The first time I presented a paper at an academic conference, I was accused of being nostalgic. My mistake, as my fellow academic pointed out, was that in my bid to find some value in working-class occupational cultures I was guilty of backward looking romanticism. It wasn’t meant to be constructive criticism, but over the years I’ve developed a longstanding interest in the idea of nostalgia which is often attached to working-class life.
So I’ve been especially interested in the ways that political developments on both sides of the Atlantic have involved nostalgia as the backward-looking voters supported Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US. We may see more of this in France, with support for Le Pen later this year. Charges of nostalgia in these situations refer to a whole range of stances and attitudes, from the more benign sentiments of those who want a return to full industrial employment or desire a greater sense of community to those who more darkly ‘want their country back’, which too often is code for freedom to discriminate. Looking beyond recent elections, we can to detect a backward-looking trend in television, in programmes such as Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Endeavour, or the new Netflix series, The Crown. In politics and popular culture, many seem to be happiest when living in the past.
However, by using the term nostalgia as a catchall criticism we often miss the complexity and nuance involved, and class often has a big part to play here. Those who study nostalgia note that it almost always tells us more about attitudes toward the present than views of the past. It is precisely because people feel unsettled about their current unstable situation and unknowable future that they seek solace in the comfort of the past. Scholars also point out that nostalgia is very rarely ‘simple’ in the sense that people want to live in the past. They are almost always critical, even reflective, about both the present and the past, and they find something of value in that past that may have been lost.
Finally, while it is true that nostalgia is often portrayed as an anti-progressive, anti-modern conservative emotion, it can also have a more creative, progressive, even radical side. I think it is this aspect of nostalgia that can help us think more critically about working-class culture. Reporters and commentators explain voting behaviour using the familiar tropes of ‘smokestack nostalgia’ and ‘rustbelt romanticism’. But dig a little deeper, listen a little more carefully, and it’s easy to see why people might want to return to the past when industrial workers earned $28 per hour and enjoyed good pensions, health care, and perhaps above all, long-term job security. To be nostalgic for those aspects of the past is not only understandable, it’s completely rational. While these positive aspects of the past may sometimes erase less desirable aspects of history, many workers who mourn the loss of earlier jobs are at the same time critical of the past or the work they may have done. As part of my research, I often interview workers who did routine and mundane jobs. Quite a few have said that they hated their jobs but loved the people they worked with. I remember vividly a former coal miner from the North East of England telling me that he despised the physical labour of the mine but would return tomorrow if he could because he missed the comradeship of those he had worked with.
Here then is the point about nostalgia. It seems to me that we need to listen carefully when people talk about their pasts. Dismissing a desire for positive aspects of a remembered past as romantic, conservative, and anti-progressive is wrong-headed, and it also misses a real opportunity. Surely, we want working-class people to remember what collective action and union shops achieved. We want people to be ambitious for themselves and their kids.
But above all we need to harness the more radical and progressive aspects of a nostalgia that leads people to ask why. Why is it that industrial working-class jobs paid more in the past than they do now? Why were terms and conditions better in the thirty years of the long boom after World War Two? And why did working-class people in that period enjoy rising standards of living year after year, while today similar groups know only precarity? Once we ask these questions, we can start to argue for a more positive, open, and progressive future. We cannot just leave the past to more reactionary voices who want to capture the negative aspects of nostalgia for their own ends.
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Greetings! Working-class female academic here currently residing in Trumpland, Pennsylvania. I’d like to agree that we should be more understanding of white working class whimsy, believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve listened, oh have I listened. I’ve gone to the Trump rallies. I’ve suffered silently with my mouth crammed full during too many dinners and gatherings. And now, I’m done. The “desire for positive aspects of a remembered past” is something every human has. Once in a while, I’ll long for the smell of my grandmother’s house growing up or the feeling of flying down the hill in my neighbor’s backyard on a sled. Currently, I’m longing for the days when more universities offered tenure track positions, and sometimes I’ll watch Little House on the Prairie and it tricks me into longing for prairie life. Frightening. However, I don’t think we should conflate our human ability to elicit warm and fuzzy visions and emotions of the past with the dangerous solidarity white nostalgia perpetuates, including white working class nostalgia. Frankly, it’s a lifestyle I want little part of, because I’m not really invited to the party unless I’m willing to take my place in the narrow, splintery, carved out notch (by men) where white working class woman “belong”. White working class nostalgia, at its core, is a dangerous and oppressive idealism where white men rule over all others virtually unchallenged. “We cannot just leave the past to more reactionary voices who want to capture the negative aspects of nostalgia for their own ends.” Wow, that sounds pretty sinister, and though I’m no angel, I disagree. I’d love to appreciate this kind of nostalgia because it would make my life easier. I could get along with more family and church members — my social life in Trumpland would take off. I’d be happier and feel less alone. However, for women and minorities, doing that means taking an eraser to political progress, liberation from oppression, and my very existence at this moment in history. No thank you. I will continue to rail against the sisterly seductive white working class version of “La La Land.”
* sinisterly seductive. Sisterly seduction, though also likely more tempting than people are willing to admit, must be addressed at a later date.
I grew up in a very rural, conservative, “working class” area in southeast Missouri. I am sure that the county I grew up probably went Trump in the election, but I haven’t looked it up because I don’t really want to know. When I was twenty-one I moved far away to a county that votes “blue” (Allegheny County, Pennsylvania) because I wanted a better life for myself. (I didn’t move there *because* it’s a blue county but because it was simply the opportunity I had.) I am too young to have had the “good jobs” that people may be nostalgic for, but I do understand the nostalgia for “a greater sense of community.” Growing up, what did I see on television? New York City. Listening to the radio, what did I hear on the so-called “country” stations? I heard watered-down versions of what had once been called “country” that was pushed by Clear Channel who had bought up all the radio waves. Television, radio, and the internet are eradicating any sense of genuine culture that may have existed before both in urban and rural areas. This eradication of on-the-ground culture, in my opinion, goes hand-in-hand with the desire of capital to erode solidarity in the working class.
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Nice piece, Tim! I agree that we need to think about what it is that people are nostalgic for, and think about how to replicate the economic prosperity that everyone misses! Mainly, of course, stronger unions!!!!
Some valid points, Tim. I was waiting for you to connect perspective to the future, which you get to in the last lines. For me, past and present need to connect to future in order to be truly whole. We’ve been fragmented too long, and I believe some of the motives behind this recent voting has been a call to connect with a stronger future. As to the past, there were and are strong values in working class life that can help guide us.