In search of lost time: how nostalgia broke politics

A new brand of ethno-nationalist politician wants to make society harmonious again – and return us to a period that never existed. 

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In 2017, the word “déclinisme” entered France’s Larousse dictionary, describing the belief that a state of decay is sweeping through society. Recent polls find that, in most Western democracies, the majority of citizens believe the world has got worse, and say they no longer feel at home in their country. This is nostalgia in its fullest sense: not just a rose-tinted recollection of the past, but a longing for a lost home. In Britain, slogans from across the political spectrum like “Rebuilding Britain” (Labour), “Politics is Broken” (Change UK), and “Take Back Control” (Vote Leave) speak to the same sense of loss, differing only in the reasons why it exists. In Europe, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier identifies the cause of Brexit as a “nostalgia for the past”.

For an inchoate group of Western reactionaries, including nationalists, white supremacists, but also supposedly high-minded academics, liberal journalists and politicians, the culprit is clear: high levels of immigration have hollowed out a sense of social harmony or homeliness.

In Eric Kaufmann’s recent book Whiteshift — one of the books of 2018, according to the Financial Times — the Birkbeck academic declares that, faced with unprecedented demographic change, only stronger borders will protect white identity and ensure “a return to more relaxed, harmonious and trusting societies.” In an 8,000-word cover story for the Atlantic, David Frum concurred: only slashing immigration numbers would “restore to Americans the feeling of belonging to one united nation, responsible for the care and flourishing of all its citizens.” Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair have come to similar conclusions.

This argument is always presented as realpolitik rather than xenophobia — a reflection of the facts, rather than people’s prejudices — and a weight of statistical evidence is deployed to defend it. But as to when this happy period in the past we want to “return to” actually existed — the America that was “responsible for the care and flourishing of all its citizens” — here, the details suddenly run dry. All the authors seem to know is why it no longer does now: too many minorities, too much immigration. 

In Svetlana Boym’s classic text, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), the Russian academic saw this scapegoating as the shadow of nostalgia. The word itself derives from fusing the Ancient Greek nostos (return home) and algos (pain or longing), and we all feel it to some degree. But where a shared sense of displacement and longing could foster empathy and solidarity, Boym noticed that it often raises up walls instead. “The moment we try to repair longing with belonging, the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity, we often part ways,” Boym wrote. “Algia — longing — is what we share, yet nostos —the return home — is what divides us.” 

Boym famously drew a distinction between two kinds of nostalgia: restorative, and reflective. Whereas someone with “reflective nostalgia” remains wistfully aware of loss, longing and memory’s gloss, “restorative nostalgia” carries dreams of resurrection, mistaking time’s silver lining for truth and tradition. “This kind of nostalgia characterises national and nationalist revivals all over the world,” Boym wrote. “It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today.”

The election of Donald Trump was an archetypal case of this nostalgic nationalism, prominent in Britain, Brazil, India and elsewhere. During his campaign, Trump ended almost every one of his rallies with a variation on his now notorious slogan: “We will make America great again!”, “… wealthy again!”, “…strong again!”, “… safe again!” — all insurgent cries that, taken together, perhaps amounted to just one: Make America Feel like Home Again. This message — which was made explicit in the 2017 election slogan of France’s fellow ethno-nationalist, Marine Le Pen: “On est chez nous!” (This is our home!) — was not meant for everyone. Similarly, in Germany, nationalist dreams of restoration are defined by their divisiveness. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland has brought back the concept of Heimat – roughly translated as “homeland” but more emotionally charged and, for some, all too entwined with Nazi ideology.

But if this idealised past never existed, why is nostalgia now flourishing? If nations have never been perfectly harmonious — appearing whole only on maps, and even then often not for very long — then why are the likes of Trump, Brexit, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and Viktor Orban all promising to restore homogenous nations?

The likes of Kaufmann, Frum, Clinton and Blair — kowtowing the ethno-nationalists they claim to confront — are convinced that unique demographic shifts are the cause of today’s uprooting. The problem with this argument is not only that perceptions of immigration levels are often wildly inflated, ramped up by press and politicians alike. It’s also that, however far back you go, the same anxiety about “too many foreigners” can be found. Take any decade of human history and it becomes clear that the “relaxed, harmonious and trusting societies” that Kaufmann wants to “return to” are ones that, to quote Hegel, “only come to be by being left behind.” The numbers may change, the levels may differ, but the fear stays the same: They must be kept out.

Another popular response to today’s nostalgia is to blame  nostalgia itself. With sufficient history lessons and courage, the argument goes, we will be ready to “face the future” once more. Pete Buttigieg, the US presidential hopeful, articulates this liberal view, rebutting Trump’s “Make America Great Again” by declaring on his website: “WE CANNOT FIND GREATNESS IN THE PAST.” According to Buttigieg, “there is no honest politics that revolves around the word again”. In a similar vein, a recent op-ed for the New York Times rued the way “Britain is drowning itself in nostalgia.” “With nothing meaningful to say about our future,” the author writes, “we’ve retreated into the falsehoods of the past.”

In this reckoning, today’s turmoil apparently stems not from political forces, but from the direction we’re standing in. The liberal — like the orthodox Marxist — will always say “Forward, not Back,” impelled by a belief in unerring progress. But these opposing standpoints — nostalgia and its antithesis, futurephilia — are more similar than they seem. Both offer remedies for tumultuous times and give us strength to continue. Neither are completely wrong or right in their direction of travel: society can become both better and worse, at the same time.

But the widespread belief that today’s nostalgia is new — “Europe today is threatened by an epidemic of nostalgia,” another NYT op-ed warned on 1 May – is borne of its own amnesia. Nostalgia is a cultural trend we have been drowning in for at least fifty years. While capitalist modernity has hastened the pace of change, sharpened our sense of loss and caged the capacity to imagine alternative futures, this is not a new phenomenon either; it dates back decades. In 2001, Boym saw the same “global epidemic of nostalgia” plaguing her present day. “Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defence mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals,” she wrote. It is, she concluded, “a symptom of our age.”

Boym believed — and psychologists have agreed — that nostalgia is only dangerous when it fails to see itself as such. While “unreflective nostalgia breeds monsters,” there is an important place for longing and loss in daily life, even when it is romanticised. In this context, society’s blanket contempt for all kinds of nostalgia — except when it is commodified — only deepens the disconnect between past and present, fuelling fantasies of restoration.

Nostalgia is deeply personal — a reflection of our most treasured moments — but it’s also a feeling that can be cultivated by soulless corporations and malign politicians, sowing the seeds that separate us and offering comfort from the chaos that ensues. In conditions of climate breakdown, regressive wages, insecure work and rising xenophobia, doubling down on Steven Pinker-style optimism doesn’t simply displace one delusion with another—it actively hollows out the hope that the world can be different. Perhaps what’s really dishonest, in this light, is to deny the political power of “again”. 

Samuel Earle writes for the Atlantic, London Review of Books, TLS and New Republic. He tweets @swajcmanearle