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Bugged by mill-ennui - From Dark Ages to Grey Ages

By the time you are reading this, you will know whether there has been a Wall Street Crash. If the world is lucky, the bubble won't burst, it'll just deflate. But nobody's been feeling lucky for quite some time. Capitalism has made pessimists of us all.

For me, the summer of 1998 was the most depressing I can ever remember. While it was nothing but a polite winter in Britain, elsewhere, from Texas to China, countries seemed to be having catastrophic droughts, heatwaves or floods, suggesting that a huge environmental payback was imminent. An air of doom pervaded the rest of the year as people expected a global slump to follow the Asian crisis, while and India and Pakistan squaring off a nuclear war seemed more likely than ever. The news, and my friends, seemed full of foreboding about what fate had in store, and 1999 advanced upon us like footsteps ringing down a corridor on Death Row.

Many sensible people were inclined to believe the Nostradamus prediction that the world would end in 1999, but even the prospect of Armageddon could not shake us out of apathetic resignation. The end of the century. The end of a millennium. The end. Here, Britain has suffered a kind of bleak fin de siècle despair, a leaden "mill-ennui" that has produced the worst electoral voting figures on record and the most crushing sense of apathetic defeat in modern times.

In line with this mill-ennui, some people have been talking about the end of capitalism. What they mean is the end of civilisation, a dread abyss, the destruction of everything and the rule of chaos. On the 70th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, analysts observed uncanny parallels between then and now, and a huge stock-market crash was expected by many. If history repeats itself, the consequences of global depression, unemployment and protectionism could lead to the rise of fascism, invasion and global war. The destruction incurred would then give capitalism a new lease of life for the 21st century. Faced with this doomsday scenario, prospects for socialism and even survival could look extremely bleak. In that sense one can only hope the optimists of a "managed downturn" know what they're talking about. But when they assure us that "the fundamentals are sound", J K Galbraith for one experiences "a slight feeling of unease" (Money Programme, BBC2, 24 October).

The real Third Way
It's bad enough already for the people in eastern Europe. Under the old system it was secret police, propaganda and bread queues. Now it's mafia, unemployment and bread queues. The Albanians thought pyramid schemes were what capitalism was all about, and lost everything to the first swindlers that chanced through their area. Many east Europeans, judging by the phoenix-like rise of the old "communist" parties, are contemplating a return to square one, the devil they know, but that prospect appals. The rest of them blanch at rebuilding Lenin's statues, and must really be looking for a Third Way, never mind Tony Blur's idiotic soundbites.

That there really is a "Third Way" of doing things is what this journal, and this organisation, are in existence to argue. The picture we represent of a peaceful, co-operative human culture based on a society of abundant resources is pleasant and reasonable but, unfortunately, so far removed from the selective reality of the news bulletins that people, by and large, just don't believe it's possible. For many people it's not a matter of reasoning, it's a matter of faith, and people don't have any faith in themselves, let alone each other. According to the sociologists, all the old idols, the so-called "grand paradigms" of Fascism, Sovietism and Capitalism, have been historically discredited, but they continue to prowl in the dark, like the Undead.

Nobody feels liberated, just lost. Many will embark on a faddish search for "alternatives", racing frantically but uncritically round a large dreary circle of other people's abandoned cults until they arrive back where they started. For those with money, comfort-buying consumerism is all that's left. The media advertising cry has become a ceaseless scream in our ears. Everybody's claim seems equally just. We don't know who to believe or what to believe in, baffled by the multiplicity of values and viewpoints in this inert postmodernist swamp we call a culture.

The only common hard ground in this swamp appears to be the prejudice that human nature is basically bad, or at best unreliable. It follows from this that any society made up of humans must be bad, or at best unreliable. Anything else is a Utopia. The future will be just more of the same, or worse. If Nostradamus had predicted that in 1999 we'd all have millennial misery then he'd have got one right at least. Thanks partly to an odd love affair that we humans have with wailing Cassandras who predict dire things, but thanks mainly to ourselves for doing those dire things anyway, we arrive at this most significant date believing that the sky is about to fall on our heads and there's nothing we can do about it except smile wanly and pass the anti-depressants.

Meanwhile politicians have been acting out a kind of danse macabre with a flaming Earth as their stage. None of them appear to be doing anything apart from striking postures and smiling with photogenic insouciance. In Britain, our capable trendy leader Tony is revealed as Thatcher's spawn, grinding an already prostrate working class under his designer boot, appearing on platforms with former Tory grandees like Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, and while airily informing Scottish factory workers that he can't save their jobs or stop the recession, energetically pretends to be fascinated by the urgent needs of constitutional reform.

This doom and gloom is more than the usual force-of-habit. Owing to an accident of calendars, the West is arguably in an especially reflective mood, contemplating a moment which occurs only once in a thousand years, the dog days of a millennium which started off in the Dark Ages and has ended up, many think, back there. If there is ever a time when society is going to review its history, its future and the meaning of it all it is likely to be at a time like this. But if people have become millennial about political realities for a while, it hasn't inspired them with revolution, just revulsion. Religion may profit from this, since it feeds on despair like flies feed on cowshit. Fascism, the supposedly dead paradigm, is crawling from its grave once more to prey on the terrified but tethered scapegoats.

Reasons to be cheerful
But to predict that the 21st century will be an exact replay of the 20th is to take no account of how things have changed in the interim. Without being pollyannas, we can easily find reasons to be more cheerful about the 21st Century than this. You only have to look at how far humanity has come this century in the matter of science and technology. Victorian writers thought of their steam-driven world as a paradise of technology and wrote paeans of praise to this new empire of reason, or else they pointedly lyricised about flowers just to be awkward, but they would have been awed into silence by the discoveries of the following hundred years.

From balloons to space stations, from the Penny Black to the Internet, the speed of change is as startling as it is unprecedented. Our general history looks like a bomb exploding. When this millennium began we were still in the Iron Age. In the thousand years before that, practically the only invention of significance in Europe was the stirrup, a device which turned the cavalry horse into the first tank. But then began a long slow accumulation of critical mass, followed by an accelerated expansion of development so powerful that its effects can now be detected in days and weeks and no longer in decades and centuries. It would be ludicrous to suppose that in the future this acceleration will not continue, just as the fragments of an exploding grenade do not stop suddenly in mid-air and fall to the ground.

Whether we know anything more as people than we used to is debatable. Ignorance is still rife, despite our literacy and sophistication. Our culture has certainly not kept pace with our discoveries. But it is having to change, whether people like it or not. We aren't cowed by the priests like we used to be. Science made fools of them. We aren't impressed by politicians any more. They made fools of themselves, and the press did the rest. Few believe in the Queen, or the Pope, as being anything but empty forms left over from bygone times. The rich are not revered, although their wealth is. Even the police are represented in popular TV shows as routinely criminal and corrupt.

Little by little, the ideology that underpins capitalism is being stripped of its pretensions, exposed and embarrassed by the ever increasing intensity of the public glare. The 21st century begins with the advantages of hindsight and experience the 20th never had. The resistance to fascism is huge. Capitalism's own fear of global war is bigger still. The Internet is changing the face of popular culture and ideology. We are already in the midst of a social revolution that makes a lasting return to parochialism ever less probable. Now, in the face of that revolution, people are starting to describe the 20th century as the Grey Ages.

Post-modernism is the trendy name for nihilism, a belief in nothing, and nihilism is a state of ideological bereavement. Workers have been orphaned by the paternalistic state which now, clearly, cares nothing for them. Yet bereavement is merely a phase, and humans will recover. Post-modernism will pass. History cannot stand still. Lust for life and hunger for truth will return, and the war of ideologies will become more savage and deadly. But whereas ideologies in the past have relied on the severe restriction of information, ideas in the future will have to fight on more even ground and more on their merits.

Unable to prevent good ideas penetrating society, the owning class will face a massacre of its mythology and a wholesale change in the consciousness of the worker. Unless the rich can find a way to prevent it, the "wired" society of the future will open the way towards revolution.

PADDY SHANNON

Next month: beginning of a three-part series on the Impact of the Internet.