Lash out and cover up
Austerity nostalgia and ironic authoritarianism in recession Britain
Britain has reacted strangely to the crisis of neoliberalism. The country’s seemingly endemic nostalgia, particularly for the Second World War, has long been exploited by Thatcherites and Blairites; but its recent political use shows, in an especially acute form, the contradictions produced by an economy of consumption attempting to adapt to thrift, and to normalize surveillance and security in an ironic, depoliticized cultural politics. This can be traced through a single artefact, the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which has spread all over Britain in the wake of the spectacular demise of the Blair-era boom. From nowhere, this image, which combines bare modernist typography with the consoling iconography of the crown and a similarly reassuring message, has spread everywhere. In the snows that beset London this winter, it became ubiquitous, although the implied message about hardiness in the face of adversity and the Blitz spirit seemed rather absurd in a context where a bit of snow caused the shut-down of London’s entire transport network. This poster seems to exemplify a design phenomenon which has slowly crept up on us in the last few years to the point where it is now unavoidable – a sort of austerity nostalgia, or, more particularly, a nostalgia for the kind of public modernism which, rightly or wrongly, was seen to have characterized the period from the 1930s to the early 1970s, and which has recently been gradually rediscovered and reappropriated. The poster is the most visible form of a vague nostalgia for a benevolent, quasi-modernist English bureaucratic aesthetic. Yet its spread, and its adaptation into a series of police posters, have managed to create a sort of ironic aesthetic authoritarianism, which has a direct correlation with an entirely unironic intensification of repression and police violence.
Unlike many forms of nostalgia, the memory invoked by the Keep Calm and Carry On poster is in no way based on lived experience. Most of those who have bought this poster, or worn the various bags, T-shirts and other memorabilia based upon it, were most likely born in the 1970s or 1980s, and have no memory whatsoever of the kind of benevolent statism it purports to exemplify. The poster is an example of the phenomenon given a capsule definition by Douglas Coupland in the early 1990s: ‘Legislated Nostalgia’, that is, ‘to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess.’