The English people today are addicted to the rhythms of their own industrial and imperial valediction: they like saying goodbye to the past, and saying goodbye to the past is the single biggest thing they can’t say goodbye to.
So wrote Andrew O’Hagan in the Guardian last weekend, and he was accurate at least as regards his own article. He’s unfortunately not alone in expressing regret about a supposedly backwards-looking working class by looking back nostalgically to the future-oriented proletariat of years past. There may be something right about his description of today’s working class cut off both from their commonality and their common history (although the exact time of this common past seems unclear; was it the ’70s, or some time before George Orwell?); but nostalgia, I think, is always and necessarily false. The problem with nostalgia is that it expresses a desire for something that no longer exists in a way that forecloses consideration of why it no longer exists; the lack of whatever is missed is isolated and seen purely as a privation, rather than as part of a more complex whole that also includes production, perhaps even the production of a present equivalent to that for which we are nostalgic. So, nostalgia is always in bad faith, an enjoyment of the absence of the past that portrays itself as an absence of the enjoyment that was present in the past.
Which leads me to Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food. The name and the design sense suggest nostalgia for a war time or post-war period of faith in bureaucracy, when government ministries could be relied upon. But of course Oliver’s whole schtick depends on the fact that an actual Ministry of Food is unthinkable now; Oliver represents the only possible political intervention, a TV show and accompanying glossy book that form a moralizing and affective exhortation to the individual to change their eating behavior. Oliver invokes post-war bureaucracy, that is, purely to demonstrate its nonexistence, and thus to celebrate its replacement, neoliberal biopolitics.
I had a brief twitter conversation with Steven Shaviro a while back about whether biopolitics is still a relevant category in a post-Keynesian, post-welfare-state period. If it is, it is in the form of Jamie Oliver. On the one hand, the state continues to face problems at the level of population, of which the “obesity epidemic” is a particularly useful example; however, biopolitical solutions, that is, solutions that act at the level of population, no longer seem available. The state has tied itself to individualized and market-based solutions. But (for reasons Jodi Dean has been spelling out in her reading of Foucault), this doesn’t necessarily mean the state recedes, indeed, the opposite may be the case (as the explosion of state and non-state regulatory bodies in the past 30 years makes clear). What I think we have here is a governmentalization of biopolitics.
Which brings me back to Andrew O’Hagan’s article, or, rather, to what fails to appear in his article: what would a non-nostalgiac relationship to collectivity look like? What kind of collective political organization can be imagined that responds to the conditions that lead to neoliberalism, to an individualized and moralized biopolitics?