As a heads-up, before you accuse me of “preaching to the choir” or going on a rant, just know that this post is mostly an attempt to sort out a personal crisis. So please read it with that in mind. (If, on the other hand, you want to call me an upper middle-class hippie to whom class struggle and social justice are merely matters of intellectual exercise, you can go ahead and do that. I don’t mind.)
Over the course of my short yet lively blogging career, I’ve somehow become an expert at writing about nostalgia. I never seem to tire of it. The main reason nostalgia has proven such a complicated feeling to unpack for me is my inherent skepticism towards it. I know how much my little monkey brain loves to fabricate false memories, and I’ve had to learn to be wary of sentimentality as a mere survival strategy. But despite my expertise in analyzing these feelings, I’m still in need of guidance when it comes to the kind of nostalgia that makes no pretence about its illusory nature: the kind where you long for a time you never witnessed.
At a glimpse, some might diagnose me with “Ostalgie” (a blend between the German words for “East” and “nostalgia” meaning a love for pre-1990 East German culture and GDR memorabilia), but I know better than to romanticize that in my condition. My personal sympathies align more with the rise of the identity-driven New Left and its pacifist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian protest culture in the 1960s and 70s. It’s hard to deny that the postwar generation’s revolts of 1968, for instance, marked a period of uncompromising, far-reaching political praxis rarely equalled by later movements. Whether crimes were being committed in the name of so-called communism or in an attempt to thwart anti-American schemes, young people rose up in the face of harsh repression by state authority all over the world to voice their opposition. Haven’t those people earned my admiration?
What’s left of the New Left?
Nowadays, political discontent has become the default in countries like mine. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of an oft-revered, oft-rejected populist front in the West, which is characterized by action rather than apathy and has therefore prompted various haphazard responses from the political establishment. My favourite are the “well-meaning” centre-right politicians trying to save face in front of the audiences of populist fearmongers in order to curb far-right political leverage after the next election. But why is the threat facing countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and France a resurgence of nationalism? It’s striking how much scapegoating rhetoric and talk of cultural annihilation is in circulation these days; it makes you wonder where all the leftists have gone. Where is the concern for our politicians’ negligent handling of international peacekeeping efforts and domestic wealth redistribution? On this gap in the opposition, I turn to socialist guru Gregor Gysi, who addressed the youth of today in a speech he gave in Heidelberg last year by stating,
You’re too well-behaved for me.
In this respect, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty as charged. And I’m sorry to report that I haven’t yet met any kindred spirit among my peers who shares my nostalgia for a more vibrant protest culture. In fact, I’ve seen many intent on refuting nostalgia in online spaces like Tumblr or Twitter rather than trying to harness its potential for political upheaval. That’s because nostalgia is actually one of the driving forces behind today’s populist conservatism, as best encapsulated in Donald Trump’s infamous campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”. So-called Social Justice Warriors have had to debunk this Golden Age Syndrome by saying that some white people simply long for the lost years when their socio-economic privileges could go unquestioned (along with the ideological corollary that they’ve earned those privileges). And I think that interpretation is valid. A lot of people online simply appear to be outraged about their racist remarks causing outrage, which is a sign that those didn’t use to be much trouble “in the olden days”. Still, I’m not so sure I fully agree with what’s at the root of that leftist retort. The underlying narrative on the part of progressives is this vague idea of, well, Progress, which runs something like this:
We’ve moved on as a society, and now we’re stuck having to endure the whining of those stuck in their ways, who still inhabit that bygone era of unquestioned prejudice we took such pains to leave behind us.
This smells fishy to me; it’s suspiciously optimistic. What’s more, such a way of thinking ignores some important social factors, like the fears of impoverishment which make you prone to certain prejudices. In an aging society where poverty and wealth are inherited and even middle-class prosperity is at stake, immigrants just don’t look like the workforce messiahs the centre left always pronounces them to be. So why not restrict immigration according to what the job market demands instead of adding to the pool of working people competing for already scarce economic resources? Questions like this one, which rationalize xenophobia in very dangerous ways, are why nationalism has been such a large theme in populist circles: putting citizens first often seems like the only remedy for the injustices endured by seniors and working people born and raised in your country. It’s about priorities, not discrimination!
The trouble is, in the midst of populists decrying the seemingly gratuitous benefits granted to immigrants, class consciousness is left out of the equation. It’s almost like Europeans have now adopted the American ideology by which workers “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, as a famous quote often attributed to John Steinbeck has it. In that light, it’s easy to blind people to the interests they share with incoming refugees and immigrants. It’s easy to advance and exploit the idea of a Golden Age, which amounts to little more than wishing away the military conflicts and lack of opportunity causing mass migration. Although it’s never wise to wage war against an idea, we need to counteract this nostalgia. Because it’s not productive. A longing for the heyday of the New Left, for a time when anger was directed at systemic issues within state capitalism rather than at vulnerable minorities, can be savoured, but some conditions apply. You can mould your 20th-century utopia this way or that, the fact remains that by and large the idea of a Golden Age is bullshit. The only shred of truth I see in it is a solidification of systemic injustice. Are our calls for higher taxation of the super-rich really enough to effect sustainable change anymore? Not even the Internet has brought about an agenda backed by a genuine majority on the issue of wealth inequality. Politics has bored many out of their revolutionary mindset.
The only viable anti-establishment movements seem to come from the right. “Silent majorities” rally behind charismatic bigots who antagonize the identity politics of feminists, civil rights advocates, and the like, just so they can all comfort themselves with the illusion that women and minorities have gotten “greedy” seeing as their equal status is already guaranteed by the law. Their campaigns rely on hatred and generalization; their promise of change threatens the disenfranchised. And the left? The left is just a heap of sectarian interests that falls victim to the in-group-versus-out-group thinking usually associated with the right-wing camp. As a result, there’s little in the way of a debate going on as to whether a natural extension of someone’s queer feminist beliefs would be a demand to do away with capitalism or, say, state authority. Sure, if people wake up to the fact that their local Pride Parade has been hijacked and reduced to a corporate PR party, that does raise some eyebrows. But what does a leftist praxis look like that opposes its own former incarnations? For that matter, what does a praxis look like that’s inclusive of various identities but doesn’t dwell on internal differences at the expense of unity? How does one reach out to the self-proclaimed “silent majority” while staying true to the causes of minorities?
I’m just mirroring the public image of the left when I say we’re not ready to respond to these vital questions yet. I will admit, though, that the claim that my generation is too well-behaved is something of an oversimplification, and I don’t mean to discredit the work activists are doing out of a feeling of guilt for not contributing anything myself.
Quo vadis, working class?
From all sides of the debate on populism, you’ve been hearing that the political establishment has failed to take those people seriously who like to trespass the boundaries of political correctness (and, quite often, basic human decency) to express some deep-rooted fear. At the same time, nobody seems to know exactly how to go about changing that. One thing is clear, though: open hostility, whether levelled against immigrants or capitalists, shouldn’t be taken at face value if it is to be understood. It should be thoroughly studied in order to enable us to distinguish between threats to our values and demands to our governments, so that we can weed out the anger that attacks a group’s basic rights and address the anger that points toward economic injustices.
The voices calling for betterment are spread far and wide, and we can debate which articulates the best vision to move forward. But nostalgia has no place in that process; it’s a severely unhelpful emotion when it comes to resolving political divisions. To see it for what it is, we need to look at the soil on which every construct of a Golden Age rests: a loss of hope. We turn to the past because “the future isn’t what it used to be”, as Shane Koyczan puts it. So we may not have a lot of hope left to invest in protest at the end of the day, but I think we can still work up some sympathy for one another. We’ve been searching too long for a common enemy. This new solidarity has to be built on sympathy.