Today’s post is an attempt to bring contemporary historical methods to the present crisis, and is the next in the series of posts I’ve been writing here, and elsewhere, about the theme of nostalgia and social change in the 1980s and early 1990s. Although those earlier periods are comfortably out of my span of personal-perceptual awareness that I feel able to write about them with a degree of critical understanding. History after 1997 is more difficult. In his memoir of the twentieth century, Eric Hobsbawm reflected on this very challenge of addressing one’s own lifetime as ‘the past’ and thus writing the history of one’s own times, and I share some of his uncertainities. His history of the twentieth century is a useful starting point, nevertheless, given its chronology came to a collapsing end in 1991. Others over-enthusiastically declared the end of history itself at around the same time. It soon became apparent that this Anglophone triumphalism was overwrought and to a large extent meaningful only insofar as it shed light on the late-imperial psyche in the United States. Britain on the other hand crashed – literally in the case of the ERM – and entered its most recent phase of grey introspection, alert to the outside world but always wary of it. There we remain. No matter what they tell us, sang the Irish boyband Boyzone in 1998, no matter what they do, what we believe is true.
Brexit with a middle eight.
Hobsbawm ended The Age of Extremes with this observation:
We do not know where we are going. We only know that history has brought us to this point and – if readers share the argument of this book – why. However, one thing is plain. If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is to say, the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.
It would not comfort him at all to know that his fears are being borne out in his adopted land. Brexit is precisely the consequence of failing to build a new future; and instead of marching forward to a more open and tolerant and engaged twenty-first century, Britain will be subjected to the very worst of global turbulence, all to satisfy the instincts and whims of the baby-boomers of the 1950s whose reputation can hardly be damned enough.
The first wave of this baby-boomer nostalgia was felt in the early 1990s when, as I wrote previously on the blog, their 1960s childhood came swinging back into view. They took power in Britain in 1997, the decade separating John Major and Tony Blair more than enough to symbolise a generational shift. Both Labour Prime Ministers, and the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, were baby boomers, and have governed with their instincts. The apparent gulf between Labour in 1997 and the Conservatives nearly twenty years later reflective of a generation then in their 40s and now in their 60s. For all that David Cameron is at the oldest fringe of Generation X, he is hardly representative of them either, nor was Ed Miliband during his tenure as leader of the Labour Party. The brief foray into Generation X leadership in the two main parties has been undone and the baby boomers are back in charge – May on one side, Jeremy Corbyn on the other.
None of this is particularly controversial, indeed journalists regularly describe the impact of the baby boomers on a range of contemporary issues from attitudes to race and gender to housing and social security. But are generational divisions, somewhat arbitrary in themselves, reasonable grounds for forging paradigms for contemporary history? Whilst their influence will inevitably wane as historians gain the necessary distance, I do think that for the moment a generational-paradigm is as useful as any other possible division.
That we still live in the age of the baby boomer is evident everywhere, not just in the rhetoric around Brexit. As succeeding generations find themselves unable to gain meaningful power in the political sphere – although Generation X is now to some extent ‘in charge’ in Scotland and Wales – they are forced to seek alternative outlets. Music is a good example of this, and it is here that we turn our attention first. If the commercial cynicism of boy- and girlbands was in vogue in the late-1990s and early 2000s, leading up to the ridiculous but popular charade of shows like Pop Idol, Popstars, the X Factor and the BBC’s ill-fated Fame Academy. There the entire manufactured process of pop music was (and continues to be) laid carefully bare, with audience ‘participation’ generating huge revenues for the production company and a small number of record producers. And yes, you’ve guessed correctly, they’re all babyboomers: Simon Cowell (b.1959), Louis Walsh (b. 1952), Pete Waterman (b.1947). They may seem more trendy than the politicians, but they persist the same kinds of attitudes and are typical of the dominance of that generation.
The alternatives that emerged in the late-1990s and early 2000s, particularly from the older elements of Generation Y (my own generation) or from 1970s Generation Xers are bleak and rather moody. For every Busted song with its corny teenage sexism, or the even worse ‘Stacy’s Mom’, there was a Greenday ballad about American misadventure. For every Avril Lavigne after skaterbois, there was Blink 182 or Wheatus. And Eminem, of course. It all seems best left in the past, now, together with the uniform of blackhoodies and giant jeans, except perhaps for the Greenday observations about the US in Bush’s first term of office, but there it was. That moodiness carried into the indie music of the 2000s, too, carrying with it the first public expressions of a truly post-industrial youth. The best of these, the Arctic Monkeys, when compared with similar Generation X bands of the period, such as Franz Ferdinand or the Kaiser Chiefs, highlighting just how different Generation Y was likely to be, even as it absorbed preceding cultural influences (if not the political instincts).
Generation Y is not a homogenous group by any means: older members of the cohort who can remember a pre-digital age were shaped in a different way to those who cannot recall anything but a digital world. This perhaps explains why older Generation Yers, who are ‘Millennials’ in the broad sense, have tended to distance themselves from the younger elements of the cohort who also seem generally more optimistic. Nevertheless, they share a political and economic distance from the lives of their babyboomer and Generation Xer parents and grandparents, which is not likely to be overcome until the babyboomers are removed from office. That won’t be for quite a while yet, however.
If Hobsbawm labelled the ‘short’ twentieth century the ‘Age of Extremes’, the latest in the run of Ages from Revolution to Capital to Empire, it’s hard not to see our present Age of the Babyboomer as something akin to the Age of Nostalgia. (A nod there to the insightful work of Owen Hatherley.) The benign return of the Thunderbirds in the early 1990s, the gift of the babyboomer childhood to their offspring, has given way to something far more caustic. Then it was the sixties that offered the nostalgia trip, now it’s a kind of ‘what-if’ counterfactual: what if Britain had remained monocultural? What if Britain had not been part of the European project? What if Britain hadn’t yielded to the cultural revolution? It’s like the Generation Xers who fought the 1984-5 miners’ strike and who keep replaying a ‘what if we’d won’ scenario in their heads, only with rather more power and potential. Remember those boyband lyrics of the 1990s again, no matter what they do, what we believe is true.
One of those babyboomers who saw the light and warned of the destructive direction of his generation was Tony Judt, who died shortly after his final writings on social democracy were published. His final consideration was how to convince Americans of the validity of the social democratic model, he writes
If I were to ask Americans to reflect on the attractions of social democracy for them, I would begin with properly American considerations. Cui bono? Who benefits from this? The issues of risk, fairness and justice that are typically invoked in America for regressive social policy need be invoked for progressive social policy.
Now that Britain’s own social democratic consensus has been shattered – it has stopped existing, and we need to be honest about that – and we find ourselves in much the same kind of situation Judt was thinking about for the United States, it behoves that we ask Britons to reflect on the attractions of social democracy for them in the twenty-first century. The invitation shouldn’t be about creating a left-nostalgia (we might call it Corbynism) to combat the increasingly right-nostalgia of the babyboomers, but about a left momentum (oops) guided by younger generations able to use their own creativity and strength of character for a better world. And Generation X and Generation Y ought also to recognise that they have more in common with each other, than either of them do with the babyboomers who have wrought such damage.
This might seem like a rather gloomy consideration of the Age of Nostalgia, and an equally gloomy place to bring this blog to an end, but that is its nature. Regeneration by building, not employment; nostalgia through tea towels using austerity-age messages not the construction of social democracy; the politics of insularity, not of open engagement and tolerance. If we accept that the Age of Nostalgia has followed Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, we are a quarter of a century in; it is almost as long as the Age of Capital that Hobsbawm saw as prevailing between 1848 and 1875. That age began with a revolution and ended with a global depression. Our age began with the end of a revolution, in the sense that the world introduced by the Russian Revolutions of 1917, came to a sudden conclusion, but its finishing point is still in flux. That will determine how the period is finally written up by historians, but contemporary historians do not have that advantage, the present as the past is forever changing.
In 1946, the Finnish writer Tove Jansson, published her novel Kometjakten, the second in the Moomin series, which was published a few years later in English under the title Comet in Moominland. Literally the Swedish means ‘the comet chase’. Like others in the series, the novel offers an examination of the war and the transition into a new world. Oftentimes Moomintroll is lonely and afraid, isolated from his family, or nervous about something that seems likely to destroy the world around him. In this instance, together with his friends and family, he huddles in a cave as the comet speeds towards earth. They all fall asleep thinking the worst, only to wake up again and find the world safe and sound. The danger was perceived, seen at a distance, but never understood for what it actually was. The havoc wreaked upon Moomin valley by the comet was temporary, but no less frightful, its power particularly felt just at it came closest to the earth.
The sky was no longer red, but a beautiful blue once again, and the morning sun shone in its usual place, looking as though it had been freshly polished. […] ‘And look! The sea is coming back’, whispered Moomintroll.
Perhaps, in the end, we should sit out the Age of Nostalgia in a cave, waiting for the comet to fly past as it may. The only danger is, this particular comet looks intent on crashing into the earth. In which case this is the likely scenario:
They thought everything had been burnt up or smashed to atoms when the comet came down, and that their cave was the only thing left in the whole world.
Outside lies the boulevard of broken dreams.