Looking forward to a ‘golden age’

How critics of ‘declinism’ are more conservative than they make out

In his novel The Iron Heel, Jack London observed that certain phrases have an almost magical power to repel rational arguments. When he was writing at the beginning of the last century, such a word was ‘utopian’: ‘The mere utterance of it could damn any scheme, no matter how sanely conceived, of economic amelioration or regeneration.’ (1)

In our own time, a similar purpose is served by the term ‘golden age’, or the charge of ‘declinism’:

‘Blake Morrison is not impressed by Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture, a critique of the modern world that harks back to a supposed “golden age” of the stiff upper lip’ (2);

‘The TQA’s [Teaching Quality Assessment’s] failure to confirm the prejudices and cynicism of the wiseacres and soothsayers harping back to a golden age has been one of its greatest successes’ (3);

’[Peter Bazalgette is to] condemn the “lazy, old, unthinking, miserable brigade” who “hark back to a so-called golden age of broadcasting that never was”’ (4).

Leaving aside the question of whether one harps back or harks back to a golden age, clearly it is considered a very bad thing to do. The charge of utopianism works by portraying someone, often unfairly, as a hopeless dreamer, but accusing opponents of nostalgia for a golden age is an even dirtier trick. Not only are they deluded, but they are reactionary too, dreaming of the past rather than embracing the future.

Typically, however (and certainly in all three cases cited above), attacks on the idea of a golden age are not used to argue for change. Just like attacks on utopianism, they serve to defend the status quo (5).

Dismissing the past

More often than not, what people are really disparaging when they talk about the myth of the golden age is not the past itself. Instead, attacks on ‘golden-ageism’ target certain ideals or aspirations associated with the past. The implication is not simply that there can be no return to the past, but that there is no alternative to the present. After all, we couldn’t return to the past even if we wanted to.

Nobody is proposing to build a time machine to take us all back to the 1950s. But it is perfectly legitimate to refer to certain aspects of the past as a means of illustrating possibilities for the future. Of course, people will often disagree about the merits of what went on in the past. Some people would like to restore the death penalty in Britain, for example, while many more abhor the idea. Equally though, people disagree about the merits of free university education. That both existed in the past is no guide to whether they would be right or wrong in the present.

Rather than arguing about what is or is not desirable, those who dismissively evoke a golden age in the past treat the present as a done deal, and its distinctive features as non-negotiable. Hence, the ‘stiff upper lip’, rigorous academic standards and ‘talking heads’ documentaries are all dismissed as belonging to another age, while ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘value added’ in education, and docudramas are beyond criticism. This is a profoundly complacent, and indeed conservative way to argue.

The ‘golden age’ argument is ever-present in discussions about so-called dumbing down, and especially apparent in debates about British television. Reality TV guru Peter Bazalgette (quoted above) goes on: ‘People still say the best television is in the past, but that’s totally untrue. The television my children watch is 20 times better than what I watched. Golden age be damned.’ (6)

Bazalgette’s argument has two aspects, both of which are typical of critiques of a golden age. The first is the observation that the TV of the past was much worse than people now suppose. The second is the insistence that contemporary TV is much better than people acknowledge.

Arguing the first point, the former Guardian TV critic Peter Fiddick warns quite reasonably that: ‘It is very easy to pick out golden moments from any of the past four decades of television programming and mourn that they don’t make them like that any more. But that is to forget the great mass of schedule fodder that filled the time between the good bits.’ (7)

True – but when this kind of point is made by those directly responsible for contemporary TV, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to lower the standards by which their own work is judged. That there has always been dross on TV is no excuse to keep churning it out. From a critical perspective, if not that of the cultural historian, it is surely better to judge contemporary television against the best of what has gone before, than against ‘the great mass of schedule filler’ that viewers suffered in the past.

Moreover, a narrowly empirical approach tells us little about the more general culture of broadcasting. The Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), which describes itself as Britain’s leading progressive think-tank, published a study in December 2003 purporting to show that Christmas TV has in fact improved over the past decade. This might be encouraging, except that the authors concede in their introduction that their methodology was rather limited. What the study really showed was that the proportion of domestically produced drama and factual programming to films and other imported programmes has risen.

‘Taken in the round this is a good news story for those who value the traditional public service genres – more factual content, more (domestic) children’s television, less [sic] imported programmes.’ (9) This might mean more serious documentaries and fewer inane seasonal movies, but remember that the Christmas special ofChanging Rooms is ‘factual content’ and The Godfather is an imported movie. Far from making a case for contemporary British TV, such a study, however admirable the intentions of its authors, only lowers the standard of debate about it.

Lauding the present

A similarly superficial approach is often evident in the broader debate about ‘dumbing down’. Those who want to deny the phenomenon point to the increase in book sales, gallery attendance and university admissions as evidence that our culture is actually becoming more intelligent. But the quality of public engagement with ideas and culture is much harder to measure than its quantity, and there is substantial evidence that the former is not keeping pace with the latter. Commentators resort to deceptively reassuring statistics because the ‘dumbing down’ argument is regarded as reactionary, but there is nothing progressive about settling for what we are given.

While challenging the idea that it is in decline, however, the ippr study implicitly endorses the ‘traditional public service’ ideal. More typically, critics of the ‘golden age’ take issue with the very ideal embodied in their caricature. In the case of British television, this is usually identified with Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC. The ‘Reithian ideal’ is public service broadcasting designed to educate, inform and entertain, crucially pitching just above the head of the average viewer in order to raise his level.

Undoubtedly the Reithian ideal has a patrician ring to it, and so by invoking the golden age, apologists for contemporary television are able to dismiss their critics as nostalgic elitists who think they know what’s best for the plebs. This brings us to the second aspect of Peter Bazalgette’s argument: that contemporary TV is much better than people acknowledge.

Bazalgette is regarded as the father of ‘factual entertainment’, programmes likeReady Steady Cook, Changing Rooms, Ground Force, and Pet Rescue , about which the less said the better, but he is more famous for the ‘reality show’ Big Brother, which does have its advocates. Big Brother and other reality shows have been commended for ‘democratising’ television, not just by catering to popular taste, but by putting ‘real people’ centre stage and including hitherto excluded voices. Even the BBC has modified its Reithian remit by adding ‘connect’ to ‘educate, inform and entertain’.

The more substantial case made for contemporary television is not really about quality as such, so much as this shift in broadcasting culture. Indeed, to criticise the quality of contemporary TV is to betray an affinity for the old culture. Anyone who argues for intellectually challenging or even simply better television can be accused of harbouring snobbish fantasies of a golden age, and failing to appreciate new democratic values of TV.

Certainly the rhetoric of ‘dumbing down’ is often unhelpfully miserablist. The Times Higher Education Supplement recently polled academics on which TV programme was most responsible for destroying our culture (8). Predictably, Big Brother came top, adding grist to the anti-golden agists’ mill, but other academics more interestingly cited 24-hour news and patronising ‘history 4 uz’ programmes. These criticisms are significant because they challenge precisely the things about contemporary TV that are most celebrated.

Presenting the news as a convenient rolling programme of bite-sized ‘facts’, and using the techniques of reality TV to make history ‘relevant’ are both typical of the ‘democratic’ television ethos, but they don’t do much for our understanding of current affairs or history. This kind of criticism does not depend on a rose-tinted view of the past, but simply on an intelligent engagement with contemporary culture.

One survey respondent protested that instead of highlighting bad programmes, the paper could more productively have asked people to name the best programme on TV. This is fair enough, but to be meaningful it would still have to involve comparisons with the television of the past. As long as people shy away from comparing today’s television with the best of what came before, it will be impossible fully to appreciate the best of what is produced today, let alone surpass it.

Whether or not there has been a decline in the general quality of TV, then, there has undoubtedly been a decline in ambition, a decline that is as apparent in the discussion about TV as in the schedules themselves. By its nature, the ambition to produce high-quality, innovative programmes precludes nostalgia for the past, and yet it is this very ambition that is ridiculed as ‘golden ageism’.

To suggest that there is decline is not to oppose change. Quite the opposite: it is to demand improvement, change for the better rather than for the worse. Decline is all the more galling for those who believe in progress, and think that we ought to learn from the past rather than drifting from one thing to the next without caring how one compares to the other.

To celebrate the achievements of the past is not to endorse uncritically everything about the past, but to identify the best of what has gone before with a view to continuing and improving on it. Without historical perspective, it is impossible even to imagine progress, or to distinguish progress from mere change. A critical engagement with the past, a willingness to make judgements about what works and what does not, is crucial if we want to improve on the present.

Degrading education

This is particularly important when it comes to another area allegedly plagued by ‘golden ageism’ – higher education. Those who ridicule the idea of a ‘golden age of the university’ are not merely challenging the nostalgia of crusty old dons, but too often contributing to the annihilation of the university not merely in fact but even as an aspiration, by dismissing the ideals of the past as hopelessly outdated.

In a thoughtful article on the current debate on higher education in Britain, Cambridge academic Stefan Collini tempers his own distaste for ‘declinism’ with a recognition that its opposite is equally unattractive:

‘On the one hand, there is the mournful idiom of cultural declinism: “standards” are falling, “philistinism” is rampant, “autonomy” has been lost, and even the barbarians are going to the dogs. And on the other, there is the upbeat idiom of brave new worldism: “challenges” and “opportunities” abound, “partnerships with industry” beckon, “accountability” rules, and we’re all “investing in the future” like billy-oh.’ (10)

But wide-eyed ‘brave new worldism’ is not the dominant attitude among critics of the golden age. Most fit into neither of Collini’s camps. They are self-consciously sceptical, and would balk at the charge of defending the business-friendly ‘McUniversity’. But they are unable to come up with a coherent, progressive-sounding critique of contemporary developments, or a credible alternative to the ‘brave new worldist’ rhetoric. This is precisely why they are more comfortable attacking the past.

But it is just as lazy to attack everything about the past as it is to endorse it, and indeed rejecting the ideals of the past leaves us without an intellectual framework by which to understand the failings of the present. An uncritical rejection of everything associated with the past leads to an equally uncritical embrace of novelty for its own sake. It is all very well to note with satisfaction that far more young people now go to university than ever before, but if we refuse to compare their experience of university with that enjoyed by the elite in the past, that observation doesn’t mean very much.

It is impossible to challenge developments in universities while accepting the limited terms of debate allowed by a fixation on the present. For example, the current controversy over student fees is pitched so narrowly that the answer is in the question: ‘should universities be allowed to charge well-off students for an expensive commodity that will massively increase their earning power?’ Why on Earth not?

Unless critics are willing to challenge the prevailing conception of what the university is, their protests are never going to make much sense. And in making such an argument, it seems perverse to reject the substantial intellectual contribution in the university’s own tradition to the question of what higher education is for and what it means to society at large. But the accusation of nostalgia serves precisely to rule out even a critical engagement with that tradition. Instead of a serious debate about the role of universities past and present, then, we have a petty squabble about the ‘variability’ of fees.

Collini observes that many of the ideas about what constitutes a ‘proper’ university stem from the 1950s and 60s: one thinks perhaps of the principle that university education should be free to all those who are intellectually up to it, combined with the notion that the university should enjoy autonomy from the state to pursue teaching and research as its members see fit. But Collini argues that the conditions that sustained this model no longer apply. Undoubtedly conditions have changed dramatically since the 1950s and 60s, but as Collini and others point out, that period hardly measures up as a golden age anyway. So the fact that conditions have changed is no reason to abandon ideals that happen to be associated with the past.

Consider in particular the ideal of autonomy. In May 2003, education secretary Charles Clarke famously dismissed as medieval the idea that universities should pursue knowledge without consideration for its social utility. In fact, as Ellie Lee pointed out on spiked, this idea was never realised in medieval times, in the 1950s and 60s, or at any other time (11). It is, if you like, utopian, rather than the legacy of a golden age. But if we assume that conditions will continue to change, and especially if we imagine that we might have some control over such change, then the really important question is whether or not the idea of intellectual autonomy is desirable.

Sadly, as with television, those who accuse their opponents of believing in a golden age of the university usually go much further than denying that such an age existed, and dismiss everything associated with it as reactionary. And as with television, apparent critics of the contemporary university often in fact celebrate the defining features of the status quo. In the case of the university the rhetoric especially associated with this approach is that of anti-elitism, a creed by no means restricted to the fringes of society.

When she was higher education minister, Margaret Hodge protested that: ‘There is an institutional elitism which pervades the higher education system.… I think elitism is ingrained in the traditions and history of institutions and that is what must change.’ (12) Such rhetoric can be used to undermine what autonomy universities currently do have precisely because the idea of autonomy is associated with universities’ elitist past. Those who endorse the ‘golden age’ caricature are in no position to challenge narrowly instrumental political interference in universities as long as it is presented as an attack on that elitist tradition.

The situation is further confused because those who want to defend autonomy often find it difficult to explain exactly what they are defending, and from what threat. As a rule, it is a failure to get to grips with changes in the present that leads to nostalgia for a golden age, as well as attacks on that nostalgia. Instead of thinking critically about what really is changing and whether that change is desirable, it is all too easy to lapse into a caricature of the past, whether that is negative or positive.

But such a tendency is far more damaging for those who want to criticise the present situation than for those who want to defend it. Those who argue that there is decline often fail to account fully for it, or explain precisely what has changed, which makes decline much easier to deny, and criticisms easy to dismiss as romantic delusions.

Accounting for change

A good example of this problem is the discussion about ‘public intellectuals’ that has emerged in recent years. Back in 1987, the American academic Russell Jacoby’s book The Last Intellectuals set out the contention that a tradition of intellectual engagement in public life was fading. The book struck a chord, even if Jacoby’s own explanation of the phenomenon – suburbanisation and the professionalisation of university life – was not that convincing. Subsequent accounts have been no more convincing, so while many observers instinctively see something in the case made by Jacoby and others, the discussion has become rather stale.

Oxford academic Helen Small introduces a recent book on this subject by warning against ‘declinism’: ‘For those who take seriously the diagnosis that public life in Western democracies is no longer of a kind that permits claims to general intellectual authority, declinism, of whatever political colouring, is plainly a posture rather than an answer.’ (13)

But what is this but a counter-posture? Never mind whether critics are right or wrong: ‘declinism’ is so frightfully clichéd and vulgar that no person of taste can bear to be associated with it. Such a self-conscious injunction is intellectually stifling, and the tenor of the whole book is correspondingly disengaged from the debate.

Small’s own answer is to warn against setting standards for intellectuals so ‘heroically high’ that nobody could possibly live up to them (14). Small’s intuition that public life is indeed intellectually diminished gives way to a humble acceptance of the world as it is. Again, what is presented as a radical critique of conservatism ends up endorsing a defining feature of the present.

Robert Putnam, another American academic, was also accused of ‘declinism’ in his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, which laments the demise of civic values in America (15). Again, his own rather technical approach to the issue, and in particular his attempt to blame television, only served to undermine his case. Critics were quick to accuse Putnam of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, and ignoring exciting new forms of community.

As with television, however, more is revealed in the discussion around civic decline than in any amount of statistical analysis. The dismissive tendency to attribute more active democracy and robust social bonds to an imaginary past rather than a real past and a potential future only helps us reach an accommodation with the present, and avoid asking difficult questions about what really is changing, and how we might achieve the kind of society we want. It is the idea of change in the here and now that is really considered fanciful.

For all the talk of how much the world is being changed by technology, it is testament to the lack of dynamism in contemporary society that we find it hard to imagine that things really were different in the past. And the more damaging corrollary of this is an inability to imagine a better future. That irritating phrase ‘twas ever thus’ invariably carries the additional meaning that ‘twill ever be so’. Rejecting nostalgia for the past along with utopianism about the future in the name of ‘realism’ too easily leads to world-weary and complacent posturing, such as the observation that ‘the poor all always with us’. It is worth noting of course that the most substantial critique of utopianism came from Frederick Engels (16), who wanted with Karl Marx to root social change in contemporary reality rather than vain dreams. Subsequently, as Jack London protested, the charge of utopianism has been used to discredit any attempt to argue for a better future (including, and indeed especially, Marxism). Similarly, there is good reason to reject nostalgia for a golden age, but it is clear that this kind of rhetoric is frequently used to dismiss any criticism of the status quo, especially if such criticism seems too idealistic or ambitious for contemporary tastes.

The current prejudice, that criticisms of novel developments must imply a desire to return to the past, indicates a profound lack of imagination in contemporary society. Ideas don’t crash to Earth from outer space or appear in capsules from the future, but emerge from a critical engagement with the present informed by what happened and what was written in the past. This has nothing to do with ‘turning the clock back’ or ‘returning to the past’, a made-up version of reaction that obscures the fact that real conservatives are people who want to defend the status quo.

Anti-declinism is now at least as well-established a genre as declinism itself. No doubt it is more sophisticated than the latter, and its proponents are sharper and wittier than the old duffers who really do go on about the golden age of whatever, but in a political culture still dominated by Thatcher’s golden dictum that There Is No Alternative, anti-declinism only serves to give a radical gloss to the idea that this is it.

1) Through the character of Anthony Meredith, London comments on his own time from an imagined, enlightened future. The resonance in our time is striking:

‘The people of that age were phrase slaves. The abjectness of their servitude is incomprehensible to us. There was a magic in words greater than the conjurer’s art. So befuddled and chaotic were their minds that the utterance of a single word could negative the generalizations of a lifetime of serious research and thought. Such a word was the adjective Utopian. The mere utterance of it could damn any scheme, no matter how sanely conceived, of economic amelioration or regeneration. Vast populations grew frenzied over such phrases as “an honest dollar” and “a full dinner pail.” The coinage of such phrases was considered strokes of genius.’ The Iron Heel, by Jack London (1908)

2) ‘Pull yourself together!’, Guardian, 20 December 2003
3) Peter Williams, quoted in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 August 2002
4) Why this is now the golden age of TV, Observer, 9 September 2001
5) Sometimes the trope is even given a twist, so that instead of lambasting the idea of a golden age in the past, commentators trumpet the present as a golden age. See ibid.
6) ibid
7) Peak viewing, Guardian, 4 November 2000
8) ‘Box barbarians’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 December 2003
9) ‘A Public Service Christmas?: provision of public service programming on BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 & Five from 1992 to 2002’, by Marina Amoroso and Jamie Cowling, ippr
10) HiEdBiz, by Stefan Collini, London Review of Books, 6 November 2003
11) Whatever happened to the university?, by Ellie Lee, spiked, 15 July 2003
12) ‘You are all too elitist – Hodge’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 28 June 2002
13) The Public Intellectual, by Helen Small (editor), 2002, p5
14) The Public Intellectual, by Helen Small (editor), 2002, p5
15) Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, 2000
16) Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, by Frederick Engels, 1880

First published on spiked.