30 Apr Scorched Earth: Nostalgia in the Shadow of the Coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic has so dramatically halted the normal way of life in almost every nation in the world, that the landscape that awaits us on the other side will be truly distinct. Every aspect of our economic, social and political life will need to be re-activated, re-imagined, and re-cultivated. The scorched earth will cast a clear division between life before and after the crisis – giving rise to a clear separation between those energised by the prospect of forging something new, and those who long with nostalgic force for the life we had before.
Nostalgia is an intrinsic part of the human condition, a tendency to fondly remember the seemingly happier, simpler times of our youth, which almost all of us will experience as we age. As time stretches out behind us, the stressful realities of quotidian life and the turbulent political and economic environments that bookended earlier decades become muted and dulled. All that we can be certain of is that our lives were freer, but somehow also safer, and enriched by a greater degree of connectivity and community.
The propensity to feel ‘at home in one’s past’ is also not a distinctly modern affliction – the Edwardians also found themselves unsettled by the urbanisation of the Victorian age, and pined for the era of villages, and rolling green hills not yet blighted by train tracks. More recently, the spectre of nostalgia has cast a shadow across Western political life, with citizens’ disbelief in the promise of future-oriented political visions giving way to a clamour to return to a seemingly simpler, more secure time – one that existed before globalisation, modern technology, hyper-connectivity and diversity, and the linear cult of progress.
One of the most established bodies of evidence on nostalgia pertains to its capacity to be activated by the shock and trauma of major acts of economic, social and political upheaval. For this reason, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the reunification of Germany have been two of the most heavily studied ‘prompts’ for nostalgia; more recently, the collective destabilisation of the global financial crisis, and the seismic shock of the Brexit vote and the ensuing political chaos and social polarisation have both spurred their own accelerations of nostalgic sentiment. After all, much of the social and political experience underpinning the formation of nostalgia derives from the sense of one being ‘on the wrong side of history’.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is a truly tectonic event of historical significance. It is predicted that the economic recession it will inspire will match, or perhaps even exceed, The Great Depression between the two World Wars. As we have previously explored, the lived experience of the pandemic and the consequences of its aftermath are deeply uneven across social and demographic groups. For those who feel they have ‘lost out’ during this crisis, and who feel less represented and securitised in the settlement that forms in its wake, it will be natural to look back at their former lives with rose-tinted glasses. The political consequences of this burgeoning resentment could be profound. The ‘left behinds’ of the pandemic may not align with the ‘left behinds’ made visible in the populist fever pitch of the last five years, injecting a second force of disruptive dissatisfaction into national political systems.
Political leaders and policy-makers are themselves of course vulnerable to nostalgia, and just as we can expect radicals to seize the disruptive force of the pandemic to drive through revolutionary new approaches to the social and economic settlement, we equally can be certain that there will be a desire amongst others to harness the pandemic as a means of returning our political systems to a state before the anti-establishment backlash of the past five years. They will hope that exhausted and traumatised citizens will be won over by the familiar status quo they had more recently rejected, and seek to halt the erosion of the liberal world order, and expel the scourge of populist rhetoric from political life.
As ever, the danger with this restorative form of nostalgia is that it skims boldly and dismissively across the problematic characteristics of the age. Now we have seen the paths it may lead us down, it feels nonsensical for the genuine challenges of the age of globalisation for advanced liberal democracies, including the asymmetries of its dividends for citizens, and its impacts on the economic and social model underpinning our communities, to be reinstated without adjustment. If one believes in the enduring value of liberal democracy, and international liberal institutions, then it is incumbent upon them to make a renewed and more persuasive case for their refurbishment.
It feels inevitable that a new phase of nostalgia will enter the social fabric of Western nations after the coronavirus pandemic. What is less clear is the extent to which this nostalgic sentiment will permeate, and whether it will be spread across multiple constituencies each finding solace in distinctly compelling visions of the past. It is not outside the realm of possibility that we find ourselves with three distinct groups: those who feel they have personally suffered in the crisis, those who seek to return to a ‘golden age’ of globalisation, and the established ‘left behind’ citizens who entered the crisis already pining for a different age.
Nostalgia is not in and of itself a pernicious force, but it holds the potential to be politically and socially destructive – not least of all when it cultivates exclusivity, resentment and competition between citizens, and when it is used as a weapon to degrade rights and freedoms. However, one of its less visible threats to democratic governance lies in its capacity to suck the oxygen from our political discourse, away from much-needed planning for the future. Given the trajectory of this crisis has been so acutely felt in part because advanced nations did not sufficiently nor imaginatively look beyond the parameters of contemporary political terrain to anticipate future threats, it is clear that we simply cannot afford for this dangerous capacity of nostalgia to become endemic in our political cultures. Amidst the suffering and tragedy, the pandemic presents an opportunity for us to repair, but also to recalibrate. We must not squander it.
I have studied nostalgia in a range of different contexts in the UK, Europe and the United States. The most substantial of these projects, with the fieldwork conducted in 2017-18, can be accessed here. Under my affiliation as an Academic Fellow at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, I also published a more recent study into nostalgia in the EU in February 2020 – available online here.