The lonely decade: how the 1990s shaped us

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On the eve of the millennium, JG Ballard noted how “everything is clean and shiny but oddly threatening”. The dawn of the 1990s had heralded a period of economic prosperity, of globalisation, relative peace and hi-tech connectivity – but did we end the decade more divided than ever?

In this deeply researched and wide-ranging essay, first published in March 2021, the New Statesman’s ideas editor, Gavin Jacobson, looks at the culture and politics of a misunderstood decade. After the old certainties of the Cold War, he writes, the West entered a period of drift: “The overwhelming sense was that the new world order bore no resemblance to those dreamlands promised by the… pursuit of freedom.” In place of the old tensions came the rise of reactionary populism, economic instability and the growth of corporate powers. Meanwhile technological and scientific advances – from an unregulated internet to the cloning of Dolly the sheep – brought uncertainty rather than enlightenment.

Drawing on sources from Naomi Klein to Don DeLillo, via Francis Fukuyama and The Matrix, Jacobson charts the decade that saw the birth of a global monoculture – as well as surveillance capitalism and today’s culture wars. Twenty years on, are the 1990s the decade we have failed to escape?

This article was first published on and in the magazine on 24 March 2021. You can read a text version here.

Written by Gavin Jacobson and read by Adrian Bradley.

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