French author and researcher Christian Salmon is on to something. Today, stories help legitimate management, and also governments. Salmon’s book is a well-written and very professionally researched account of how storytelling has come to the worlds of brands and of politics; of how it is now ‘a route to spirituality, a strategy for grant seekers, a mode of conflict resolution, and a weight-loss plan’. Storytelling, however, exemplifies the weaknesses of something that Salmon himself recognises as a narrative: that of ‘anti-capitalism’.
Early in 2005, the Harvard Business Review published a major article which argued that, in times of ‘unsettling transition’, telling a compelling story to co-workers, bosses, friends, or family – or strangers in a conference room – was a great way to inspire belief in the storyteller’s motives, character, and capacity to reach goals. Stories that were ‘deeply true and engaging’, the authors contended, could make listeners ‘feel they have a stake in our success’.
When the Harvard Business Review proposes, it is often not long before UK officialdom disposes. After the London bombings of 7 July 2005, Tony Blair’s government decided not to publish a report of investigation into what had happened, but rather a minute-by-minute ‘narrative’ of events. From the start, it was clear that Her Majesty’s Government was not so much trying to hide the truth of what had happened, as conspiracy theorists still maintain, as to give the public a kind of primary-school tale. The recent rise of storytelling in mainstream milieux, therefore, is entirely consonant with attempts to infantilise the adult population.
Very early on in his book, Salmon inserts a long quotation from an American consultant, in which the woman refers to managers listening to a story ‘not with their intellect but with their inner child’. For the rest, however, Salmon tends to ignore the primordial trend toward infantilising adults, and instead associates the ‘narrative turn’ of the mid-1990s with other factors. He is right that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War produced a search, among managers and governments alike, for new kinds of thinking – thinking that, with the collapse of the visions of left and right, can help people still feel they belong to something. Salmon is also right that the ‘exploitation stories’ that demystified the Nike brand eventually saw the company change its own story to one of corporate social responsibility. But the author is on much weaker ground when he suggests two other causes behind the institutionalisation of storytelling in high places.
First, in his book, and also at a debate held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in April, Salmon has suggested that ‘the rise of finance capitalism facilitated by the conservative revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’, together with the globalisation of markets, have made it necessary to give people who are always on and open to the market a better sense of direction, which stories can provide. But the doctrine of a neo-liberal takeover in the US, while especially popular in Salmon’s native France, magnifies the role of individuals such as George W Bush or Dick Cheney to a ridiculous extent. Why would the American masses believe the stories given them? Were they and are they dupes? Or did the Democratic Party’s inability to counter Republican arguments through most of the Noughties have something to do with people buying into the ‘War on Terror’?