Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Justification Narratives explained

The objective of this series is to try to explain seemingly complex socio-economic theories and concepts in everyday language and show how these ideas are being misused, abused and ignored by governments and powerful international organisations.

  Number 7:        What is..... a justification narrative?

Justification narratives are fundamentally important in modern politics. Most people are familiar with the concept, which is is evident in the role of "spin doctors" for example. The creation of a justification narrative is intended to render a complex issue into a simplistic and memorable narrative.

To start off by giving the concept a simple definition; a justification narrative is a simple but often inaccurate narrative structure designed to popularise complex or unpalatable policies. 


As the role of government propagandists has become more and more instrumental to the state, propaganda techniques have become ever more complex, but the essential idea remains the same; to manage the message in order to minimise dissent. Justification narratives are an essential part of any propaganda machine, since it is extremely difficult to sell propaganda without a decent cover-story.

In democracies justification narratives are especially important given that the personal interests of so many politicians are reliant upon not being voted out of power, however the technique is also highly important in non-democratic political systems, where justification narratives are used extensively to quell the possibility of political revolution.


A simple justification narrative is often needed when an organisation has determined a policy that is beneficial to themselves, but has no benefit, or even extremely negative consequences, for the majority of people. A politician obviously can't just admit that the socially destructive legislation he is trying to introduce is extremely beneficial to particular corporate interests that have promised him all kinds of kick-backs when he leaves office; so he needs a justification narrative in order to make the idea palatable. When the objective is either the primary reason in itself, or when the primary reason cannot be admitted, it is necessary to create a justification narrative.

Confirmation bias

Justification narratives often rely strongly upon confirmation bias, which is the tendency for people to be significantly less likely to critically analyse a statement that fits comfortably into their worldview or provides support to the policies of a favoured organisation. 
Simplistic justification narratives are aimed at uncritical thinkers; people like reactionaries and political tribalists. Once these people have a satisfactory narrative that is easy to understand and is easy to remember, they are unlikely to ever begin questioning the basic premises and assumptions of the narrative. Once the mind is sold on an idea, many people won't ever bother to examine it more closely for fallacious reasoning, generalisations, misrepresentations or omission of evidence. If the story seems to make sense, many people will simply accept it at face value. 

Emotional reaction

Anti-cannabis propaganda posters and films like Reefer
Madness from the 1920s and '30s are classic examples of  
the use of crude fear based justification narrative techniques.
Justification narratives work best when the story creates a strong emotional reaction. The oldest forms of justification narrative rely on crude fearmongering. This kind of fear inspiring narrative can be seen in the absurd anti-cannabis propaganda of the 1920s and '30s and the fear based propaganda used to justify numerous armed conflicts. George Orwell clearly identified the warmongering justification narrative when he stated that "Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac".

Other emotional reactions that are often targeted by the designers of justification narratives are the sense of injustice, resistance to change and the instinct for retribution.

It has been remarkably easy for right-wing neoliberal governments to sell the concept of welfare cuts based upon a simple narrative about the scourge of "welfare scroungers" getting "something for nothing" whilst the rest of us have to work hard to pay for it. This kind of narrative is deliberately designed to stimulate the sense of injustice. The facts that benefit fraud actually represents a tiny fraction of the welfare system and that the vast majority of claimants have pre-paid into the system via taxation before becoming unemployed are carefully omitted in order to create the impression that the "scrounger" problem is much worse than it actually is. 

Media complicity

The scrounger example is a clear cut example of the role of the media; without the complicity of the right-wing press and their (often completely inaccurate) protestations about welfare scroungers, successive neoliberal governments would have found their anti-welfare policies significantly more difficult to implement.

Justification narratives work best when they are regurgitated by lazy or compliant media. The media often simply repeat government justification narratives because they agree with the political objectives, but often narratives are repeated out of sheer laziness. Take coverage of Michael Gove's school "academification" process in the nominally left-wing Guardian newspaper. Journalists there are guilty of describing the process in terms of  "releasing schools from bureaucratic local government control" when the process can more accurately be described as "transference of schools (property and all) into the ownership and control of largely unaccountable private sector interests".

This is where the role of spin doctors comes in. People like Alistair Campbell made a career out of pre-packaging government press released with convenient justification narratives. It is often obvious when the newspaper article or TV report is almost completely based upon the contents of a government press release. Journalists have found that they get paid the same if they crudely rework government press releases or spend significantly more time and energy applying some proper critical analysis or investigative techniques. Therefore the lazy self-interested journalist will simply regurgitate the government press release complete with justification narratives as if it is their own work.

Limitation of criticism 
One of the reasons that simplistic justification narratives are so successful is the limitation of rational criticism. When opponents criticise a justification narrative it is almost always necessary to complicate the issue by providing more detail, evidence, statistics, analysis etc. This detail is often presented in a dry analytic style that is naturally more acceptable to the kind of people that are unlikely to buy into simplistic justification narratives in the first instance. 

The fact that criticisms of simplistic justification narratives often rely upon dry rational analysis means that they lack simple and memorable narrative presentation. This lack of simple and memorable narrative structures within the criticism allow a great number of people to "switch off" and continue using their favoured justification narratives as articles of faith because they are simply disinclined to engage with analytic critiques of the cognitive devices they use to justify their own worldview or political stance. In order to win over people that are inclined to accept simplistic narratives, it is essential to create strong and simple counter-narratives. The creation of catchy counter-narratives is especially difficult to achieve when the subject of the simplistic justification narrative is a complex issue such as economic theory or social development.

Five specific examples
There are countless more examples of justification narratives aside from the many I've already mentioned in the definition. I'll give a few more notable examples to clarify the concept:

Weapons of Mass Destruction

One of the most famous justification narratives is the story of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction. In the buildup to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq the term "WMD" was everywhere, along with countless claims about Iraq having the capability to attack the UK "within 45 minutes" and claims that they had attempted to buy yellow cake uranium in Africa. 

Anyone that dared to criticise the WMD justification narrative was attacked or derided as a Saddam Hussain supporter. The weapons expert David Kelly was bitterly criticised by the government for daring to voice an alternative opinion, and was found dead in mysterious circumstances. The BBC were ruthlessly castrated by the government over claims that Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell had "sexed up" the dossier of Iraq's weapons capabilities. 

After the invasion it became absolutely clear that the WMD's didn't actually exist and that the "45 minutes" and "yellow cake" claims were transparent lies. The fact that their justification narrative had been entirely falsified didn't matter to Blair and Bush, their propagandists simply cooked up a new post-hoc justification narrative; "the world is a better place without Saddam Hussain". 

The trickle down-effect

The "trickle down-effect" is a fallacious justification narrative with an inexplicably long shelf-life. In the 1970s and early '80s neoliberal politicians came to power and began a massive transference of wealth to the wealthy establishment elite. Their justification for this kind of policy was that wealth would then trickle down to wider society. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that this effect never happened. A large proportion of the wealthy establishment simply paid tax lawyers to hide their wealth in tax havens, and the gap between rich and poor has grown wider and wider ever since, especially in the UK and the USA.

Even though the trickle down effect has been shown to be an absolute fantasy, the same policy still exists today, just with a slightly altered form of justification narrative. These days Republican politicians harp on about "job creators" instead. The narrative is that it is important to cut taxes on wealthy "job creators" in order to allow them to create jobs and stimulate the economy. This "job creator" narrative defends exactly the same policy, and it is equally inaccurate. The Bush tax cut for the richest 1% of Americans turned out to have one of the lowest fiscal multiplication values in the history of American spending plans (for every $1 given in Bush tax breaks, only 23 cents returned to the economy). The American venture capitalist Nick Hanauer clearly expressed the economic illiteracy of the trickle down/job creator narrative:

"There's this idea in our society that rich people are job creators, and if you tax them more, then they'll create less jobs. This is simply a misunderstanding of how the economy works; it's actually the middle class that creates the jobs with the demand that forces businesses to increase employment."
The maxed out national credit card

One of the most brazenly misleading right-wing justification narratives is the national credit card fallacy which has been trotted out by the Tory party time and again. This fallacy relies on the creation of a simple narrative equating national economics with household finances. It is a simplistic analogy between government borrowing and unsustainable borrowing on a credit card. It is obviously popular because almost everyone is familiar with credit cards, which makes the story nice and accessible. The problem is though, that the whole argument is absolute nonsense. As a result of the Bank of England's monetary policies (all-time low interest rates, £375 billion in Quantitative Easing) the cost of government borrowing is at an all-time record low. The UK government can borrow at an interest rate of just 1-2%, whilst most credit cards charge well above 10% and often much higher. A much more suitable analogy would be between PFI economic alchemy schemes and credit cards, since PFI often ends up costing vastly more than an up-front cash payment would have done. However the Tories have absolutely no interest in creating a more realistic narrative, since they approve of the transfer of taxpayers' cash to the private sector via rip-off deals.

Osborne's confidence fallacy

Another simplistic but highly misleading Tory justification narrative is George Osborne's confidence fallacy. This fallacy relies upon taking credit for virtually the only bit of positive economic news that the Chancellor can find. He calims that his "cut now, think later" indescriminate austerity policies have inspired such confidence in "the market" that the cost of government borrowing has fallen to an all-time low. Even on the face of it this seems like nonsense, why on earth would investors be at an all time high in confidence, when "Osbornomics has driven the UK economy back into a prolonged recession? On deeper analysis it becomes obvious that Osborne is simply taking credit for the consequences of the Bank of England's monetary policy outcome. It is absurdly obvious that all-time low interest rates and the creation of £375 billion to turn (normally illiquid) government bonds into cash (the most liquid asset possible) - has led to - all time low bond yields. 

Osborne has been simply conflating fiscal policies with monetary consequences, meaning that he is either economically illiterate or relying on the fact that the majority of the public are economically illiterate. Anyone with a decent understanding of economics should be able to see the fallacy, however the vast majority of people don't have a decent understanding of economic theory, therefore the narrative sticks (and goes completely unquestioned by the mainstream media).

The Great Neoliberal Lie

Perhaps the most astonishing justification narrative is the Great Neoliberal Lie. After neoliberal politicians and economists had spent decades ensuring that financial markets were dangerously deregulated, the financial sector went on an unprecedented binge of reckless over-leveraged speculation (at best) and outright criminality (at worst). Eventually the entire financial system got so clogged up with toxic junk that the credit markets froze up and virtually every major financial institution either went bust or only survived due to the biggest government interventions in human history. After preaching a mantra of deregulated markets stabilising themselves and the evils of state interventions, this financial sector collapse should have been the death of the neoliberal ideology. However the neoliberals quickly cobbled together an alternative narrative; that rather than reckless gambling and financial sector criminality causing the crisis, it was actually caused by government overspending. It doesn't matter that the narrative is completely false, it appeals to those that would prefer to see a continuation of the status quo, rather than a huge revolutionary change in economic practice.

This new justification narrative allowed the orthodox neoliberals to present exactly the same batch of neoliberal policies that caused the crisis (mass privatisation, deregulation, attacks on wages and working conditions, welfare destruction, tax cuts for corporations and the rich, tax rises for ordinary working people) as the solution to the crisis. The same old neoliberal policies that caused the crisis were rebranded as "austerity" and described in terms of being absolutely necessary in this time of crisis. This crude rebranding exercise relies on one of the most brazen false narratives ever presented to the public, that they themselves are to blame for the crisis because of their "over-use" of the welfare system, rather than the rich speculators that in many cases walked away with £billions in personal profits despite committing countless immoral and criminal acts.


Justification narratives are extremely dangerous propaganda tools. They have been used to start wars, infringe freedoms, cut living standards, persecute minorities, obscure corruption and misrepresent reality. The reason they are so dangerous is that they are so effective and that they are so difficult to counter. 

 It is a testament to the power of justification narratives that it has been possible to convince the public that they themselves are to blame for a crisis they did not create and that they should pay the cost of it via wage freezes and welfare cuts, whilst the financial sector elite and the neoliberal politicians that enabled them continue to get richer and richer.

The only real way for a society to insulate itself from the insidious effects of justification narratives is to ensure that the population are educated in critical thinking skills. Of course people can't be expected to be an expert on every subject, but they can be taught to practice their fundamental analytic skills and to refuse to accept anything at face value that they are told by politicians or the corporate media.

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