If there's a bright side to the sense of crisis that is building around the world, I suppose it lies in the sense that something is crumbling, and something else is coming to take its place. The shards that lie on the ground around the edifice of late 20th century shibboleths, those are the fragments of certainty-the reinforcing steel of our societies. The mist, smoke and or dust devils that loom on frighteningly vague horizons around us, those are the uncertainties that are coming. And soon.
The United States has one great commodity that so many of us envy. Confidence. Americans built the world's most economically successful society by taking risks and believing in themselves. For years, that's been unravelling-not the society but the confidence. A plethora of books out in the US in recent years have shown how income inequality has never been more stark in the world's richest land, how the cycles of boom and bust have created vast gaps between the haves and never-will-haves, and how the social fabric and the hope that gives the country its tensile strength is weakening.
The post-11 September challenges filled America with false hopes. The country responded to its devastating loss by temporarily pulling together against a common enemy, personified, unfortunately, by Osama Bin Laden. However much President Bush and others said the war was against "terrorism", not a single man or his nefarious organisation, the people knew differently. It was Osama that killed thousands and wrecked a nation's self-image on that horrible day in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. It was that bearded fanatic with the sickly eyes and the insane passion who was to be "smoked out" and "brought to justice". He has not been. Nor have enough of his men. Americans are losing patience. And hope.
Saddam Hussein makes a poor substitute for Osama Bin Laden, however evil he may be in his own right. The war to dislodge him will begin sometime in early 2003, perhaps after Israelis vote in a general election on the 28 January. But this will be no Nintendo war against half-educated country boys like the Taliban. And the process and aftermath could push oil prices above $80 a barrel; try planning a development process in a poor country with that in prospect. Note to the Nepali government: think about this carefully as you express-inevitable-support for the war on Iraq. And kiss hope goodbye. Await your fate and the next dispensation thrown up by circumstances. It's certainly nothing you can control.
Another contributor to the pile of rubbish that lies at the base of our eroding certainties is the health and well being of Western democracies, including Japan. In the early 1990s, the writer Francis Fukuyama (in)famously described the collapse of Soviet communism and international acceptance of free market economics "the end of history". Well, he got the "end" part right. Something did indeed end in 90s, and we're still caught in its death throes. It's the social contract that lies at the heart of democracy that's been fatally wounded. Paradoxically, this was done by the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and their easy embrace, from the left of the political spectrum, of big business, deregulation and the need to unravel social safety nets that carried costs but paid huge benefits. Barney Frank, editor of the iconoclastic American magazine, the Baffler, calls this "the triumph of market fundamentalism over economic democracy". What he means is now only money matters, and it's being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. If you don't have it, you don't matter. Not even organisations calling themselves "Labour" parties or "Democrats" care about you. Not when there's a stonking great cheque coming from Nike, Shell or General Motors. That's why none of us vote anymore. That's why US presidents get elected with less than a third of American adults even bothering to think about them on voting day. This-I submit-is unsustainable. It will change.
As for that bright side, well, there's a new world a-comin'. And if I read the signs, right, it'll be different from the false edifice erected by the Clintons, Blairs and Bushes. I doubt it'll please anyone very much, neither the Maoists nor the Mullahs nor, for that matter, very many of those in-between. But by the gods, it's a place to start and we'd all better get ready for change. Pass me that shovel. I've got some shattered certainties to clean up.