The 2010’s in Review
Starting with ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and ending with the Hong Kong protests, this decade will be defined by revolt and disorder from every direction.
“The Times They Are A-Changing…”
If there is one thing which will define how the 2010’s will be viewed in the future it is revolt and change. The decade has been book-ended by numerous large scale-protest movements and was replete with revolutions. 2010 started in the shadows of the collapse of the American housing market and the 2008 recession which birthed the “Occupy Wallstreet” movement. After this, we saw the fall of numerous tyrants throughout the Greater Middle East all sparked by the actions of one Tunisian fruit merchant. All the while, Europe was being split by anger which bubbled up from the street level to affect the very heights of power in the European Union. Starting in Greece in response to austerity imposed upon it’s population, populism became the theme of the decade for Europe. The Liberal world order of which the European Union is a key pillar was beset by a pincer assault from Social Populism of the Left and National Populism of the Right.
From Maidan Square in Ukraine to Tahrir Square in Egypt, it’s near impossible to sum up all the events of this decade but if we look beneath the surface we find the common themes.
This was the decade when we began to see the effect that technology was having on global society. The key forms of techno-social infrastructure became prominent in the early years of the decade. 2012 would see Facebook become the first social network to reach one billion people worldwide. What had started as an innocuous project by a US college kid has become one the main arteries via which we are influenced and able to influence others, with Facebook (alongside twitter) now becoming one of the primary sources of news.
The smartphone, that device which links humans into the global hivemind, became a feature of societal interaction throughout the 2010’s. While it’s earliest forms came about in the 1990’s, this was the decade which saw it’s mass adoption by the general public. Only 35% of Americans owned one at the start of the decade and we have seen this rise to 81% towards 2020.
All of this has been dependent on an increasingly powerful internet as it’s backbone.
The internet represents the collective id of humanity within which the untold masses are instantly connected. In theory, this should have brought humanity together, and in many ways it has, but evidence has emerged of how it has also created social and cultural cleavages within societies the world over.
Every aspect of society, whether it be entertainment, shopping or even religious worship has found a place on the ever growing complexity of the modern internet.
While convenient, it has come at the cost of stability and social connection in the real world which has contributed to atomisation and loneliness.
The ease by which goods are delivered to my door has destroyed communal market places, which are often the key social areas small towns and cities are built around. The fact that global corporations can move their factories across continents has created a power imbalance between workers and corporate owners which has helped fuel a global populist backlash.
Any hope for increased empathy and connection has proven to be naive, as the sites which now serve as key news sources are controlled by algorithms which judge your internet history and present information which is conforms to your worldview. Thereby only presenting you with a skewed and one-sided view of the world.
This presentation of biased information leads to political and cultural tribalism, or ‘bubbles,’ in which people who agreed with one another are grouped together and rarely interact with people they don’t agree with. For those within the confines of the bubble, they were given a distorted view of the world which did not conform to the realities of the globe beyond the internet.
‘Coming Back to Somewhere’— Modern Nationalism asserts itself.
Globalisation experienced it’s first significant reactions throughout this decade. Up until 2008, the effects of increased global integration had been assumed by the people in power as having no downside. The rising tide of prosperity which came from increasingly mobile movement of capital and people would lead, it was argued, to us all being significantly richer and enjoying foreign food and cultures.
This near-religious faith in globalised ‘openness’ became a hallmark of the political establishment across the West, so much so that a consensus formed within states between organisations of the Left and the Right where porous borders, mass movement and state non-interference was viewed as gospel.
However, the 2008 recession exposed this to be a flawed vision. Cheap capital and ever increasing house prices had given a veneer of wealth which was able to disguise the systemic rot within until the bursting of this inflated market occurred and we were exposed to the frailties of the system.
While the middle-class were more materially comfortable than any previous generations, globalisation has meant that instead of competing just against their co-patriots, they are competing against the entire world. More and more people found their labour bargaining power being reduced by both the mass movement of people into their countries and the export of corporate services abroad.
The uneven distribution of capital from the process of globalisation lead to economic growth which was heavily concentrated in urban areas across the world that were already connected to the global economic system, think London, Shanghai, Mumbai and Silicon Valley. If you lived in these areas and you worked a job which served global capital you did extremely well. However the areas which had not been connected to the global system, the Rust-Belt in the United States, the post-industrial towns of Northern England and France for instance, experienced steep decline as their people could not keep up with the quickening pace of change and could not compete against these global forces.
Alongside this, the movement of commerce onto the internet had thinned out your local community, your church was slowly emptying and the traditional values which had guided your family for millennia were being torn up by a new and progressive vanguard who controlled media and the state. It was within this context that Nationalism was reborn.
Nationalism was birthed from a very human desire to retain control over one’s destiny. Whether it was from the fires of the French revolution, as a means of fighting European empires in Africa, or to rebuild after the complete rejection of communist domination in Eastern Europe, the “nation” acts as an anchor by which men and women can orientate their lives around in an otherwise disordered world.
In a world in which old truths, everything from religious beliefs to gender, seem to be rapidly dissolving, people will turn to tradition as a means of preserving order within their lives and their communities.
The concept of the nation is potent because human beings are at their roots tribal creatures. Our ancestors survived for millennia in hostile environments by banding together with those we identified as being similar, whether that be whose genetically similar or with whom we share beliefs and worldviews.
The first expressions that we saw where shown in the US Tea Party which had been founded in 2009 and forced their way into American public consciousness at the start of the decade. What had seemed to media commentators to be a loose collection of working class Americans which would eventually tire itself out became the womb of a modern nationalist insurgency with the showman Donald Trump as it’s figurehead.
Trump’s campaign was based on a repudiation of globalisation. The focus on jobs was a promise to restore the dignity of communities which had seen themselves thrown into a world of instability, the strong words against immigration was also primarily economic as lower-wage Americans found themselves unable to compete against newcomers willing to work for less. Working class Americans found themselves in a world they could not compete within and sought out a leader who could use the state to even the playing field. Alongside the rejections of the economics of openness, there was a rejection of what was seen to be a single globalised culture which was pushing aside local traditions and identities.
This phenomena was mimicked across the world. India, the Philippines and Brazil all saw nationalism come to the surface of their cultural landscapes, all of them lead by charismatic strongmen who promised a cultural re-assertion against the global order.
By the end of the decade, three of the world’s four largest democracies were lead by strong nationalist figureheads.
Alongside this, leaders who had once been praised as liberal reformers who wanted to connect their countries to the global economic network began to adopt the trappings of this nationalism; Viktor Orban in Hungary, Mr Erdogan of Turkey, even Boris Johnson (a man who had previously been the two-term liberal mayor of a key node in the global economy) in the UK.
The countries which had already been proud nationalist powers, China and Russia, began to re-assert themselves as equal partners on the global stage. The one thing that characterises this entire global phenomenon is an outright rejection of the previously unquestioned Washington Consensus, the idea of world unification around open borders and unimpeded capital.
“Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” — The Loss of Reality
The quote above is the title of a book by Peter Pomerantsev, about his journey to post-Soviet Russia when it was undergoing transition to a market economy. He states multiple times in the book that the Russia he witnessed was a fast moving and disorientating charade. It’s cultural life was a never ending theatrical display, it’s economy was a sham propped up by a sclerotic and corrupt elite. Within this destabilised environment, everything was to play for, entire fortunes could be won or lost and it would all be immensely entertaining.
This is a description which could just aswell be applied throughout most of the West now. The cultural zeitgeist has captured a sense of unrealism, like the underpinnings of what we know to be true have been slowly dissolved. We saw the term ‘fake news’ rise to the public consciousness. With this, came ‘post-truth.’ There is nothing unique to this time about the dearth of untruth that surrounds us, however, what is unique is how the internet has allowed lies, rumour and conspiracy to spread far quicker than would normally.
The two major conflicts which played out in the background of this decade, Syria and Ukraine, have both featured heavy amounts of lies and unreality which has crafted a fog around them. While the West ambled in response to the overthrow of the Ukrainian leadership in 2014, the “Little Green Men” appeared. Unmarked and uniformed, these soldiers captured Crimea. Western leaders accused Russia of being behind them. Russia stated that these unmarked men must just be Ukrainian patriots…who happened to take action which benefited Russia.
In Syria, we saw the spin of conspiracy around the actions of the Assad state numerous times. When Allepo was being bombarded, the White Helmets, a humanitarian outfit, found themselves being linked to terrorists therefore justifying the Syrian state’s brutality towards them. The fact that the British founder of this organisation was recently found dead in Turkey only adds to a bonfire of confusion.
Westerners, particularly Americans, were tired of entering Arab conflicts and these whirling internet rumours took advantage of this war-weariness and succeeded in undermining any public approval for going to war.
Certain state organs, such as the the Russian Internet Research Agency, have refined a formula of weaponised conspiracy theory. The purpose of this is not to actually convince but to confuse and blur any clear image which can be drawn of events.
While in theory, the fact that we are aware of this spreading untruth should allow the masses to guard themselves against it, in reality it only contributed to a general feeling of paranoia.
While this was happening we were constantly exposed to the lies of our leaders and people we were expected to trust. The most significant of these occurred with the revealing of the PRISM program by NSA analyst Edward Snowden in 2013. The release of evidence of war crimes by Wikileaks the year prior, alongside a deluge of stories which showed global figures to be corrupt or malevolent, everything from the so-called Panama Papers to allegations of international and powerful pedophile rings being organised within pizza restaurants.
It’s fitting that the decade would end with a billionaire at the heart of the global and cultural elite being revealed to be a sinister international trafficker of young girls.
This man died a lonely death in a New York prison cell but even that contributed to online conspiracy. The fact that ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ was trending on social media not even 24 hours after his death further shows how little trust exists in the cultural landscape these days.
Alongside this, the media has become a form of overstimulating entertainment. News in the modern world is entirely dependent on responses from social media. People are not necessarily attracted to sober and in-depth analysis nor do they want to hear that they are wrong. People primarily click on things which create an impactful emotional response. Therefore, the media attempted to create just such a response by adopting partisan coverage to appeal to their core audiences.
Candidates who could manipulate this news cycle and generate strong emotional response in both their supporters and detractors became prominent in cultural discourse.
This alongside the echo chambers and siloing created by social media has worked to hollow out the cultural centre of societies the world over and spawned a rankerous online culture which has spilled out into the physical world.
“Through Terror I am Victorious” — The Global Extremist Insurgency
Within the the environment of global change and integration, we have seen the emergence of global extremist movements. While minuscule in number these people have taken advantage of our global 24-hour media and internet technology to spread their messages and force themselves into the global public consciousness.
The most obvious example is ISIS, however, the first glimpse of this new extremism occurred in Norway, when a man named Anders Brevik attacked state offices and a party camp. The attack was effective and achieved his intention of attracting global media attention and inspiring copy cats.
Brevik utilised global technology by publishing a heavily detailed manifesto onto the internet to inspire potential fellow travelers. In it, he detailed a long list of complaints about the modern globalised world which were not dissimilar to the legitimate complaints being expressed by the people who would support the election of populist strongmen across the world.
This began a wave of modern white nationalism. Numerous lone actors who constituted small atomised sections of a much larger and murkier worldview with a global reach.
Modern white nationalism is, ironically, a product of globalisation. It calls for common identity which transcends borders and continents and is based on biology rather than language or culture. In this worldview, the white race is considered a global family unit. Therefore, if whites are being oppressed anywhere on the global level, the white nationalist has a duty to defend them on the local one.
The man who attacked mosques in New Zealand, for instance, stated that he was partly motivated by the poor treatment of white people in Rhodesia and South Africa and had written the name of a Swedish girl who had been murdered by an Islamic extremist on the very weapon he used to murder innocent people.
In this sense white nationalism mimicks the Muslim concept of Umma, an idea of global Muslim unity, which has been used by Islamist extremists to justify their attacks. Utilising this logic, Islamist extremists murdered hundreds of Christians in Sri Lanka during their holy week of Easter in revenge for the attacks in New Zealand.
These attacks demonstrate the perverse side of identity politics. By the creation of global communities, hundreds of brown people can be murdered by people angry at the actions of one white nationalist half a continent away.
As with nationalism, identity politics will continue to form a powerful draw aslong as globalisation continues it’s rapid pace. Whether this manifests as white nationalists, Islamists or Left-Wing extremists ultimately doesn’t matter. These groups are all motivated by the same desire to form communities in a world in which technology has disrupted human life to create a sense of constant instability.
Welcome To The Future
Primarily this decade will be remembered as the time when humanity grappled with the new. While change is destructive and unsettling, humans will always be able to find some degree of equilibrium again. For globalisation, we will likely see a balance struck between completely open societies and closed national projects. To combat a sense of unreality we may need to develop new means of getting information which doesn’t leave us wholly dependent on powerful social network corporations who distort our newsfeeds. As the globe shrinks, new communities and identities are forming and while some will generate toxic effects in the real world, most will actually create a sense of international fraternity for many. Likewise, we will have to grapple with questions of how we control global corporations use of advanced technology so that it is being used in ways which actually benefit human progress and not just their shareholders.
These are all questions that this decade exposed us to, but we’ll have to wait for the start of the 2020’s to find their answers.