Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 12.16.07 PM
Type
Essay
Category
Nationalism
Nostalgia

Lost objects

Biking up the shallow incline towards the mountains for cricket practice on summer afternoons, I would pass by a small set of shops (greengrocer, dairy, stationer, pub, hairdresser, secondhand dealer), then the primary school, with its empty playing fields and beige pre-fabs, and Woodham’s Wool Scour, where birds nested on the arched roof. Descending the hill, I would finally arrive at the cricket and rugby club.

Opposite sat the scout den, a squat cinderblock building with a shingle driveway. I would go there on winter evenings and freeze along with everyone else. My father was a scout leader; his main contribution was a patience for dealing with other people’s children. Dad would take me to the weekend camps at Staveley or the Ashburton River, the scout pack in tow; at each camp, he would proceed to put up a tent the wrong way, forget how to tie a half-hitch, get lost on a field trip, or get confused coming back.

In the other direction from the cricket grounds was State Highway One: a lane in each direction, for the length of the South Island. After I finished primary school, I had to cross the road on my bicycle twice a day to go to the intermediate school (for Years 7 and 8). Waiting for the trucks to pass, I would watch the heads of dozens of sheep poking out of the open slits on the side of the trailers, mouthing inaudible cries under the engine noise. Just outside the town was a freezing works.

I left the town behind when I went to high school. Almost immediately, I was caught in a shift. The ground-tone, impossible to express at the time, was the departure of something elemental, and the arrival of something new and too big for words. Years later, I would read To the Is-land, the first volume of Janet Frame’s autobiography. She describes standing outside on a ‘gray day’, listening to ‘the wind in the telegraph wires’. ‘I had my first conscious feeling of an outside sadness,’ she writes, ‘I don’t think I had yet thought of myself as a person looking out at the world; until then, I felt I was the world.’ This is how I felt in the weeks and months after I left, as a quiet sadness came to inhabit my outer and inner worlds.

I became, at age thirteen, a hopeless romantic for an impossible elsewhere. I longed for the pastoral I had left behind; the pastoral that had only been created by my having left it behind. Walking across the school’s playing fields on an afternoon in late summer, cricket bag on my back, I heard mourning in the warm norwest breeze. Yet it was not so much my decisions that had led me to this place (so I thought then), but rather the passing of time – and the world itself. There was no way back, however much I may have wished there to be: I was in the midst of a sorrow that belonged to no-one, but was everywhere, a sorrow that I could not name.

The last year has been a year of sorrow for progressives. I watched the returns for the EU referendum from Ithaca, New York. Most of my friends in the UK didn’t stay up: they’d seen the early exit polls and gone to bed expecting that they’d wake up the next day and find everything as it was. Newcastle was the first to call, with a slight majority for Remain – much less than expected given the strength of Labour in the city. Sunderland went 61 to 39 in favour of Leave, and suddenly it began to look dire. The sterling plummeted. I switched off the TV after the BBC had finally called the result and Farage had called 23 June Britain’s ‘Independence Day.’ Among many of us, the days following would be marked by panic and dismay.

Farage’s new dawn for an independent Britain will not shine more brightly for a great number of those who voted to leave. The consequences of any economic downturn will be borne by the worst off, and the political choice that this represents will be called an ‘economic reality’. Politicians will tell us that ‘we’ – that is, the already wealthy who get to decide these things – can’t afford ‘it’ – that is, the welfare state. There will be an increase in subsidies and protections for corporations, and single market access for finance will be the top priority. Trade-offs will be made in negotiations: if automobile manufacturers are allowed free access to the European market, other areas will have to give way. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has effectively mooted turning Britain into a corporate tax haven if the EU doesn’t give the UK market access post-Brexit; he calls it ‘competitively engaged’. Without powerful progressive movements to resist the government’s plans, working people’s lives will not improve, of course. Services such as the NHS will be further crippled, and ministers will say that it is out of their hands. At the same time, the millionaires who bankrolled Leave.EU, such as Arron Banks, will have ever greater impunity in competitively engaged Britain to evade tax and scrutiny.

That is just Britain; the US election is a disaster on a much greater scale. I watched the coverage with American friends in Oxford, where I go to university. Almost as soon as counting began – when I was still making jokes about Trump’s hairpiece – the reports looked worrying. Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania appeared as though they were going to be much closer than expected, perhaps even swinging towards Trump. By 10.40 pm, British time, Ohio went Trump. Quarter of an hour later, he took Florida. I went home before Pennsylvania was called.

The biggest shock was not that Trump would be elected, but that the pre-polls hadn’t picked up the political shift. After all, for many Americans, it is hard to be surprised by the electoral power of white supremacy. Between reactions to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and elsewhere, voter suppression efforts across the country, and the refusal of states such as Alabama to use federal dollars to expand Medicaid, racism has been centrally important in American electoral politics in recent years. It is just that white supremacy has now returned to the highest office in the land.

In Ithaca over the summer, I saw the geography of Trumpism. Ithaca is a college town, a blue island in the red ocean of upstate New York. Coming into the town, perhaps only ten minutes’ drive or so from Cornell, there were confederate flags flying in windows and on porches with peeling paint. Obviously, these signs had nothing to do with pride in the antebellum South. Once in the town, the fine houses near the university campus had yard signs on display, for Sanders, Clinton, and other local Democrats.

 

These political movements – right wing populism, to give them a name – have operated through a grieving for the loss of an object that has passed, or that perhaps never existed. In Britain, the loss is felt complexly. In part, it is the profound absence of the world taught in school and on television in decades past. Not the loss of the colonies per se, but rather the loss of what the colonies represented about British identity: a rule-based world order in which Britain played a leading role; a companionable world in which good sense and shared values motivated the friendly exchange of people, goods and ideas. This is the world in which Britain brought the railways and left behind political institutions, the one in which the locals (or natives) waved their Union Jacks when the royals went on world tours. That few of these things were ever even slightly true is beside the point. What matters is the sense that something has gone missing.

In his 2005 book Postcolonial Melancholia, Paul Gilroy suggested that the post-imperial state has ‘a morbid fixation with the fluctuating substance of national culture and identity’. The colonial past is mostly visible now as ghosts, looming presences that look down from monuments to departed glories. The response to economic stagnation, often filtered through discussions about Islamic fundamentalism, has taken the form of intensified arguments about the distinctiveness of those who live in Britain. It is telling that as nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales have become ascendant, ‘Britishness’ has stopped being the right term. What matters now are national identities, including (or especially) the little Englander. Farage spoke for plucky English self-sufficiency and the strength of years past – the goodness of the country that saved Europe from fascism and enlightened the rest of the world – with Britain’s ‘Independence Day.’ This, too, is politics built on longing: one that substitutes the history of the former colonies and their struggles for independence from Britain for the history of Britain itself. The colonial nation, which built much of its wealth off the expropriation of foreign lands and the enslavement of their people, and which continues to benefit from its colonial legacies, now gets to tell its own story of the overthrow of its colonial masters. A longing for everything to be as it was, in other words, albeit just a little different.

The loss of a British order abroad is matched by the loss of a British order at home. The dark areas on the map in the English imagination are no longer in Africa, but in ‘crap towns’, the current and former council estates that everybody seems to agree are going nowhere. It is not necessarily that the past was any better, that grammar schools really worked for working-class people, or that there was ‘room at the top.’ But the sense is there – in part produced by political leaders and the right-wing press – that contemporary Britain is broken, and that while the rest of us are only  ‘just about managing’, there are many immigrants and supposed dole bludgers who are living in the lap of luxury. Read the Sun or the Daily Mail and you will find a downward envy for these figures, but it is an envy that is enabled by an environment of economic decline and lost hope. In his 1979 article ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Stuart Hall argued that the success of Thatcherism lay in its ability ‘to address real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions’, and to ‘represent them within a logic of discourse which pulls them into line with policies and class strategies of the Right’. Farage has spoken to the problems of people who sense that ‘our way of life’ is collapsing. That is his success, and whatever we may think of his bloke-down-the-pub nativism, he is speaking to people’s discontent.

Trump ran on the theme of restoration: ‘make America great, again.’ To state the obvious: this is neither an appeal to reason nor historical record – what made it great? why is it no longer great? how do we reclaim its greatness? – but a wish for the vague greatness of the past to exist in the present. We could generously say that this is why Trumpism is so amenable to white nationalism. The former greatness was its ethno-religious unity, and its contemporary struggles are a function of the arrival of the non-white, non-Christian other into the community. What this appeals to is ‘a sentiment of loss and displacement, […] a romance with one’s own fantasy’, as Svetlana Boym wrote of nostalgia over a decade ago. With Trump at the helm, today’s political nostalgic wishes to ‘obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology’, as Boym writes, all the while ‘refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.’

The left has long been suspicious of nostalgia. The classical position is in The Communist Manifesto: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’ Their point was that the speed of technological transformation in nineteenth-century Europe was sweeping away all forms of attachment, such as those that bind people to the social order, to the nation and so on. ‘Man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind,’ they continued. Nostalgia, as in a form of historical longing, represents the precise inverse of this. It is an attachment to things as they were, and a failure to reckon with the real conditions of life. In this sense, it is written off as a false consciousness, a mystification, a recherché dream.

Given the events of the last year, such an analysis has its appeals. What Trump and Farage have been promoting no doubt mystifies the relations that organise our societies. Both have been directly involved in destroying the livelihoods of the little guy they champion. Yet the question remains: why has nostalgia become so central in politics? After all, there have long been peddlers of historical fantasies. Winston Peters is New Zealand’s most obvious example of this, although Don Brash deserves a mention, too. He iwi tahi tatou: we are one people, living without sin in the greatest country in the world. Now, though, these dreamers, internationally at least, have stormed the barricades.

The success of Farage and Trump is the product of a contemporary order that is committed to the end of attachment, to melting all that is solid into air. In the politics of the last three decades we have put an end not only to the idea of attachment to class and nation, but even to each other more generally. (This may not be how it has always worked out at crucial moments: claims to the nation have been repeatedly used to mobilise against working people, most notably in Thatcher and Reagan’s anti-union crusades, and in the claims to national interests against foreign interests in war.)

But the end of attachment to anything other than capital is visible in our communities in the most obvious ways, with devastating effects. Along State Highway One, a little further up the road from where I waited for the sheep trucks to pass, familiar storefronts have disappeared, leaving behind only their kitschy advertising hoardings. The arrival of big box stores in the late 1990s and early 2000s put both the canvas worker and the bicycle shop out of business; the Chinese greengrocer gave up his store years ago. The attachment that today’s political nostalgics seek is not so much the embittered and left-behind railing against globalisation, but rather a desire for something other than capital to organise our lives and experiences.

We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, in a romance with our own fantasies. For some time, though, politics on the left has refused to entertain the realm of feeling; instead it has become dominated by a technocratic and perfective strand of thinking. I am referring to the investment social democratic parties have made across the world in producing ever better technical fixes to the job of governing: If only we could crack the right set of incentives, or the right set of interventions, each of us will flourish, and our longings for a better life will be fulfilled. This is allied to an assumption that logic, reason and facts will win out, while lies will eventually be uncovered and discarded: give the truth enough of an airing and it will develop a force of its own. But politics does not work like that. Love, hope, hate, desire, grief and loss are inside political thinking too, whether we like it or not, and they are not answerable to strict rationality. These feelings need not be entirely retrogressive forces, either (though at this moment, they unfortunately are).

The feelings and worries that were central to Trump becoming president and Britain leaving the EU are not going away in a hurry. This is not to legitimise what Farage and Trump have done – turning people against each other, directing hatred towards those least able to defend themselves. They are, as JM Coetzee once wrote of South Africa’s apartheid rulers, ‘the bullies in the last row of school desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land’. The problem is that the left has been reluctant to connect with the people they seek to represent with anything like the same energy. In part, this is because right-wing populism has been peddling historical fantasies. But as with Hall’s account of Thatcherism, we live in our own time of ‘real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions’. It is up to us to mould all of this into policies and strategies of the left; to transform actually existing feeling – the feeling that this world is not the best of all worlds; that we can all live better lives – into forces for justice.

Politics is so much about feeling. I wonder if my first political experience was trudging my way home from my new school in late summer, cricket bag on my back, in the norwest wind. There, feeling a belatedness that I did know had existed, I longed for a utopian past, and wished for a world in the present that had seemingly departed. I know now that the world I envisaged was never truly like the one in which I lived. Periodic trips home were enough to prove that. But the longing was deeply inside the world around me, and it was within me too. I wished in those moments to walk again in the past time. Instead, I was left in the uncanny, journeying between the present that is, and the past that I wanted to have been.

There have been a number of different responses to the events of the last year. For some, it has been a time of anger: so many people believing such groundless and hateful things, to the detriment of all. For others, it has been a time of loss. The world we thought we knew has vanished before our eyes. For more than a few, it has been galvanising. Our mission is clear, these people think, and now we must shake off our complacency and organise to defeat racism, sexism, and immiseration. I admire those with the strength to fight – and I will join them, or at least I will try. There is no doubting that we must offer sanctuary to strangers in dark times: we must show welcome to those dumped from their boats, to those evicted from their homes, and to those living on our doorsteps. But the events of the last year have been a hard landing, for all of us. I have yet again found myself dreaming of a restoration in a time elsewhere from here. It is only that I now want something fundamentally other from what lies in our future.

 

 

226 cover.indd

Read the rest of Overland 226

 

If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four outstanding issues for a year

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Andrew is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Oxford, where he is a Rhodes Scholar. In 2015 he published Ruth, Roger and Me, a book that reflected on the effect of the 1980s and 1990s reforms on the lives and experiences of young New Zealanders. He still plays cricket.

More by