The Sepia-Tinged New
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
A look back and forwards at The New.
How long ago was The New?
Some twenty odd years. There is a vast ocean of time between right now and *The Expression* looking good on you—or anyone. Humanity has run aground in that time, it's a different world now. *The Expression* is a relic.
–Dialogue from Disco Elysium, 2019
Culturally I am stuck in the 1990s, so I feel nostalgic that the clothes and political culture is back
–British politician Jess Philips, Twitter, 2021
How long ago was The New? In the UK, the answer is simple; The New began 24 years ago in 1997, and it ended, roughly, sometime between 2008, when its vision of politics and the world failed to anticipate a systemic crisis that reshaped and continues to reshape that world, and 2010, when that failure resulted in the fall of those visionaries from power. So The New ended just over a decade ago.
In what remains one of my most popular essays on my blog, Myth, Reaction, Utopia, I surveyed the myths that have taken hold of politics in places such as the UK and US. I looked at the social democratic left’s postwar nostalgia, the irrationalist right’s prelapsarian nostalgia, and the liberal moderate nostalgia for the 90s. (I could easily add to that the nostalgia of many radicals for the failed revolts of the 70s.)
I counterposed to these nostalgias a forward-looking, rational myth, rooted in the hope for freedom embodied in Marx’s philosophy through the lens of Erich Fromm. (The kind of utopian imagination celebrated in the writings of Ernst Bloch, on whom I have been engaged in a close reading.) But here, in the aftermath of a Labour Party conference that was the political equivalent of a zombie horror movie, I want to zero in on a nostalgia that is amongst the strangest of them all, the nostalgia of the centre, of The New. About them I previously wrote:
This myth looks, on the surface, like the least irreal, but that is only because it has the weight of received opinion. A return to the 90s that does not factor in the full threat of climate change or low-profitability, and ignores worker activism everywhere from China to India, as much as it does mass movements like BLM at home. Indeed, it is arguably far more detached and unmoored than the dream of a new Keynesianism, which for all its practical faults does posit itself in response to worker demands. What centrism owns are institutions well suited to its goals and, although it will fail to wield power, it can both seize and wield it more convincingly than others of these mythologists.
Some on the left like to make a charge against the centrists that accepts their own idea about themselves. Namely, that they lack an ideology. In truth, centrism is hyper-ideological in its self-regard as a realist, moderate set of beliefs about the proper running of society. Its elitist vision hinges foremost on the myth of meritocracy, which assumes that the way in which society sorts itself will tend to raise the most capable to the top.
This secularised but deeply magical fantasy justifies the exercise of power not much differently than did the myth of the divine right of kings. As an ideology The New is as prone to nostalgia as any other, but one that imagines itself to be beyond all myths, its eternal truths are judged to be eternally fresh, eternally cutting edge. This is how Keir Starmer, the mendacious and talentless current leader of the Labour Party, can make a statement such as:
We had moved from being the party of ‘white heat’ to the party of sepia-tinged nostalgia.
–Keir Starmer, The Road Ahead, 2021
Starmer’s words express a curious sentiment. Starmer is taking aim at one of the types of nostalgia I castigated in my earlier piece: that of the social democratic left for a highly selective vision of the 50s. (And perhaps at the 70s nostalgia of radicals too.) However, his party of ‘white heat’ is also and perversely itself a nostalgic trope, a reference back to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party of the 1960s and its now dated technological vision for a completely unrecognisable Britain. And this trope is in aid of the ascendency of the 90s politics Jess Philips, prematurely, has declared to be back. The politics of Tony Blair’s and Gordan Brown’s New Labour.
But to paraphrase the splendid computer game Disco Elysium, which is itself about a world captured by the myths of nostalgia, it has been some decade since New Labour. There is a vast ocean of time between right now and the 90s looking relevant. Humanity has run aground in that time, it's a different world now. New Labour is a relic.
But as with The New in Disco Elysium, it is a relic that is sustained because all that is proffered to take its place are equally relics. Keir Starmer makes this oddly clear. It is only in the context of a left obsessed with the Keynesian vision of rebuilding Britain after the Blitz, which forgets the geopolitical and unjust realities that sustained that project, that Starmer’s tawdry and truly old New vision can appear as anything other than it is. When all you can offer against an illusion is more illusions, it is the most convincing illusion that will win out. Socialists would be wrong to imagine that Starmer’s illusion does not possess resonances ours lack.
An illusion, however, it remains. The 90s is longer ago than chronology suggests. The bubble economy that then prevailed facilitated a politics that could make precarious domestic progressive gains in places such as the UK, and fuel a fantasy of an eternally better tomorrow. When that bubble anticlimactically popped, the prerequisites that allowed that interlude in history to exist vanished too. This was the world of post ideology, of no more booms and busts, where the big questions were resolved and it was only left to competent technocrats to delicately tinker at society’s edges.
What we continue to share with that time, however, is a world in which there is no future. Then, the absence of a future was sometimes thought to be beneficent; the future was not needed, because we had arrived at the goal, the end of history as Francis Fukuyama declared. We had arrived, finally and forever, at The New. Now, there is no future because against the scale of the crisis no project has yet risen to project one. Instead of gleaming myths of reason and hope, even the emancipatory politics of today clings to dead illusions. The evidence of this is in the inability of such a politics to overcome The New.
The politics of today largely lack enthusiasm, hope and confidence. They are all remembrance acts. And while The New is a relic, it still chimes with that futureless state that prevails. In a sense, in their very over fidelity to this ghost, the politicians of the centre pose it the greatest risk. But always there needs to be some substitute for a myth, some other way of understanding the world. And far more disturbing myths, ones of purity and domination, are presently likelier to eclipse The New than anything rooted in human possibility.
It is easy to mock the likes of Jess Philips and Keir Starmer, as well as the Joe Bidens and others of their ilk. It is clear that these priests of The New have no solution to a calamity their politics failed to prevent. Not just the calamity of financial crisis, but of ecological ruptures (from pandemics to global warming), far right demagoguery, and a complete loss of belief in the future. But they too often remain in positions of power, in control of the institutions suited to them. And until The New is met by a project not itself dug from history’s graveyard, this priesthood will remain in place or be replaced by something worse.
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