We live under the most arrogant of all world orders, but it will not last

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The Independent Online
ONE RAINY evening last week I found myself in Grafton Terrace. It's a small, shabby street in north London, not much changed since a Victorian developer built it. It's well over a century since a bearded foreigner with his wife, daughters and maidservant moved into one of these houses. But the house where Karl Marx lived and worked carries no plaque. The occupants, respectable folk, have always been against it. They don't want trouble.

I nearly bought that house once, when I came back from Germany. It was cheap, but I found somewhere else bigger and cheaper and let it go. Ever since I have wondered what might lie under the floorboards: cigar stubs, lost pen nibs, perhaps sheets of paper scribbled over in that unreadable Gothic handwriting. The narrow garden is still there at the back. The old man used to play games in it with his children. He would weave a wreath of roses into his bushy black-and-silver hair, mount a shrieking little Eleanor on to his shoulders and rush up and down the lawn. He was pretending to be a pagan god.

Later, fanatics declared that he was both god and prophet. But there was nothing divine about irascible, debt-ridden Marx, and prophecy was not really what he was good at.

Although he understood more about early capitalism than anyone, even Marx did not grasp its fantastic power to adapt. The rise of the proletariat took place all right. But it arrived as a tame flow into prepared channels - not the dam-bursting, all-destroying flood that he predicted. And yet, in spite of everything, I feel his spirit moving again under the floorboards. Not so much his doctrines as his sense of surging change and contradiction. This was the man who saw that every social order carries the seeds of its own destruction, above all when that order seems universal and invincible. Now is the moment to remember that lesson.

For me, the time has come to look back on the columns I have written. Sometimes I saw through appearances; sometimes they fooled me. Three realities took up a lot of my energy: the grand melodrama of Thatcherism, the decay of the archaic British state system, the Cold War with its victims and its aftermath. All three realities have disintegrated. Mrs Thatcher is history; New Labour is plunging into constitutional reforms which will transform Ancient Britain in ways that even Tony Blair cannot imagine. Communism is dead; its wreckage and the "social market economies" that the threat of Communism helped to provoke are both being overlaid by a global free-market system, the most powerful and arrogant world order in human history.

Every generation or so we are told that humanity has finally arrived, that the new dispensation marks the triumphant end of history. The Victorian imperialists said so; Stalin said so; even the planners of the welfare state in Britain said so in the 1950s. They were all wrong, and the triumphalists are wrong again today.

This New Order, still in its exultant youth, cannot stand for long. Less than a decade after the fall of Communism, its fatal weaknesses are already plain. As a form of capitalism, it is too unfair and callous to last, too unequal to be tolerated, too recklessly greedy to be sustainable. Within a generation it will be challenged, and a season of rebellion and upheaval will return, in the rich zones of Europe as much as in the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The system is doomed for a familiar reason. Like a Bourbon king, it is trying to rule new people with old methods. In the 20th century it was possible to coerce or persuade enormous numbers of human beings - an African peasantry, a European working-class, even a Soviet proletariat - to tolerate their own exploitation for at least much of the time. This was not just a matter of machine-guns. It was also a matter of the near-monopoly of knowledge, technical and political and even philosophical, in the hands of the minority who owned and drove the economic process.

Now that is changing. Those who think they own the world still claim the old privileges, the old lopsided share of wealth, the old absolute authority over those who work for them. But they are dealing with millions of people whose education, experience of the world and grasp of independent technologies has burst into uncontrollable expansion in the last few decades. The docile masses are vanishing. In their place come individuals with an acute sense of their rights and dignity, sceptical of all authority and - increasingly - backing their own independence with a command of information technology.

This is a contradiction that is going to explode. To help the process on means nourishing that new sophistication and curiosity. Speaking as a journalist, it means that we have to aim high; a journalism which pulls the curtains across the window and concentrates on shopping, celebs and intrigues at Littleminster-on-Thames will soon asphyxiate the readers. They - you - know a great deal about the bigger world out there, and they are greedy to know more about the complexities of history and politics and interwoven cultures. The young are enthralled by style and sex, as they should be, but as part of a search for meaning and purpose which will take them into difficult, unfamiliar places and thoughts. They are tomorrow's resistance movement, and they ask for training.

We are invited to be kings and queens in the supermarket, but serfs at work. In the Tesco aisles we are cosseted with the illusion of sovereign consumer choice. But in the office or the factory we must stop choosing and submit to absolute authority. There, others decide in secret how we should work or whether we should work at all. As the rights of employees dwindle, the absurdity of this contrast grows more glaring. It is the new world order in miniature. It will not endure.

The rebellion, when it begins in the 21st century, will be unfamiliar. It will not be Marxist or Communist, and will have only an indirect ancestry in socialism. It will be in some sense for equality and against privilege. But my guess is that it will not talk the language of majorities and will instead be a guerrilla struggle conducted by inchoate, unstructured groups of highly qualified people who can disrupt institutions, corporations, communications, even cities. Those groups will form coalitions, and will sometimes seek to enlist the excluded victims of the system. I do not think that this movement will be violent, in the old revolutionary way. But I could be wrong.

With that, I must take leave of you. Many readers of this column have become friends, and your letters about your own lives and thoughts have kept me warm. Some may think that I have banged on too much about Poland and Scotland, about Mickiewicz or Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun. I don't agree. Those are places in which the bones of history and the nerves of imagination are close to the surface, revealing truths muffled in more complacent lands. But I thank you for your patience. Together we have tried to comprehend a hectic period of change, murky with cheap illusions but leaving the human race better placed to fight the struggles ahead. Perhaps we could agree on this: that, after all, it is still Liberty, Equality and Fraternity which matter most.