Your new book The Ministry of Nostalgia explores what you call the ‘austerity aesthetic’, particularly through the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Do you think this aesthetic actually has political implications? Which is to say that it has, in some way, fashioned political attitudes?
Yes, I do. I think that through the austerity aesthetic, people were actually primed for austerity before it even happened. There’s always been this thing in British life since the 1940s where what is, in reality, a very rich and comfortable country, treats itself as if the war is still on, as if we’ve got to make hard choices, as if rationing is still in place. There’s always a rhetoric that used to come in under New Labour, and there’d be these occasional moments where they would talk about belt tightening, saying, ‘We’d love to be able to spend loads of money on X, Y or Z but, of course, we can’t because we’re actually really poor and there’s a war on.’ This sort of mentality has been around for a while.
I noticed that when the financial crisis really kicked in this unproduced 1940s poster was absolutely everywhere. And I think to some degree that’s been picked up on by politicians. I think it’s been used as a way to make austerity look quite noble, make it look necessary and make it look like…
…a point of pride? Thrift as a point of pride?
Yeah, like the boom was decadent and now we’re all feeling a little bit chastened but everyone can actually feel very virtuous, though.
There’s also been an attempt to use it on the Left, I think, particularly through Ken Loach’s film Spirit of ’45. I’m a little bit skeptical about whether or not it can be used for the Left, really. Loach has given it a very good go, but I don’t think it works.
You connect the emergence of the Keep Calm and Carry On attitude with political deference and consumer stoicism – arguing it was not coincidental. But why do you think we saw such a short spike of political resistance in 2008?
I don’t think there was much resistance in 2008. There was quite a lot in 2011.
What about April 1st? The G20?
That was the usual suspects though, I was there.
One of the things that was really fun about the student protests two years later – and although they didn’t really go anywhere nor the TUC demo soon after – was that they weren’t the usual suspects. And although there is a question about what sort of political act it was exactly – the riots were also clearly not the usual suspects. In all of these cases, those events were quite heavily repressed.
And you think that may have disinclined people from public protest?
I think much of the explanation for something like the rise of Jeremy Corbyn comes from that, and I think it’s interesting that that generation haven’t managed to throw up figures of their own. Partly because there’s not an infrastructure that they can use, so what’s happened is a very old-school Left Labour figure has become the figurehead for something else. I think people are seeing it as some ‘80s throwback quite mistakenly. And I think a lot of that comes from the sort of people who were involved in the student protests, for example.
I don’t really look at it so much in terms of ‘why is there no resistance at the moment’ because there kind of is. It’s more about how we got to this point. Because I think actually that this stuff is being questioned now in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time.
So the book presents two historical frames: the austerity of 1940 to 1952 and the current wave of austerity, starting in 2008. You quickly identify that during the earlier austerity, the welfare state, the national health service and social housing, amongst other public services, were introduced, while the current wave of austerity is engaged in dismantling this progress. How has the current government got away with falsely repackaging wartime austerity and why do you think austerity has become so depoliticised?
That’s a very good question. The war has, for a long time, been the preserve of the Right. And there’s been this situation where, I guess, the Right regard 1940 as ‘theirs’ and the Left regard 1945 as ‘theirs’. But this is so distant now, that it’s quite difficult for people to see this particular historical moment. It’s regarded in much more vague terms as ‘the moment in which Britain was great.’ And there’s something very telling about the fact that it’s 1940-1945 because, despite certain things that people don’t like you mentioning, such as the Bengal Famine or the bombing of Dresden, we know we were on the right side. And there are not a lot of times that Britain can say that. The British Army doing things does not have a nice history. But from 1940-1945 we know we were on the right side and there was a brief moment in 1940 when we were alone as well, which adds to the whole thing. Of course in reality the war was largely won by the Red Army, but nonetheless there was that moment when it was just Britain standing alone, and that seems to have such a decisive role in the psyche.
You could see it when David Cameron came back from his EU negotiations and there was this Daily Mail headline yelling, ‘WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND?’ This is a direct reference to a 1939 parliamentary debate where Neville Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister, was being attacked for appeasing Hitler. And so the reference when something goes wrong in Britain, is the war. There’s a tube strike: blitz spirit. If there’s a negotiation where the prime minister is trying to limit the amount of EU migrants that come to the country, then the thing you immediately reach for is the moment when Britain was about to be invaded by the Third Reich. If you look at it coldly it’s absolutely grotesque. But it’s such an easy habit of thought, and it just seems to work so well and be so effective.
It’s become a kind of cultural reflex, hasn’t it?
Yeah. And if you look at how people actually felt about the prosecution of the war and about Winston Churchill and the government, which I explored through Mass Observation, people were actually quite angry. And the welfare state has been seen as a consensus thing, and I think it’s mistakenly seen as such. There’s an element of truth in it, but also there’s people saying ‘I’ve had enough’ because of the way that they were treated in the war.
The remnants of social democracy, you say, were created through “benevolent statism.” And this “benevolent statism” was created during conditions which you admit are “unrepeatable". Do you see a return of the public state – as it was then – as possible or desirable?
I don’t know. It’s clear that neoliberalism doesn’t work. That’s patently obvious, and I think very few people seem to believe in it in any significant way – apart from the governing party and The Economist. Since the bailout it’s been almost impossible to defend on a reasoned basis. You know: the market always knows right. OK, then why did we have to bailout the banks? The argument should be finished then but yet it still goes on, which is completely bizarre. It’s something that on any empirical level should have been utterly discredited.
I’m equally unconvinced by the idea that small groups of people doing cool and interesting stuff is going to help. You can see that in housing – there’s an enormous attention to self-building and what have you, as if this is going to get us out of the mess, which I think is rather unlikely. So on that level I think that I wouldn’t call it statism necessarily, but some form of planning (which I think there’s no reason to think it would be as inefficient as somewhere like the Soviet Union, given advances in computing) would be a much more rational way of organising a society. But how you get from A to B? I don’t really know. However, I think it’s very telling that this is something that is now on the agenda again, with people like Corbyn and Bernie Sanders and parties in Portugal, Greece and Spain. It will be a long battle and I’m not going to sit here as a cultural critic and say, ‘now it’s going to happen’ because I’ve got absolutely no idea how it will develop.
I guess with Corbyn it’s going to be interesting just to see how the state redefines itself in relationship to devolution, locally determined ways of living, where people do have more control over housing and so on, and what that redefinition of the state looks like – I guess a move away from the more paternalistic one where the state, with some planning, becomes more of an enabler than that post-war state was.
Moving on,you question the political Left’s ability to mobilise history, since “when it comes to treating the past as a weapon, the Conservative Party are, and always have been, the experts.” Why do you think this is? And how might we engage with history more effectively?
There is a very good line in Patrick Wright’s Living in an Old Country that I find quite useful. He talks about former British politician Tony Benn and his attempt to use history in the 1980s to evoke a narrative, which goes The Levellers, The Diggers, The Chartists, The General Strike, 1945, The Miner’s Strike. This is the mainstream Left’s historiography, right? If you go down to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival that is what you get. Wright’s problem with this history is that can’t really mobilise a memory of Socialism because Socialism hasn’t really happened. In order to have a successful movement, it has to be looking towards the future. It has to suggest that in the future we will have something different, it’s the possibility of constructing this or that – the possibilities of the future. But this doesn’t exist yet.
Now where this gets complicated, and I agree with this up to a point, is in systems of social democracy. And the fact that social democracy is a system that has been actively dismantled over the last 30 years, and the last five years with particular speed. That is obviously a memory – the remnants of it are all around us. My first couple of books were focused on this idea: if you went down Alexandra Road or, frankly, if you receive treatment in an NHS hospital, you are experiencing a small fragment of a different idea of running society. And I think this is where it gets interesting.
But it is very difficult, it would seem, more so than I thought it was, to make that point. There are around six books that have either just come out or will in the next couple of months about Brutalism or Modernist housing. Almost all of them are coffee-table picture books with no real content, no history, no consideration about who actually lives there and the battles going on. No mention of the fact that the prime minister has singled out Brutalist architecture as a problem. It’s just more of a ‘let’s stare at pictures of Brutalist buildings,’ remarking how beautiful and wonderful they are. At a time like this, this should be considered negligence if publishers are dealing with this subject in such a depoliticised way. You have to talk about the politics or you’re not doing your job.
This is the problem. If you appeal to a memory, which is what I try to do, it doesn’t always account for the fact that memory and history are not the same thing, and people’s relationship to history is not always particularly thought-out, not always sophisticated. People like to pick and choose. And I guess the reason why the bulk of the middle of the book, which people either really dislike or really like, was trying to figure out what was this when it actually happened. What was austerity? What was its relationship to empire? What was its base of support? What did it make possible? I think these are really interesting questions but at the moment we have a lot of, ‘Fuck Yeah Welfare State Architecture’ stuff out there. And there’s not a lot I can do about that, apart from make myself absolutely clear.