Nostalgia for utopia


We all know that as we grow older we look more fondly on the past, either because “things were better then” or because we ourselves were better – or younger, at least. Recently, this bittersweet personal desire to return to the past – nostalgia – has been powering the wheels of politics; many citizens have lost faith in the future and are angry with the present.

We see the rage of those who believe that “foreigners” and “sellout” elites are holding their country back from being what they believe it used to be. We see those who voted for Brexit dreaming of the return of empire, while those who wish to remain in the European Union believe passionately that the correction of a new referendum will restore Britain to its European trajectory, as if politics and society have not already been poisoned, as if Britain – and its relationship with Europe – is not already changed. In the United States, Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” has taken root in a significant percentage of the population, as the midterm elections confirmed.

Research published by the Bertelsmann Foundation on November 5 puts numbers to the powerful role that nostalgia plays in Europe, with 67 percent of 10,885 polled in all 28 member-states agreeing with the statement that “the world used to be a much better place.” The eupinions survey was conducted last June; its overall findings apply to all 28 EU members, although the published report presents only specific findings for Germany, Italy, France, Poland and Spain.

Among its many interesting conclusions is that the Europeans who express nostalgia place themselves further right of the political center than do the “non-nostalgics.” Nostalgics express strong criticism of immigration, with 53 percent believing that migrants “take jobs away” from citizens, whereas 30 percent of non-nostalgics believe this, with 63 percent of them convinced that “immigration is good for the economy.” The older age groups expressed greater nostalgia (70 percent of those aged 56-65), whereas in the under-25 group this fell to 52 percent.

However, the report found relative agreement on the future of the European Union, with the overall majority wanting greater political and economic integration (51 percent of nostalgics and 57 percent of non-nostalgics) and a stronger EU presence on the global stage (80 percent and 85 percent, respectively). It is worth noting that a report by Greece’s diaNEOsis think tank in March found that 67.6 percent of Greeks have a “positive or rather positive” evaluation of Greece’s participation in the EU (and, by experience, we can assume that the number of nostalgics in Greece will be high). We may assume that membership of the EU is taken as part of the better past that we look back to.

Isabell Hoffmann, Europe expert at Bertelsmann Stiftung and one of the report’s co-authors, notes that “nostalgia is also an indication of a high level of uncertainty in society.” According to the authors of the study, “a glorified view of the past, often having negative connotations in public, plays an important role insomuch as it can offer stability and support. Individual parties also take advantage of this in order to parlay references to the past, uncertainty and fears into votes.” Hoffmann adds, “A glance at the US and Great Britain shows that, interestingly enough, it is precisely those who promise a return to old greatness and stability that have so far triggered unrest and conflict.”

Could nostalgia be used to improve the present and future? Commenting on the study, Julian Baggini, a British philosopher and author, wrote in the Guardian: “Populist politics tells people that their sadness is not necessary because the present can be as the past once was. The steel towns can be brought back to life, the streets can be largely free of those with different accents or skin colors, pensions can continue to be paid as they once were, even as the proportion of people above working age soars. The past is not irretrievable, it is simply being kept out of reach by rootless, mercenary elites who found it got in their way.”

Baggini argues that “a better kind of reflective nostalgia, however, can enable a lament for the past to help us build a different future. This requires us to distinguish what cannot be revived from what lies beaten but breathing.” As an example, he asks, “Why not feel nostalgic if the emotions that stir in turn stir us to try to get hearts and minds back focused on that invaluable goal of continental cooperation?”

According to Baggini, “it’s wrong to dismiss nostalgia as pointless, insisting that the present is better in every way or that only the future matters. The future is as ephemeral as the past, which it soon becomes with frightening speed anyway. A person only capable of looking forward is as defective as one who can only look back. The idea that we should do neither but simply live in the moment is naive: Human relationships and solidarity depend on us having shared pasts and futures.”

Just as we have begun the discussion on the post-populist era, which will follow populism’s inevitable failures, so should we study the concerns and pursuits that push many people to adopt policies that are detrimental to their own interests. Nostalgia is a good place to start the effort to shift the discussion in a constructive direction. The pursuit of an idealized past can be just as dangerous as the utopias of the future which nourished totalitarian states, but, as Baggini argues, it could be the basis for a new start. The past is always with us. It is our choice whether we build on it or allow it to collapse on us.