by Nathan Coombs
In my inaugural review of the Left press in the last issue of The Commune I took us on a journey across what seemed a fairly representative spread of the journals of the Left. On reflection, this taking them one-by-one approach was probably far from adequate: To get a sense of the pulse of the Left it would probably be more helpful to try and comment upon the emerging themes and concerns, and in some way to also provide an intervention upon them.
It is always difficult to discern much coherence to the output of the major journals; more so since so many of them seem so distant from engaged political thought. And so in this instalment I will cast my net wider than the predictable sweep of the New Left Review, International Socialism and so forth, to consider the wider world of blogs, non-typical journals and websites, all of which purvey some brand of leftist thinking.
Better, then, to also think in terms of the dominant theme of the moment, which at this point in time appears to be an overwhelming disposition towards nostalghia.
“Nostalghia – sloppy typo?” Nope. The famous Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky once described the experience of exile for a Russian as “nostalghia” – he insisted that the word not be translated into proper English, but rather retain an awkward spelling. For Tarkovsky, who evinced a peculiar brand of medievalist Russian nationalism throughout his work, a Russian leaving their homeland would experience a form of spiritual and physical death; and, indeed, the central character, the semi-autobiographical poet, Andrei Gorchakov, does actually die at the end of the film. Tarkovsky himself would later die in Sweden, embittered by his attempts to cast himself as a heroic dissident exile from the Soviet Union, but in the end disillusioned by the supposed freedoms of the capitalist and consumerist West.
I start with this rather highbrow anecdote because there does in fact seem to be a moment of “nostalghia” across both the mainstream and the Left. It is a theme which has recurred across a number of journals. In the latest issue of Radical Philosophy (157) Owen Hatherley has an excellent piece on “Lash out and cover up: Austerity nostalgia and ironic authoritarianism in recession Britain”[i] Hatherley traces the emergence of austerity aesthetics and an ironic longing for post-war austerity and a reliable, firm-handed paternalistic elite at the apex of British society.
He sees in the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ brand, that has worked its way like a virus onto cups for sale in bookstores, office stationary, and posters on the walls of student bedrooms – and is refashioned from a 1939 government propaganda slogan – a longing for more reliable times and clearer cut lines of authority.
Clearly this marks a change in the cultural ether. The 1990s could be considered a period of fin-de-siecle, when we were meant to be casting aside all the old dogmas of the past, embracing the spanking new world of the Third Way etc. By contrast, after the economic crisis we seem to be a period of ideological void in which, with the continuing, or worsening, weakness of the Left, the reinvention of a mythical time of national solidarity in the face of austerity, a kind of salute to the British stiff upper limit, represents the horizon of social imagination.
The prolific Louis Proyect also has two recent pieces on “Joseph Stalin Nostalgia”[ii] and “Winston Churchill Nostalgia”[iii] (Sept 2009). Proyect’s blog entries, which are frequently conference-length commentaries on recent events, appear in this case to be motivated by an axe to grind against Socialist Unity’s Andy Newman, but in any case touch the same zeitgeist.
In Russia Joseph Stalin’s legacy has been revived as part of a general swing toward muscular nationalist sentiment. And even though Proyect opens his piece with the caveat “My general tendency is to avoid Stalin-Trotsky debates and have even ruled them as out of order on Marxmail since they inevitably lead to flame wars and have very little relevance to politics today” the fact that his post has already generated 160 comments just goes to show that a bit of Punch and Judy politics over who is or isn’t a Stalinist is a lot more interesting for many on the Left today than producing cogent contemporary political analyses.
Worst of all is the endless invocation of World War II, which Proyect’s screed against Churchill revivalism hits the nail precisely on the head. As he argues – and is surely correct – the Churchillian mythology is part of the sustaining moral case for the “Liberal Defence of Murder.” It also seeps into the backward looking provincialism of some of the recent attempts at Leftist populism – whether that be NO2EU campaigns, or the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ moment of the trade unions, or the ‘Jobs for the boys’ banner hung out on the Vestas factory by supposedly right-on environmentalists.
In the more run of the mill corners of the social democratic Left, the recession and budget deficit has also been welcomed as a chance to return to ‘politics as usual.’ Now, we are told, a real choice emerges between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. Cameron’s Red Tories and Brown’s Blairites are back in their box apparently, and now we have serious ideological disagreements that hark back to the good old days of the 1980s – a time when Labour were, well, Labour and the Tories could rely on the iron balls of privatise it all Maggie Thatcher.
Need it be said that the choice between two political parties – and an even more principleless perennial runner up – that make no bones about being the active representatives of Capital in their competition of how to slash and burn public spending, primarily by targeting those at the bottom, of course, hardly represents a compelling choice, or the substance of any serious ideological contest.
Moreover, as James Hearfield – former second in command of the Revolutionary Communist Party until his break with Frank Furedi over Furedi’s sharp rightward turn – argues[iv], both the portrayals of Britain as an increasingly “state socialist” economy, or as a free market economy gone mad, do not face up to the fact that neither model accurately describes Britain today. What we have today, he demonstrates, is a parasitic state-private hybridisation facilitating neither the explosive growth associated with properly exploitative capitalism, nor the redistributive and generally more egalitarian societies dominated by state spending (think Sweden, for example). Instead, billions of pounds are siphoned off into the bank accounts of the government’s various advisors, contractors etc in the private sector. With the turbo-charged inequalities and economic and social stagnation that has resulted from this set-up of bad-faith parasitism, the state has refashioned its role as making increasingly authoritarian interventions into its subject’s private lives.
Heartfield’s is a depressing analysis, and even though I don’t share his enthusiasm for a return to a centrally planned economy, or to recreate explosive early capitalism, his general deductions about the nature of the economy are extremely convincing. But more than anything, his article succeeds in showing how it is certain nostalgic framings, such as The Times’ “Soviet Britain” expression, mask the way things really have changed, and why the idea that we are returning to the divisions of the 1980s is so deceptive.
Yet it is also too easy to underestimate the allure of nostalgia, or to write off the idea that the British public might fall into this well laid trap to relapse into delusions of battles past – as, we should add, many on the Left seem to be with their obsession with the events in the Soviet Union ninety years ago, or the desire for a Labour Party 2.0.
To understand the powerful allure of nostalgia, and the attendant pleasure derived from its inherent fatalism, the effect of Tarkovky’s films is instructive. Much like Bela Tarr’s films too, the barrenness of the landscapes, the empty space, the mud on the roads and bare shelves have an undeniable aesthetic appeal, to the extent that it is easy to sometimes forget that the project of Marxists and communists is to create a society of abundance for all, and not hark back to the austerity of the rural commune (eco-socialists) or brutalist mass industry and housing tenements (neo-Stalinist nostalgiacs for the Soviet Union).
Bela Tarr’s Damnation – great to watch, not so fun to live
If we were in need of being reminded of the dangerous appeal of austerity nostalgia for 21st century socialism – one thinks here of Chavez’s defence of the unchanging slums on the hills of Caracas: “it’s ok, because now they have their dignity!” – then Naked Punch’s feature on Russian Poetry helps as a kind of short circuit. The poems are undoubtedly beautiful and compelling, and yet they are also deathly, sickly ruminations on the world that speak of a kind of tragic longing one might experience when listening to some of Elliot Smith or Kurt Cobain’s songs.
Naked Punch[v] is certainly an outlier on the fringe of the Left press. Published as a glossy, and expensive, magazine for a number of years, with the latest issue it has switched to a Leftist rag format, and now sells for only one pound – generally in socialist bookstores, art galleries and bookstores that lie close to major Universities. In addition to the aforementioned translations of Russian poetry, it also features a piece by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera on violence – effectively taking the side of Slavoj Zizek in his very public spat with Simon Critchley. Oscar rightly argues that violence is irreducible in any emancipatory struggle and that to resort to any kind of politically correct pacifism is to also retreat to an acceptance of the status quo.
Costas Douzinas, the organiser of Birkbeck College’s Communism conference[vi] earlier this year, also contributes an interesting article where he thinks the December uprising in Greece as an event. Costas’ analysis is erudite and compelling, yet one cannot help wonder whether the theoretical energies would not have been better spent dissecting the limitations of anarchism to cement a lasting social change. A disappearing event is all very well, but it does little for the generation of young Greeks with only a pathetically low income to look forward to, at best; or the unfulfilled aspiration to stamp out capitalism, the corrupt state complex and so on. The inscription of the – failed – event into the cultural mythology speaks in my mind to the narcissism and defeatism of the anarchist mindset – which, I must add, Costas would certainly not endorse.
In sum, nostalgia seems to be a hot topic. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ten years ago the soothing lullaby was of a brand new start, of a world of capitalism that would deliver global peace and prosperity. Yet what we have witnessed is more of the same – moderate increases in the material standard of living in the developed countries, combined with declining real wages, booming inequalities, the collapse of meaningful democracy, the victory of plutocracy. Ten years on, however, with much of this revealed, the opposite temptation presents itself: That we should simply return to the battles of the past, and conjure up politics as historical reenactment.
As I have tried to show here though nostalgia is a form of death – a sickly renunciation of life that does nothing to realise the always-possible present. And as such, it is always the weapon of choice for those purveyors of the status quo, who in response to the true political subject who chooses now, chooses life, offer in response only cobwebbed ruins.