The archetypes of politics
Politics is the expression of a story, democracy a spectacle: a dialogue around wizards, warriors and healers .
Matteo De Giuli is senior editor of the paperback. Co-author of a newsletter on the Anthropocene called MEDUSA. He has collaborated with Radio3 Rai, Not, National Geographic, The Friday of the Republic.
Fabrizio Luisi teaches Political Communication at the IULM and is a screenwriter. For television he wrote serial products, adapted foreign formats, created original projects. He is also a consultant and author of digital content for social platforms. In 2012, together with other professionals, he founded a collective of independent authors called La Buoncostume, with whom he publishes novels and with whom he creates products for television and the web.
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D.Two years ago an article by Fabrizio Luisi , Rebels 5 stars against Saggi PD, was published in Not ! , a study of Italian politics in terms of narratives and counter-narratives of its protagonists, in which they tried to interpret the archetypes and roles embodied by the various political parties and leaders. Starting from that article, Luisi wrote a book of broader analysis of the various models, tools, strategies and tactics of political communication, Magicians, warriors and healers. The archetypes of Italian politics , just published by Mondadori, which is the starting point for this dialogue.
Matteo De Giuli: The stories respond to our need to make sense of reality, in order to use it. Joan Didion comes to mind, the opening words of her White Album : “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”, we tell ourselves stories for a living. Stories from all over the world, modern and ancestral ones, and myths, always have something in common, which brings distant cultures closer: they are the staging of a solution, of overcoming a crisis. Many narrative studies try to understand what the role of stories was in human evolution – and there are those who go so far as to saythat our ability to tell can be considered a biological function. However you want to see it, it is true that we are made of stories, we reason by intertwining narratives, our brain is constantly looking for a narrative thread.
Speaking of “narration” in politics, however, still has a completely different meaning, for many, there is still a sort of prejudice, from which I cannot say that I am completely exempt: “stories”, in politics, are “lies”, the story is an illusion, designing an election campaign in terms of narration means trying to fool people. Perhaps it is also a reaction to the fact that in recent years the use of storytelling has been all the rage in some circles , and the term is so abused that it necessarily carries a bit of mistrust. Doing storytellingin politics it has often come to mean seducing and cheating, giving oneself a modern tone to hide one’s lack of ideas. (A cartoon by Altan comes to mind here: “Are you pooping? No, the narration of my defecating”).
Fabrizio Luisi: As you have already said, we start from the assumption that storytelling is not a set of techniques but it is the way in which we organize reality. So for me the distinction between factual truth and told truth is false. Each “fact” can be seen and recorded only if it is told. So snubbing this approach means giving up on existing. What is journalistically called storytelling is actually the most superficial version: some rhetorical technique, a little social media management
, to the limit the use of this or that famous spin doctor called by the United States and paid hundreds of thousands of euros, only on the occasion of an election, and which punctually has no effect (see the well-known cases of Renzi with the referendum and Monti with the dog).
By widening the frame, however, we can say that the right has been investing in cognitive politics for forty years, since the days of that great laboratory of political communication that was the Reagan administration, in which the doctrine of the Mont Pelerin Society were welded the most shameless techniques of managing perception and consent. That evil genius that was Arthur Finklestein – the creator of the myth of “Soros”, of the election of Netanyahu and Orbàn – blossoms professionally with Reagan. This incessant work has created an environment so conditioned that a right-wing politician can allow himself to improvise or always propose the usual repertoire with some variations, because whatever he says lands in a right-wing frame ready to collect and enhance it. On the contrary, every left initiative is born in hostile terrain. This is why it seems even crazier to me to snub this approach by the left, where many of the resistances you speak of come from. It’s like watching children throw rocks at a tank.
MDG: From this point of view, politics is the expression of a story and democracy, as you write, a show, a clash of stories organized around narrative matrices. The first step, however, is to agree on what exactly a story is in this context.
FL: In the book I tell some classic texts on “character construction” and at the end I propose this definition of story: a consequential, coherent and efficient system in which each character is unique, has a need and wants to do something to satisfy it, so he chooses to act, but an antagonistic force prevents him from doing so, so he enters an unfamiliar world where he has to make difficult choices and face challenges where he discovers something about the world and about himself, finally gets what he wants by paying an unexpected price and this produces a change in him and / or other characters in the story.
MDG: The most powerful idea of your book is that of the twelve archetypes, the twelve “characters” that politicians can choose to represent, today, in the public arena: Sovereign, Sage, Healer, Rebel, Warrior, Magician, Common Man , Innocent, Creator, Lover, Explorer, Jester. It is your personal reworking, a blend of scriptwriting manuals, advertising marketing models and books by George Lakoff, a linguist famous, among other things, for his studies on metaphor in society.
FL: What I like about this model is that it is the result of many different approaches: the studies of cognitivists, anthropology and comparative mythology, marketing, script.
It also allows to explain why some politicians seem invulnerable to certain attacks that apparently should have damaged them (often they are attacks that strengthen their archetype instead of weakening it), and vice versa it indicates a practice on how to effectively conduct the political battle on the level of communication.
These archetypes embody different ways of responding to the fundamental needs of the human being who, based on the study of Mark and Pearson, identify in: Relation versus Autonomy; and Stability versus Change. Each political entity should offer its own solutions to each of these four needs, and in this the archetypes can help find their voice and formulate a strategy.
For example, the communication of the 5 Star Movement satisfies the need for belonging and relationship through the archetype of the Common Man and the need for change with the archetype of the Rebel: these are the two dominant archetypes. Secondly, they respond to a need for autonomy and individuation by activating the archetype of the Innocent (“we are the only ones clean, honest, transparent, pure”) and a need for stability and control by relying on the archetype of the Creator, which is expressed in the search for innovative practices of political organization and in relying on digital infrastructures such as meetup groups and the Rousseau platform in an attempt to give the movement the opportunity to govern itself. In short, the League’s strategy is based on the archetypes of the Warrior (change), Common Man (relationship), Sovereign (stability), Explorer (autonomy). That of the PD is less cohesive because each new secretary bends the strategy in a certain direction, but in principle it is based mainly on Healer (stability) and Sage (autonomy), and secondly on Common Man (relationship) and Magician ( change). Silvio Berlusconi is mainly a Sovereign (stability) and an Innocent (autonomy) and then also Amante (relationship) and Magician (change). Power to the People has so far moved from the archetypes of the Rebel (change), the Healer (stability), and the Common Man (relationship). And so on. Silvio Berlusconi is mainly a Sovereign (stability) and an Innocent (autonomy) and then also Amante (relationship) and Magician (change). Power to the People has so far moved from the archetypes of the Rebel (change), the Healer (stability), and the Common Man (relationship). And so on. Silvio Berlusconi is mainly a Sovereign (stability) and an Innocent (autonomy) and then also Amante (relationship) and Magician (change). Power to the People has so far moved from the archetypes of the Rebel (change), the Healer (stability), and the Common Man (relationship). And so on.
MDG: When I started to get interested in politics, in high school, the word anti-capitalism was funny, it seemed an anachronism, a splinter expelled from another decade. Then, perhaps also due to the grip of the various economic and climatic crises, the term re-emerged from the collective unconscious, re-entered the public discourse, even mainstream. The political debate alive in a field which in turn is not neutral, as if only the choice of words (the pressure of tax – the debt audience – the problemimmigration) reveals a dictionary of values in which certain ideas are born politically disadvantaged. Language is a battlefield. Or, to quote Lakoff, precisely: cognitive politics is a framing campaign that precedes concrete politics.
FL: Yes, I talked a lot about framing in the book for this very reason. There are no left or right archetypes. There are left and right frames instead. Here, by frame we mean a mental structure that organizes metaphors in a frame of meaning thanks to the attribution of certain roles in relation to each other and of a sequence of actions. The frames determine my vision of the world, and consequently my goals, my projects, my actions. As I mentioned, we can say that we have lived in the West for forty years in a frameneoliberal, which has established itself with such effectiveness and pervasiveness that it has now become normality and common sense. Taxes are a burden; the public is an obstacle to the private sector; immigrants are a problem to manage; entrepreneurs are the engine of the economy; giving money to banks, finance and businesses is economic policy, while giving it to people is inflation and welfare, etc … Even the average progressive voter now believes this story, they just add a little more social solidarity.
To change it, it would be necessary to do what the right has done since the 1980s. Having well-funded, organized groups of professionals working on this every day, for years. This obviously does not replace the rest of political activity, but puts it at its service to enhance its efforts and results.
In the face of this ten-year offensive, moderate progressive parties – also because they have long been governing parties – have deluded themselves that politics coincides with good administration. Not so: in democracy, politics is also a battle for consensus. For its part, the radical left has failed to weave any folk tales, with the exception of the Occupy movement which coined the 1 percent versus 99 percent frame.
MDG: From a narrative point of view, the rights seem to be facilitated for other reasons as well. According to Lakoff, the use of simplification benefits conservatives more often and instead forces progressives to have to take charge of arguing their own positions. “Simplicity is intrinsically right and complexity left”, even if you have to make the tare to what is right and what is left, for Lakoff. But a modern version of this thesis has found its appendix online, shall we say, supported by those who believe, for example, that memes are a naturally right-wing expression, incompatible with the ethics of the left.
FL:Here I disagree with Lakoff. On the one hand, it is true that the need to socialize problems is in the left’s DNA. But this can still be done by adopting simple stories. To say that simplification is on the right and complexity on the left is to condemn the left to be a minority forever. As human beings we need to simplify to understand, to act, to choose. Dismissing simplicity to stand as defenders of complexity means offering the voter a more indigestible, and not always more nutritious, food. Since what we sell as complexity is in any case a material with an ideological orientation, a certain interpretation, so why should I choose it over a more digestible and inviting version? Furthermore, Lakoff’s approach is very American: identifies the left with the Democratic Party. But we know that, historically, in the world, the left has often shown that it has great capacity to simplify, to make its political agenda attractive and understandable for large masses of people.
In the same way it seems foolish to “leave” the irony to the right. It is just a matter of having the sensitivity to distinguish between reactionary humor, in which one identifies with the point of view of power and privilege to strike the weakest, and instead progressive and revolutionary humor, in which ironic registers are used to subvert the status quo and attacking power and privilege (even those within each of us).
In my opinion, the left has now “learned to memare” much better than the right, but sometimes it still remains a prisoner of its own self-referentiality. Memetic language, which can and must be esoteric, has a great attraction precisely because it is obscure, but it also needs an exoteric component that can reach everyone, as religions teach us. Among the memes of the left I often come across authentic masterpieces, but who know how to understand a few dozen people, meanwhile in the chats of soccer I see only ancap memes (anarcho-capitalists, libertarians), ugly but simple. After that one must also have fun, otherwise it becomes a job. Which is exactly what I’m proposing to the left: pay people to make memes.
MDG:I am very fascinated, literally, by conspiracy theories, from Roswell to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. You speak only in passing of conspiracies, but in your book I have nevertheless found many of the key issues for the success of these narratives. Conspiracy theories respond to different human needs: that of community first of all, and then the need for mystery, wonder, surprise, the gratification of knowing how to read events better than most: they are all seductive elements, things we want in our lives. And, in general, the success of conspiracies reveals the kind of connections our brain tends to make naturally between things, it can let us better understand how our mind works, the way it selects information,
Conspiracies have always existed, and should not be treated sufficiently, also because at times they “got us”: some conspiracies have been serious, obviously, even in recent history. However, it seems to me that something new is happening in recent years: the fact that conspiracy theories, which usually also intercept a need for opposition and rebellion to power, are now increasingly in power. Take QAnon, a very complicated theory to tell (I recommend reading Wu Ming 1’s investigation on Internazionale). The main story, simplified a little, is this: Trump is a hero who, in silence, behind the scenes, without being able to tell the nation openly, is opposing a power even greater than his own, the underground power of the including some liberals and democrats who rape children and rule the world in darkness.
Compared to other conspiracy theories, this is a decidedly Byzantine and intricate story, it has hundreds of subplots. Many conspiracy theories are successful because of the “hunger” of direct causality they satisfy, because they are simple solutions that are adopted for convenience, to encode a complex reality. This one is successful, returning to the vocabulary of your book, because it is a sort of ” re-framing ” of Trump. Trump campaigned as a rebel but then, once he arrived at the White House, he risked being told as a clumsy. QAnon tries to patch this thing up.
FL:Yes, it is a need that all “Rebel politicians” have: once they get to power they need to move the conflict to the next level, to evoke a status quo even more influential than they can fight. In general, plots are very complete and efficient activators, with an almost religious and mythical efficacy. They satisfy a need to belong, because they make you feel part of a community of “awakened”. They satisfy a need for autonomy and independence because they make you feel like an “initiate” compared to the vast majority of people, who are “sheep” for you. They satisfy a need for stability because they give order to the world, they organize it into a coherent tale governed by stringent principles of cause and effect and animated by heroes with defined objectives and powerful opponents,
Finally, they satisfy a need for realization and agency (the possibility of acting and influencing the world of the story) because they provide a practice: as in the case of Pizzagate, the coordinated action of simple individuals produces very concrete and impactful effects, and this is very exciting when compared, for example, to the effects that the vote produces, often perceived as disappointing and insignificant. This is one of the reasons why sometimes people prefer to vote unlikely characters, but who guarantee a palpable change and therefore give a sense of agency to the voter, who can express himself even with the pleasure of overturning expectations or pissing someone off.
MDG: The way in which you outline the methods and dynamics of the political narrative (Italian, international, past and present) is pervasive, it gives you the illusion of being able to read the code with which political communication is written, of being able to easily identify its errors. Have you been contacted, in any form, after writing these things, by some politician, party, association or study center?
FL: Little. For example, without naming names, I was contacted by members of the PD who were genuinely curious. But when I made him understand that the type of problems to be solved could not be solved with sporadic coffee, phone calls or exchanges on whatsapp, but it was necessary to dedicate time, resources and people (even training people already inside the party), at that point they vanished.