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The Politics of Nostalgia

To defeat the nostalgic nationalism that Donald Trump personifies, we must offer an alternative future worth fighting for.

A Donald Trump campaign sign in West Des Moines, IA. Tony Webster / Flickr

Throughout the advanced capitalist world and beyond, a xenophobic, nostalgic nationalism is taking shape. A flock of old and new leaders are rising up, declaring that our best days are behind us and that they are the most qualified to build a better yesterday. Forget about the future, they say, the past is now the place to be — but not everyone is invited.

In the US, Donald Trump is heading to the White House after famously promising to “Make America Great Again” and bring back “the good old days,” while proposing a ban on all Muslim immigration to clear the way. In France, Marine Le Pen tops the polls with similar incantations: eulogies on a proud past, blaming “the Muslim threat” for its demise. In Russia, Vladimir Putin appeals to the country’s historic greatness to attack the LGBTQ community and consolidate his power.

Around the world — from Britain to Turkey to the Philippines — we see variants of the same theme: a nostalgic fervor for a proud past, coupled with a hostility toward “outsiders.” Imaginations of this past differ depending on the nation but, ultimately, they amount to the same thing: a phantom homeland with a strong sense of belonging.

On one level, such nostalgia is nothing new. Mythical memory has always been a pillar of nations, and rose-tinted recollection, the lament for lost times, is as old as memory itself. Asked how their day was, a proverbial Hungarian put it perfectly: “Oh, you know, things are about average. Not as good as yesterday, better than tomorrow.”

But even if nostalgia is a longstanding impulse, its content and prominence on the political stage change over time. Whereas nostalgia began as an individual disease, first diagnosed by a Swiss doctor in the seventeenth century — literally meaning the longing (algia) to return home (nostos) — and allegedly curable with opium and a trip to the Alps, today, this has been inverted: it is now nostalgia that is offered as the cure to all of our political ailments.

On the surface, conjuring up a happier past may seem benign. But much of today’s nostalgia comes with its own set of noxious side effects. The bonds between those who belong to the remembered time are strengthened — they all feel at home — while for those who do not, their separation becomes all the more pronounced.

Only through the marginalization of others — foreigners, immigrants, LGBTQ people, all those who “don’t belong” — can the reactionary nostalgists turn their remembered past into a site of empowerment. To turn back the clock, others must be turned out. With little else to latch on to, excluding others makes their past feel all the more precious, a thing that can truly be claimed as their own.

This is the dark irony beneath the nativist’s angry refrain to the immigrant “Go back to where you came from”: it is the xenophobe who, more than anyone, wants to go back to where they came from — to an imagined, pure point of origin, a moment in history where their country was a homogenous mass. The racist, like all great nostalgists, is homesick for a home they never had.

This nostalgia, and its dark underbelly, will be a difficult beast to reckon with. While the future can be fought over and the present is there to take or leave, the past can be — may always be — whatever we want it to be.

Nevertheless, understanding the forces propelling nostalgia’s political resurgence may help break its toxic spell.

It’s common knowledge that the temptation to look back rises as satisfaction with the present falls and faith in the future fades away. Memories of better times past — real or not — are an easy escape from feelings of insecurity and distance. Today, these feelings are all around us. “On every level of human life,” wrote the late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, “you have the same situation. Uncertainty.”

The main driver of this uncertainty, however, is not multiculturalism or immigration, as the nostalgic nationalists claim. The culprit is much bigger: global, neoliberal capitalism. By subjecting everything in the world to the logic of the market, capitalism creates enormous change in local communities with little to no regard for social cohesion.

New forms of work, transport, and communication are hurriedly born while others are quickly discarded; new forms of social relation arise, and others become obsolete. Soon the things people have been surrounded by, from black cabs to the post office, from steel factories to coal mines, have disappeared, and their identity along with them. Without any hope of improvement on the horizon — the Bank of England speaks of a “lost decade” — suddenly it is the present, not the past, that feels like a foreign country.

In order to fight nostalgic nationalism, then, it is not enough to strip the past of its halo. More importantly, a sense of hope — of a new, better future to come — must be restored. This is the great challenge for the Left.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the symbolic death of utopia that it marked, progress has been defined as nothing more than incremental refinements of the neoliberal status quo. While some spoke of the End of History, what we really got was the End of the Future. Capitalism’s never-ending newness became a never-ending stretch of the same — and, paradoxically, nostalgia the natural response: the past was the only place left for change.

Many on the Left recognize the need for a new, hopeful alternative. They realize the urgency of formulating and fighting for a socialist politics that doesn’t simply draw on the past.

A good start would be to re-emphasize a core injustice that the Left has always rallied against. Economic inequality is the scourge that stares every capitalist society in the face; it is the malady that continues to grow worse and worse, and from which so many other sicknesses spring.

The statistics are well known: since the economic crash in 2008, the top 1 percent of earners in the US have received 95 percent of the growth in income. In the UK, it only took until January 4 for the average FTSE 100 boss to make as much money as the average worker will earn in the entire year. At the global level, eight men have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people combined.

These inequalities are monstrous. They are an affront to basic principles of justice and freedom. Overthrowing the class hierarchies that create them should be at the heart of every left campaign. Economic equality is a forward-facing ideal — inequality has always been with us; nostalgia is not an option. In the absence of such an ideal, people will keep feeding their hearts on past fantasies, not noticing when their hearts grow brutal from the fare.

The past should be seen as something to learn from and be inspired by; never as something perfect or inherently preferable. When we invoke it with longing, we also invoke the flaws, injustices, struggles, and suffering that always accompanied it. “Time travel,” Zadie Smith warns us, “is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.”

One person’s nostalgia is another person’s nightmare — and we don’t need any more nightmares now.