Illusions of a cosy, blameless past are having a profound impact on the present: From the echoed empire of Brexit and the misty-eyed war cry of Make America Great Again, through to the Stone Age ideology of radical Islam. What makes retrotopia so appealing?
The British media has been quick to characterise the UK’s recent general election as the long-anticipated reawakening of young people as a political force. Incensed by Brexit and inspired by Corbyn’s snazzy red manifesto, they marched to the polling stations to deliver a clear message to the government – and the generation that elected it two years previously.
Their sudden rush of political vigour was certainly a turn up for the betting shops’ books, but the history books will record it as a less-humiliating-than-expected defeat. June was not the end of May, Brexit still means Brexit, and the country’s uncertain future remains in thrall to a mirage of the past.
Of course, liberal values have always appealed to younger voters, while older voters are drawn towards more conservative policies. However, while the last 12 months of political poker has been played according to standard rules, there have been an unprecedented number of large betting chips on the table. The UK’s decision to leave the EU – and to a far greater extent, Donald Trump’s election victory in the US – will affect the lives of ordinary citizens to a far greater extent than the usual popularity contest between a blue millionaire and a red millionaire.
The key to these two dramatic episodes lies in the script – campaign slogans. The final word of “Make America Great Again” implores voters to look backwards to a time when every (Judeo-Christian) God-fearing American could find an honest day’s work in mining or manufacturing, neighbours stayed on their side of the wall, and you only had to worry about your carbon footprint if your wife had just shampooed the carpet.
In the build up to the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU, the second word of the phrase “Taking Back Control” performed a similar function. The UK had been in control, foolishly relinquished it – and could now reach across the channel and jolly well take it back. Nobody telling us how many fish to pull out of the North Sea (our sea!), nobody telling us which units of measurement to use for beer (our beer!). The once mighty British spiral-shaped banana industry would thrive again and the eccentrically-named ale would flow, flagon after proud Anglo-Saxon flagon.
The late Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s final book addressed this cultural phenomenon. “The genuine or putative aspects of the past, believed to be successfully tested and unduly abandoned or recklessly allowed to erode,” he wrote, “serve as the main orientation / reference points on the road to Retrotopia.” The campaigns that led to Trump’s election and the UK’s withdrawal from the EU were suffused with examples of this way of thinking: References to occupations like fishing and mining were repeated to imply a moral superiority over the modern economy, with its workforce diversity, digital skills and international collaboration. The past never changes – the future won’t stand still.
The key protagonists in these recent rejections of modernity are model citizens of Retrotopia. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – plummily-voiced relics of empire, General Melchetting their way to positions of power while the watery-eyed proletariat wave deferential handkerchiefs. Donald Trump – the dynamic and benevolent billionaire, a carrotty Carnegie, reaching out his tiny hand to guide you along the hidden path to fame and fortune. Radical religious preachers – pulled from a Noah’s Ark colouring book, their long beards and flowing robes suggestive of a glorious age when God shared his mind with the illiterate desert tribes of the Middle East.
There can be no doubt that contemporary society has gone through a monumental amount of change at a prodigious speed. Digitalisation, globalisation and automation are transforming established ways of working, living, and thinking. The urge to step backwards into the familiarity and security of the past is understandably strong – but it is also an urge that must be mastered. The brakes have been applied to progress, and the resultant jolt has broken many bones and knocked out many teeth. But the direction of travel remains unchanged – albeit following a nostalgic detour to the past.