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The top 5 climbers and fallers in the world of ideas

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December 31, 2019 - 3:00pm

A barometer for the 2010s: the top five climbers and fallers in the world of ideas over the last decade…

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Objective reality 

The postmodern notion of reality as constructed largely by power gained serious political traction in the 10s. Donald Trump popularised the term ‘fake news’ in 2016 and it entered the OED in 2019. Writers debated whether biological sex is socially constructed. Even quantum physics dunked on objective reality in the 10s.

Double liberalism

Thatcherite economic liberalism was overlaid by a new social liberalism under Blair. This formed a 00s consensus in which political passion seemed to have been replaced by a dispassionate, evidence-based approach. But if the aftermath of the 2008 crash has (slowly) challenged the hegemony of economic liberalism, popular pushback against open-borders globalisation (including Brexit) has reignited debates about belonging, meaning and the limits of radical individualism.


As popular politics diverges­­ ever more from the elite consensus view the BBC has found its status as national voice challenged from alt-right and alt-left alike. The Johnson administration is threatening to make the licence fee optional. Trust in the BBC is arguably a casualty of growing hostility to double liberalism and faith in objective reality.

Global governance

The 10s saw a refusal to intervene in Syria, the election of a US President who has discussed pulling the USA out of NATO, and challenges to the hegemony of a ‘rules based international order’ from Russia and China. The liberal international order is a goner, says John Mearsheimer at the MIT: welcome to our new multipolar world.

The right side of history

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, said Martin Luther King. Barack Obama had the quote woven into a rug. But while threats of ‘the wrong side of history’ are still thrown at those who dissent from modern moral orthodoxies, this core progressive belief was challenged in the 10s not just by writers but by events themselves.

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Trade wars

As the dream of technocratic global governance and rules-based international order recedes, we are witnessing a return to great-power trade wars. Away from the struggles of titans, Theresa May announced in 2018 a reconnection of international aid to the British national interest. Boris Johnson’s proposed merger of DfID with the FCO continues the trend of re-politicising overseas trade.


Once sneered at as the politer cousin of racism, the cautious rehabilitation of patriotism in the 10s started in 2014 with Kate Fox’s book Watching the English and gained urgency as the increasingly evident gulf between Corbyn’s left-wing internationalism and the patriotism of Labour’s erstwhile base helped drive Labour’s annihilation in the 2019 election. Even Rebecca Long-Bailey is now talking (however unconvincingly) about ‘progressive patriotism’.

Identity politics

‘Woke’ entered the OED in 2017 (along with ‘post-truth’) and was the title of a satirical 2019 book parodying the identity politics fixations of the white English and American brahmin class. What better evidence that identity politics has gone mainstream than garnering a dictionary entry and sparking a new genre of satire?

Climate change

2010 was a year of extreme climate events, heating debate on climate change. In 2016 55 nations ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 2018 saw the launch of the grassroots climate change campaign Extinction Rebellion and 2019 the deification of Greta Thunberg. Expect climate change to take an increasingly central role in 2020s politics.


China kicked off the 10s with the launch of Asean-6, a new free-trade bloc and double-digit growth even as developed Western economies floundered in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. It ended the decade with the Belt and Road initiative well under way and a plan to lead the world in AI development by 2030. Ever more troubling reports of colossal human rights abuses go largely unremarked-on by governments, evidence that the willingness and ability of the West to impose its values worldwide are on the wane even as the ability of China to flex its own soft power abroad increases.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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