Exploring ‘Austerity Nostalgia’

Seven years or so since it first appeared it seems ‘that bloody sign’ is still with us. Some time around 2009, soon after the banking crisis, a stark poster featuring the words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ set in a Gill Sans-ish typeface, topped by the Royal crest, began to appear here and there.

The poster’s revival, which was first published in 1939 by the Ministry of Information to stiffen resolve in the event of a Nazi invasion, was intended as a gentle visual gag, a semi-ironic invocation of the wartime ‘Blitz Spirit’ in response to troubled economic times. But as the severity of the recession became clear, the joke spread, everywhere. A year or so later the ‘Keep Calm’ design and related wartime iconography was a gift shop staple, adorning mugs, stationery, tea towels – the list is exhaustive – and had helped kick-start a full blown revival of the early modernist aesthetic of the 1930s and 40s.

Owen Hatherley’s The Ministry of Nostalgia is a witty, exasperated and ferociously well-read exploration of the ‘Austerity Nostalgia’ phenomenon and its politicisation, with parties of both the left and right drawing upon competing mythologies of wartime Britain to support their respective positions towards today’s austerity.

For Hatherley the rapid commercialisation of the ‘Keep Calm’ aesthetic is the confused response of a consumer society attempting to adapt itself to a severe economic downturn, a society hooked on credit that nevertheless persists in viewing itself in terms of the collective self-sacrifice of the war effort:

The power of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stiff upper lips and muddling through. This is, however, something that largely survives only in the popular imaginary, in a country devoted to services and consumption, where elections are decided on the basis of house price value, and given to sudden, mawkish outpourings of sentiment.

Hatherley’s opening chapter attempts to chart the rapid growth of the Austerity Nostalgia industry. Shortly after the ‘Keep Calm’ poster was first sighted prints bearing other wartime slogans appeared (‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory’ and so on) together with classic 30s and 40s ads for the London Underground. The stark monochrome Penguin book covers of the postwar period were revived. There was an odd new fashion for back-to-basics ‘austerity grub’ typified by Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food enterprise. Tumblr streams celebrating post-war social housing appeared, and associated societies. And primetime TV shows like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife sought to suffuse the stringent years that followed the First and Second World Wars with a cosy glow, presenting a picture of a paternalistic aristocracy and deferential working class mucking in together to make the best of it.

Austerity Nostalgias of the right and left

The Austerity Nostalgia phenomenon soon acquired a political charge. The right has invoked the national memory of wartime sacrifice to marshall the country behind a severe ‘there-is-no-alternative’ economic programme, developing a highly effective set of mantras inspired by the ‘Keep Calm’ message: ‘We’re all in this together’, ‘The nation has maxed out its credit card’ and ‘We must live within our means’. Indeed a new ‘Clean for the Queen‘ campaign goes so far as to appropriate the ‘Keep Calm’ aesthetic wholesale.

The left has drawn upon wartime iconography to assert a different narrative, insisting that the era of ration books and belt-tightening was also the age of the Beveridge Report and the reforming 1945 Labour government that laid the foundations of the welfare state through the creation of the NHS, the development of a sophisticated system of social insurance, the extension of secondary education and the launch of the post-war social housing programme.

As it became clear that the Coalition government intended to use the economic crisis to pursue the long term conservative objective of rolling back the social democratic institutions put in place by the Atlee administration, Labour began to champion its legacy with a vigour absent during the Blair-Brown years. Ed Miliband frequently appealed to the 45 government’s status as the founder the NHS and Jeremy Corbyn surged to the leadership on a promise to help the party ‘rediscover its soul’ by returning to its post-war radicalism.

Indeed 1945 revivalism has become a wider cultural phenomenon in the past few years, with several radical filmmakers presenting the Atlee legacy to a mainstream – even global – audience. Danny Boyle famously made the creation of the NHS a centrepiece of the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. A year later Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 highlighted the Atlee government’s role in lifting ordinary Britons out of dire poverty. And Skip Kite’s 2014 biopic Will and Testament presented the late Tony Benn as a lonely torchbearer for the legacy of 1945.

For Hatherley these and other eulogies packed an undoubted emotional punch, but each is bedevilled by a recurrent leftist nostalgia: a sentimental attachment to the memories and imagery of past struggles that mean little to new generations struggling for change today. Of The Spirit of ’45 Hatherley asks:

If this is an attempt to convice people here and now to defend what’s left of the welfare state, it seems odd to use an iconography so firmly rooted in a past that so much of the contemporary working class had nothing to do with. Brass bands and union banners are so alien to most of those who right now have the power in their hands to change things, it could as well be a depiction of the English revolution of the seventeenth century.

And Will and Testament tames Benn by making too much of him as the ‘national treasure’ of popular imagination – the grandfatherly pipe-smoking veteran of endless Durham Miners’ Galas – at the expense of a serious examination of the pivotal period during the mid-70s when as a radical Industry Secretary proposing workers’ control of the means of production and a far-reaching Alternative Economic Strategy Benn was regarded as a genuine threat to established interests.

Hatherley goes on to note a further problem with any straightforward appropriation of the legacy of the 1945 as a tool for today’s political battles: the Atlee government’s unashamedly imperial foreign policy. The administration that designed the NHS was also a staunch defender of the British Empire, and – a particular problem for Corbynistas – a determined champion of an independent British nuclear deterrent.

But for others within today’s Labour Party this putatively sectarian aspect of the character of the 45 government was an important part of its appeal that contemporary left-liberals are unable to acknowledge. The ‘Blue Labour‘ school of ‘Progressive Patriotism’ associated with Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman commends the Atlee administration precisely because it was both radical and patriotic, eschewing a ‘deracinated’ liberalism prioritising class and individualism over bonds of family, faith and nation. Blue Labour’s influence during the Miliband era revealed itself in the communitarian tone of the 2015 manifesto, with its mix of statist economic populism, an emphasis on holding together embattled local communities, and promises to ‘get tough on immigration’.

Hatherley delves into Progressive Patriotism’s sacred text, George Orwell’s 1940 essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, regularly invoked by senior Labour figures hostile to the current leadership, most recently in a Tristram Hunt speech enjoing Labour to ‘embrace Englishness – and be proud of it‘.

In Orwell’s famous words ‘national loyalty’ is a ‘positive force’ against which ‘Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison’. The cuckoo-in-the-nest of the Labour family working against the party’s whole-hearted embrace of a robust patriotism is the liberal intellectual, whom Orwell’s essay refers to as an oddball adopting the various guises of the ‘fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist’.

For Hatherley any uncomplicted attempt to appropriate a complex character like Orwell for the Blue Labour cause is much too neat. For one thing, in other writings such as his 1947 essay Toward European Unity Orwell points out an inherent contradiction in the Atlee government’s attempt to pursue ‘social imperialism’, an economic strategy promoting the interests of an Empire that prioritised the interests of British workers over those in the colonies. It is logically impossible to both be a socialist and to prefer the interests of one’s own tribe: a rigorous socialist internationalism requires concessions from those who benefit from a skewed economic system to ensure a level playing field. If Blue Labour wants to position itself as Orwell’s heir it too needs to grapple with the paradoxes he wrestled with. How can Labour square its ostensible commitment to equality and internationalism with protectionist measures that favour one constituency over others?

A very British modernism

One of the book’s most interesting chapters looks at a form of Austerity Nostalgia for which Hatherley seems to have rather more sympathy: a revival of interest in the high-minded public-spirited modernism of a cluster of institutions strongly associated with the 1930s and 40s that were at least as important as the 1945 government for establishing the framework of the postwar social democratic settlement.

As the privatisation of what remains of that public sphere continues apace it has obtained a cult following, with the appearance of books, magazines, societies and websites lauding the achievements of long-gone public bodies such as the London County Council (LCC), the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB), the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and events associated with them, most famously the 1951 Festival of Britain. These institutions represented a very British expression of the radical modernism developed during the 1920s and 30s by the European avant-garde – the Bauhaus, the Constructivists, De Stilj et al – that sought to put ‘elegantly rationalised industrial design, art and architecture at the service of the state.’

During the 1930s the LPTB, for example, imposed an impressive visual order on the Underground, designing the famous posters – part Fauvist, part Morris & Co – found beside the ‘Keep Calm’ sign in good heritage shops everywhere, and building a series of new stations communicating a gentle Dan futurism: ‘Step out at Arnos Grove’, says Hatherley of its concrete drum ticket-office, ‘and you could be dumbstruck by its austere beauty.’

Like the LPTB, the GPO Film Unit, which produced a series of classic short films through the 30s and the 40s (when it became the Crown Film Unit) was influenced by the European avant-garde, notably Soviet directors like Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) and Oleksandr Dovzhenko (Earth). Again, the results, most famously perhaps Night Mail and Listen to Britain, mix a bracing modernist freshness with something very British.

The LPTB and the GPO, and the Festival of Britain, with its Dan Dare sci-fi structures such as Dome of Discovery and the Skylon, are viewed by their contemporary admirers as heralds of a British socialist futurism that found limited expression through the 50s, 60s and 70s before being killed off with the advent of neoliberalism.

For Hatherley that narrative has some truth, but as with all the the Austerity Nostalgias under review it’s easy to sentimentalise. Though admirable the legacy of the LPTB and the GPO is not whiter-than-white: both had associations with what Hatherley calls ‘the dark underside of austerity-nostalgia aesthetics’ – the imperialist British foreign policy of the 1930s and 40s. As well as making now celebrated films and posters the GPO and LPTB’s stable of artists also worked for the Empire Marketing Board, a body designed to shore up the imperial market as a self-enclosed trading bloc walled by tariffs. The Board’s ‘Jungles Today Are Gold Mines Tomorrow’ poster, for example – which you won’t find in any gift shop – ‘uses the same bright, jagged, slightly vorticist manner that induced commuters to go and live in Chingford.’

London’s new austerity-nostalgic aesthetic

Though packed with information and insight, several of Hatherley’s central chapters feel rather padded with digressions only loosely related to his ostensible theme, that circle rather than drive the book’s central argument forward. But Hatherley shifts back into sharp focus with a coruscating closing essay examining the emergence of a new ‘Austerity architecture’.

Taking us on a tour of London’s most recent new builds Hatherley finds something quite different from the shiny architecture of ‘regeneration’ characteristic of the 1990s and 2000s chronicled in some of his previous books. With their walls of glass and brightly coloured panels, the apartment complexes of the New Labour years – a kind of dayglow modernism – were at pains to appeal to ‘aspirational’ buyers by establishing a clear contrast with the post-war social housing estates surrounding them, products of a ‘dreary muncipal socialism’.

Now, though, much of that very same public architecture is back in fashion. A visit to new builds at Regent’s Canal or King’s Cross reveals a ‘New London Vernacular‘: regular, brick-clad, rectilinear structures with square, bricky towers recalling the monumentality and order of post-war urban planning:

Whereas in very recent memory, London seemed to want to look like Dubai-on-Thames, it now increasingly resembles a cross between Islington in the 1820s and Poplar in the 1950s, two moments of austerity and rectitude.

And much of the social housing stock on which the new ‘austerity-nostalgic aesthetic’ is modelled has become highly sought after as it has been acquired and sold on by developers. Properties in previously maligned buildings and estates such as Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers, Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House and Berthold Lubetkin’s Spa Green, Priory Green, Bevin Court, are now keenly sought after by middle-class professionals. The glaring paradox of course is that while postwar municipal modernism has never been more fashionable it has been entirely evacuated of the social function for which it was built. The likes of Lubetkin and Goldfinger, designers of some of the most sought after properites, were inspired by the utopian Soviet ideal of architecture as open public space, a seamless integration of community facilities, libraries, health centres, schools and social clubs. Those spaces are now closed to those for whom they were originally built. As Hatherley puts it:

[W]e face a massive problem for which, once, the solution was the building of well-designed, well-considered, well-planned modernist buildings, often erected on the ashes of the shoddily-designed, unplanned, badly made, profit-driven housing of the past. Instead, what is actually happening is that we’re transforming the surviving fragments of that solution into one of the main contributors to the problem, as social housing becomes the new front line of gentrification, and the architect-designed modernist flat the new loft conversion.

Hatherley suggests those who truly understand the original purpose of social housing are unglamorous groups such as the Focus E15 Mums who took over the disused Carpenters Estate in Stratford, not because of any nostalgia for the aesthetics of postwar modernism, but simply because the buildings offer functional, useful accommodation for those who would otherwise be unable to afford it. Here the essential problem with all Austerity Nostalgias is exposed with particular clarity: the aestheticisation of the legacy of pre-and post-war public modernism obscures the political radicalism that inspired it:

[I]f a social and democratic city is going to be built again, it will most probably be built by those who have no investment in the past, no fond memory of it.

The Ministry of Nostalgia is a short book that perhaps might have benefited from being shorter still: one senses Hatherley is occasionally tempted into unnecessary detours by various nostalgias of his own. But this is a finely written and fiercely intelligent guide to an unmistakable, widespread but under-analysed phenomenon by one of Britain’s sharpest social commentators.

This review first appeared on Sceptical Scot.