Saturday, April 09, 2011

Looking backwards

It appears that Madeleine Bunting wishes to emotionally bond with Ed Milliband, something that gives me a brief pang of sympathy for the man. However, I could see where she was coming from when she wrote,
But there was – and is – another account of betrayal in which a liberal elite, smugly superior in their metropolitan progressivism, championed globalisation and sold ordinary working people down the river.
Although she skates perilously on the thin ice of a patronising view of the now mythologised white working class, she does see the landscape of insecurity and exploitation on the horizon before crashing through the surface into the freezing waters of 'Blue Labour', to my mind a weird combination of William Cobbett, G K Chesterton and Catholic guilt. This mélange of collectivism and social conservatism is the latest 'big thing' and has depressingly attracted the main spokesman for the social democratic left, John Cruddas. As for Bunting and her key theme? It’s nostalgia.
What does a politics of nostalgia amount to? Cruddas, again, offers pointers: "People yearn for respect, belonging, identity, tradition. They yearn to fight against their insecurity." Jonathan Rutherford talks of a "conservative socialism". What they look back to are strands of early Labour thinking that shared much with Toryism – Romantic, popular, rooted in working-class experience of dispossession and English. But these strands fell by the wayside, marginalised by both liberalism, technocratic statism and internationalism.
Yikes, there is a lot of contradictory stuff packed in there but rather than try and untangle it, I want to explain why I think that nostalgia makes for lousy politics.

1. Nostalgia is not history; it is not even memory. It is a fiction, an invented past. And it is a confection created in the image of a present ideology. A politics rooted in make-believe is hardly convincing.

2. Nostalgia can be totalitarian. The imposition of a fabricated past can be more oppressive than the attempt to create a futurist utopia. Al Qaeda is a perfect example – hey guys, we had so much fun back in the seventh century.

3. It matters what you are nostalgic for: loon pants, Doris Day, the Third Reich? One person’s nostalgia is another’s nausea.

4. We are all nostalgics. We all look back on better times, at least we do when we reach a certain age. We long for our lost youth; and they were better times – we had energy, libido and hair. The trouble is that our personal nostalgia is rooted in our particular era. A politics that offers us eternal youth in a time of our choosing is hardly practical.

5. The reason many things have changed is because they were crap. It is called progress because it is, er, progress.

6. The beneficiaries of change are hardly likely to opt for nostalgia. Oops, there goes the women’s vote.

7. Nostalgia tends towards either an acceptance or a minimisation of conflicts, injustices, hierarchies and oppression; not because they are right, but because they took place in a mythical past that can now be presented to us as something inherently superior to the present.

Instead of nostalgia we need to grasp its opposites. These aren’t futurism and modernism; the opposites of nostalgia are history and experience, both of which require judgement and analysis, not a cosy warm glow. These certainly have an emotional resonance – their own celebrations in custom and music, their own literature - but don’t mistake that emotional attachment with the morass of Chestertonian nostalgia. It is sharp, analytical and angry. And, above all, it is real.

This then points to two things in Bunting’s article that are worth exploring, resistance to change and security.

Resistance to change is important, it can defend what we value, but it is always selective. It is an old cliché that people don’t like change. Human beings are actually very good at accepting change that benefits them and rejecting it when it does harm. Many working class struggles against change were not against 'progress' per se, they were fought against innovations aimed at breaking their power or reducing their standards of living in order to benefit others. Handloom weavers did not fight to preserve the picturesque, they wanted to keep their independence and income and in losing they were plunged into the wage slavery of the factories. So a politics of resistance to change is one that has to be based on a sharp analysis of competing interests and has to ally itself to reform, change for the better, as well. Many of the great political struggles of our times have been for change - civil and political rights, female emancipation for example - not against it.

Her identification of the problem of insecurity is also interesting. However, Bunting seems to be talking about it in terms of anomie, whereas to me, security is not predominantly a social or cultural concept, it is economic. Health care, housing, welfare, education, good pensions – all eminently affordable in rich societies – are what create security. And economic security does not necessarily reinforce conventional values; it gives us freedom. With security we lose the fears that keep us subservient and beholden to others, we can choose the ways we wish to live. Anyway, it is no place of a political party to lecture us about our private lives and besides, any political initiative trying to promote a particular way of life is doomed to failure. Remember 'Back to Basics'?

I can’t help feeling that this whole malarkey is a way of avoiding hard analysis in favour of an undifferentiated conservatism. Change is not a single thing; it is contradictory and deeply embedded in the everyday conflicts of our lives. It is based on the real interests of real people and they may not be identical. Once you accept that, nostalgia, rather than being a basis for a revival of the left, instead becomes a soggy ideological blanket that smothers the important political choices that we should be making right now.

Hat tip Steve


Roger said...

While I have defended Glasman before the accession of Madeline Bunting to any cause really does demand a serious rethink...

Other than it's imbecilic stupid name 'Blue Labour' also lacks a detailed exposition - Glasman's own magnum opus seems to be his 1996 book Unnecessary Suffering which now retails at a ridiculous £65+ second hand and which therefore most of us will only know from Nigel Meek's right-libertarian critique (which I presume is where you got the stuff about its Chestertonianism from?).

Until Glasman actually provides something a bit more substantial than occasional pieces attacking the City of London Corporation (for which he incidentally deserves a lot of credit) idiotarians like Bunting and Blairites like Purnell will pretty much be able to read whatever they like into the phrase.

FWIW I think asserting that the Left are the true conservatives is as valid strategy now as when Daniel Bell first mooted it in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch expanded on it in the 1970s and Jeremy Seabrook applied it in the 1980s.

And in current conditions a real conservative position becomes in Trotskyist terms a transitional demand - capitalism doesn't just want to consume the public sector (in the very widest sense of that term to include every last space that is 'public') it absolutely needs to do so as without a constant flow of new privatisations and marketisations corporations like Serco and Capita will die.

I just wish Glasman would get his finger out and define what the fuck he is really talking about as if he doesn't he will just be the Labour Philip Blond.

The Plump said...

I hadn't read that review you talked about Roger and I have to confess that I have only read articles on and by Glasman. However, it has always struck me that this communitarian stuff has strong echoes of Belloc and Chesterton, whether the influence is direct or indirect. It certainly is there in the execrable Phillip Blond.

I think that this is sad as there are far more interesting writers, such as Seabrook and Lasch, both of whom I have read and, though I have criticisms of both, am impressed by.

There are really two roots to this communitarianism, the nostalgic Gothic revivalism stuff deriving from Ruskin, which influenced both left and right - including the far right. And the regionalist thinking that comes out of the development of ideas around the ecology of the natural and built environment.

This latter is worthy of much deeper exploration and it eschews the awful moral conservatism that so attracts Bunting.