A wistful looking-back has become a driving force for 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 imperial past is not just fanciful, but dangerous, says
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 mythicised 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 Erdogan harbours neo-Ottoman ambitions, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s political lodestar is the 19th-century Meiji Restoration, which laid the foundation for an expansive Empire of Japan.
In other cases, nostalgic leaders reject their countries’ historical reversals of fortune. While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban still harps on the Kingdom of Hungary’s territorial losses after the First World War, Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a major geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century.
Within the EU’s founding countries, far-right parties such as Italy’s Lega, Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland, and the French Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front) want to return to the time when border controls and monetary policy were the prerogatives of national governments. And, of course, in Britain, hardline “Brexiteers” seem to yearn for a revival of the British Empire.
LIVING IN THE PAST
Brexit epitomises our new age of nostalgia, which is defined by myth, miscalculation, and rising geopolitical tensions.
Britain was once one of the greatest empires in history, and some of its citizens have yet to come to terms with its transformation into an ordinary nation-state.
The Brexiteers won the 2016 referendum to withdraw from the EU because, as Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats put it, “Too many were driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink.”
Nostalgia, however, is not some woolly, undefined feeling. Despite its romantic flavour, the word nostalgia comes not from poetry or philosophy, but from medicine. In 1688, the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term by merging the Greek word nostos (homecoming) with algos (pain) to diagnose homesickness in Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad.
In what Hofer regarded as a medical condition, the yearning to return home often manifested in a combination of paranoia and melancholy, which led patients to idealise the past and denigrate the present.
Some of the symptoms of the disease included hearing voices or seeing ghosts, as well as nausea, loss of appetite, pathological changes in the lungs, and brain inflammation.
According to Hofer, the strong desire to return to one’s native land could even cause sufferers to lose touch with the present altogether and produce erroneous representations of their surroundings and circumstances.
NOWHERE TO GO
The seven books under discussion here help us to understand Brexit and other recent cases of political nostalgia. In Retrotopia, his last book before his death in 2017, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman examines how job insecurity, falling incomes, rising inequality, and declining social mobility can lead people to yearn for a time when national borders were less porous and governments supposedly did a better job protecting their citizens.
Bauman shows how such collective anxieties weaken the bonds of civil society and give rise to tribalism. The logical endpoint of this trend is a Hobbesian world characterised by a “war of all against all”.
To those who reject a cosmopolitan world that lacks a shared consciousness, nationalism promises a source of identity and security.
Bauman argues that, against this backdrop, the future is no longer associated with progress, but rather with stasis or regression. Human beings no longer project their aspirations into utopian visions of an idealised future. Instead, they abandon the search for Utopia, and take refuge in an undead past, a “Retrotopia”.
With just a little effort, the past can be “remodelled at will” to provide the “blissful omnipotence lost in the present”.
Retrotopia focuses primarily on the symptoms of collective nostalgia, while paying far less attention to root causes. Still, some obvious factors stand out.
The denouement of the US-led global order is creating opportunities for post-imperial powers like China, Russia, Turkey, and Britain to reassert their lost status on the world stage.
At the same time, globalisation and technological change are fuelling concerns about employment, leading workers, particularly in the West, to long for the economic security that their parents enjoyed.
And all the while, population ageing in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia is compounding the problem, not just economically, but psychologically, because nostalgia has a stronger pull on older adults — a phenomenon psychologists call the “reminiscence bump”.
Brexit is the quintessential example of how these economic, demographic, and psychological forces interact with one another. For many of the older, marginalised Britons who voted heavily for Leave, departing from the EU is a first step towards creating a modern version of the British Empire.
According to a 2014 YouGov poll, 59% think the British Empire is “something to be proud of” rather than ashamed of, and one third of Britons “would like it if Britain still had an empire.”
In reminiscing about their country’s imperial legacy, most Britons probably ignore atrocities such as the opium wars, the slave trade, or the massacres of civilians under colonialism. That, after all, is how nostalgia works. The negative emotions associated with our memories tend to dissipate more quickly than positive ones.
In Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor has set out to offer a corrective to the claim that the British Empire served as a benign coloniser.
An MP for the Indian National Congress, Tharoor focuses on the British Raj in India to spotlight the greed, depredation, and cruelty at the heart of British imperialism.
Tharoor reminds us that in the eighteenth century, India was as rich as all of Europe, accounting for around 23% of global GDP at the time. But by the end of the nineteenth century, it had become Britain’s single largest source of revenue.
In fact, the British Empire was essentially constructed on India’s ruins. Not only did the British deliberately deindustrialise India, by destroying workshops and machinery; they also used tariffs to promote British manufacturing and strangle Indian industries.
When colonial rule ended in 1947, India’s backward economy barely represented 3% of global GDP. Meanwhile, 90% of Indians were in poverty and 84% were illiterate. The average life expectancy was 27 years.Needless to say, British looting was accompanied by acts of profound inhumanity.
Between 1770 and 1900, the British were responsible for more than 18 famines in India, causing 25m deaths. In 1943, the famine in Bengal claimed 4m victims, partly as a result of Winston Churchill’s insistence that grain be distributed to colonial troops, not to the people who produced it.
Even the railways — that colonial “gift” to India — were a symbol of the country’s brutal treatment. After all, their primary purpose was to transport coal, iron ore, cotton, and other raw materials to ports for shipment to England.
When Indians travelled by rail, they were consigned to squalid, stinking third-class compartments, far from white-only coaches.
Another imperial inheritance that attracts Tharoor’s ire is the parliamentary system, which he blames for the country’s chronic corruption. In his view, a presidential system would be far more suitable for a country of India’s size, because it would allow for “decisive action” by leaders who could actually “focus on governance rather than on staying in power.”
The happy story that Britons tell themselves about their country’s history reflects what psychologists call the “fading affect bias”, wherein the mind overstates the rosier parts of the past.
Consider, for example, modern Britain’s love of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras.
In the years ahead of the Brexit referendum, the British culture and entertainment industries produced an outpouring of movies, TV series, books, and art exhibitions that glorified Britain’s past and celebrated Englishness as the lost apotheosis of noblesse oblige.
Arguably, Downton Abbey, with its depiction of a golden age in which even the servants were happy with their lot, unwittingly lent the Brexiteers a helping hand in the 2016 referendum.
The 1880-1914 period was one of transformative socioeconomic change, defined by the diffusion of electricity, the advent of the automobile, the invention of the airplane, and the rise of department stores, hotels, and seaside resorts.
But, as the English historian Simon Heffer argues in The Age of Decadence, the aesthetic splendour of this period masks a congeries of contradictions.
In reality, inequality was skyrocketing, with 10% of the British population controlling 92% of the country’s wealth.
Water supplies and sanitation were often lacking, causing frequent outbreaks of cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis in congested and unhygienic locations.
And the pace of technological changes that we now take for granted exceeded the capacity of people and institutions to adapt.
Even more to the point, the period leading up to the First World War was the beginning of the end of Pax Britannica. Challenges from within and abroad were already upsetting the status quo.
The rise of trade unionism, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and other social movements compelled democratic change at home. Germany and the US had overtaken Britain as industrial powerhouses. Most of the empire’s colonies were demanding more autonomy or outright independence.
The 1899-1902 Boer War in South Africa was an extremely costly affair for Britain. And in the following decades, Ireland would prepare its own break.
GLOBALISATION, RINSE, REPEAT
In her magisterial history of fin de siècle Britain, The Dawn Watch, Maya Jasanoff of Harvard University captures the gloom of the era through the adventurous but troubled life of Joseph Conrad, who has become both an iconic and an ironic symbol of British cultural nationalism. Conrad is remembered as a great British novelist, yet he embodies everything the Brexiteers oppose.
For starters, Conrad was a Polish immigrant, born in 1857 as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. He was also a “citizen of the world” — or as Theresa May would say, a “citizen of nowhere”. He spent 20 years travelling the world — across Europe, deep into Africa, and all around the Indian Ocean.
And, owing to these experiences, the great American novelist Henry James once intimated to him that, “No one has known — for intellectual use — the things you know.” Jasanoff’s book, which is part literary biography and part geopolitical study, focuses on Conrad’s four greatest novels — The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo — to craft a history of globalisation from the inside out.
In a way, Conrad’s world was not unlike our own. It was shaped by increasing interconnectedness, mass migration, runaway technological change, terrorism, and nationalism.
Like today, Conrad’s contemporaries had to grapple with the moral and practical questions stemming from economic and technological dislocation and the social tensions endemic in multiethnic societies.
It is rather surprising that today’s Brexiteers are so enchanted with a time that was no less disruptive for ordinary citizens than the current era.
Less surprising is one of Heffer’s findings: That the years of late Pax Britannica gave rise to an epidemic of longing for a dissipating ideal. In typical fashion, the collective nostalgia of the period crystalised around a not-too-distant past, filtering out the unattractive elements and deluding its sufferers into thinking that yesterday was better than today.
THE ‘GLOBAL BRITAIN’ PIPE DREAM
Conrad first set foot on English soil in 1878, just when the British Empire was entering a long existential crisis. The US was becoming more assertive, and British leaders began to fear that their country’s global preeminence was slipping.
These concerns gave rise to a debate that would be familiar to us today. Indeed, the Brexit referendum and the confusion surrounding the Britain’s future outside the EU are nothing more than the continuation — and probably culmination — of a much older dispute.
This long-standing battle of ideas is the subject of Shadows of Empire, by the British public-policy scholars Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce. Kenny and Pearce show that over the past 150 years, there have been many ambitious — sometimes utopian — plans to re-organise and modernise Pax Britannica.
These proposals have differed in detail, but they have all sought to unite the Anglosphere – namely, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, and the US – behind a common purpose.
Some have called for the creation of a British imperial federation or a multinational commonwealth, while others would like to see a more formalized Atlantic Union, or even a new Anglo-American state.
The Brexiteers have continued this project. They hope Britain, by withdrawing from the EU, can rejoin its true “kith and kin” — that is, English-speaking countries that are committed to common law, democracy, and free markets.
‘Global Britain’, the argument goes, would strengthen its relationship with the US and the old Commonwealth, while also establishing new trade ties with countries in the Far East. Brexiteers cling nostalgically to the idea Britain would be primus inter pares within a renewed Anglosphere; that it would go from being an ordinary EU member state to a modern version of the old imperial mother country.
These lofty visions show how nostalgia nourishes delusion. After all, while Britain has made reshuffling the transatlantic geopolitical order a priority, most of the rest of the world still regards Brexit as a bewildering sideshow.
Under the Trump administration, the US will continue to put “America first”, which means that Britain and the rest of the Anglosphere will always come second, at best. Similarly, New Zealand and Australia will continue to pursue their own interests in the Asia-Pacific region, regardless of whatever shared heritage they have with Britain.
And while Canada might be interested in a free-trade agreement with Britain, its French-speaking minority would oppose a larger rebalancing toward the Anglo-Saxon world.
Establishing a new Anglo-led order seems hard enough as it is. And as Philip Murphy of the University of London shows in The Empire’s New Clothes, doing so within the context of the Commonwealth is pure wishful thinking.
The Brexiteers have long tried to present the Commonwealth as a genuine global network in which each member country is waiting and ready to follow Britain’s lead, as in Victorian times. But one need only look to India to understand just how fanciful this idea is.
As Tharoor reminds us, India’s general attitude towards Britain is one of resentment. And, as a practical matter, if Britain wants trade liberalisation with India, it must be ready to relax visa restrictions for Indian nationals – a concession that May has all but ruled out with her firm anti-immigration stance. At the end of the day, notes Murphy, the Commonwealth will never be anything more than a relic of the past.
THE NOSTALGIA CURE
As the late literary scholar Svetlana Boym pointed out in The Future of Nostalgia, the phenomenon takes different forms.
“Reflective nostalgia” looks at the past through critical eyes and recognises that even though some things have been lost, much has been gained. The problem is that the world is now dealing with a toxic “restorative nostalgia”, based on a desire to “rebuild the lost home.”
A yearning for past glories necessarily pits countries and nations against one another, as with Trump’s trade war, and, as with Brexit, blinds people to the disastrous consequences of extreme choices.
Ending today’s nostalgia epidemic will not be easy. When Hofer first described the condition, it was regarded as a curable disease.
After trying leeches, warm hypnotic emulsions, opium, and purging, a patient’s symptoms could usually be alleviated by a physical return to the beloved motherland. Yet at a time when experts and legitimate media are so distrusted, countering the false restorative nostalgia of nationalist and jingoistic leaders is not so straightforward.
It would seem that the only solution is for enlightened politicians themselves to leverage the past, which offers ample evidence that progress in the future is always still possible.
They can counter restorative nostalgia with reflective nostalgia, and by heeding the advice of the 19th-century French physician Hippolyte Petit: “Create new loves for the person suffering from love sickness; find new joys to erase the domination of the old.”