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It’s Nostalgia That’s Driving Modern Politics

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“If the present seems increasingly like nothing more than a depressing prelude to a dark and unchanging future, it is unsurprising that individuals may look to past for answers to their personal problems.”

Introduction

In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Professor Aaron Holby of Colby College negative referenced an article I wrote for Quillette, “The Rise and Emergence of Post-Modern Conservatism.”  He characterized me as one of several authors who misguidedly blamed post-modern philosophy for “causing” Trump.  While I admired much of Professor Holby’s article, I also believed he misinterpreted my position on post-modern philosophy. He implied that I blamed post-modern philosophy for the emergence of Trumpism and post-modern conservatism, when in fact it is a necessary analytical tool for diagnosing why he came to power.  I responded to Professor Holby’s thoughtful criticisms of my article (I don’t speak for the other authors of course) in an extensive recent piece for Quillette. Those interested in a more extensive defense of my arguments about post-modern conservatism may look there. In this piece, I want to look at a related but broader topic: the use of nostalgia as a political emotion.

Nostalgia for the past has long been a powerful political emotion. Its appeal is perhaps most notable among conservatives. Trump’s mantra that he will “Make America Great Again” is just the latest and, by far, the crudest such appeal. It also animates the popularity of contemporary intellectuals like Jordan Peterson through his invocations of a religious God whom Nietzsche famously claimed was “Dead.” Lesser pundits like Dennis Prager call for a return of Biblical morality, and filmmakers like Dinesh D’Souza  pine for the allegedly more patriotic and morally-homogenous United States of yesterday.

And, of course, there are the sentiments of countless right-wing populists in Europe who long for a return to the nation-state and the supposed socio-cultural homogeneity of the pre-European Union era. Interestingly, these sentiments are not just present on the right. Individuals on the far left have also expressed nostalgia for the politics of the past. Whether it is Alain Badiou’s markedly French recollections of the May 1968 student revolts, Slavoj Zizek’s surprisingly deep engagement with Christian theology and symbology, or David Harvey’s always interesting efforts to make the 200 year old Marx relevant to the 21st century, many on the left are as prone to nostalgia as their counterparts on the right.

And we can look far further than just surface politics for evidence that nostalgia has become a prominent emotion for interpreting the post-modern world. The signs are all around us. There is the current surge of 80’s fascination present in pop culture milestones like Stranger Things or the blockbuster IT, the prominence of vaporwave (a musical style characterized by remixing pop hits of the past), and the return to blatant sentimentalism in television and literature. Individuals are even forming nostalgia for time periods they themselves never experienced. 

If the present seems increasingly like nothing more than a depressing prelude to a dark and unchanging future, it is unsurprising that individuals may look to past for answers to their personal problems. But this individual nostalgia seems markedly different than the widespread social nostalgia of today: at one moment the past seems to hang over our culture as the dead hand of history, while at another it paradoxically opens the door to the restoration of a brighter future. Understanding this nostalgia can help us better grasp the dynamics of our time. But I think we should be exceptionally wary of granting it too much influence.

Post-Modern Culture and the “Slow Cancellation of the Future”

In his seminal 1989 essay and the expanded book of 1992 Francis Fukuyama famously announced the “end of history.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, now almost 30 years past, Fukuyama argued that all tenable socio-political and economic alternatives to liberal capitalism had fallen. While there might remain strange outliers such as North Korea or Iran who refused to jump on the bandwagon, it seemed clear to Fukuyama at the time that they would only be exceptions to the general rule. Liberal capitalism was now the only game in town.  Many have misinterpreted Fukuyama’s argument as a triumphalist one, with his proclaiming the victory of the enlightened liberal capitalist over various ideologies now cast into Marx’s infamous “ash heap of history.” But he was never the ideological proponent many have taken him for. As he observed as early as the 1989 National Interest essay:

I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”

This poignant expression of nostalgia is made all the more striking when juxtaposed against the atmosphere of Cold War dread and the prospect of nuclear annihilation only a few years earlier. Fukuyama is recognizing the tragic dimension of his end of history thesis, even as his critics tied themselves into knots trying, in vain, to deny its power. He is recognizing that with the end of history comes the end of the future. Or as the great cultural theorist Mark Fisher put it, in a post-historical capitalist society we see the “slow cancellation of the future” and its replacement with a museum culture. We are left to mine and commodify the past for inspiration and ideas because the prospect of creating anything new has been “canceled.” As he put it in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”

We are faced with the prospect that all true socio-political and cultural debates have been had; everyone who did something or real ideological significance has already lived.  This would, of course, have an impact on all aspects of human endeavor. Without great ideological struggles, what would art and aesthetics truly have to teach us? What ideas could they possible represent which hadn’t been seen before?

Any such cultural products would become immediately dated because they cannot express anything of novel substance; they can only present the substantial issues of the past in a new form. This is why Fredric Jameson argues that the predominant aesthetic style in post-modern culture is a nostalgic “pastiche.” We assemble images, words, and sounds from the past and arrange them into something that is formally new but only articulates the substantial ideas of a time period long gone. Consider a blockbuster film like the recent Avengers: Infinity War. As a cultural product, it is defined by its pastiche-like qualities. Super-soldiers from the Second World War, Norse Gods, and Cold War spies all assemble to defeat a Malthusian predator to the sound of 1976’s “The Rubber Band” by the Spinners. It is designed as the ultimate nostalgia trip, evoking not a specific and impossible time, but the pathos of a thousand pasts stitched together for maximum emotional effect.   

This process of defining ourselves in opposition to something is the driver of history according to Hegel and Fukuyama. Without it, we are left with sifting through and commodifying the museum pieces of the past. 

For Fisher and Jameson, the success of a film like Infinity War is not a coincidence. It appeals to a time period when there were real struggles and concrete enemies who could be easily identified by their social position and contrasting ideology. By contrast, post-modern culture at the end of history is defined by no such tensions. In a Hegelian sense, we are left without something to define ourselves against, and so we become indefinite ourselves. This process of defining ourselves in opposition to something is the driver of history according to Hegel and Fukuyama. Without it, we are left with sifting through and commodifying the museum pieces of the past. 

Conclusion

I think this is one of the roots of the crises of identity we face in post-modern culture, which I have discussed at some length elsewhere. This creates in many people an irresistible nostalgia for a past where there was a genuine struggle and so the possibility of self-definition was still open. But the dark underside to this, of course, is this also implies a desire for conflict, which has been the root of much human suffering.

This is where nostalgia can become exceptionally dangerous as a political emotion, particularly when deployed by reactionaries such as post-modern conservatives. In an earlier Merion West article “What Is Post-Modernism?: Part II,” I discussed Phillip K Dick’s seminal 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. In it, the protagonist Ragle Gumm believes he is living in a quiet 1950’s American town. Everything is a hyper-real approximation of 50’s stereotypes, evoking a deep longing for the apparent security and homogeneity of the post-War book. But Gumm later realizes that this town is a simulacrum. It is actually already the world of the future, and the town was artificially created to maintain the illusion that America was still at its “height.” 

There are two lessons to be drawn from this story about the dangers of political nostalgia. The first is that the idyllic past we fantasize about is little more than a virtual projection of our own present anxieties onto a time that cannot bear the weight of our expectations. Time Out of Joint was written in 1959 and already expresses the imminent arrival of 1960s counter-culture and the demand to tear the old system and its prejudices down. The danger of political nostalgia according to this lesson is we risk fetishizing the past and not recognizing that it, like our own time, was characterized by major problems.  This can prevent us from dealing with our difficulties in a straightforward manner. The second lesson is that, even if one refuses to deal with the present by only demanding a return to this past, such a wish can never be granted.  The attempt to recreate the past will only create a pastiche at best—or a warped perversion at worst. Either way, it will inevitably be a product of present conditions. 

And this brings me full circle to the dilemma facing this post-modern conservative, who is the political nostalgiac par excellence. The post-modern conservative wants to “Make America Great Again” by bringing back what existed before. But he tries to do so using the latest technologies—including Twitter, mass media, and modern policing powers to crack down on illegal immigrants. But this, in fact, brings about a novel future that perverts all the values they seek to uphold. Traditionalists longing for real community come together in alienating digital communication bubbles. The religious get Christianity presented in the form of Hollywood films like the God’s Not Dead series, replete with B list 90’s actors. Heartland Americans come together on Facebook to discuss the collapse of cultural homogeneity, while celebrating the latest meme bashing liberals and Nike commercials. This self-defeating political nostalgia can hardly be expected to birth anything positive.

Appendix

Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.” – Jean Baudrillard

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Matt McManus completed his Ph.D. in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca.

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