The electorate are engaged at some level in a fictive transaction, where we know that what we intend to buy is indeed a counterfeit.
It is, it seems, a good time for nostalgia. It is received wisdom that this is what support for Donald Trump in the United States has meant, just as the victory of Euroscepticism on the other side of the Atlantic sets off trains of thought involving cricket, country pubs and warm beer, toasted crumpets and ruddy Morris men.
The figureheads of Brexit – Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and now the newly-appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson – are self-consciously figures of British political nostalgia. As James Meek has written, perceptively, Rees-Mogg the politician embodies a ‘steak-and-kidney pudding Edwardian Britishness’; a performance that is consciously meant to evoke a lost time on the edges of cultural memory. With his simultaneous invocation of nanny and the Morris Minor, the Victorian age and the 1920s, Rees-Mogg is a perfect embodiment of what the French critic Roland Barthes famously termed a mythology.
Barthes famously uncovered complex and interlinked strains of masculinism, pro-imperialism and French nationalism behind the images of the tricolour and a plate of steak frites. Farage too is a floating signifier who would be of interest to Barthes one suspects – a protean figure whose continual reanimating presence evokes both the hearty City trader culture of the 1980s, the sitcom hinterlands of the 1960s and ‘70s (a pre-EU Britain of Carry On films and heavy public smoking) and a blurrier and much older vision of Merrie England. Both the slogans of Trumpism and the Leave camp – ‘Make America Great Again’ ‘Take Back Control’ – involve the idea of return. We are going back somewhere in this vision, even if we’re not sure exactly where that is.
‘This country wants nostalgia’, mused the poet and musician Gil Scott Heron in 1981, reflecting on the election of Ronald Reagan. The American electorate had voted, he thought, ‘to go back as far as they can – even if it’s only as far as last week’. In this analysis, the destination of our backwards gaze is less important to this type of politics than the fact that it’s backwards we’re facing. Indeed, for Scott-Heron, this gaze peered at a fictive, mythologized vision of America, one akin to the B-movie landscape in which Reagan had made his name. Yesterday was, for Scott-Heron, ‘the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment’, the ‘man in the white hat or the man on the white horse’. It is, tellingly, the ‘white’ cowboy that saves America at the last moment; the figure riding into our vision from out of screen shot is an idealized image of Anglo strength. ‘Come with us back to those inglorious days when heroes weren’t zeros, before fair was square, when the cavalry came straight away and all American men were like Hemingway’. Hemingway’s projected vision of white masculinity – the great white hunter – has been undermined since, of course. Actually, it was undermined by Hemingway himself, in his own writing and career. Inscribed into the Hemingway mythos are the elements of its own collapse. It is a self-consciously stagey vision of the hard-shooting, hard-drinking, hard-fighting frontiersman, a hammy performance of American maleness.
The point of this digression is that the complex of signifiers to which Trumpism points – a white masculinity located in the past – is itself inherently unstable. It requires an effort of will to maintain. Reagan, for Scott-Heron, ‘acted like an actor’ in order to complete his journey from Hollywood to the White House, via the governor’s mansion in Sacramento. But ultimately, raps Scott Heron, ‘we’re all actors in this I suppose’.
In other words, the electorate are engaged at some level in a fictive transaction, where we know that what we intend to buy is indeed a counterfeit. ‘Put your orders in America,’ Scott-Heron proclaims, ‘And quick as Kodak your leaders duplicate with the accent being on the dupes’. In a song that’s about cinema and authenticity, the Kodak reference speaks of a world in which value can be quickly and cheaply reproduced. Everything about this kind of politics, then, is fake, all is surface; and at some level its supporters know they are buying the cheap copy Rolex. ‘We’re starring in a B-movie, and we would rather have had John Wayne’, sang Scott-Heron in 1981. The point about the B-movie analogy is that the form makes no real attempt to refer to a ‘real world’ beyond its borders.
For the critic Svetlana Boym, a contemporary theorist of the idea of nostalgia, nostalgia ‘is not always retrospective’. For Boym, nostalgia – which sits between ‘personal and collective memory’ – ‘has a utopian dimension’. Hence, perhaps, the odd combinations to be seen within the Brexit project: a strange kind of forward-facing hyper-activity and buccaneer capitalism married to a weird collection of historic references: all imperial measurements and Churchill, the Empire and the Divine Right of Kings (Rees-Mogg apparently owns a portrait of Charles I made from the dead king’s hair).
Whilst, on the surface, the nostalgic qualities of the ‘mainstream’, ‘populist’ right (Trump and his supporters, the Brexit party, and the Brexit-supporting right of the Conservative Party in the UK) would appear to be of a different order to the mythologizing projects of historic fascism, Boym’s identification of an innately utopian quality to nostalgia may give us pause for thought. Whether ‘palingenetic’ (in Roger Griffin’s term) or ‘sacralised’ (to use Emilio Gentile’s formulation), fascism has been seen as referring to a monumental past or a pseudo-religious, ritualistic present.
In contrast, the nostalgic contemporary right appears focused on a past that is, at most, a hundred or a hundred and fifty years old. Yet perhaps such distinctions are not so clear: Boym’s identification of a ‘restorative nostalgia’ that wishes to ‘return to origins’ is interesting here. Boym contrasts this with a more positive form of nostalgia, ‘reflective nostalgia’, which is aware of the fragility and limitation of idealized memory. ‘Restorative’ nostalgia, by contrast, Boym argues, rests on concepts of ‘truth and tradition’ that are apparently mediated through the appeal to a lost home or past greatness: ‘take back control’, ‘make America great again’.
Nostalgia is everywhere in our current moment. Popular television series like Stranger Things and Glow recreate the culture and symbols of the 1980s, whilst restaurants recreate nostalgic tastes and fashion harks backwards. Yet the dangers of restorative nostalgia in the political sphere rest in its appeal to what Boym calls the ‘emblems and rituals of home and homeland’.
Taken together, these seemingly innocuous emblems and rituals – foods, images, phrases – may hide a more sinister purpose, providing feel-good cover for dangerous new forms of ethno-nationalism, protectionism and racism. Neo-fascists are nostalgic nowadays; the Italian radical right group CasaPound have reconstructed fascism as what Pietro Castelli Gattinara and Caterina Froio have characterized as a ‘hybrid communication style’. Images of Mussolini and Fascist iconography mingle with references to cultural figures sympathetic to fascist ideas, or those who might be termed proto-fascist – Ezra Pound, obviously, but also Marinetti, D’Annunzio, Sorel, Knut Hamsun, Yeats, and Nietzsche. The effect is a strange collage of nostalgic nods to the years of the Fascist ventennio and to ‘pop culture’.
Whilst these forms of nostalgia may be very diverse, their presence on the political stage must be interrogated. If ‘reflective nostalgia’ allows us to enjoy and also question our memories of the past, ‘restorative nostalgia’ with its attempts to revive a lost, pure, homeland should be resisted in all its guises.
Dr David Barnes is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Oxford. See his profile here.
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