PART THREE Change and decay in all around I see... The concluding episode of our three- part guide to the future addresses our deepest fears. Will society continue to fragment? Is our environment doomed? Will Western culture be submerged in barbarism? Or w...
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BEFORE we consider the future, let us think a little about the past, and particularly about the ancient argument as to whether it was better or worse than the present. You will remember the old school essay question: "Which if any previous period of British history would you like to have lived in? Give reasons." I can't quite remember how I answered that question as a schoolboy, but I think it was along the lines of "None. Imagine having your arm amputated or catching tuberculosis at any time until the very recent past." Privately, however, I did have an ideal epoch and an ideal life inside it. I would, ideally, like to have been a marine architect with a flourishing practice in ocean-going liner design, circa 1900, with an office and a large flat in Glasgow and a villa somewhere on the Clyde coast. I would have a steam yacht and enough skill to paint French Impressionist-type pictures. I would never need the attentions of a doctor or a dentist. I would be young, but not young enough to fight in the First World War.

That still seems to me a sensible particularisation of nostalgia, completely aloof from the reality of the life I could have expected had I been born in my own family's circumstances at that time, and in its particulars (steam yachts, the painting skill) even more unrealisable now than it was when I daydreamed it 35 years ago. Like Mrs Thatcher, it paid no attention to society. Like Mrs Thatcher and her disciples and successors, it rummaged in the attic of the national past and pulled out the bits that had worked for some people, some of the time.

Modern Conservatism is not alone in this. Most politics, and perhaps British politics in particular, are informed by a sense of how things have been and how they might be again, if only because recognisable pictures of the past can be depicted - the Battle of Britain, full employment. The future is altogether dodgier territory: a murky landscape still without heroes. Politicians as far apart as Gandhi and Hitler drew on a past, often mythical, with the promise that the future would in some respects restore it. William Morris and his dreams of Merrie England apart, left- wing politics used to be an exception to this rule. Its promise was a future quite unlike the past, a new kind of society ruled by those qualities - equality, liberty, fraternity - which have a pretty poor historical record and are difficult to evoke in terms of previous societies where, however briefly, such ideals might have flourished. History for the Left was a darkening regression from the light at the cave doorway, past terrifying wall-paintings with labels such as "war", "feudalism", "the Tsars" and "capitalism". The future lay outside the cave in fields of golden corn and - as Peter Sellers's shop steward once observed of the Soviet Union - "all that ballet in the evenings".

Very few people think in this way now. It is considered absurdly Utopian and, in the light of the failed and terrible Soviet experiment, demonstrably nave. But the death of this ideology as a hope or a promise has meant the end of the argument, for the time being at least, over what should or will shape all of the world's societies in future. It seems to have been resolved by new technologies, especially in communication, and the globalisation of free trade. How we came to believe in not just the inevitability but also the benign power of these forces, with an almost Victorian devoutness ("It's progress, my boy, progress"), is a large question. As the late Christopher Lasch, the American historian, once wrote of Reaganite and Thatcherite conservatism and its paradoxical appeal to the past: "In their implication and inner meaning, these individualist values are themselves profoundly anti-traditional. They are the values of man on the make, in flight from his ancestors, from the family claim, from everything that ties him down and limits his freedom of movement. What is traditional about the rejection of tradition, continuity and rootedness...? Conservatism appeals to a pervasive and legitimate desire in contemporary society for order, continuity, responsibility and discipline; but it contains nothing with which to satisfy these desires. It pays lip-service to `traditional values', but the policies with which it is associated promise more change, more innovation, more growth, more technology..."

When Lasch wrote that, in 1986, large parts of the world were still immune in differing degrees to those transforming forces. The Soviet Union was still intact and Eastern Europe in its thrall; China and India were still persevering with their own economic and social policies. Today, no part of the world outside North Korea is isolated from the power of the market and the values that go with it, and North Korea cannot remain that way for long. The ever-restless ideology of commerce now rides over and through us, it sometimes seems to me, like those images of Death in the plague years - cutting down some populations, allowing others to survive and prosper, with a finality and randomness that allow no argument. The idea that it is the best, and indeed only, mechanism to secure human happiness has infected us with a medieval fatalism: there goes the market riding by with his scythe on his charger, nothing can be done. It also poses a huge threat to politics, if politics are taken as the demonstration of how we wish to live. For what is the point of them if that question has already been answered?

If the next century is simply an extension of the last decade of this one, then we know how our society will be: more fragmented, more deeply divided between the rich and the poor, more criminal, more technical, more fearful, and more like most other societies. If that prospect does not please you, then hope of an alternative comes from two directions. The first is that history rarely behaves in such an obviously linear fashion. The second is that we are already beginning to worry, and in a more thoughtful and constructive way than the "Why, Oh Why?" school of popular politics and journalism might suggest. The global economy and society may be inevitable, but there may also be ways to moderate its more damaging effects.

The recent UN summit in Copenhagen on social development, greatly (and rightly) derided for its immense cost, at least laid out the problem. Here, from one of its documents, is a simple and clear analysis of the transforming trends of the past 10 years:

1: the spread of liberal democracy. This has given many more people the right to express their opinions openly and freely, and has opened up new possibilties for participation. But it has also made possible new social divisions - in certain cases contributing to ethnic or territorial conflicts. Furthermore, in some countries, it has loosened controls that impede criminal activities.

2: the dominance of market forces. Since the mid-1970s, economic liberalism has become the predominant ideology. This has produced gains in productive efficiency but has also greatly strengthened the hand of the already powerful, including certain national and international lites, as well as creditor countries and international financial institutions, at the expense of poorer groups and countries.

3: the integration of the global economy. Capital, labour and goods are now moving much more rapidly across national borders, unleashing much fiercer international competition.

4: the transformation of production systems and labour markets. Industry is now based on smaller and more flexible production systems, and workers are more likely to be in the service sector, working part-time or engaged in informal sector activities - greatly weakening the potential of organised labour and reducing the capacity of the state to enforce labour standards, collect taxes and fund welfare programmes.

5: the spread of technological change. The computerisation of production and communication systems continues to reinvent working relations, destroying many jobs and creating others - and sustaining new power relations within and between countries.

6: the media revolution and consumerism. The international media are now so persuasive and pervasive that they are eroding national cultures and traditional values; their news programmes are not merely reporting events but also helping determine their course.

The UN document is, of course, far less clear about solutions to the conflicts, problems and social disasters that such trends provoke, other than the notion of global citizenship and global institutions with the power to restrain and redirect the forces that now seem beyond national control. This is an old notion, a Utopian notion, in some ways a left-wing notion, and it has not been taken very seriously since the heyday of HG Wells. But this does not mean that it is not a good and necessary notion if we are to reclaim control of our future. A recent speech by Tony Blair made a similar rediscovery of old Leftist virtues, with its talk of the duties and responsibilities, as well as the rights, of citizenship. The history of great ideas, we are beginning to see again, did not end with Adam Smith.

Society (more fashionably, "the community") can either decide that its values coincide entirely with commerce, or it can preserve its political will. Our best hope may be that one day the global free market will extend to those lites that so believe in it - lawyers, say, and politicians ("Why buy expensive home-grown politicians? Try the cheaper Indian brand! Just as good at half the price!"). Then it will not seem such a boon and a blessing to them. TRENDS 95 per cent of Britons think that it is unsafe to walk the streets at night; 85 per cent believe that it used to be safe 30 years ago. In 1981, 2.9 million criminal offences were recorded in England and Wales; in 1993, 5.5 million. The average person's risk of becoming a victim of violent crime has trebled since 1979. The prison population of Britain is 51,243. In 1992 it was 40,606. n Public expenditure on the police rose from £2.8bn to £7.7bn between 1971 and 1993. In 1994, there were around 9.8 million people in Britain claiming retirement pensions, 5.6 million claiming income support and 700,000 claiming unemployment benefit. In 1994 there were 63,628 solicitors and 8,093 barristers in England and Wales, compared with 44,837 and 5,203 respectively in 1984. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES For society: enlightened self-interest; the rediscovery of mutual obligation and duty and the rewards of taxation; a more thoughtful, informative and less brutalising and hysterical media. If society is not informed by the above, individuals will need to devise their own strategies. Possibilities include the following... Start talks with neighbours about hiring private security guards; move away from poor people; be lucky enough to inherit enough wealth to secure your children's education.

Take a course in some pacifier - Buddhism, say, or Prozac. Try to earn your money from some culture-specific industry - the law, advertising - that is relatively immune to global trends and protected against cheap imports.