Over the last few years the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and its associated logo have been ubiquitous in the UK, appearing on mugs, tea towels, t-shirts and greetings cards. Variants such as ‘Keep Calm and Bake Cupcakes’ or ‘Keep Calm and Go Shopping’ have also become widely familiar. What, though, does this message mean in our current situation, and should we follow its advice?
The original poster design featuring the slogan was produced by the British Government in 1939, as part of a series designed to maintain morale during war with Germany, but never widely distributed. It was rediscovered in 2000, before gaining wide popularity as a tongue-in-cheek symbol of British stoicism. It is, then, originally a slogan which signalled resistance to an external threat, insisting on the maintenance of some form of ‘normal’ (conventional, conservative, ordered) life in the face of a radical, violent fascism. It carries a fundamentally anti-revolutionary message, but one which in the context of the Second World War had some potential value, signifying the possibility that everyday life itself might serve as a form of opposition to militarism and destruction.
Our current context, however, is very different. The threat we now face is not external, but internal, part of the system in which we live, as the banking crisis demonstrated. Many in recent years have warned of the dangers of a return to ‘business as usual’ (though generally with little effect), a formulation which indicates that the ‘usual’ is no longer a form of resistance, but rather what must be resisted. In this context, the injunction to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is not a sign of opposition, but of submission to the status quo. This was already an insight of the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, writing in the years before 1939: ‘The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given’. Catastrophe for us, as for the Germans of the 1930s, is not something that might happen one day, but the state of continuing in our current condition. For Benjamin, this is what the illusion of an ever-improving society, summed up in the concept of ‘progress’, conceals. Even if we admit that progress benefits some, it is already a catastrophe for others, such as factory workers in the developing world, or anyone concerned by the ongoing degradation of the environment. The injunction to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is therefore an apparently harmless, ironic message whose actual content is an embedded ideological interest in maintaining the current state of affairs. Its power comes from its residual association with Britain’s wartime history, allowing it to preach actual submission under the sign of imagined resistance.