Through a rear-view mirror. John Gray outlines a tragic vision of history

Up the Down Escalator: why the global pessimists are wrong

Charles Leadbeater <em>Viking, 384pp, £

The triumph of global capitalism was one of the better practical jokes of history. Long before capitalism began to break up under the pressures of war and America's return to protectionism, it was obvious that the regime of global laissez-faire was to be short-lived. Anyone with a smattering of insight into how the world works knew that the collapse of communism was not the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity, but the trigger for another epoch of conflict. Yet huge sums of money were staked on the belief that the world was on the brink of becoming one hugely profitable free market. In entertaining this fantasy, western financial institutions and corporations showed their ignorance, hubris and sheer greed. They also demonstrated that Marxist ideology had survived the Soviet collapse.

A version of Marxist thought inspires many of the most bullish supporters of global capitalism. Digital Marxism is the theory that new information technologies are forcing new forms of production on to economies across the world. The internet is not just the latest in a series of developments in communication that go back to the laying down of telegraph cables in the late 19th century, but a revolutionary advance that will destroy older modes of production and make market capitalism universal. This boosterish version of Marxian technological determinism is invoked by Charles Leadbeater in his new book.

"We have embarked," he writes, "on the latest stage of a long, complicated and fraught process of cultural, social and organisational innovation to exploit a wave of rapid and profound technical innovation . . . advances in human knowledge and technology create new 'forces of production' which can be fully exploited only when new social arrangements come into being. Marx called these new social arrangements 'the social relations of production'."

Leadbeater, like Marx, believes technology is the key to human freedom. Just as Marx imagined that factory production would bring about human emancipation through universal socialism, so Leadbeater believes the internet is enabling a new and better kind of capitalism, one that embodies the Enlightenment values of progress and personal autonomy.

Up the Down Escalator is a digito-Marxist manifesto. Always stimulating and often penetrating, Leadbeater assails the authoritarian utopias that dominated much of 20th-century politics. He is unquestionably right that utopian thinking has been a human disaster: tens of millions of people perished, or had their lives irrevocably ruined, under the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao, and even the Nazis drew on utopian thought in their hideous vision of a racially purified Europe. However, in focusing so much on the evils of authoritarian statism, Leadbeater is viewing the present through a rear-view mirror.

Today, the worst crimes against humanity are not the result of totalitarianism, but more often of anarchy. Consider the Rwandan genocide. No doubt the country's colonial past and the ongoing intervention of foreign governments in its affairs contributed to the disaster; but the hard truth remains that the nearly two million people who perished in Rwanda were killed by tribal violence, not state terror. Again, the threat of weapons of mass destruction is growing not so much because "rogue states" are amassing them (though some states may be doing that), but because the technologies involved in making such weapons are slowly leaking out of the control of any state.

Authoritarian regimes may have been the chief threat to freedom in the 20th century. Today, in much of the world, the greatest risk to human freedom comes not from the excessive power of the state, but rather from its weakness. Science and technology are at the back of rising longevity and living standards, as Leadbeater reminds us. But they also underpin the growing destructive potential of war, including the new sort of unconventional war we call terrorism. Ultimately, it is the spread of scientific knowledge that makes the dissemination of new weapons of mass destruction so difficult to control. Technology has always been used to wage war; if history is any guide, it always will be.

This book, in large part, is a tirade against pessimism, an insidious vice that Leadbeater identifies as being at the root of the current political malaise. Assembling a motley crew of anti-globalisers, Tory nostalgists, backward-looking communitarians and green Luddites, he maintains that this improbable coalition of dissenting voices has created a public mood of doubt and disquiet that stands in the way of progress. The implication is that we have only to snap out of this debilitating state of mind, and most of our problems will be solved. But if people worry about the future, it is quite often because they know a little history.

In his previous book, Living on Thin Air (1999), Leadbeater argued that, if we are to make the best of new technologies, we must be more entrepreneurial. No doubt he was right; but that does not mean that we must also become a society of speculators, as he suggests in his conclusion here. Most of us are not mercurial innovators: we will always be pretty risk-averse. In times of boom, silly ideas such as the weightless economy will become fashionable; most people understand, however, that when the boom ends, as it always does, reality will return, and they will be left struggling to make a living. If people are anxious, it is because they understand this elementary truth.

Leadbeater follows Marx in subscribing to the illusion that technology is inherently emancipatory. But it is where he parts company with Marx that he is most unrealistic. To suggest that people can change their lives simply by adopting a more optimistic world-view is to neglect Marx's most profound insight - his tragic, almost Homeric vision of historical conflict.

The co-author of The Communist Manifesto may have inspired one of the world's most lethal social experiments, but he would have scorned the idea that the defects of capitalism may be overcome through optimism. He understood that capitalism has an inherent tendency to self-destruct, and he knew too much history to discount the prospect of a reversion to barbarism. If Marx were alive today, would he not be a voice in the chorus of pessimists that - according to Leadbeater - is responsible for so many of our woes?

John Gray's Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals is published in September by Granta