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.