JULY 26, 2016
It’s perhaps no accident that “Keep Calm and Carry On,” the unused World War II propaganda slogan that has since spawned countless memes, originated the same year the United Kingdom was mired in its worst recession since that war. In times of tumult, people seek comfort — sometimes in misty-eyed recollections of the past, or more prosaically in mugs and tea towels emblazoned with an exhortation to grin and bear it. Seven years after it first gained prominence, the “Keep Calm” slogan remains ubiquitous, but a troubling politics belies its twee British aesthetic of self-reliance, sponge cakes, and a longing for benevolent empire. What once seemed a consolation now feels like more of a taunt.
In the years after the 2008 financial crisis, austerity programs were implemented far beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, with countries around the world sharpening the fiscal knives. But the nostalgia-industrial complex found a way to monetize economic misery: demand for “Keep Calm” merchandise and other nostalgia-oriented objects skyrocketed; trend reports in The New York Times soon followed. When asked to elaborate on the slogan’s appeal, one advertising executive at BBDO North America told the newspaper that the poster was “quiet and nice and sort of stiff-upper-lippy,” the kind of sentiment he hoped would boost the spirits of his colleagues during the US economy’s tenuous path to recovery. The thing about restraint is that it’s a double threat, presenting itself as a virtue while implying acquiescence. London-based architecture and political critic Owen Hatherley, author of The Ministry of Nostalgia, is blunter: “It is a nostalgia for the state of being repressed.” What bewilders him is why so many evince a dewy-eyed nostalgia for a time that they’ve not experienced, if it ever existed at all.
These concerns animate The Ministry of Nostalgia, Hatherley’s astringent and richly observed polemic on how a collective longing for a mythologized history — what he calls “austerity nostalgia” — anaesthetizes us to more radical political possibilities, or even a more dignified way of living. This fetish for the past, Hatherley argues, may have troubling implications for a citizenry’s relationship to the present — a time when income inequality is deepening, job security is wavering, and housing affordability is worsening.
While The Ministry of Nostalgia is first and foremost a book about Britain, its resonance runs much deeper, particularly as the debate over austerity’s legacy continues apace. Austerity’s aesthetic hallmarks are observable everywhere, Hatherley says — in the chart-topping whimsy of Mumford & Sons, on Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food television series, in the housing market’s valuation of certain architectural trends. And although the pop-culture exegeses occasionally feel like a stretch, Hatherley mounts a convincing case that the valorization of this aesthetic signals a longing for the past that elides the severity of its politics. The result is an omnivorous and forceful critique that weaves together deft analyses of politics, urbanism, and architecture, depicting a British body politic scarred by attacks on the country’s social democratic tradition, who are consequently clinging to a nostalgic (and false) conception of the social stability supposedly achieved in the ’40s and early ’50s, while their political leaders appropriate the experience of the ’40s in order to justify the disemboweling of the social safety net.
Politicians have long cashed in on the con of austerity. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair relentlessly propagated the myth of “Blitz spirit” to justify wholesale spending cuts and the dismantling of benefits and social services programs. They employed a rhetoric of self-sacrifice for the common good — a way of softening the sharp edges of their class warfare. Hatherley’s argument, which suggests the wartime period and the more contemporary experiences of austerity aren’t analogous, is supported with evidence. The period of postwar austerity in the ’40s was also accompanied, he says, by “the construction of a welfare state, the creation of generous state benefits and the building of a comprehensive system of health care and education, alongside collective bargaining with strong trade unions, the guarantee of full employment, and a massive public housing programme.” These institutions may have been flawed but their foundations were intact, until the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, which saw cutbacks to social spending, the privatization of numerous public assets, and the irrevocable erosion of trade union power in Britain.
In the 2015 general election, the coalition government led by David Cameron vowed to tackle the mounting budget deficit. It ran on a platform of austerity: it hiked tuition fees by 300 percent, slashed arts funding, introduced a bedroom tax, and abolished lifelong council tenure on public housing. This mania for fiscal discipline endures not necessarily because it promotes growth (an influential research paper cited by many policymakers to justify austerity was discredited in 2013), but because it fulfils an ideological desire to eliminate the welfare state. The ideal of the meritocracy panders to one’s self-regard by encouraging the belief that success is earned through hard work rather than the result of a lottery. It’s a claim to entitlement rather than an acknowledgment of privilege. It then becomes easy to frame “handouts” as the provenance of the lazy rather than those who have endured structural disadvantage, and poverty as the result of poor budgeting skills.
Nowhere is this sense of disadvantage more apparent than in London’s housing market. In August 2015, a three-bedroom former public housing flat in Covent Garden was sold for £1.2 million, reportedly the highest amount paid for a dwelling previously owned by the council. More astonishing is that the figure represents a return on investment of 800 percent for the sellers, who purchased the property in 1990 for £130,000 under Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme. The stigma that once surrounded public housing has been replaced by investors’ naked opportunism. “There’s a whole generation of people who don’t even know what a traditional council house is or was,” a realtor told the Guardian after the record-breaking sale. “Investors are keen as they often give great yields as purchase prices are lower than average.”
The market’s irrational exuberance is only part of the equation. For one thing, Hatherley explains, government policies such as Right to Buy and Buy to Let allowed property developers easy access to these properties, which pushed up rent prices and attracted white-collar professionals, ushering in waves of gentrification and displacement across the city. Secondly, the austerity nostalgia manifest in Boris Johnson’s London Housing Design Guide has ushered in a “new brick phenomenon” that Hatherley says borrows the aesthetics of early 19th-century housing in inner London and that of the London County Council, which built a large number of estates from the ’30s to the ’60s. The irony, he explains, is that developers have been encouraged to build apartments that mimic the voguish façade of council flats, while investment in actual public housing wanes. “London […] now increasingly resembles a cross between Islington in the 1820s and Poplar in the 1950s, two moments of austerity and rectitude.”
Hatherley has written extensively on architecture — its politics, its purpose, the clash of modernism and tradition — and he explicates the evolution of aesthetic trends in The Ministry of Nostalgia with great clarity. In London (as in other metropolises), it has become clear the architect’s social, humanizing function has been overridden by commercial imperatives. Hatherley notes there are housing developments in southeast London that “offer staggeringly expensive property to the eager parade of investors” while using “the fig leaf of the ‘affordable’ percentage [80 percent of the market rate] to ram the project past the planning committees of the local authority.” In a city where the average property price is £514,000, it’s no wonder these buildings are little more than investment vehicles for financial speculation, and their architects cogs in the property market’s status-sorting machine. Urban regeneration sounds a lot more palatable (and monetizable) than social cleansing.
Hatherley doesn’t mention the word “twee” (he prefers “whimsy”), but it’s clear he sees it as a regressive force. In a visit to a market in Greenwich, he looks askance at stallholders that hawk wartime memorabilia and retro-chic accoutrements to eager crowds. (During the course of my research, I stumbled upon a Time Out listing for a vintage department store called Blitz, housed in a lavish warehouse in London’s East End.) He has few kind words to say about Mumford & Sons. The “historical syncretism” of this kind of nostalgia, and “its rejection of the real human advances of the post-war era had seeped into the consciousness of people who would, when pressed, probably be in opposition to it even as they performed its aesthetics,” Hatherley says. I wonder how heavily, say, retrograde gender politics figures into a person’s decision to wear, say, a rockabilly-style dress or whether France’s postwar experience was a deciding factor in wearing a suit from Dior’s New Look collection, and if it is possible to negotiate nostalgia in a way that allows us to form a vision for the future that does not elide the mistakes of the past.
Hatherley makes a persuasive case that, as far as politics is concerned, nostalgia is an impediment to progress. Its fuzziness skews our perspective and blurs our capacity for hindsight. We become accustomed to false memories. No wonder it’s a potent political force: voters’ aspirations and grievances feed off a mythologized vision of how things were and they could be. If you’re a renter, saddled with crippling debt, stuck in a precarious job market with stifled professional mobility — diminishing returns across the board — nostalgia is a warm blanket. Is there another way? “Collective utility,” Hatherley says — the summoning of a communal will to act based on economic or political necessity, rather than aspiration — may provide part of the solution, a way to interrogate the present and the future without appropriating an idealized history. Indeed, the mood might be turning, as those wizened by deprivations grasp the limits of nostalgia. At the beginning of this year, a campaign called Clean for the Queen, which borrows the design and Gill Sans typeface of the “Keep Calm” posters, issued Britons with directives ahead of the monarch’s 90th birthday celebrations: “Vacuum your villages! Spruce up your cities! Delitter the land!” Demanding public servitude seemed tone-deaf at a time of economic hardship; the backlash, unsurprisingly, was vehement.
But Hatherley’s explanations for how a “statement of collective utility” could be used as a political weapon feel tacked on and insubstantial, perhaps the book’s weak point. He offers some examples: the mass protests against tuition fees in 2011 and the case of the Focus E15 mothers, who protested funding cuts to their public housing — which would have forced them to accept private rental accommodation in Manchester, Birmingham, and Hastings — by occupying a housing estate in London’s Stratford, turning it into a makeshift social center and open house for the homeless. Such events, for one thing, seem too scattered and infrequent to challenge the dominant narrative of austerity nostalgia. Secondly, this kind of resistance — what Yale scholar James C. Scott described as the “disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below” — is in short supply, not necessarily because of a lack of communal will, but because of an increasing tendency of the state to quash dissent to keep up appearances (see: Occupy Wall Street, the London riots, Ferguson). Perhaps Hatherley knows it, which makes his prognosis particularly grim. “A city that is not melancholic, that is not based on either an austerity that coexists with an ever more obscenely rich 1 percent, nor a ‘social democracy of fear,’ is the best we can hope for,” he says, which is both optimistic and deeply depressing. Neo-Keynesianism has never seemed more like a dream; the system, despite threatening to break, remains frustratingly intact. As social and economic opportunities evaporate around us, we may well keep buying imperfect versions of our memories no matter the price, allowing politicians to defend the indefensible, until we have nothing left to lose.
Gillian Terzis writes a semi-regular technology column for The Saturday Paper, and also contributes work to The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and New Philosopher, among others. She lives in San Francisco.