The Left Politics of Nostalgia: Against Romanticizing the Past, Towards Fighting for Revolution

[This is a slightly updated version of an article by the same title that appeared in another domain- which I have no intention of advertising- in early 2017, which was later removed following my refusal to be hosted at a website that was uncritically supportive of the Maduro regime at its most repressive stage.]

When Donald Trump talks about “making America great again”, when Marine LePen and Golden Dawn reminisce about some long by-gone era of ethnic purity, and when Tory Eurosceptics talk about working class Brits who feel threatened by the supposed erosion of community cohesion, they are appealing to the much-analysed Politics of Nostalgia. They are appealing to the romanticized notion of a solidaric, ethnically pure nation where people “knew their place”, sexuality and women were “in check”, and the general social sphere was organised around what we call in Greece “the nation, the religion, and the family”. Of course, such a place has never existed, and if it had, in the words of Bakunin, it “would be necessary to abolish” it. Those of us who position ourselves to the left/radical left/anarchist political spectrums have in turn become accustomed to responding to these arguments by saying that “America was never great”, highlighting the complex interlocking webs of oppressive structures and mentalities that have historically shaped the present and thereby dismantling this idealised image of serenity and tranquillity. The basis of our response is that we would not want to “go back” to that past; by exposing its constituent parts we highlight the classism, racism, sexism and heteronormativity that hide behind the Right’s nostalgia.

Yet are we not ourselves victims of a Nostalgia? A Nostalgia which is a response to the panic of suddenly being on the back-foot, feeling overwhelmed when looking at the rapid advances of the Right after a long period where we thought that radical change was just around the corner? My experiences participating in the anarchist, labour and antiracist/antifascist movements of the UK and reading a variety of sources shows me that we are. This is dangerous because, in introducing and utilizing a conceptual split between “now” and “back then”, movements and writers ignore the underlying structural and cultural forces that fuelled recent developments and myopically scramble for a “change” which is essentially nothing but a regression. This tendency can be seen in three cases, two of which I have direct experience of (post- crisis Greece and post-Brexit vote UK) and one which recently assumed the spotlight, that of Trump’s USA and the general empowerment of the Far Right in the West. Significant differences exist between left-wing groups which my account will under-represent, but my focus is on general trends I have seen in discourses spanning many different organisations rather than on specific instances.

The 2008 financial crisis triggered a plethora of much-analysed socially destabilising effects which permeated the spheres of economy, politics, culture, and resistance. The movements that arose in Greece as a response to austerity were at times massive, militant, and theoretically innovative. The radical part of the left produced an analysis (Lapavitsas’ work is a good example) that underlined the long-term tendencies which gave rise to the economic crisis and dispelled the myth that it was something ‘sudden’ and ‘inevitable’. Focus was centred on reclaiming the capability of currency devaluation by exiting the Eurozone and comparatively little thought was dedicated to the potential of a parallel process aiming at the democratic restructuring of society. The rigorous economic investigations and debates throughout the Left were not supplemented by equally visionary investigations of the role of the State and the emerging possibilities for autonomous grass-roots democracy. Instead, a significant part of Left-wing proposals advocated a return to social-democracy, with strong national (not immediately social) control of the economy under a regime that would this time be “more” democratic. This allowed for the politics of Nostalgia to become a significant mobilising force in the more mainstream left-wing currents. In disconnecting the economic from the political, the “what is to be done” from the “how it should be done”, the way was paved for the modern SYRIZA and its infamous capitulation to Greece’s international creditors. In talking to many people in the movements, they frequently voiced the hope to ‘roll back’ austerity, signalling the nostalgia of pre-2008 times. Indeed, SYRIZA actively channelled memories of the old traditional social-democratic party PASOK, a tendency that increased the closer it got to being elected.

Writers and theorists have since come to the view (frequently proposed in ROARMAG) that austerity has become inseparable from the modern State, not a political choice but a necessity of operating in the constraints of an increasingly polarized capitalistic word-system; getting rid of austerity requires much more than a simple change of government. Yet this view was precisely the one that failed to prevail, and instead the (by now hegemonic) apolitical, non-analytical hope for achieving change within the constraints of the EU and the Euro under the traditional authoritative State structure culminated in the rise of SYRIZA to power. This is the living embodiment of what I describe as “Left Nostalgia”. Desired results are isolated from the processes which gave rise to the problems they are aimed at addressing; in the case of Greece, a refusal to split from the Eurozone and the EU combined with an uncritical acceptance of the State as a saviour allowed Nostalgia rather than Vision to become one of the main driving forces of mobilization. The goal became not to advance but to return to a rose-tinted view of the past, and simple solutions were proposed for complex problems.

The UK has undergone a similar process of austerity, which has however resulted in a victory for an increasingly emboldened Right. The Brexit vote was a manifestation of long-term, deep-rooted and contradictory grievances which combined both racist and anti-capitalist concerns. The Lexit campaign committed serious theoretical reductions and abstractions in uncritically celebrating Brexit as a victory, and similar mistakes are repeated by the liberal Left which laments the “sudden spiral into racism”. The latter is the most vocal and dominant: one morning, people woke up and suddenly discovered that they live in a racist society. It was like magic: all it took was one referendum. Ever since the summer, in many left spaces you hear and read about this momentous event and about how scared, sad, disappointed and “ashamed of their country” everyone is. As if there was no racism before Brexit. As if exploitation, marginalisation, and violence were not regular experiences of immigrant workers (including EU ones) before Brexit. As if the EDL, the BNP, National Action, Prevent and general Islamophobia did not exist before Brexit. As if groups like the Anti-Fascist Network were not screaming at people for years to get active, that the fascists are getting organised and that the deepening austerity will be used to polarize communities. And then they proceed to defend the EU, as if it is not responsible for the drowning of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean. And as if its internal processes and structures did not cause the complete decimation of many immigrants’ national economies, making it necessary for them to migrate in the UK in the first place. As if it is not a colonial killing machine, involved in everything from the intervention in Libya to the support of Aung San Suu Kyi in the mass exterminations of Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

These narratives are harmful because they perform the twin task of 1) proposing that racism was largely non-existent in the UK before the media-fuelled rise of demagogues like Farage, thereby ignoring the long-term trends which Brexit was a manifestation of, and 2) apologising for and legitimizing the EU as some sort of anti-racist, workers’ and human rights guarantor, effectively “outsourcing” the movements’ responsibilities to this colonial conglomerate of States and corporations. The result is that the left ends up defending most of the hegemonic assumptions fostered in the neoliberal West prior to Brexit- the very same assumptions it is supposed to resist. The biggest manifestation of the Left’s uncritical acceptance of hegemony is when people like Corbyn defend migrants “because they are good for our economy” and then activists just advance this argument without caring about the dangerous assumptions it fosters. What would Mr. Corbyn like to do with us if we weren’t good for the economy? Consistency goes out the window and the movement is rightfully perceived as a “bunch of middle class university educated liberals with no connection to the real world”. As a migrant worker living in precarity, I can guarantee that a visit by the Left to the various warehouses around Bradford would have shown them that racist beliefs were all but marginal, and neither were they confined to British whites. In supposedly defending people like me, the movement ends up supporting the institution responsible for my country’s impoverishment; in the meantime, it ignores the EU’s general imperialist history and its murderous border policies that have seen thousands of humans drowned in the Mediterranean. If this is your solidarity, keep it to yourself.

Left-Nostalgia is replicated currently in the context of Trumpism and the general rise of the Far-Right. There exist significant analytical pitfalls in the resistance narratives currently in the process of forming themselves. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, I attended, like many others, one of the protests in Glasgow. I was surprised to hear feminists chanting slogans for Hillary Clinton and crying for Michelle Obama, completely uncritically assuming that their identity as women immediately means that they (and the policies they represent) are progressive. I saw people of colour and whites saying that they will miss Obama, choosing to ignore the murderous and racist nature of his policies. In the realm of writing, left-wing publications are paralleling the aforementioned UK context by acting surprised at the manifestations of racism, as if the radical Black and PoC movements in the US have not been highlighting the US’s institutional, foreign policy, and daily racism for decades now. Furthermore, the connection of racism, homophobia, and sexism to the functioning of capitalism becomes blurred; movements end up advocating a return to the neoliberal homonationalist framework which was dominant before the financial crisis (and in many cases, still is). Not only do these views leave the hegemonic pillars of the system untouched, but they also hinder any possibilities of organising effective resistances. The rise of the far-right all over the West is dismissed as the response of already-racist whites who, suddenly impoverished because of the financial crisis, see no reason for supporting the traditional ‘centre’ parties any longer. Both structural and subjective realms of analysis are bypassed. Rather than using recent events as added arguments in a framework that understands how capitalism, in times of crisis, seeks to salvage itself by accentuating and playing upon existing divisions, the dominant voices of the Left propose a return to pre-2008 neoliberal “tranquillity”, which was, of course, anything but.

Other than the mistake of movements ending up supporting the same underlying processes that gave rise to modern circumstances, another worrying aspect of Left-Nostalgia is that it serves to ignore and side-step the complicity of the Left. The oppressors will always try to further entrench their position; it makes little sense focusing on them rather than focusing on what we did (or didn’t do). The dominant explicatory narrative is that of a generally effective movement which was overwhelmed by the circumstances. Little attention is paid to the fact that the Left has largely become a parody of itself. This is due to many reasons that must be deeply discussed and are not the point of this article, but this fundamental fact should not be forgotten: most people in the UK, indeed the grand majority, have absolutely no connection to Left, radical Left, or Anarchist discourses. This is not because they are stupid alienated consumers, but because we have not done enough to reach them.

Graeber has talked about the tendency of the Left to enclose itself within itself, in its own spaces, just for the sake of feeling different and “special”. The forces of resistance cannot any longer remain contained to small groups of correctly-speaking, literature-proficient, fashion-conscious (yes, it plays a role) lifestyle “activists”. These subcultures exclude everyone that has not had the opportunities to develop what Bourdieu would call the correct ‘habitus’, that is, the combination of ideas, mentalities, and behaviours whose ownership depends on socialization. Bluntly put, some people do not have the luxury of going through all the motions necessary to fit inside your little activist group. This does not mean that safer spaces should be abandoned (which is an issue that has recently triggered a lot of debate) but that privilege needs to be assessed and questioned at multiple levels.

Although this appears not to be connected to Left-Nostalgia, it is: the processes and arguments which lead us to uncritically advocate a ‘return’ to eras of seemingly ‘less’ oppression signify a deep divorce from the lived realities of oppressed groups. This perception of divorce gets reinforced when the Left is seen taking blatantly counter-intuitive positions relative to people’s experiences, such as supporting the EU in the name of workers’ rights or continuing to advocate radical change through the Labour Party. In order to build an effective movement which is not simply resisting but also dreaming, creating, and winning, it is imperative to stop romanticizing ourselves, stop romanticizing the past, and focus on learning from it for the future. This requires radical splits from our spheres of comfort and intense questioning of our organisations, theoretical foundations, and personal roles.

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