It is often claimed that electoral apathy in the western democracies comes from the absence of any big issue separating mainstream parties. But no such consensus exists globally. Western countries may shrink from acknowledging it, but the world is in the grip of an epic confrontation between those who believe in the capacity of capitalism to bring plenty, peace and progress to all humanity, and those equally convinced that only disengagement from its destructive dynamic offers the hope of planetary survival.
The ideological divide cuts through traditional political allegiances. On one side are the supporters of corporate interests, unreconstructed socialists and many "progressives". They point to the conquest of disease, increasing longevity, the comforts of life extended to more people than ever before. On the other are the anti-globalizers, as well as an unknown number of the world's poor, who ask only for sufficiency and security. They have some uncomfortable allies, particularly traditionalists whose faith forbids humanity to defy God by interfering with the integrity of creation. In defense of their position, they cite the sicknesses of excess, the contamination of the resource base, and the baleful impact of industrialism upon climate, ecosystems and biodiversity.
In the first view, it is unthinkable that the onward march of capitalism should be halted; in the second, inadmissible that the ravages of globalism should continue unchecked. It is the exclusion of this most significant ideological fissure of the age from our politics which makes our elections so sterile.
For the west, the desirability of exporting its model to the rest of the world is self-evident. The proof appears overwhelming - people are everywhere voting with their feet, besieging the entrance to the global hypermarket. In the eyes of the west, the collapse of socialism is a cause for celebration - nothing now stands in the way of the benign doctrines of globalism.
But limitless economic expansion in a finite world and the unleashing of boundless human desire upon a dwindling resource base do not necessarily lead to the social and economic enfranchisement of humanity. It may lead to intensifying competitive violence and wars over resources - land, water, oil.
The political alternative to this sweep of industrialism across the world does not appear in one single form. It is filtered through other ideologies, which have rushed into the vacuum created by the waning of social hope carried by socialism. If secular creeds are powerless to raise up the poor, other-worldly beliefs must be invoked. Religious fundamentalisms are also a form of resistance to global industrial society; and western abhorrence of fundamentalism is less a revulsion against medieval superstition than a reaction to the most wounding critique of its obsession with economic growth.
The materialism preached by the west is not seen by those who resist it as a pragmatic means of bringing material succor to needy peoples. It appears as a quasi-mystical quest to tear through the fabric of the planet. In other words, the secularism claimed by the west is no such thing. It is built on an arbitrary act of faith. The cosmic wager made by this belief is that human ingenuity will always be equal to the consequences of its own actions; that science and technology will overcome global warming, resource depletion and over-consumption.
The war of these ideologies has long been engaged. If it remained apparently subordinate for so long, this is because conflict within western societies - local contests between capital and labor - was a more pressing concern. But with the settlement of that old dispute, the assault upon indigenous peoples, the self-reliant and other bearers of ancient and sustainable life-ways has been renewed. These are being compelled into the "benefits of civilization".
Many struggles in the contemporary world are a refraction of this. The hatred of religious fundamentalists for western claims of secularism, and the contempt of western reason for obscurantist tyranny, is the most vibrant and violent. Resistance to the industrial model lies in poor people's demand, not for economic growth, but for enough for their sustenance.
Obscuring the major fault-line of globalization permits the west to promote its version of progress to the world. Perhaps it is no new thing that majorities can always be won for belief in miracles. But which would be the greater wonder - the extension into perpetuity of the western model, or the ability of people to lessen their dependency on material resources and strengthen their reliance on human resourcefulness? If both seem implausible, this is because the truly millennial struggles are only just beginning to define themselves.
Jeremy Seabrook is the author of Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Life.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.