The left, almost everyone agrees, is on the run. George Bush's seizure of power has dragged governments everywhere still further to the right. Most of the world's media are deeply hostile to progressive ideas. Now the war in Afghanistan has greatly empowered the illiberal men who launched it. 2002, most commentators believe, will be the year of the right.
All this may be true, yet it fails to describe the full scope of problems the left now confronts. The real crisis for progressives, indeed for social democracy in general, arises from a much deeper trend: the gradual atomization of society.
Collectivism has been both the principal source of social oppression and the principal means of liberation. It has destroyed the lives of women, minorities, heretics and foreigners. It has provided monarchs, capitalists and communists with populations which are easily led and readily deceived. It has also offered health and education, social security, the rule of law, universal human rights, environmental protection and representative government. Today, totalitarianism may be unachievable, but so, perhaps, is the effective redistribution of wealth.
There is a widespread fallacy that the destruction of society was engineered in recent times, notably by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The notion is comforting because it suggests that the trend is reversible. But social fragmentation has been the work of centuries.
In Britain, the rise of the merchant class undermined the cohesive power of the church, the monarchy and the aristocracy. Enclosure dispersed the peasantry. The urban proletariat was, paradoxically, fragmented by successful mass action, which helped bring about universal education and a better distribution of wealth and power, in turn enabling people to pursue their own destinies.
Now, the state has little to gain from social cohesion. We no longer require collectivity even in warfare: battles are fought by a handful of specialists, while the rest of us gawp at them on TV. The only national tasks which demand our engagement are taxation, voting and spending. Otherwise, as far as our leaders are concerned, the less we act in concert, the better.
While we can celebrate the end of socialization imposed from above, we have also lost the class loyalty, the worker solidarity and the coherent demands for universal rights and services developed from below. Political parties and trades unions are withering. Charities are likely to follow. The absence of effective mass action has enabled tiny numbers of people to capture much of the world's wealth, and tiny populations of target voters to capture the attentions of government.
There is, in other words, not much left with which traditional social democrats can work. Mobilization has acquired a new meaning: it's not just that people aren't moving together; they're not moving at all, from in front of the TV or the computer screen. Anti-corporate campaigns have brought together vast numbers of people every few months, but they have so far largely failed to generate a sustained mobilization of the kind once deployed by trade unions, suffragettes, Chartists, Diggers and Levellers. This leaves them vulnerable to capture by outsiders, such as the alienated young men of the black block, which rampaged in Genoa.
It is striking that those campaigns which have proved capable of sustained action - such as the peasant movements in Mexico, Brazil and south-west India, or the strikes by the Liverpool dockers and the Dudley hospital workers - have drawn on people who are still bound together by geography, class and profession. These may represent the end of the old collectivity, rather than the beginning of a new one.
What this implies is that those of us who remain committed to the principles of distribution and social justice must strive to develop new forms of collectivism, which do not rely on existing loyalties or patterns of behavior. This is a formidable task. But, just as mass action accelerated individualism, individualism may help us develop a new kind of mass action.
The smashing of society provides us with the means of building movements which are not limited by national or ethnic loyalties, by adhesion to the workplace or the village. It may permit us to create an internationalist movement far bigger than any before, united by a common opposition to what is now an international ruling class. But first we progressives may have to abandon almost every strategy which has worked in the past.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002