"The past is a curious thing", the underwhelming protagonist in George Orwell's 1930s novel Coming Up for Air muses as he walks down the Strand on a morning off from his job selling insurance. "It's with you all the time. I suppose an hour never passes without your thinking of things that happened ten or twenty years ago...Then some chance sight or sound or smell, especially smell, sets you going, and the past doesn't merely come back to you, you're actually in the past."
In the past, George Bowling mattered, whereas in the present he is a fat 45-year-old in a bowler hat who, like every other thinking person in W.H. Auden's 'low, dishonest decade', is "stiff with fright" at the prospect of the impending European war. But in the far corners of his mind, beneath all the useless scraps of information and claustrophobia of the suburbs, was the mythical glow of the past, pulsating like an electrical current. "To outward appearances...I was still walking down the Strand, fat and forty-five, with false teeth and a bowler hat," he recalls, "but inside me I was George Bowling, aged seven, younger son of Samuel Bowling, corn and seed merchant, of 57 High Street, Lower Binfield."
There are several clichés doing the rounds to describe the tumultuous political upheavals currently afflicting western democracies. 'Post-truth politics' is one of them. 'Populism' is another inoffensive catch-all term. But neither of these quite hits the spot. A better word would be nostalgia: this is the politics of nostalgia. Whereas radical politics is typically a struggle between the future and the past, the sort of populism captivating large swathes of western electorates is an attempt to dig up the past, dust it off and impose it on the present in the manner of a square object driven into a round hole.
From grammar schools to Brexit to the re-election by Labour of Jeremy Corbyn over the weekend, rather than confronting the problems of today with new-fangled and fresh ideas, each movement is in its own way fearfully retreating to the halcyon past in response to a fearful and uncertain present. Even the Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump – a rejection of American demographic change made flesh – represents a similar politics of nostalgia.
Most of this nostalgia also rests, by and large, on a wilful misreading of the past. Theresa May's desire to resurrect grammar schools summon a golden age of social mobility which is illusory (or at least illusory in the way proponents of grammar schools claim); Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump are about making their respective countries 'great' again (again being the operative word); and the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn is bound up with all the worm-eaten and musty nostalgia floating around on the left: nationalisation, the red flag and an 'If I were King' mentality which believes that everything can be fixed in one broad sweep by government fiat.
The sort of populism captivating large swathes of western electorates is an attempt to dig up the past, dust it off and impose it on the present in the manner of a square object driven into a round hole.
Of course, describing something as the politics of nostalgia isn't necessarily to impugn the seriousness of the challenges Britain and other countries face in the present. Well, not entirely, anyway.
I was in Blackpool recently, a dilapidated and deprived town which nowadays just about manages to keep its head above water by repackaging its own past glories. Walking along the famous promenade with its smell of vinegar and chip fat, you are immediately struck by the entertainment promising to 'Take you back to the good times'. It taps into something which is felt by local residents and the residents of hundreds of other British, American and European towns alike: things today feel like they're getting worse.
In June, Blackpool voted 67.5 per cent in favour of Brexit. As local barber Alan Wade put it to me when I asked him what he thought of Jeremy Corbyn: "These people that have got power now, the bosses, the corporations, pound shops, places like that, there's no unions to protect the workers. As soon as you mention a union, you're out the door; there's no job for you; you're out. They're just doing what they want; they'll frighten you to death. I know not a lot of people like Corbyn, I'm not a lover of him, but I know what he's after, he's after going back to the way it was in the seventies when the bosses couldn't dictate to you what they wanted."
When the present is so unremittingly grim for so many, it's hardly a surprise that people want to ensconce themselves in the warm penumbra of the past.
However, as was pointed out by the American journalist Matthew Yglesias over the weekend, the central role of retired people in the populist backlash indicates that this is more than just another argument over the increasing precarity of work. Under-24s voted by 75% to remain in the EU, compared with just 39% of over-65s. For all the talk about Jeremy Corbyn enthusing young voters, the average age of a Labour member and supporter who joined after May 2015 is 51.
Meanwhile, just 2% of Donald Trump supporters are under 30, while about 50% are between the ages of 45 and 64. This is a rebellion against both faces of globalisation – economic and cultural – but not in the traditional conservative sense of 'standing athwart history yelling "Stop"'. This, moreover, is the politics of rewinding the film, putting it back in the canister and pulling out the black and white version.
From Trump to Brexit to grammar schools to Jeremy Corbyn, a sizeable chunk of the electorate is desperately reaching for the metaphorical Horlicks. Yet nostalgia politics summons a halcyon past that only ever existed in the imaginations of its true believers. Mass nationalisations are not going to save the British economy. And nor is building a vast wall on the Mexican border going to paint America white again.
As George Bowling went on to find out in Orwell's novel, romanticising the past can be comforting, but ultimately it represents a dead end. "We say that a man's dead when his heart stops and not before," Bowling reflects plaintively. "Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea."
Perhaps that's how societies go to the dogs, too.