"Culturally I am stuck in the 1990s, so I feel nostalgic that the clothes and political culture is back" - Jess Philips
Not sure what she meant there - unless the tweet is in reference to Tory too-long-in-power-malaise of corruption and scandal versus a new New Labour being in the offing (dream on Jess, dream on). But what really struck me was that it was the return of Retro Analogies to the Discourse of UK Politics.
In case, you can't remember, here's some revival-bloggage of my own - from 2015 - 2016 when it seemed like everybody, EVERYBODY - anti-Corbyn bods, Cameron's Tories, and sometimes the Corbynites themselves - were firing off scornful accusations of their opponents being the political equivalent of a tribute act, a revival, a reenactment society etc
Contestants for the leadership of the Labour Party, and media commentators, are in a free fire war to tar the side they don't like with the concept of "retro politics" - accusing each other (or in the case of most media pundits, castigating Jeremy Corbyn) with attempting to turn the clock back, being a throwback, being an Eighties revivalist, a restorationist (reinstating Clause IV) etc. Years of retrogade infamy or historic defeat - 1983, 1997, 1992, 1979 - are being hurled back and forth as damning instances of replay and reenactment.
A quite different argument is this one made by Matthew d'Ancona from a few weeks ago in which he presents Corbyn (and Trump) as figureheads for a kind of NOW!-ist politics that offers a salve for the injuries caused by globalisation / neoliberalism.
D'Ancona starts by saying that Liz Kendall is justified in labelling JC "as a retro-politician, peddling 'Bennism reheated, a throwback to the past … We are the party of the future not a preservation society'.” ....
But then he argues that "such attacks slide off the Teflon Trot because they misconstrue the role of history in contemporary culture..... When Blair announced his intention to transform his party, he simply renamed it New Labour. When the freshly elected Tory leader, David Cameron, wanted to unsettle his veteran opponent at his first PMQs in December 2005, he said of Blair: “He was the future once.” Yet we seem to have moved on even from that division between nostalgia and modernity. Corbyn’s appeal to his party is not diminished by the association of his ideological position with almost every disaster that befell Labour in the 80s. According to the new rules, the candidate’s past is not only struck from the record but irrelevant."
This is because
".... a quite different form of politics is emerging, with a quite different structure. To borrow the jargon of semiotics, it is “synchronic” (cross-sectional) rather than “diachronic” (part of a serial narrative, with a before and after). It is governed by what Martin Luther King, in a very different context, called “the fierce urgency of now”. It recognises that today’s voters are the children of the digital Big Bang, bombarded with an unprecedented blitz of information, data and noise.
"They exist in bubbles of digital mayhem, less bothered by the future and the past than by getting through life moment to moment. Their universe is defined by the immediate and the deafening data stream. The contents of that stream are not ideologically coherent but they are identifiable. Corbyn, for instance, speaks to the fear that global capitalism, for all its success, has made serfs of us all, no longer citizens but the puppets of planetary corporations that are accountable to none."
JC's rise is "a response to a very specific, vivid sense of alarm. In countenance and bearing alone, Corbyn soothes that pain"...
"History did end, but not the way that Francis Fukuyama meant. It was simply absorbed into an all-encompassing present.... In the Babel of the digital nanosecond, voters are driven less by pristine moral imperatives than by the crushing weight of the immediate and of proximate stimuli. Successful politicians of tomorrow will be those who stretch out a hand and offer an analgesic. That’s why Corbyn is winning. He understands that the axiom of our era is not “Lest we forget” but “Make it stop”.
Cross-reference perhaps with Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
(which I started to read a few years ago - but have not - boom-boom - had enough time to finish)
Yet another time-based argument about Corbyn's appeal is the "lost future" / "restoring the future" tack - the idea of going back to go forward (in which privatising the railways and the energy companies was the retrogressive step, etc etc - neo-liberalism being a new Victorianism - so why wouldn't we want to pick up again where the social democratic project was paused / sent into reverse? Renatioanlise the utilities, de-privative the NHS, etc). A Seventies revival that would actually be more advanced and forward-moving than the post-socialism of Thatcher-Major-Blair-Brown-Coalition-Cameron.
A sort of hauntological argument, even .... Corbyn's beard and clothes reassuringly reminiscent of a kindly teacher you might have had in the 70s or 80s, earnestly attempting to speak to the kids on their own level, talking about loving Dark Side of the Moon. The ghost of an Open University lecturer. A figure from a Look Around You bygone era.
Not to be outdone or left out of all the "backward" accusations flying hither and thither (but mostly in his direction) Corbyn has himself accused the Tories of 1979 revivalism
"Parliament can feel like living in a time warp at the best of times, but this government is not just replaying 2010, but taking us back to 1979: ideologically committed to rolling back the state, attacking workers’ rights and trade union protection, selling off public assets and extending the sell-off to social housing."
Update 8/29/15 - missed this prime slice of of retro spectre argumentation from last week's Guardian's by Rosie Fletcher, a young woman who sees her Corbynmania as a response to the fierce urgency of NOW - how can she be nostalgic for a moment she wasn't even alive for?
More time-based "who's really the throwback" rhetoric in this Independent piece which draws analogies between Corbyn and Thatcher as conviction-led politicians on the fringe of their party who come in and take it over - to the consternation of the party establishment / "grandees", who fear that their new leader is an "unelectable extremist" - but in fact set it on the path of victory and nation-transformation / political-consensus reshaping for decades:
Update September 10 2015
Via the Guardian, a late contender that takes the biscuit:
Jon Cruddas tells Cruddas told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he's worried that a Corbyn-led Labour party "might turn into an early 80s tribute act, a Trotskyist tribute act, which has a culture around it which is very hostile to anybody who disagrees. "
"It was eloquent, yes, but content-wise it reminded me of those historical re-enactment shebangs where sad men in their fifties try to inject meaning into their lives by pretending to be a Viking in a field for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.
Only instead of donning archaic armour and a horned helmet, Benn and his overnight Bennites – those currently clogging up Twitter with wild claims that his speech was the best oration since the Gettysburg Address – are wrapping themselves in the moral garb of the mid-20th century warriors against Nazi Germany.
Benn’s speech, and the feverish reaction to it, confirms that British politicians, especially Labourite ones, really, really miss the Second World War. They crave the moral certainty of that conflict that pitted Us against the worst Them imaginable: a vast, murderous system of Nazism.
This is why Benn madly talked about the decision to fire a few rockets at the godforsaken city of Raqqa in the same breath as Britain’s long slog of a war against Hitler and Mussolini. Such a comparison is the height of historical illiteracy....
"But it’s clear why Benn rolled out the Hitler talk, like an elderly, nostalgic lady dusting down her Vera Lynn collection: because in an uncertain, values-lite era like ours – where relativism rules, ‘Britishness’ is treated as a swear word, and ‘Who am I to judge?’ is the cloying cri de coeur – nothing looks more attractive than the sharp moral divide and mass momentum of the events of 1939 – 1945. Benn was indulging in generational envy, bathing temporarily in the light of what our grandfathers thought and did.
But his act was unconvincing. There was a striking disparity between his descriptions of what British forces must do against Isis now and his citing of the war glories of the past. British missiles in Syria can ‘make a difference’, he said; we can give Isis ‘a hard time’. Scary stuff!
Try to imagine Churchill uttering such soft, schoolteacher-style platitudes during the war with Germany. Where’s the talk of blood? Sacrifice? Victory?"
What's interesting to me - regardless of pro and con of the piece's argument - is how the use of retro-as-pejorative as become a standard fixture of political debate in the UK. The metaphor of Corbynism as an 80s tribute act is well-worn at this point. People on either side fire back accusations of being a revival, a throwback, a replay, reenactment....
Recalling a visit to a People's Assembly rally in 2015, he notes that "there is always a whiff of obsolescence about proceedings. It is invariably the same people making the same speeches to a familiar crowd. The audience will be fired up with talk of Chartists, Cable Street and the 'rank and file'..."
"One of the biggest events like this is the Durham Miners' Gala, held annually during the second weekend of July. Now in its 132nd year, the gala is a carnival of nostalgia, featuring a huge march with brass bands and an assortment of magnificent red and gold banners. The march, which can still attract as many as 100,000 people, finishes at Durham's old racecourse, where rousing political speeches are delivered to the assembled crowd of former miners, local people and left-wing activists of all ages. The gala grew out of trade unionism and Britain's position as a major coal-producing nation on the back of the industrial revolution."
But "with the virtual disappearance of the collieries the gala functions today as something like a historical re-enactment society. And there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. The memory of something better – or to be more precise, the memory that better things had to be fought for by workers through trade unionism and struggle – is one that is well worth preserving."
"But when the past becomes an obsession it can act as a dead weight on meaningful action in the present. This was strikingly apparent at the Durham Miners' Gala this weekend, where it became clear that for those running British trade unions performative leftism has well and truly trumped any desire to improve the life chances of Britain's new working class.... the glowing reception offered to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the Gala – and the corresponding message sent to anti-Corbyn MPs that they were 'not welcome' – ought to set alarm bells ringing. No serious person believes that Jeremy Corbyn can win a General Election; yet the old men at the top of British trade union movement continue to back a useless leader because he plays a nostalgic tune that they and a dwindling number of their comrades recognise....
"At the Durham Miners' Gala this weekend, as at so many left-wing events these days, speakers took to the stage amidst the paraphernalia of an abstract idea of what being working class once was – collieries, brass bands and communist tents with portraits of Joseph Stalin... "
"When historians of the future document Britain's decline, they will invariably seek askance at the call centres and distribution sheds which dot the landscape of once proud working class communities and wonder what on earth happened to the unions. If they look a little closer they will find that sloganeering and historical re-enactment ultimately replaced genuine solidarity with the poor. 'The Beatles aren't coming back,' someone once joked, 'and so people make do with Oasis'. The socialism of the 20th century is dead and so comrade Jeremy Corbyn's worthless tribute act rolls on."
You know, I remember feeling like this a bit in 1985 - when I went to some kind of outdoor fair in Oxford on behalf of the miners. That there was a lot of old banners and ceremonial paraphernalia harking back to the storied glory of the early unions and friendly societies... such that the whole thing felt a bit like a traction engine rally.
If Corbynism is a throwback, what does that make the Leavers? (Or May versus Leadsom - Thatcher's unelected resurrection versus Thatcher's unelected resurrection)
And Eagle & Crew are worse - not a Beatles remake, but a tribute act to Britpop (Blair triangulation - but without even the media-savvy slickness and presentational / public relations skills...)