Cultural Dementia - notes and highlights

The passages I grabbed in Kindle

My Kindle highlights

I’ve only just discovered where to access the highlights made while reading a book on Kindle, so here are the passages I highlighted when reading Cultural Dementia: How the West has Lost its History, and Risks Losing Everything Else1.

Chapter 1 - Roots of the Present Crisis

Perhaps the most significant paragraph of the ‘white heat’ speech, in historical hindsight, is one near the beginning that takes a very different tone: There is no more dangerous illusion than the comfortable doctrine that the world owes us a living. One of the dangers of the old-boy network approach to life is the thought that it is international, that whatever we do, whenever we run into trouble, we can always rely on a special relationship with someone or other to bail us out. From now on Britain will have just as much influence in the world as we can earn, as we can deserve. We have no accumulated reserves on which to live.

The immigration that so enflamed tensions was constantly spoken of in terms of ‘labour shortages’; but, as with the huge influx of Asian workers to the textile towns of the north, it was just as often an attempt to find workers who would settle for wages low enough to keep British employers profitable. Much like immigrants of the twenty-first century who are found sleeping packed into garden sheds, such workers did not do this to themselves but rather were the prey of landlords and employers.

parallel with the 1960s situation, when post-imperial Britain had been simply incapable of maintaining its global posture without a ludicrous disengagement from the security of its neighbours, which remained critical to its own security and overlapped with the anxious bipartisan effort to join the EEC. Continuously trimming funding for all capabilities while aspiring to maintain them created a looming risk of systemic incapacity.

A persistent accompaniment to this has been the cultivation of external enemies on whom to project fear and anger.

The history of the UK, France and the USA since 1945 is marked indelibly by a sense of entitlement to greatness. Throughout the decades since the end of les Trente Glorieuses, an increasingly financialised capitalism has developed, sustaining the wealth of the upper echelons of Western societies while their welfare states, and capacity to generate mass high-quality employment, have steadily diminished.

our cultures overall reject the claim that we are all part of a homogenous global problem. The politics of the present instead place the greatness that is the electorate’s birthright in an unjustly stolen, explicitly national, and nationalist, past–and increasingly seek to scapegoat others as responsible for the theft.

Donald Trump’s election slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ booms it out with particular vigour, but the logic of the Brexit campaign’s ‘Take Back Control’ is exactly the same. Marine Le Pen’s most recent slogan, ‘On est chez nous’, says more than just ‘We are at home’, its menacing subtext being: ‘This is OUR home (and not yours, immigrant)’.

All three of these nations’ political cultures are currently beset by ideas that promise a closed national labour market, a wide outflow of trade and the undisputed sovereign power to maintain those things for the benefit of the core, white, population.

Britain, France and the USA never existed as entities that were both closed-off and commanding. Waves of immigration of all kinds shaped their populations even at the height of imperial splendour, while the cost of maintaining that empire, and the resistance to it, was crippling–and indeed, on this side of the Atlantic, this was a strong reason for hastening towards ‘Europe’ as a more rational and attainable form of greatness.

it is notable that, for example, the slope of support for Brexit rises steeply with age. In France, however, the slope runs the other way:

The demands of contemporary ‘populist’ movements make manifest a vision of the past that is the opposite of a coherent history.

In the individual, this dementia is a symptom of looming fatal decline. We risk the same fate for our societies. The politicians of earlier generations did not try to turn the clock back to what had never been. Even Margaret Thatcher, condemning to death the nationalised heavy industries of postwar Britain, had an understanding (agree with it or not) of why old ways could not continue, and a vision of new opportunities for new economic sectors (not least through helping to drag

Chapter 2 - Current Follies

One of the difficulties of living in the present political moment is that you never know what is going to go wrong next.

Amid the daily flow of mind-boggling stupidity, it is necessary to take some steps back–first to recall the general shape of the situation that has overwhelmed conventional politics in the UK, USA and France in the last two years, and then to relate this to the larger shape of the historical context from which it all comes, and which continues to structure the ongoing folly of the present.

Both sides are, in their different ways, mesmerised by visions that have no relationship to how Britain’s economy and society have actually developed in the last generation. The gap between the political chaos that has reigned since the Brexit vote, and the blithe assurances of what the future holds, is staggering. Indeed, a whole array of informed political, economic, legal and social commentators continues to stagger under the awareness of looming folly, yelling into a void from which echoes back an incoherent noise, the dominant note of which sounds a lot like ‘Immigrants’

The communities in a position to articulate populist sentiments are ones raised up by a history of racial privilege, and by the workings of that privilege as an integral component of social and economic inequality that remains searingly unjust on the global scale.

What the USA, France and the UK undoubtedly share, at this crisis-wracked point in their history, is the complete failure as societies to meaningfully come to terms with their national pasts.

Chapter 3 - Shadows of Greatness

Britain cannot look on the French role in Africa with any smugness. It controls a majority of territories the UN lists as ‘non-self-governing’, and three of those–Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands–come close to the top of any list of notorious global tax havens

To walk the streets of an elegant French city or a neat British suburb today is to tread on the accumulated advantage of empire.

Of course, if you believe in ideas of national distinctiveness, your only thought about all this may be ‘Good for us!’ But even without dismissing such views as simply racist, we can see that they are also futile and self-defeating.

Chapter 4 Toxic Legacies

Yet we will remain paralysed by these kinds of language, if the wider realities they deny are not more fully recognised. The common sense of ‘patriotic’ identity–which is often in practice much closer to a nationalistic pride–embroils people in assumptions that have visible harmful consequences for anyone outside the core of that identity, and where the collective trajectory is towards further exploitation of a historical privilege that is, as much as it is anything else, racial.

Chapter 5 Who Do They Think We Are?

Although in an immediate sense the impact of austerity after 2010 has been dire, the failure to offer actual structural change that would regenerate post-industrial regions and create meaningful prosperity for their inhabitants is the fault of governments, both Labour and Conservative, stretching back for at least a generation.

That shift is associated with another one, as the Republican vote has piled up higher and higher in states with lower average educational attainment. In 1992 there was almost no statistical relationship between those two things, but by 2012 Republicans dominated the vote in states with low graduate populations, by up to 70 per cent.

Chapter 6 What is the Past For?

The problem remains what to do when people don’t want to listen, or learn.

(Several pages on role of historians in the abuse of history for the ends of power)

Nicolas Offenstadt: Today, manipulation of historical facts in the public arena, in the more-or-less clear service of xenophobic or reactionary ideologies, has ratcheted upwards. The combat directed by a fraction of the right has taken on a new dimension, unseen for thirty years, and particularly reaches the mass media: television series and prime time shows, the daily press, magazines. In this cultural offensive, history is used as a political weapon, and is mobilised against university historians, described as bien pensants, too intellectual and abstract…

As this list, and the dramatic claims about it, show, this is a complex field, where the inconvenient fact of some kinds of history being popular crosses over with the question of how far views on it are promoted by a shadowy elite, and how far the power of the state is engaged with defining acceptable histories, and repressing others.

[1987] - The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, supremely self-confident after a third election victory, proposed to empower itself to write a National Curriculum for schools, ending the regime of ‘suggestions’ that had lasted for almost a century. While this covered all subjects, and aroused a variety of concerns about topics and profile, in the field of history it opened an immediately and violently political argument, and one that has rumbled on intermittently ever since.

It points to a conclusion that the wider historical profession, from schoolteachers to internationally renowned critical scholars, struggles to overcome. People, and especially people from privileged groups, do not want to listen to historians telling them bad things about their treasured identities. They will, indeed, forcefully react against such challenges, when given the political rallying-calls that allow them to do so. In that sense, it must be said, they do not want history. They want what they are increasingly getting: a cosy blanket of half-remembering and convenient forgetting that is cushioning their slide down the slope to full-blown cultural dementia.


The West’s current relationship to the past is not the passive victimhood of an individual dementia sufferer, but rather an actively constructed, jealously guarded toxic refusal to engage with facts that are well-known but emotionally and politically inconvenient, and with other experiences that are devastating to the collective self-regard of huge segments of societies that have no visible desire to come to terms with reality.

  1. Andress, D. (2018). Cultural Dementia: How the West has Lost its History, and Risks Losing Everything Else ↩︎

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