Across the political spectrum, from communitarians to social conservatives, and from New Age ecologists to religious moralisers, politics increasingly articulates a fear that society is degenerating into a global dystopia. Everything is falling apart. Nothing can be relied upon. We are being overrun and undermined by foreign and unfamiliar influences. The moral and cultural core of our society is being eaten away from within. Individualism, hedonism, fashion and cosmopolitanism are spreading a moral contagion that has overrun society's badly weakened immune system.
The appeal of dystopia is not confined to politics. Much of the work of young British artists such as Damien Hirst concerns decay, death and decline. Steven Spielberg's film The Minority Report portrays a future in which people are controlled by genetic manipulation. A recent BBC docudrama, Fields of Gold, co-authored by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, painted an alarmist picture of the risks posed by genetically modified foods.
The apostles of degeneration have different values and ambitions. But their account of what is wrong with the world shares a code. Modern society is enacting a collective death wish: its lust for freedom, pleasure, innovation and democracy has unleashed a process of inner decay. The sources of modern society's greatest vitality - innovation, choice, globalisation - also threaten to kill it.
For environmentalists and many opponents of capitalism, the killer is our consumer culture. For communitarians of left and right, it is individualism, which unravels families, communities and neighbours. For cultural and social conservatives, it the urge to innovate, which threatens history and tradition.
Ours is not the first era in which accelerated social and economic change has prompted extreme fears of degeneration. We think now of the late 19th century as an age of reform, progress and utopian hope, and of remorseless technological triumph, as one spectacular discovery followed another. Yet that era also bred theories of decline and regression, the most powerful of which was Max Nordau's Degeneration, a runaway European bestseller after it was published in German in 1892.
Nordau painted a picture of a society mentally and morally fatigued by the incessant pace of change. The force of innovation produced grotesque side effects, such as increased crime and declining morals.
"We stand," wrote Nordau, "in the midst of a severe mental epidemic, a sort of Black Death of degeneration and hysteria." As society became more complex, so it became more difficult to maintain a sense of order. "Whoever looks upon civilisation as a good, having value and deserving to be defended, must mercilessly crush under his thumb the anti-social vermin, ie, the degenerates." Only a few decades later, this kind of thinking would license genocide and war.
That is why we should worry about the prominent role that fear of degeneration plays in so many accounts of globalisation. One might expect it from the religious right, but chronic pessimism is just as influential on the left.
For example, the communitarian David Myers, in American Paradox: spiritual hunger in an age of plenty, argues that the US went through a steep social and emotional recession in the 1990s even as its economy boomed. Since the 1960s, Myers points out, the divorce rate has doubled, teen suicide trebled, violent crime quadrupled, the prison population quintupled, babies born out of wedlock sextupled and cohabitation, a predictor of divorce, has risen sevenfold. Rich western society is being eaten away from within by individualism and moral relativism, which undermine civic engagement and social responsibility.
From the new left, Morris Berman argues in The Twilight of American Culture that American civilisation, far from being vital and confident after capitalism's triumph over communism, is in a twilight phase, rapidly approaching the point of social and cultural bankruptcy. The nation's spiritual life has been all but extinguished by corporate marketing.
It is striking how much this critique of modern society shares with those by conservatives. Thus the philosopher Roger Scruton, in England: an elegy, laments (to caricature him only slightly) a degenerate England where ladies no longer cycle to church on Sunday past a friendly village pub close to a village green where white-flanelled men play cricket. Today, louts would knock the ladies off their cycles, tacky executive homes will have replaced the cricket field, the church will have been turned into yuppy flats, and the pub will be offering Thai food.
These anti-globalisers and rabid nationalists, melancholic aristocrats and impassioned environmentalists, social conservatives and liberal intellectuals, now form an alliance of pessimism with extraordinary reach. The pessimists of the left associate globalisation with unchecked corporate power and growing inequality; the pessimists of the right associate it with foreign influences that threaten cherished traditions, customs and practices. Both see globalisation as a standardising, commercialising force that stifles diversity and dissent: as they see it, the market, far from providing greater choice, is an agent for cultural cleansing. Both want to go back to basics, to apply the brakes, and get away from fashion, celebrity and novelty. Both view the world in stark, apocalyptic terms, leaving little room for adaptation and complexity, let alone shades of grey. Both contrast the unique destruction wrought by modern global capitalism with an unsullied past where, we are asked to believe, communities were always organic, families always nuclear and politicians always noble.
Like the super-optimists, the super-pessimists wish to parcel history into neat periods. Where one side announces new beginnings and fresh starts, the other announces final endings and lost ways of life. History is rarely that neat.
The danger is that the chronic pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we insist that we are in the midst of irreversible degeneration, we feed the sense of helplessness that encourages people either to withdraw from civic engagement or to support violent, confrontational movements.
Yet this ought to be an age of excitement and optimism. Consider, first, the breathtaking possibilities of technology. By 2007, the hard disk in the average television set-top box should have enough memory to store all the songs ever recorded. By 2010, it should be able to take every film. Telecommunications bandwidth is doubling every 12 months. The capacity of fibre to transmit information has increased by a factor of 16,000 in less than five years; it will soon carry everything we can say, write, compose, play, record, film, draw, paint or design. The entire contents of the US Library of Congress could be passed through an optical switch in less than three seconds.
This still emerging global web of communications and computing could indeed bring more surveillance, cacophony and crime. But ours is a world where half the population is yet to make a telephone call. New global communications will help scientists to collaborate, protesters to campaign, students to learn, writers to publish, and myriad groups to share, trade, swap and gossip. Nor is this pace of innovation confined to information technology. Medicine, for example, will benefit from our capacity to analyse human genes. Within the next decade, cars with highly efficient, methane-based fuel will emerge: they will generate electricity using hydrogen and oxygen, leaving water as the main by-product, and allowing us to relinquish the polluting internal combustion engine.
Consider, second, the opportunities for us to lead fuller lives. While digital technologies allow us to hang on to the films and music of our youth, genetic technologies will allow us to act as if we are 40 even when we are 70. In the past 50 years, life expectancy in the UK has risen by two years every decade. In the 19th century it was about 40 years; now, it is 75 for men and more than 80 for women.
This benefit is spreading to the developing world to a far greater extent and far more quickly than the pessimists would have you believe. People in the developing countries now live longer than people in rich econo- mies did a century ago. In 1900, average life expectancy in the developing countries was 30 years; now it is about 65.
Nine out of every ten people in the developing countries can expect to live beyond the age of 60, against just six out of ten in 1960. Affordable food, antibiotics, vaccines, clean water, electricity and education will all contribute to the continuation of that trend.
In the 20th century the extension of average life expectancy at birth was due mainly to a dramatic decline in infant mortality. In the next century, it will be because science can delay the onset of ageing, giving people perhaps 30 or 40 years of health and fitness in which they can pursue leisure or second careers, as they choose, free from direct child-rearing responsibilities. The problems for health, pensions and employment policies should not be allowed to obscure the blessings.
Consider, third, how globalisation is likely to become a more open and legitimate process. Critics may argue that it is creating a homogenised, Americanised culture. Yet it is increasingly the distinctive national or local products - Australian wine, Scottish whisky, Indian curry, or Japanese sushi - that are spread by the global markets. The pessimists see the masses as hapless dupes who can be reprogrammed by advertising. But watching American television programmes does not make you American, any more than watching ER makes you a doctor.
The main case against globalisation is that most people in the world live in abject poverty, if not outright misery, by western standards. And it is true that the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population accounts for just 1.3 per cent of its spending; that perhaps a billion people do not have secure access to clean drinking water and 2.4 billion to adequate sanitation; that a quarter of a billion children are forced to work, most of them in agriculture, and that another 100 million subsist on the streets; that an estimated 1.3 billion people breathe deeply polluted air, mainly in the enormous cities of the developing world.
Yet think of some other figures. In 1820, about 900 million people, about 85 per cent of the world's population, lived on $1 a day (by today's prices), the figure usually taken to represent absolute poverty. Now, the proportion of the world living at that level is only 20 per cent. Despite the fast-growing world population, even the numbers have fallen since 1980, from 1.4 billion to 1.2 billion.
That is still a huge and morally unacceptable number, but it is arguable that the late 20th century - the era of globalisation - saw a more dramatic reduction in world poverty than any other time in history. In India alone, about 100 million people have been taken out of poverty in the past 20 years. Again, agricultural food production, in part driven by technology, has dramatically reduced the regular incidence of hunger.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 37 per cent of the population of the developing countries (960 million people) were malnourished in 1970; by 1996, that proportion was down to 18 per cent (790 million). Global food production has doubled in the past half-century and in the developing world it has trebled. The developing countries are producing 49 per cent more grain per capita than they were 40 years ago, in large part because agriculture has been made more efficient. We are feeding vastly more people from the same amount of land. About 25 per cent of the world's rural population are still without pure water; but a decade ago, the figure was closer to 90 per cent.
None of this makes it acceptable that so many millions live in abject conditions. But it has been the period of globalisation - during which developing countries have had access to trade and technology, and to investment in education and infrastructure - that has seen these improvements.
The problem is not that globalisation makes developing countries poor; rather, it is that the global economy excludes too many countries from participating in ways that would deliver considerable benefits to them.
Perhaps the great cause for optimism is that global markets, and even more the global webs of communication, are encouraging an intense debate about the possibilities of global citizenship and governance.
There is an emerging recognition among national governments that they share common problems that often can only be addressed co-operatively: terrorism, crime, environmental pollution, rules for trade, investment and debt relief. The war crimes tribunal in The Hague is exploring the scope for global notions of justice.
Global governance, although ramshackle, is slowly being shaped and developed to reduce poverty, promote democracy and extend basic common rights such as freedom of speech. For globalisation to be seen as legitimate, world poverty has to be reduced further, and dramatically; corporations will have to acknowledge their wider social responsibilities, for health, education and the environment, as part of the economic development from which they benefit; international institutions will have to give greater voice to poorer developing nations; those nations will need investment so that they can better take advantage of international trade; markets in the North will have to be further opened to exporters from the South.
Instead of joining the global pessimists in predicting apocalypse, we should press for these changes. If they can be achieved, there is every reason to expect that the world will improve at least as much in the next 50 years as it has in the past 50.
Charles Leadbeater's Up the Down Escalator: why the global pessimists are wrong is published by Viking Penguin on 4 July