Who postponed the future? Why the power of nostalgia can hurt us all

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 30th 2019

Last week I attended a talk about one of the seminal bands of late 1970s Britain – Joy Division – where the author and cultural commentator Jon Savage discussed at an event run by Monorail, a wonderful independent record shop in the centre of Glasgow, the band, their music, originality and enduring influence.

It was a mesmerising talk about the power of music, importance of place and of Britain – both in the late 1970s and now. In one observation, Savage spoke of Joy Division as representing (in 1979-80) what could only be described as ‘music of the future’. By this he meant that it was firmly located in its social and political realities – the grimness of 1970s Britain and post-war Manchester, but that it transcended this, aspiring to a timelessness and sense of prophecy.

Such a rich talk before a receptive, if ageing, audience got me thinking about areas beyond music. There is the power of the past, why the UK and most other developed countries increasingly seem shaped by what has gone before, and what this climate of nostalgia says about our societies in the here and now, and the consequences for the future.

It is important to understand that there are at least two types of nostalgia. Svetlana Boym in her 2002 book ‘The Future of Nostalgia’ identified two that she called restorative and reflective. The former ‘puts emphasis on nostos (rebuilding home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps’ – a kind of homesickness for the past. The latter ‘dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of rememberance’; and unlike the former has the insight to know that we cannot go back.

The present is awash with both kinds of nostalgia – with the latter seen in the continuous commemoration of wartime and military occasions – with the 75th anniversary of D Day coming up in June (the occasion for the Trump state visit to the UK), and the never-ending British obsession with World War Two. But not all anniversaries are uncontested and some still have a living presence; the most obvious being this Friday coming (May 3rd) which marks 40 years since the first election of Margaret Thatcher and the beginning of the decade of Thatcherism. For some this is an occasion for despair, for others on the right, of celebration and a drive to maintain and extend its influence in the present.

Restorative nostalgia is alive and kicking in modern Britain and elsewhere. It is evident in Brexit, Trump and the angry right-wing politics which have become a feature of our times. They encompass a rejection of the present, fury at the state of our societies, and a yearning for a return to yesteryear. In this imagined past, people supposedly looked out for each other, politicians and elites did what they said, and there was a sense of public duty. Underpinning this is a dislike of foreigners, outsiders and, critically, immigrants. At its most hateful, ‘white nationalism’ and ‘white supremacy’ have become real live political phenomena in a way unimaginable a few years ago.

This reactionary nostalgia isn’t the only show in town. There is a left-wing nostalgia evident in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. A significant part of the Corbynista movement want to unwind and undo the political changes of the last forty years – Thatcherism, New Labour, deindustrialisation, privatisation, and declining trade unions. In this it has a conservative impulse, which used to be found on the right and which has, on the left, learnt little from defeats of the past, and the way the right has embraced the economic and social change, and the left sought to resist change.

Closer to home in Scotland there is a nostalgia in the constitutional debate. In the 2014 independence referendum campaign underneath the claims and counter-claims of Yes and No were two competing versions of restorative nostalgia making the argument that we could go back to more idealistic, compassionate times.

Part of Yes was based on a rejection of Britain and its right-wing hijacking of recent decades, believing that through independence we could go back to the post-war Britain of 1945-75 and our own ‘little Britain’ Scottish version of this. Much of No was even more out of touch with reality, making the case for a Britain long passed. In the rhetoric of Gordon Brown this was about ‘pooling’, ‘sharing’ and redistributing to those in need, a difficult argument to make in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. In 2014 voters decided to stick with the devil they knew and the most familiar, i.e. British, version of the past, but subsequent events (Brexit being the most obvious) have fatally undermined this case.

All of these nostalgias have despite, their differences, some commonalities. First, they all give prominence to generational stories of the past shaped by demographics and the aging of Western societies. The conceits of the post-war babyboomer generation have captured, and continued to dominate, much of public life, feeding all sorts of debates from pensions and inheritance to Brexit. Related to this there is a widespread dismissal of young people and their concerns, sneered at as ‘generation snowflake’ by some for their claimed over-sensitivity and ability to find offence.

Second, there is a confusion about modern life in all its manifestations. Hence, the changing roles of men and women, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, trans politics and more all show the quicksand of identity politics. For some, such issues make them wish for a conservative restoration of the way things were, but others recognise this is also part of widespread discomfort and dismay at the messy state of the modern world.

Third, there is a reaction to the shortcomings and failures of globalisation: the official story of economic and social progress which dominated the politics of the West from 1979 to the bankers’ crash of 2008. Its panglossian big promises of limitless economic growth, and lifting everyone up through trickle-down economics and the indulgence of the supra-rich, has proven hollow. It isn’t an accident that politics in the West has become more bitter, angry and nasty since 2008. People were lied to, and in most countries the guilty and those who systematically lied got away with it.

Fourth, the above version of the world said to all of us – don’t ask difficult questions, don’t ask who has power, just trust the elites and they will deliver. Hence, big questions about power, privilege and the economy all went unexplored to the extent that people forgot how to discuss these issues – and that has come at a cost. Instead of discussing how to run a modern economy and how capitalism works, a virulent populism has looked around for easy scapegoats and they have tended to be those vulnerable and those without power.

These forces of nostalgia are also evident in wider public life – in the arts, culture, creativity, and such specific areas as popular music, literature and the visual arts. Where for example is the culture imagining new possibilities and new expressions of what it is to be human, and even, post-human? Is the best that we can really conceive Ian McEwen’s recent novel ‘Machines Like Us’ and its exploration of AI and sex with robots?

The same is true with popular music which brings us back to Jon Savage’s comments. From when I grew up until the early years of this century, I had an insatiable musical curiosity (which I still have) and could find music which transcended boundaries and which aspired to be of the future, or even seemed to be from the future. This was sometimes obvious as in the German pioneers Kraftwerk, but was true of a wide array of artists – Joy Division as previously stated, New Order who emerged from them, the Cocteau Twins, Talk Talk, and Stereolab, to name but a few. I also suppose ‘progressive rock’ of the 1970s (which I have never liked as a genre): Yes, Genesis and ELP, was a music of a fictional world of the future, that then ran out of steam as the 1970s became more divisive and harsh.

I am not sure when this futurist musical impulse waned, as it is still evident in some of the more ambitious expressions of R ‘n’ B: Janelle Monae being an obvious example. But it is clear that most music and artists are content with the diminishing returns of invoking and copying their heroes and heroines, whether it is the 1960s and the Beatles and Stones, or early 1970s glam – Roxy Music and Bowie – and the raw rebellion of punk, and experimentalism of post-punk, which came out of it.

The history of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and dance music has become part of the problem, with endless programmes on different aspects of past golden eras. Meanwhile, the sheer ubiquity of music, with it saturation of every aspect of life has led to its conformity and risk adverse nature. And the way music is listened to and consumed has changed, with technology driving downloads and streaming, and the emergence of curated playlists.

The power of this imagined past comes at a cost to all of us. We are living in societies which have, in many respects, given up on the future and are seeking solace and reassurance in nostalgia. Too many of us have stopped believing in our capacity collectively to create alternative, different futures which can inspire, provoke, mobilise and bring forth in their articulation, counter-ideas and visions.

Look around at the politics which dominate Britain. Nowhere is there a viable political tradition or perspective which speaks to what 21st century Britain could be. Corbyn’s Labour, May’s Tories, Boris Johnson, the busted Lib Dems, Farage’s Brexit Party. All are focused on politics of the past, demonstrating a lack of ambition and imagination, and somehow believing that our best years as a society are to be found in recreating days gone by.

Healthy, thriving societies need to face and embrace the future. Otherwise they turn in on themselves and become insular, stultifying and risk-averse, which is what is happening across the West, from the UK and US, to Germany and Japan. If we don’t challenge and change this the future will be as a worse version of the most unappealing aspects of today: intolerant, xenophobic, searching for easy answers and people to blame – a politics of even more nasty, vengeful Nigel Farage and Donald Trump types.

To avert this will not be easy but we have to challenge the belief that the best times for our societies were in 1945 or 1976 (the latter retrospectively rated by economists the happiest post-war year in the UK), and reject the pessimism and powerlessness inherent in such views. The world is full of wealth, talent, imagination and technological innovations that can offer transformative change in what it is to be human. But that requires collective willpower and agency to galvinise these forces in the name and interests of the vast majority of us, and not retreat in the face of the arrogance of the elites and their apologists. The future is still there to be made; the question is by whom.