The Memory of Industrial Pasts and its Role in Remaking (Post)Industrial Landscapes in Global Perspective

Stefan Berger (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

The closure of workplaces has had a huge impact on working-class communities everywhere in the world. It is connected to unemployment, crises of workplace-based identities, migration, changes to urban space, the decline of community-based solidarities, and the changing face of neighborhoods. Sometimes, it is not only an individual workplace that is closing but a whole industry that is disappearing. In the global north, textiles, mining, steel and the car industry are famous examples of declining industrial sectors that often moved to the global south. However, the global south has experienced deindustrialization as well, where industries have become unprofitable and moved on to other places in the global south where it was still cheaper to produce.

Deindustrialization has been studied by a variety of different disciplines from a variety of different perspectives – economic, political, social, cultural. Changing regimes of class, race, and gender have often been at the heart of analyses of deindustrialization. Oral history has been central in recuperating the experiences and memories of workers affected by deindustrialization. Memory studies as discipline has also been increasingly interested in what Jenny Wüstenberg has called ‘slow memory’, i.e. forms of memory that are part and parcel of the everyday dynamics of memory without being as dramatically impactful, sited and eventful as wars or genocides often are. The changing worlds of work following processes of deindustrialization firmly belong to this world of ‘slow memory’. (see

My own research has increasingly focused on the role of memory in the construction both of an industrial past and of deindustrialization. I am interested in forms of ‘memory activism’ (Yifat Gutman/ Jenny Wüstenberg) that generated such constructions.  Who are the memory activists? Of course, they are the workers themselves, but also organizations and groups speaking on their behalf, such as trade unions or social movements. Then there are engaged intellectuals, academics, artists, writers, film makers who all actively contribute to the making of memories. And we also have employers, industrialists, politicians, administrators who in different ways have shaped the ‘memoryscapes’ (Tim Edensor) of regions undergoing deindustrialization.

Such memory making is always contested, with different memoryscapes signaling not only conflicting views of the past, but also diverse positionings in the present that carry divergent views on how the future of those deindustrializing places is to be imagined. Memory making and constructions of the past are thus intimately connected to the production of possible futures. Yet memory is not only a contest about how the past was. It is also often recuperating ‘futures past’ (Reinhart Koselleck), i.e. how people in the past have imagined the future. Those paths towards an imagined future that were not taken in the past may be actualized through memory in the present and inform contemporary ideas about the future. In this way, memory processes contribute to the blurring of notions of linear time.

Trying to make sense of how past, present and future are arranged differently in diverse memoryscapes of deindustrialization, I find very useful the theory of agonistic memory (Anna Cento Bull/ Hans Lauge Hansen). It differentiates between three regimes of memory: antagonistic, cosmopolitan and agonistic. Antagonistic memory is one that is highly monologic and lacks self-reflexivity. It is directed exclusively at the in-group and mobilizes passions of belonging by constructing an enemy that ultimately has to be destroyed. Both market-radical and class-war based forms of ‘deindustrial memory’ (Steven High/ Stefan Berger) often adhere to antagonistic forms of memory.

Cosmopolitan forms of memory are more dialogic and self-reflexive, allowing for different positionings and attempting to find consensus through open debate. However, once such a consensus has been found, it also works in binary forms distinguishing between those who are inside and those who are outside of that consensus. Its multi-perspectivity thus becomes limited. It is victim-oriented in its memoryscape and focusses on those who have become victims of deindustrialization. Corporatist forms of deindustrial memory, especially where it is committed to values of social justice, often champion cosmopolitan memory regimes.

Agonistic forms of memory, which take inspiration from Chantal Mouffe’s political theory of agonistic politics, are rejecting all binary constructions of memory and instead seek to contribute to radical forms of historicization. It is highly self-reflexive and champions open-ended debate in a political process that is characterized by an adversarial politics where all adversaries accept each other as adversaries rather than aiming to destroy each other as is the case with antagonistic memory. Agonistic memory is normative in its commitment to the values of social justice and equality. It is particularly useful in bringing the global south into the conversation around deindustrialization, as it can ask meaningful questions about the northern master narratives of industrialization and deindustrialization that rely conceptually on notions of progress and modernity. Those have been and continue to be effectively questioned by postcolonial perspectives from the global south which thus contribute to the making of an agonistic memory space.

In my view, the theory of agonistic memory can help us analytically to understand different memoryscapes of deindustrialization in different parts of the world, but it can also contribute to an engaged scholarship that seeks to foster and empower those memory activists that work on behalf of those working-class cultures that stand for social solidarity and collective progress towards social emancipation.  Such an engaged scholarship should aim to help build ‘practical pasts’ (Hayden White) that work for those groups who are seeking to build a world that is more socially just and who champion the values of solidarity that aims to give equal opportunities to all.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of monthly DePOT blogs about emerging research within the project and outside of it. If you are interested in writing a blog, please contact the series editor at . We aim to publish a range of perspectives.  


Stefan Berger is Professor of Social History and Director of the Institute for Social Movements at Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum. He is also Executive Chair of the Foundation History of the Ruhr and Honorary Professor at Cardiff University in the UK. Before taking up his current position in 2011 he was Professor of German and Comparative European History at the University of Manchester (2005 – 2011), Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Glamorgan (2000 – 2005), Senior Lecturer in German History and Vice-Director of the Centre for German History at Cardiff University (1991 – 2000), Lecturer in British Social History at the University of Plymouth (1990/91). Before that he was a PhD student and Rhodes Scholar at Trinity College, University of Oxford, between 1987 and 1990. Before that he studied history, German literature and political science at the University of Cologne in Germany. He was awarded a scholarship of the German National Scholarship Foundation following his A levels that he took in 1983. As a conscientious objector he did his alternative to military service between 1983 and 1985.