The Future has been Postponed: Making Sense of the Age of Nostalgia

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 9th 2018

Nostalgia is everywhere. The past seems all around us – alive, noisy, ever-present, and more relevant and dynamic than the voices of today and the concerns of tomorrow.

Take a couple of examples. The British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn seems to define its moral compass through a host of reference points from its past – from Keir Hardie to 1945. Then there is the regressive radicalism and conservatism of Brexit. And less seriously, there is how popular culture increasingly re-presents and repackages its past to the detriment of the present. Something is going on and should we be concerned with it?

Each of these examples tells us in a number of ways about the state of the present. First, the British Labour Party has, for much of its history, been shaped by its understanding and remembrance of the past. This includes past struggles, victories and defeats which have been experienced by the party, trade union movement and working classes.

A set of reference points are imbued in the party’s collective memories – from Taff Vale in 1901 to the 1926 General Strike, the 1931 ‘betrayal’ of Ramsay MacDonald to 1945, the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the later (supposed) perfidy of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Longer memories from the pre-Labour era have grown hazier as decades pass including the Peterloo massacre, Robert Owen and New Lanark, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Chartists and Suffragettes.

Labour’s invocation of the past has been located in the defensive nature of why Labour was formed and its purpose – to be a party of organised labour. Hence, it recalled defeats as salutary lessons as to what happened to the working classes if it divided or took the wrong direction. And it has through its histories remembered and evoked these defeats more than its victories. Hence the humiliation of the miners in the 1926 General Strike, or the bitter defeat of the miners in 1984-85 are cited many more times than the famous and influential victories of the miners in 1972 and 1974 – the second of which contributed to the downfall of Ted Heath’s Tory Government.

Labour has seldom been a party about the future, with the exceptions being the brief dawns of 1945, 1964 and 1997. All of these delivered Labour Governments with substantial legislative programmes, and contributed to changing Britain, but none of them held the future facing ground for very long.

The current Labour Party is one where the past is even more centrestage. Keir Hardie seems more omnipotent and present than in decades. Books entitled ‘What Would Keir Hardie Say?’ and Hardie-themed mugs, t-shirts and memorabilia recall his memory and political relevance in the here and now.

The Hardie phenomenon is the latest expression of Labour’s problem with the future. The party’s formative defensive character has seen it display for most of its existence a rearguard action against economic and social change. It has sought to preserve traditional industries, ways of working, including until recently, male privilege in work and trade unions, and shown itself resistant to numerous new industries and work. And while understandable, this hasn’t served Labour well -and made it a party synonymous with conservation and declining Britain.

Brexit is partly a restoration play – a populist cry by those who do not like where the UK has been heading for the last few decades, appropriated by a right-wing vision. The Brexit argument put by Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others has emphasised the illusion of a new buccaneering, swashbuckling, freewheeling ‘global Britain’ – which for all its referencing of the Anglosphere and Commonwealth harks back to past imperial glories.

This is a view in denial about Britain’s diminished status and influence in the world, but which has found common cause with parts of working class Britain who have increasingly felt left out of the fruits of economic prosperity. This is an indictment of the economic order which has shaped the country in recent decades, but also of the political consensus and establishment, and the parties who are meant to pose a UK wide alternative to this, namely Labour, Lib Dems and Greens.

As well as the above version of Brexit there is a left-wing interpretation of Brexit which has played a pivotal role in the referendum and subsequently. This has come from a strand of the English left – from Tony Benn and Michael Foot in the past to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell today – who have given support to the myth of British exceptionalism and the equally illusionary idea of socialism in one country. It says something about Labour and left-wing culture that such a perspective which most thought long dead has re-emerged, aided by the authoritarian reaction of the EU in relation to Greece and Southern Europe.

Finally, there is the state of popular culture and in particular, popular music. Rock and roll and pop music was once about young people rebelling against adults, and standing for something different compared to their elders.

Now popular music is permanently fixated on the past – with a suffocating obsession with the 1960s and the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan – all of which aids the long running baby boomer story of self-congratulation and continually revisiting and reliving their youth. But this isn’t the only retro-culture of music about: a point made by Simon Reynolds in his counterblast, ‘Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past’. There is the ‘Year Zero’ of 1977, punk and new wave, the 1980s of new romanticism and indie music, and the 1990s of grunge and Britpop – all of which have become the object of nostalgia which has meant that we are fast running out of a past to recycle and resell to us.

This last point has become a problem for ‘serious’ music magazines such as MOJO and Uncut as they run out of past artists to put on their front covers. Instead, they continually regurgitate the same few big hitters: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Neil Young, Bowie and Springsteen. They know that such artists sell copies and that there is a seemingly inexhaustible appetite in some for stories about their heroes (and they are nearly always all men).

Some of this, certainly in popular culture and music, as well as wider politics and society, is effected by an increasingly aging society, one where there are generational tensions, and a section of older voters who have grown very affluent and comfortable through the long booms of the 1980s and early 21st century pre-crash. Meanwhile, younger voters, are saddled with huge debts, earning static and in real terms falling incomes, and are excluded from the housing market. But all of this nostalgia is about more than the decreasing power and numbers of youth and rise of the grey pound.

For one, we have to ask if all this nostalgia is a bad thing? There are different forms of remembering the past. Reflective nostalgia is about using the past to shape debate and choices now. Restorative nostalgia on the other hand yearns to restore a past age or time. Scotland’s indyref had a foot in the former for some independence supporters citing the cumulative failure of successive Westminster Governments; Brexit clearly sits unapologetically in the latter.

There is also a distinction between nostalgia and collective memories with nostalgia a selective reading of the past to justify certain actions now and in the future. Underlying all of this the power of nostalgia says something deeply worrying which illustrates the extent of the malaise which afflicts Britain, but which can also be seen across the West.

There is a contemporary crisis across the West of its politics, societies and the very principles and ideas which it was based on. That is obvious from the state of our democracies and what passes for mainstream political debate. The Trump disruption did not come from nowhere, and nor did his unilateral undermining of the complex compromise that is the Iran nuclear deal, but it shows that part of the West has learned nothing from its mistakes of the last two decades and beyond.

Aiding this has been a failure to remember the lessons of the past and history, and the difference between the two. The historian J.H. Plumb wrote a book forty years ago called ‘The Death of the Past’ which posed that history as facts was marching forward slaying all before it, while the past was filled with myths. The academic Henry Drucker bringing this analysis to the Labour Party differentiated the two thus: ‘The point about a past is its vivacity; the point about history is its veracity.’ Plumb’s perspective had a confidence that reason and facts would win out, but today’s world paints a very different picture: one where competing versions of history and even false narratives claim equality of treatment with truth.

The problem with history is in some respects a crisis of the Whig elitist Enlightenment view of the world which is understandable and one once marginal and oppressed groups want to challenge. The symbolic debate on statues everywhere from Cecil Rhodes in Oxford to Charlottesville, Virginia, is testament to this. But it also connects to something even more fundamental.

We are living in age where the future is no longer a bright welcoming force. The future once brimmed across the West with progress, hope, the prospect of advancement and a world which was better than that of today. Now for too many the future is associated with stasis and regression or, even worse, with fear and foreboding and a life which is less secure or satisfying in which individuals imagine that they have little say compared to those with power.

The age of nostalgia is about big problems in our societies in the here and now and about the future. The future has been postponed as a beacon and symbol of hope. This springs from deep questions about who we are collectively as societies, how we understand our pasts and histories, and how we make choices now which aid the nurturing of hope and humanity in the future. And none of this is going to be easy, because in some sense, we have had the future stolen from us by the elites who promised us a bright new dawn and then pulled up the drawbridge. We are literally going to have to take the future back.