Dickensian conditions are sweeping the globe. Don't worry too much

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The Independent Online
WHERE WILL the ''big idea'' challenge to Tony Blair come from? Not, on current form, from mainstream Tories, wanly searching for an argument, nor from the scattered, confused and leaderless left. When it comes to the biggest questions of economic issues we live in a strangely silent political nation. Compared with any previous period, there is simply very little argument about our economic future, except among pressure groups and on the fringe.

This is partly because Britain seems relatively well-run at present: the economy is strong, fear of recession or unemployment is low among the middle classes. But the lack of debate has been uncanny, unsettling.

Given that Blair and New Labour are classical Whigs, clean-living chaps hell-bent on tough economic orthodoxy and political reform, it would be logical to expect the return of a classically Tory opposition - unashamedly reactionary, on the side of the small people who are being hurt by modernisation, and offended by the accelerating nature of life.

After all, this is how millions of British people feel. The anti-free trade, anti-globalism position is strongly represented also in France, America, Russia and elsewhere. Here, though, it is unrepresented in mainstream politics, partly because the Tories have been virtually Whigs themselves for the past two decades. This, however, may be changing.

The angriest blast against the new order comes not from anti-Maastricht campaigners nor a Tory backbencher, but from the hand of an affable Oxford professor and lapsed Thatcherite, whose journey to radical dissent has been much mocked by mainstream political thinkers.

Thanks to advances in typography and design you can, generally speaking, tell a book by its cover: Gray's new polemic False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism comes in the kind of distressed pinkish sepia that proclaims: ''not a very cheery read''. Nor is it: the central message is that we are going to hell in a handcart, as free markets rip up established communities. The idea of a world of liberal democratic and prosperous states on the American model is, he argues, a fantasy.

''We stand on the brink not of the era of plenty that free-marketeers project, but a tragic epoch, in which anarchic market forces and shrinking natural resources drag sovereign states into ever more dangerous rivalries,'' he warns.

His publishers compare him to Carlyle and Marx. In fact, John Gray is much nearer in spirit to another great dissident, that radical red-faced Tory hack, William Cobbett. Variously a soldier, farmer, pamphleteer, prisoner and MP, Cobbett's detailed accounts of rural misery 200 years ago were combined with devastating polemics against the social changes which heralded the world's first free market economy.

Cobbett was for detail and humanity, and against abstraction or theory. Historically, of course, he was also on the losing side. In the early decades of the 19th century, the enclosure of common land and industrialisation were ripping up traditional ways of life. Protest was reactionary, in the sense of harking back. Cobbett spoke for hordes of uprooted, struggling and plain terrified people; but along came the industrial revolution and brushed them all aside. The parallels between Britain on the edge of that revolution, and the world today, are plain enough. In India, China, Russia, much of Africa and South America, the world's market economy is causing the same kind of disruption to local life that convulsed Surrey, Kent and Yorkshire in Cobbett's day.

Across the world, people are migrating from the countryside to bloating, insanitary cities, where new factories are cruel places, child labour is common and the slums are grim. Deadpan accounts of daily life in the new south Chinese industrial belt read uncannily like early Charles Dickens. The depleted countryside and emptying villages of parts of Africa are different in detail but not in emotional impact from the depopulation of rural England.

Humanity is engaged in the same bargain: more eventual material wealth in return for the destruction of webs of community and rootedness that have sustained people for centuries. Move away, move on. It is, and always was, a tragic barter, and for millions of people a forced one, too. Yet the consensus among economists and politicians was against Cobbett and in favour of striking the deal: in the end, we don't want to be peasants and we do want an industrial and consumer society.

The problem for politics is that markets are dynamic and destructive, as well as great generators of wealth and choice. Everywhere, voters are nervous and reactionary, yearning for a safer-seeming, gentler past, as well as wanting the excitement and opportunities offered by market capitalism.

That being so, it is hardly surprising that, as the drive for a global free market drives onwards, there is a chorus of world protest. Some protestors are environmentalist, some are ''fair trade'' Third-Worlders, some are trade unionists, and others are economic nationalists - see, for instance, Russia or China. Some, particularly in France and Germany, are social democrats protesting at the unravelling of welfare states and worker protection. The lack of mainstream dissent here makes Britain unusual, but anyone looking ahead and wondering about politics in the next downturn should at least be aware of the Gray argument.

He is easy to attack. For instance, he is far too gloomy about the ability of political action to mitigate the worst aspects of deregulation, and to alter the impact of free trade and international companies. The world is not sliding towards anarchy. On climate change, the Kyoto summit may not have been a triumph, but it was a stride forward; in the Middle East, UN diplomacy was hugely significant during the Iraqi crisis; the European Union may be wise or unwise to be embarking on the single currency, but it is certainly acting to impose a kind of political order.

Politics lives. In the world conversation among environmentalists and in the actions of pressure groups over issues as diverse as hardwood deforestation and Nike's employment standards, one finds the creation of a global public opinion to which companies are becoming attentive. The more educated the world's consumers become, the more this opinion will matter. That, not some regime of world protectionism, will make the difference.

Where Gray is right, however, is in his warning that the world will not conform to one culture of capitalism, one neat Anglo-Saxon model. The world of the 2020s will see rival societies and economic systems, both between regions and inside them; it will be a less bland and a more challenging place for Westerners than we like to believe. American capitalism, with its huge underclass, high rates of incarceration, and rising inequalities, is not necessarily the supreme or most stable model. History will not end, as Francis Fukuyama notoriously suggested, with all countries and cultures becoming essentially American.

Markets work. But to survive and enjoy the challenge of economic acceleration we need a stronger political culture, at local level as well as national, than we have in Britain today. That, at least, is something that Blair and the Tory radical John Gray should agree about. It is a rougher and more dangerous world than today's Westminster has noticed.

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