In a rare moment of clarity during the 2006 World Cup, lothario comedian columnist Russell Brand wrote, ‘The World Cup is now all around us, it is the context in which we exist.’ For a few weeks in England at least, media attention and many people’s everyday conversations, hopes and fears revolved around the fortunes of a doomed team. Now we enter a new year featuring a general election and another world cup, two media events and contests to grip the nation, each providing a barometer against which to measure any minor incident (“How will it affect Cameron’s ratings?” “How will it affect Rooney’s fragile state of mind?”). But the end of a decade affords the chance to step back and see the larger contexts within which such events play out. In the noughties, at the peak of the war on terror, policymakers and commentators (though not citizens) understood events in terms of security. Travel, economic transactions, schooling, multiculturalism -- how could these be modified to stop terrorism? More than that, a focus on security led to a different way of thinking about humanity. The point of politics became to secure what is necessary for human survival: food security, energy security, water security, information security, infrastructure security. If the 1990s was about delivery, post-ideological governments delivering the fruits of peace and prosperity after the Cold War, then the 2000s were about security -- securing what we assumed could be delivered. Rogue states, terrorists, pirates, cyberthieves, SUV drivers and irresponsible bankers threatened to destroy economy, social fabric, and environment.
The contextualization of politics is most evident at the level of culture. I am a closet book review addict, seeking out any radio show, magazine or journal discussing new books. Only in the last year has climate change become the primary context of discussion. Whether the books are about science, history, or even the arts, at some point the commentator will ask, “so what does this mean for climate change?” Or, “does this book make us think differently about our relation to nature?” The link may be tenuous, but there seems an expectation that this context must be acknowledged. It is through culture that a society represents itself to itself, and society chose a new metaframe in 2009: we are a people concerned for the planet.
What context will be used to make sense of events through the 2010s? Should climate change be the frame through which we understand the rise of China or a transformation of our economies? Will politics in 2020 still be about securing what we have and making us ‘resilient’ to imagined future threats? And can we explain the struggle to define the context of our times rather than just explain how politics works within that context? Old questions, new times, best wishes all for 2010.