Don’t Look Back in Anger

Patrick Hall discusses how our politics and culture have been completely captured by nostalgia. 

I grew up in the shadow of a chocolate factory in York. Originally owned by a local company, it was taken over in an international acquisition before I was born. Though most production was maintained, over time some moved abroad, and things weren’t the same: before, the local owners had invested in the community, building a theatre and a library. Now, parts of the old factory are flats.

Local people look back fondly on the days before the acquisition, not least my older brother, who often reminisces about being given misshapen chocolates from a neighbour who worked for the factory before production was streamlined.

Nostalgia is a potent force, and as someone who likes nothing better than recounting anecdotes and stories, I know the appeal of old times. There is a difference, however, between recalling the past, and living in it. In Europe and America, I fear we are drowning in a tidal wave of nostalgia.

Switch on the TV and it is there: reruns of Frasier and Cheers; revivals of Top Gear and Spitting Image; one new channel even exclusively airs old Christmas films. Our social media feeds feature ‘throwbacks’ and ‘what you posted on this day 5 years ago,’ while rumours of a Friends reunion never fail to excite.

In politics, nostalgic sentiment is inescapable. “We will bring back our jobs, we will bring back our wealth, we will bring back our dreams!” cried an inauguration day Donald Trump, elected to make America great ‘again.’ So too is Joe Biden in the grip of nostalgia, albeit of a different kind; more a yearning for pre-Trump America and the Obama years. In Britain, the Conservatives are led by a Churchill throwback who pines for the British Empire and promises to take ‘back’ control. Labour, meanwhile, has for 5 years been split between a reactionary left trying to ‘return’ the party to its roots and a moderate wing which still thinks it is the late 90s. All of this as we exit the EU to reclaim our national destiny and “get our country back.”

Underpinning this, there is deep cynicism about the future. 31 percent of Britons and 41 percent of Americans believe life today is worse than it was 50 years ago. No wonder, then, that people look to the past for comfort.

Our nostalgia ultimately stems from a sense of insecurity in the modern world. People who feel upended by change mourn for past stability. For workers whose jobs moved abroad, the past offers security. For those whose towns have transformed with immigration, it offers the comfort of community and homogeneity. For all of us, angrier and lonelier in the social media age, it offers simplicity and slowness.

The allure of the past is a powerful tonic, one in which populists trade with much success. Turning back the clock can seem like a panacea, a cure-all for the disaffected and the disillusioned. Nostalgia has its place in politics and culture. But when it is so pervasive, so all-consuming, it is not panacea; it is poison.

It is poison because it holds us back: when we’re stuck in the past, we cannot seize the opportunities of the future. It is poison because it makes us insular and inward-looking, and cruel towards those we blame for our decline, whether they are immigrants or asylum seekers. It is poison, ultimately, because it is an empty promise; the business of false prophets. Turning back the clock is neither possible nor desirable. Once installed, the technology cannot be uninstalled; once sold, the chocolate factory cannot be re-bought.

The solution, then, may lie not in seeking to reverse change, but instead in ensuring that its benefits, and its drawbacks, are shared more equally. Until then, I would say that despite everything, the present is most definitely better than the past. Never have we been more tolerant and accepting; never have we been more open about mental health; never have we been more willing to engage on issues of race, gender, and climate.

So, be optimistic, and believe that a better future is possible. Embody that most upbeat of sitcom characters, and be optimistic enough to believe, if you’ll forgive a brief nostalgic reference, that this time next year, we’ll all be millionaires.

Patrick Hall is a third year student at the University of Edinburgh. He studies Politics and is an active member of the Labour Party.

He tweets at @patrickrhall.

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