Ismail Lagardien: Nostalgia a dangerous move

South African politics is marked by quite dangerous senses of nostalgia. There is a general nostalgia for an imaginary time and place when communities and societies lived in isolation, one from the other, with people living off the land, and thriving on love and fresh air.

Some of us may remember the young North American, Christopher McCandless, or the British fellow, David Austin, who decided to return to living the way people did several hundred years previously – and died tragically out in the wild.

In political economy, there is nostalgia for a time when society had clear, readily distinguishable boundaries between the exploiters and the exploited.

In both cases, at least in South Africa, there was an attendant assumption that the exploiters were all white and the exploited were all black – and that in our original state, before there were exploiters and exploited, we were all better off.

Briefly on nostalgia. It is a yearning for an idealised and sanitised impression of the past, what psychoanalysts might referred to as a screen memory.

It is, in other words, not a true recreation of the past, but a combination of many different memories, all integrated, and with all negative emotions filtered out.

In this sense, nostalgia can be described as an emotional state and an attempt to recreate the past era by reproducing activities performed in the past and applying symbolic representations of the past.

Anyway, the first set of longing described above is imaginary because there is insufficient evidence to suggest that we once lived in complete peace, harmony, stability and trust among one another over an extended period.

If the tragic stories of McCandless and Austin are even slightly helpful, they demonstrate that there is no easy retreat from the technological and scientific advances that shape our daily lives in such fundamental ways.

Even if we focused only on food, drink, shelter and clothing, the most basic of necessities, withholding benefits of society – all the gains of science, technology or education – may hasten the drive into precarity.

It does seem rather silly to hanker for an imaginary time when things were simple and straightforward.

This brings us somewhat neatly to the second set of nostalgics, the true believers among those of us on the left who have had the rug pulled from under us.

Capitalism, the avowed enemy of the past 500 years, or so, is changing quite rapidly, and many of us are either unable to deal with the change, or we suffer some kind of separation anxiety disorder.

As it goes, the exploiters and exploited are trading places and swapping masks.

This particular strain of nostalgia remembers only the nobility of fighting the good cause in a world of satanic mills and Dickensian misery.

We somehow blot out and cannot accept accountability for the despicable acts and misery that stemmed from our otherwise well-intentioned theories.

Enough has been written about the misery sowed by “well-intentioned theories” of the left and the right.

In South Africa, though, the two nostalgias come together, as it were, in the newly emboldened radical economic transformation meme – a seemingly well-intentioned theory.

Collectively, at least among the country’s most prominent and influential leaders, there is a belief radical economic transformation entails a return to the economic and financial policy options that independent Africa’s early liberators chose in the years immediately after 1960 – the year of African independence.

This radical economic transformation seems to be driven by a desperately daft belief that the economy and the rand should (necessarily) collapse for South Africans to assert our place as a liberated people – and devil take the hindmost.

We really want the old enemies back.

Forget the fact that the world (the global political economy, more specifically), has been redefined over and again, since 1960.

Each new phase (part of what is described as interlocking short waves) transformed global capitalism in ways that make it virtually impossible to start again from scratch.

To be fair, it is not really impossible.

Cambodian leader Pol Pot embarked on a radical reorganising of society to cleanse society of capitalists, imperialists and all foreign influences.

He was especially distrustful of educated people.

And so, starting from scratch is not beyond the bounds of imagination, but it does draw on the deepest senses of nostalgia, to a time when independent countries could, indeed, start from scratch, as Pol Pot did in Cambodia, on April 17 1975, when he turned his country’s clock back to Year Zero.

After this date almost 25% of the population were killed or went missing.

Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.

Leave a Reply

Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment moderation policy. Your email address is required but will not be published.