Amy Gilligan reviews Owen Hatherley’s book The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity (Verso, 2015)
The Ministry of Nostalgia is an exploration of the way a particular version of the past, particularly the austerity of the 1940s and 1950s, continues to be used under neoliberalism. This “austerity nostalgia” is typified in the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, Kath Kidson shops and the Great British Bake Off. It reflects a notion that things were once more “solid, stoic and depoliticised” – a soft nationalism for when things were more “British”. As Hatherley shows, this vision of the past is not rooted in what life was really like: selective elements are frequently brought together ahistoically. Keep Calm and Carry On was never a slogan in the 1940s – it is a very 21st century phenomenon.
The Ministry of Nostalgia polemicises against the way austerity nostalgia has been used by the right and the state. Yet one of its most interesting aspects is it’s critique of left wing nostalgia, focusing in particular on Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45. While this film does a good job highlighting the sense of possibility the development of the welfare state presented, the image of Britain it presents is one that is “alien to most of those who right now have the power in their hands to change things”. He argues that people might want to look back wistfully to an “imaginary vision of a Britian without 1979 and Thatcher”, but this is also a Britain without the “Empire Windrush” and the gains made by the liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.
Given Hatherley’s background, writing on architecture, it is unsurprising that large parts of the book look at the built environment. He explores how the austerity of the 1940s and 1950s impacted the kind of buildings that were constructed, nostalgia for modernist architecture and social democratic planning, and how “austerity-chic” is the style of choice for designers today. He focuses on London, with the assumption, I felt, that readers would have heard of the places he talks about. It would be interesting to explore how the reality of austerity past and present impacted outside of the capital – a future book, perhaps.
This review originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine