How The Past Became A Political Battlefield
Detail from Henri Vidal, "Cain after Having Killed His Brother Abel." Source: Wikimedia commons

 

In recent years, a great deal has been written on the subject of group identity in politics, much of it aiming to understand how people in Western countries have become more likely to adopt a “tribal” or “us-versus-them” perspective. Naturally, the most scrutiny has fallen on the furthest ends of the spectrum: populist nationalism on one side, and certain forms of radical progressivism on the other. We are by now familiar with various economic, technological, and psychological accounts of these group-based belief systems, which are to some extent analogous throughout Europe and in North America. Something that remains little discussed, though, is the role of ideas and attitudes regarding the past.

When I refer to the past here, I am not talking about the study of history – though as a source of information and opinion, it is not irrelevant either. Rather, I’m talking about the past as a dimension of social identity; a locus of narratives and values that individuals and groups refer to as a means of understanding who they are, and with whom they belong. This strikes me as a vexed issue in Western societies generally, and one which has had a considerable bearing on politics of late. I can only provide a generic overview here, but I think it’s notable that movements and tendencies which emphasise group identity do so partly through a particular, emotionally salient conception of the past.

First consider populism, in particular the nationalist, culturally conservative kind associated with the Trump presidency and various anti-establishment movements in Europe. Common to this form of politics is a notion that Paul Taggart has termed “heartland” – an ill-defined earlier time in which “a virtuous and unified population resides.” It is through this temporal construct that individuals can identify with said virtuous population and, crucially, seek culprits for its loss: corrupt elites and, often, minorities. We see populist leaders invoking “heartland” by brandishing passports, or promising to make America great again; France’s Marine Le Pen has even sought comparison to Joan of Arc.

Meanwhile, parts of the left have embraced an outlook well expressed by Faulkner’s adage that the past is never dead – it isn’t even past. Historic episodes of oppression and liberating struggle are treated as continuous with, and sometimes identical to, the present. While there is often an element of truth in this view, its practical efficacy has been to spur on a new protest movement. A rhetorical fixation with slavery, colonialism, and patriarchy not only implies urgency, but adds moral force to certain forms of identification such as race, gender, or general antinomianism.

Nor are these tendencies entirely confined to the fringes. Being opposed to identity politics has itself become a basis for identification, albeit less distinct, and so we see purposeful conceptions of the past emerging among professed rationalists, humanists, centrists, classical liberals and so on. In their own ways, figures as disparate as Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker define the terra firma of reasonable discourse by a cultural narrative of Western values or Enlightened liberal ideals, while everything outside these bounds invites comparison to one or another dark episode from history.

I am not implying any moral or intellectual equivalence between these different outlooks and belief systems, and nor am I saying their views are just figments of ideology. I am suggesting, though, that in all these instances, what could plausibly be seen as looking to history for understanding or guidance tends to shade into something more essential: the sense that a given conception of the past can underpin a collective identity, and serve as a basis for the demarcation of the political landscape into friends and foes.

 

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These observations appear to be supported by recent findings in social psychology, where “collective nostalgia” is now being viewed as a catalyst for inter-group conflict. In various contexts, including populism and liberal activism, studies suggest that self-identifying groups can respond to perceived deprivation or threat by evoking a specific, value-leaden conception of the past. This appears to bolster solidarity within the group and, ultimately, to motivate action against out-groups. We might think of the past here as becoming a kind of sacred territory to be defended; consequently, it serves as yet another mechanism whereby polarisation drives further polarisation.

This should not, I think, come as a surprise. After all, nation states, religious movements and even international socialism have always found narratives of provenance and tradition essential to extracting sacrifices from their members (sometimes against the grain of their professed beliefs). Likewise, as David Potter noted, separatist movements often succeed or fail on the basis of whether they can establish a more compelling claim to historical identity than that of larger entity from which they are trying to secede.

In our present context, though, politicised conceptions of the past have emerged from cultures where this source of meaning or identity has largely disappeared from the public sphere. Generally speaking, modern Western societies allow much less of the institutional transmission of stories which has, throughout history, brought an element of continuity to religious, civic, and family life. People associate with one another on the basis of individual preference, and institutions which emerge in this way usually have no traditions to refer to. In popular culture, the lingering sense that the past withholds some profound quality is largely confined to historical epics on the screen, and to consumer fads recycling vintage or antiquated aesthetics. And most people, it should be said, seem perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Nonetheless, if we want to understand how the past is involved with the politics of identity today, it is precisely this detachment that we should scrutinise more closely. For ironically enough, we tend to forget that our sense of temporality – or indeed lack thereof – is itself historically contingent. As Francis O’Gorman details in his recent book Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia, Western modernity is the product of centuries worth of philosophical, economic, and cultural paradigms that have fixated on the future, driving us towards “unknown material and ideological prosperities to come.” Indeed, from capitalism to Marxism, from the Christian doctrine of salvation to the liberal doctrine of progress, it is remarkable how many of the Western world’s apparently diverse strands of thought regard the future as the site of universal redemption.

But more to the point, and as the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin never tired of pointing out, this impulse towards transcending the particulars of time and space has frequently provoked, or at times merged with, its opposite: ethnic, cultural, and national particularism. Berlin made several important observations by way of explaining this. One is that universal and future-oriented ideals tend to be imposed by political and cultural elites, and are thus resented as an attack on common customs. Another is that many people find something superficial and alienating about being cut off from the past; consequently, notions like heritage or historical destiny become especially potent, since they offer both belonging and a form of spiritual superiority.

I will hardly be the first to point out that the most recent apotheosis of progressive and universalist thought came in the era immediately following the Cold War (not for nothing has Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History become its most iconic text). In this moment, energetic voices in Western culture – including capitalists and Marxists, Christians and liberals – were preoccupied with cutting loose from existing norms. And so, from the post-national rhetoric of the EU to postmodern academia and the champions of the service economy and global trade, they all defined the past by outdated modes of thought, work, and indeed social identity.

I should say that I’m too young to remember this epoch before the war on terror and the financial crisis, but the more I’ve tried to learn about it, the more I am amazed by its teleological overreach. This modernising discourse, or so it appears to me, was not so much concerned with constructing a narrative of progress leading up to the present day as with portraying the past as inherently shameful and of no use whatsoever. To give just one example, consider that as late as 2005, Britain’s then Prime Minister Tony Blair did not even bother to clothe his vision of the future in the language of hope, simply stating: “Unless we ‘own’ the future, unless our values are matched by a completely honest understanding of the reality now upon us and the next about to hit us, we will fail.”

Did such ways of thinking lay in store the divisive attachments to the past we see in politics today? Arguably, yes. The populist impulse towards heartland has doubtless been galvanised by the perception that elites have abandoned provenance as a source of common values. Moreover, as the narrative of progress has become increasingly unconvincing in the twenty-first century, its latent view of history as a site of backwardness and trauma has been seized upon by a new cult of guilt. What were intended as reasons to dissociate from the past have become reasons to identify with it as victims or remorseful oppressors.

 

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Even if you accept all of this, there remains a daunting question: namely, what is the appropriate relationship between a society and its past? Is there something to be gained from cultivating some sense of a common background, or should we simply refrain from undermining that which already exists? It’s important to state, firstly, that there is no perfect myth which every group in a polity can identify with equally. History is full of conflict and tension, and well as genuine injustice, and to suppress this fact is inevitably to sow the seeds of resentment. Such was the case, for instance, with the Confederate monuments which were the focus of last year’s protests in the United States: many of these were erected as part of a campaign for national unity in the early 20th century, one that denied the legacy of African American slavery.

Moreover, a strong sense of tradition is easily co-opted by rulers to sacralise their own authority and stifle dissent. The commemoration of heroes and the vilification of old enemies are today common motifs of state propaganda in Russia, India, China, Turkey, Poland and elsewhere. Indeed, many of the things we value about modern liberal society – free thought, scientific progress, political equality – have been won largely by intransigence towards the claims of the past. None of them sit comfortably in societies who afford significant moral authority to tradition. And this is to say nothing of the inevitable sacrificing of historical truth when the past is used as an agent of social cohesion.

But notwithstanding the partial resurgence of nationalism, it is not clear there exists in the West today any vehicle for such comprehensive, overarching myths. As with “tribal” politics in general, the politicisation of the past has been divergent rather than unifying because social identity is no longer confined to traditional concepts and categories. A symptom of this, at least in Europe, is that people who bemoan the absence of shared historical identity – whether politicians such as Emmanuel Macron or critics like Douglas Murray – struggle to express what such a thing might actually consist in. Thus they resort to platitudes like “sovereignty, unity and democracy” (Macron), or a rarefied high culture of Cathedrals and composers (Murray).

The reality which needs to be acknowledged, in my view, is that the past will never be an inert space reserved for mere curiosity or the measurement of progress. The human desire for group membership is such that it will always be seized upon as a buttress for identity. The problem we have encountered today is that, when society at large loses its sense of the relevance and meaning of the past, the field is left open to the most divisive interpretations; there is, moreover, no common ground from which to moderate between such conflicting narratives. How to broaden out this conversation, and restore some equanimity to it, might in the present circumstances be an insoluble question. It certainly bears thinking about though.