Something is happening in politics. Quite what to call it remains a matter debate, but the term postliberalism is being used with increasing frequency. The term has merit, recognising that the hegemony enjoyed by a broadly social and economically liberal establishment is coming under attack. But postliberalism as a label must be conceived as containing many interweaving impulses, united by the demand for a new socio-political settlement and a clear cynicism regarding the capacity of the political establishment to provide for such an outcome.
So what strands does this new impulse contain? One element, it seems to me, is nostalgia. British society is in the middle of a bout of nostalgia. One can see it shaping fashion, consumption, and leisure. Whilst this can in part be explained as a simple and none-too-radical reaction against the present, it also springs from the belief amongst a growing number that things used to be better than they are now. What we most long for, and what we project on to the past, is a sense of those things we no longer feel we possess: from the civic space to the private, from identity to belonging, from place to embeddedness. Danny Boyle’s success in the opening ceremony of the Olympics was a triumph of precisely this nostalgia, fuelled by an emotional and romantic patriotism: a sense of personhood marked by institutions and achievements which increasingly appear as quaint elements of a distant past rather than the foundation stones of a vibrant present.
Which often means we no longer feel at home. Even those living in the same place they have lived all their lives. Indeed, that which we now call home often ends at the threshold of our own front doors. The grander project of which we believed our ancestors to be part has crumbled with the insitutitons that were manifestations of precisely that project. We look around and see in our townscapes the crumbled remnants of a society that, for all we imagine, was altogether more social, more serene, more ours, than the one we currently inhabit. And we long for it. The ‘progressive’ fetish is dead and buried. And this nostalgia makes us apathetic about the present and the possibility of regaining that squandered inheritance. The feeling is general and vague, but it is no less real for all that.
And that’s the thing with nostalgia – it is hard to analyse. Hard to even describe in any coherent manner (as any of you who have persisted this far will no doubt have gathered). Ask someone to be precise about the specific issue that underpins apathy toward that class charged with (and blamed for) shaping our society through laws and leadership, and one invites only shrugs and muttered generalisations. The feeling that all is not as it should be, nor indeed is as good as it once was, is something too shifting, too abstract, for psephologists and SpAds to do much with. Pollsters can give snapshot views on isolated issues and dutifully report back to their political masters, but they cannot assess the broader impact, that being the wider sense that society as a whole is changing and people feel increasingly alienated by it. They might tell us, entirely correctly, that the majority would support x, but they cannot give an accurate analysis of the residual sense of loss in a changing society brought about in part by x, when inevitably combined with y, and z, and so on.
The result? Distaste for, and apathy toward, the political system as an agent of change.
And this apathy and alienation, already shaping culture, is shaping politics. One spies it lurking at the heart of the immigration debate, which always was more about culture (broadly defined) than it was about numbers or resources. Equally, it is there underpinning the welfare debate, with a renewed emphasis on reciprocity and the mutual society. And one can certainly spot it in the education debate, perhaps here more than anywhere else, with appeals to a previous era of rigour and discipline. The character of each of these debates springs from the underlying sense of something lost, an attempt to reconstruct the present and the future through an idealised appeal to the tight-knit communities, moral norms, and strong local identities of the past. We no longer fix our gaze solely on the future, but increasingly measure ourselves by our past, upon this basis making a case for a restructuring of the present.
One danger is that such appeals are, to an extent, built on sand. They graft on to the present a moral and social paradigm that, in many places, no longer exists. Or at the very best, no longer exists in quite the same manner as our ancestors knew it. Those seeking to reform the welfare system call forth the spirit of Beveridge and the value system from which he drew, just as those disgusted by the abuse of the welfare system call forth visions of a nobler, more honourable age. Yet the value system that underpinned them has been torn down. Interpreting social action through a lens that society no longer lives by, indeed that you yourself have had a hand in demolishing (denouncing as bigots and backwoodsmen those who ever opposed), will end only in demonization of those living as rational agents within the very world that has been created for them. Or put in other words, if politics has elevated self-gratification over wider concepts of duty or honour, then one can hardly cry foul when one discovers that society has learned to do the same.
Yet the desire for change exists. Meaning that, in its way, social conservatism is making a comeback. Which provides a unique opportunity for the left. The nostalgia for place, for community, for identity, for kith and kin, brings with it a natural critique of that transient, shifting, globalised, workaholic world. Wide eyed wonder at the promise of the future has given way to a longing for the securities of the past. If we are increasingly aware of that we wish to preserve (or even resurrect), then we are also increasingly aware of that which threatens it. Tapping into this fundamental angst, which at its heart has relies upon a vision of the good life, will become the political ball game. As Jon Cruddas has shown, it is on precisely these grounds that the left finds its strongest voice on the injustices and social impacts of the current economic system.
The question becomes how to manage the tension, between a society longing for that which is lost and a political settlement helping to facilitate the renewal of the civic space in a manner that might satiate those desires, in a manner consistent with the pursuit of the common good. This would, of course, require a seismic shift in the intellectual orthodoxies of our ruling classes. Perhaps, then, success in the present really consists in delivering a future in which that very shift has taken, or can take, place. Or put differently, perhaps the demand of the present is to agitate, to serve as a bridge between our past and a reconstructed future, a renewed Burkean contract between the now dead, the still living and the as yet unborn.