveness and power are thus determined situationally through meaning negotiation, rather than through its one-to-one correspondence with reality. As Barbara Czarniawska argues: ‘This is a........

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