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Professor of philosophy, The University of Oslo


In today’s society critique of the changes is met with the term «nostalgia». If you are suspected of thinking that a lot of things used to be better before, you find yourself in a bad position. We laugh when Odd Børretzen ((1926-) Norwegian writer and singer) sings about the anoraks associated with the fifties and with Gerhardsen (Einar Gerhardsen (1897-1987), prime minister of Norway for 17 years, 1945-49, 1955-63 and 1963-65, representing the labour party). In the way in which one laughs at a perspective having no claim of being taken seriously.

The message coming from nearly all sides is that the past does not amount to a resource for the understanding and the critique of the present. The attitude of judging the past as unsuitable for enlightening the present is one of a fairly recent origin, a popular prejudice, and a dangerous one. Let me explain.

In 2003 I published the book «Moralens sjanser I markedets tidsalder» («The Chances of Morality in the Age of the Marked) together with my colleague Jan-Olav Henriksen. One of the intentions with this book was to create a debate about why, today, so many people in Norway express that they are not particularly happy, and that they experience themselves more and more as loosing control over the things that are most important in life. It is especially the place assigned to achievement, successfulness and career that they worry about, in short, the costs of the fact that the recently gained freedom of choice leads to a constant pressure to make the right choices – alone. When historical changes are judged in terms of the experienced quality of life – whether values such as freedom, security, and solidarity – are regarded as being on the increase or decrease, the recent past is an invaluable resource. For it is only through an ongoing comparison with the past that the present and as yet open – mouldable – future can be critically enlightened. This enables us to distinguish between changes for the better, and changes for the worse. This is what we had in mind when we wrote the book.

The book was, in so called enlightened circles, met with the term «nostalgia». In several places in the book, these readers were unable to rid themselves of the thought that the persons portrayed thought that a lot –though not everything – used to be better in the earlier days. One might even suspect the authors of having the same opinion. Hence the implication was that the analyses in the book were of insignificant value, in particular from a perspective of social critique – read: a left-oriented and progressive one.

In my opinion, the view of the modern left on nostalgia is one of its weakest and blindest spots. To wreck the past and the memory of what used to be as one out of several viewpoints for day to day social critique means committing one out of two mistakes, or possibly both at once. It means renouncing of an immeasurable resource from which the forces defining the present as the only valid viewpoint can be criticized; thereby the past is left over to the truly reactionary forces, which are then assigned a monopoly on defining how it once was and its relevance today. It is, as we see in today’s disillusioned Germany, to allow right-wing populism to draw every possible advantage from the past thought of by many as clearly preferable to what life is about today.

Although the right-wing populism’s exploitation of an idealized past («Ostalgie») is something a «future-oriented» left allows to happen because of their fear of touching the past, the greatest danger in such a past-reluctance is to be found elsewhere: in the kind of neo-liberal ideological rise that has dominated world politics. This is what Anthony Giddens referred to when he assessed ten years ago that «the right has become radical and the left conservative». The left has become defensive, having given up on the original utopian aim of socialism (the class-less society), and nowadays limits itself to the defence and preservation of the welfare state brought forth by social democracy (in particular in Scandinavia) after the war. In spite of all its distortions – this is the best model of society which one as a radical should hope for and work to achieve. Accordingly, the new right can make fun of opponents to privatization as «hindrances». Change is identified with progress, protest with nostalgia. Those who are against the changes (particularly in the public sector) are out-dated and carry a burden of proof that they will, it is claimed on beforehand, never be able to fulfil vis-à-vis the «modernists».

THis is where the anoraks of Odd Børretzen have such an effect. The left of today may (by simplification) be divided into those who value community and safety the most and those who value the individual and freedom of choice the most. Reiulf Steen ((1933-) Norwegian labour party politician, journalist and writer)) versus Marsdal and Wold (Magnus E. Marsdal (1974-) and Bendik Wold (1979-) journalists and authors of «Tredje venstre: for en radikal individualisme» («The Third Left. For a Radical Individualism») (2004)). The void between the generations is obvious, and its consequences are just begging for a good analysis.

For many aspiring young radicals, «nostalgia» is a bad word, a non-starter, something for old people in general, and the right wing. This is incorrect. It is not sufficient to think that nostalgia – an orientation towards the past – is disqualifying per se, a perspective which is automatically invalid. The question is what purpose the past  serves when it is used in analyses of the current development. The past is the seat of the accumulated experience and memory, thus being the nourishment to the one of two thoughts that any diagnosis of society must keep in mind.

The author Milan Kundera formulates it simply: «People’s struggle against power is a struggle against forgetfulness.» It was in the days of Soviet censorship and retouch, when those who had become incorrect over night, were removed from history by a stroke of the pen. The power the heydays of which we live in practices disappearance of other kinds. The historian Eric Hobsbawn expresses it thus: «Capitalism is about the destruction of the past.» Look around: Everything with a particular, local history is being extinguished. «Locals» are being replaced by «globals»


THe same chains in all the world’s large cities, the same brands in all the major shopping centres.  The eminent exchangeability of all culture, places and people. The globalization of «nothing», i.e. of the same empty and minimalist shape everywhere (McDonaldization) is identical to the worldwide extinction of «something», of locality and distinct difference. Economic inequalities are exploding, along with cultural-symbolic levelling and even extinction, of languages, species, rain forests, indigenous peoples; so many ways of being in the world. In this way the reigning ideology – neo-liberalism, which cultivates the ‘I’ that cultivates the moment – is rendered immune to criticism; when the past is removed, symbolically as well as physically, nothing solid remains besides what we have and what we are, right now.

To this state of affairs it is added that everyone – post 1989 – have plodded how all ideologies are dead. The future is (also) disqualified as a viewpoint for social critique. The fear of touching the past, along with its actual disappearance, both achieve the same task: leaving the present as the only remaining thing. The past is to be interpreted and criticized by means of the present.  That is not possible. When the position from which the critique is to come is identical with the object of the critique, the possibility of critique collapses, because it is dependent on contrast, on at least two standpoints being contrasted with one another. Here lies the positive – the dangerous – task of nostalgia: to resume the past as the one point of view of social critique, thereby to be able to distinguish the valuable changes from the bad ones. Every change is not progress – and similarly, all of the past does not exceed the future.


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