The Global Nostalgia Epidemic
Nostalgia has become a driving force behind nationalist movements the world over, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of Brexit. But as seven recent books show, the Brexiteers’ yearning for a return to their country’s supposedly glorious imperial past is not just fanciful, but also dangerous.
- Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia, Polity, 2017.
- Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Penguin, 2017.
- Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, HarperCollins, 2017.
- Simon Heffer, The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914, Random House Books, 2017.
- Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce, Shadows of Empire: The Anglosphere in British Politics, Wiley, 2018.
- Philip Murphy, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth, Hurst, 2018.
- Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, 2002.
MADRID – Surveying today’s world, one might well conclude that it is increasingly trapped in the past. Many people across Europe and North and South America believe that life was better 50 years ago. A majority of Russians still mourn the Soviet Union. And each year, hordes of Chinese descend upon Mao Zedong’s rural hometown, Shaoshan, to pay homage.
Whether the problem is rising inequality, economic stagnation, or technological disruption, nostalgia offers relief from socioeconomic angst. But far from being innocuous, infatuation with a mythicized past is shaping our politics in dangerous ways, not least by creating fertile ground for jingoistic leaders who are happy to exploit nostalgia for their own ends.
Thus, US President Donald Trump promises to “make America great again,” while Chinese President Xi Jinping calls for a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harbors neo-Ottoman ambitions, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political lodestar is the nineteenth-century Meiji Restoration, which laid the foundation for an expansive Empire of Japan.