The Second World War was a struggle, perhaps the most considerable collective struggle this country has ever experienced. …the determination to build a better world was as strong here as anywhere. Never again, it was believed, would we allow poverty, unemployment and the rise of fascism to disfigure our lives.
We had won the war together, together we could win the peace. If we could plan to wage military campaigns, could we not plan to build houses, create a health service, transport system and to make goods that we needed for reconstruction?
The central idea was common ownership, where production and services were to benefit all. The few should not get rich to the detriment of everyone else. It was a noble idea, popular and acclaimed by the majority. It was the Spirit of 1945.
What’s become of that spirit described by Ken Loach in relation to his film about the post war project that was, according to Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, and quoted by Mark Fisher in his book Ghosts of My Life, the “peak” of the
psychological perception, which emerged in the cultural situation of progressive modernity, the cultural expectations that were fabricated during the long period of modern civilisation…
These expectations were shaped in the conceptual frameworks of an ever-progressive development, albeit through different methodologies: the Hegel_marxist mythology of Aufhebung and founding of the new totality of Communism, the bourgeois mythology of a linear development of welfare and democracy: the technocratic mythology of the all-encompassing power of scientific knowledge; and so on.
If there is still faith in progress, the commitment to the welfare of all is no longer intrinsic to it, instead it’s considered something to be jettisoned for the sake of continued momentum. Perhaps the dream of a better future for all was hijacked in the 1970s and 1980s, which is when, Mark Fisher suggested that “the slow cancellation of the future’ got underway.
Now, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, some argue that the meltdown of neoliberalism is writ large. When you look at rising homelessness, the crisis in the health service, and assess the impact of austerity and cuts on many services, it seems very possible that the welfare state that emerged during the post war era could be taken down with it.
Yet both the UK vote for Brexit and Trump’s presidency in the US seem to have within them something of the “culture of retrospection and pastiche” that Fisher explored in music and popular culture. Like Micah White, Fisher focused on consumption in his analysis of what became of this collective imaginary, taking in the wider context of “neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism, to explore why there is so little of anything that is really innovative or new. His question as to whether the destruction of solidarity and security in our communities was responsible for our “contemporary hungering for the well-established and the familiar” seems important right now, as does his claim that we are “trapped” culturally, in the 20th century – in a “moment” that is in the grip
of a formal attachment to the techniques and formulas of the past, a consequence of retreat from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary experience.
As people are harking back to the past, wishing to regain control and past greatness, we seem, paradoxically, to have reached a moment when both the welfare state that emerged out of the Second World War, and the collective visionary spirit that drove its construction, are no longer assured a place in our lives together. Instead of inspiring us to think afresh about what we could achieve by working together, the past is being invoked to serve narrow interests, fuel hatred and resentment and a slide deeper into xenophobia and defensive nationalism.
Perhaps in the permanent now of neoliberalism that Fisher wrote about, we must acknowledge both our loss and lostness. The past and its dreams have gone. The system and structures that were built out of the devastation of the Second World War have morphed and transformed and, like the political system and the economy, has failed many. In the midst of such loss, it’s not surprising that our relationship to the future is also fractured. There were some who saw the vote to leave the EU as a determination to effect change, to refuse the status quo In this respect, the Brexit vote was a refusal of the direction of travel, an acknowledgement that neoliberalism wasn’t serving up comfortable progressiveness to them.
Now another tenet of the post-war vision has been wrecked, there is anger and grief on both sides of the EU divide. At the moment, the vision of the future that’s dominating shows unhealthy signs of regression, nostalgia and anxiety about what lies ahead wrapped up in a fragile bravado based on past success.
How do we regain a visionary spirit and the capacity to imagine a future that serves the common good? Back in Newcastle to reflect on last year’s Hidden Civil War event, and staying again at Motel One, we discussed the framework we adopted based on the academic Valerie Fournier’s argument that we need to provoke outrage against the current system, challenge inevitability and build alternative moral ecologies. We agreed that it was the third and final one that was the toughest to crack in terms of commissioning work.
The co-opting of the past should be resisted if we are to free up our imaginations and start a revolution of the mind that Micah White suggests is needed but we need also to acknowledge the profound sense of loss that is currently being played by many politicians. What emerged in this country after the war may have been flawed, but it was a remarkable feat given the devastation, loss and trauma that so many experienced during the years of conflict. Yet it is part of a healthy response to loss to gather up determination to embrace the future and build anew. To do that, you have to grieve and then be prepared to let go of the past. The Spirit of ’45 was both an acknowledgement of the suffering and failures of the present and a collective leap of faith, an embracing of a future that people who had survived a devastating war dared to hope could be better. How do we prepare ourselves to the same?