The Ministry of Nostalgia

Last night I attended the discussion of Owen Hatherley’s new book The Ministry of Nostalgia at the London Review Bookshop. Hatherley is a politically engaged and stylistically engaging journalist and architectural critic. Architecture also plays a role in The Ministry of Nostalgia but here it provides only one example for a much larger trend that Hatherley calls “austerity nostalgia”.

Ministry-of-Nostalgia-cover600-3b7c5ce80849e4134ecee7ec54dec494The book starts with an analysis of the omnipresent invocation on posters, coasters, fridge magnets, buttons and stickers to Keep Calm and Carry On. The original poster was designed in 1939 for the British government to raise the public morale but was never publicly displayed—until 2000 that is, when it was rediscovered and quickly became a global phenomenon.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-467x700For Hatherley the Keep Calm and Carry On slogan is not an innocent joke but ideologically charged: it embodies “all the contradictions produced by a consumption economy attempting to adapt itself to thrift, and to normalise surveillance and security through an ironic, depoliticised aesthetic” (17). The slogan stands for the willingness to endorse or at least accept the austerity policy of the current Conservative government. It “isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself. It is nostalgia for the state of being repressed…” (21).

The Keep Calm and Carry On poster is only one expression of what Hatherley sees as a larger nostalgia for the age of austerity—the period between roughly the 1930s and the early 1970s. Although he lists a number of expressions and phenomena to back this up— from hipster beards, army surplus jackets and the retro folk Mumford & Sons to Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of 1945, Jamie Oliver’s series The Ministry of Food and the sudden popularity of former council houses—I was not convinced that something like a nostalgia for austerity exists. It would be easy to come up with similar lists for any other decade of the twentieth century. After the 60s and 70s fads have exhausted themselves, it was only a matter of time for the 1940s and 50s to be rediscovered by the heritage industry.

In fact, the term nostalgia first became common currency thanks to the revivals of fifties Rock’n’Roll in the early 1970s. In some ways The Ministry of Nostalgia reads like a remake of such 70s and 80s texts on nostalgia as Robert Hewison’s The Heritage Industry, Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country and Samuel Raphael’s Theatres of Memory, the last two of which Hatherley cites in his book. While new nostalgias are discovered all the time, the discussion of nostalgia—its causes, meanings and dangers—has not much progressed.

And then there is the question if nostalgia is the right term at all. Reading The Ministry of Nostalgia, I was wondering if what Hatherley describes has more to do with nationalism than nostalgia—or rather the appeal to warm feelings of nationalism, the “We’re all in this together” slogan of the 2010-15 coalition government. It can’t be a coincidence that the shops selling the Keep Calm and Carry On posters are also selling Union flags of all shapes and sizes. Recently, the Labour politician Tristram Hunt called for Labour to embrace English nationalism. If nothing else, Hatherley’s book raises doubts that this strategy will succeed.

What is called for, Hatherley suggests, is not nostalgia for the past but political action in the present. In the face of welfare cuts and increasing surveillance, Hatherley wants people to stop being calm and carrying on. And he sees signs for this—albeit small ones—in, for example, the occupation of a housing estate in East London by a group of working-class moms: “These people have not shown the Blitz Spirit, they have not kept their upper lips stiff, they have not kept calm or carried on… they did not demand that the buildings be used because they’re part of the great history of British democracy… They took them over and tried to use them because they are useful, and nostalgia played absolutely no part in their actions.” (202)

The Ministry of Nostalgia is a somewhat disjointed narrative that is propelled by associations rather than a continuous argument. However, the book is a polemic and as a polemicist Hatherley unquestionably succeeds, describing Jamie Oliver as “as decent and sincere a person as you’ll find on the Sunday Times Rich List” (23) or the Evening Standard as “the free Boris Johnson propaganda and property porn rag” (183). The Imperial War Museum (“the name is bad enough”, 191) becomes, thanks to its gift shop laden with nostalgia knick-knack, “The Museum of Keeping Calm and Carrying On” (194). Whether one agrees with Hatherley or not, he is certainly never boring. For me personally, however, there is only one conclusion:

keep-calm-and-carry-on-researching--9

The Ministry of Nostalgia is published by  Verso. An excerpt of the book appeared in the Guardian. It has been reviewed in the Guardian, the Independent, the Spectator, the Evening Standard and Review 31.