The colour of hope

Moralities: sex, money and power in the 21st century

Joan Smith <em>Allen Lane, 202pp, £14.99</em>

I will not beat about the bush: Joan Smith has written a book in which she says that the world may be overrun with evil but there is still cause for hope. This is a compelling message for those, such as myself, for whom the infallibility of the process by which the bad guys get their way brings us to a state of near-existential indifference when considering the world's affairs. Liberal people, it seems to me, are at risk of contracting the anger and pessimism that characterise their Daily Mail-reading counterparts, who rail against single mothers, fuel prices and anything that stands in the way of unfettered selfishness.

What are they so bothered about? Everything goes their way, and has done in this country for the past 30 years. Even a Labour government dances about trying to win the approval of brainless right-wing bores whose beliefs about the world are based on untruths so obvious that they would take about five minutes to demolish if anyone dared or cared to do it. Reader's Digest recently undertook a splendid survey in which it compared British people's beliefs about certain issues with the reality and, as you can imagine, there was quite a large gap between the two.

Hope is one of those no-win-no-fee things, and although it needs some encouragement to survive, its existence doesn't necessarily prove anything. Christianity has kept itself going for centuries on hope alone, and has perpetrated all manner of naughtiness in the meantime. Hope is like one of those orchids that grows around toxic waste: lovely in itself - and an assertion, if you like, of indefatigable good - but a sure sign that something nasty lies underneath.

Joan Smith knows all about nasty. Moralities is the most comprehensive guide to late-20th-century corruption, hypocrisy, greed, cruelty and moral bankruptcy you could wish for. The optimism that runs so unexpectedly through it springs from two sources: first, from Smith's assertion that western society has become, if not more moral, then less moralistic; and second, from her belief that good guys do sometimes get their way, and could almost be said to be making a comeback. The first claim I accept, broadly; about the second, I have reservations. Smith writes at length about the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, and of how this event was not just symbolic but actual, in that it did change things. But this is insignificant when compared with the big bad-guy event of the new century, the election of George W Bush. The movement against biotechnology and GM foods is also good and true, but I will bet you my organic cornflakes that it means nothing, not one thing, because for every Greenpeace activist there are two politicians and three academics in the pay of US biotech organisations, and they will thrive, somehow, like their sinister crops.

Modern morality is all about perception. The other day, I heard an academic on the radio talking about how, in the past year, there had been a swing of 30 or 40 per cent in the public perception of GM foods. I won't tell you which way: you can guess. It doesn't even matter how this "swing" was ascertained, or by whom. The reality is that, when official channels are being used to traffic immorality, no amount of protest will stop them.

This is not to say that Smith is deluded. Those women who risked their reputations and physical safety to argue for women's rights laid the foundations for the equality that, a century later, we take for granted. The sexual revolution is Smith's template for hope. She believes that tyranny - political and commercial - may one day be overthrown in the same way, by today's nascent dissent grown up.

I am less certain than Smith that morality adheres to principles of "progress". As for truth, you will find it here in spades. Moralities is, among other things, a banquet of declassified information. The question is whether anyone will listen. Why not set the ball rolling by reading it yourself? When you've finished, pass it on.

Rachel Cusk is a novelist and critic