"The sacrosanct fetish of today is science." Mr Vladimir, first secretary at the Russian embassy in Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, believes that if terrorism is to be truly effective, it must be directed against the spirit of the age. In order to have any real impact, a bomb outrage must be purely destructive - an attack on society's most deeply cherished beliefs. Believing it to be "in some mysterious way at the source of their material prosperity", both bourgeois public opinion and society's most radical critics regard science with deep reverence. Accordingly, Mr Vladimir instructs his agent provocateur, Adolf Verloc, to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich: "Go for the first meridian. You don't know the middle classes as well as I do. Their sensibilities are jaded. The first meridian. Nothing better, and nothing easier, I should think." Attacking a building dedicated to the science of astronomy would be "an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable", but it would be effective for that very reason: "Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion or bribes."
In The Secret Agent, Conrad makes use of an actual terrorist attempt on the Royal Observatory in 1894, when a French anarchist accidentally blew himself up in Greenwich Park before reaching his target. At the start of the 21st century, science remains a sacrosanct fetish. We believe the internet is the source of our prosperity, linking up economic life everywhere in a network of beneficial exchange. At the same time, in a development that attests to the power of Conrad's darkly ironic vision, the symbols of trade and new technology have come under terrorist attack. On 11 September 2001, the suicide-warriors of al-Qaeda carried off a terrifying assault on the spirit of the age of precisely the kind that Mr Vladimir recommended.
Conrad published The Secret Agent in 1907. Although he experimented boldly with literary techniques, he was essentially a 19th-century writer. He took his subject matter from the anxieties of his time - the ambiguities of progress and civilisation, the sense of the blind drift of history that preceded the First World War and the break-up of personal identity that comes with loss of faith in the future. For much of the past hundred years, these seemed dated themes, with little bearing on the great political transformations that preoccupied novelists such as George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Whatever horrors they chronicled, Orwell and Koestler never gave up the hope that humankind could have a better future. It did not occur to them that history might be cyclical, not progressive, with the struggles of earlier eras returning and being played out against a background of increased scientific knowledge and technological power. For all their dystopian forebodings, neither anticipated the 21st-century reality, in which ethnic and religious wars have supplanted secular ideological conflicts, terror has returned to the most advanced societies and empire is being reinvented.
Conrad, by contrast, scorned the 20th-century faith in revolutionary political change. Yet precisely because he never accepted that collective action could fundamentally transform the conditions of human life, he anticipated more clearly than any 20th-century writer the dilemmas that face us today. He can be read as the first great political novelist of the 21st century.
Conrad spurned the idea of progress. Writing to Bertrand Russell, who had pinned his hopes for the future on international socialism, he declared that it was "the sort of thing to which I cannot attach any definite meaning. I have never been able to find in any man's book or any man's talk anything convincing enough to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world." This sense of the fated character of human life was reflected in Conrad's portrayal of revolutionaries, whom he viewed as shams who renew the crimes and delusions of the society they seek to destroy.
Verloc, in The Secret Agent, thinks of himself as a respectable family man. A dealer in pornography, a police informer and a spy working for a foreign embassy, he believes his work contributes to social and political stability. In this, he is no different from his controller, Vladimir, who directs him to commit bomb outrages so as to force the English (whom he views as over-tolerant to the point of decadence) to defend the social order by repression. Yet Verloc is murdered by his wife, Winnie, after she discovers he has caused the death of her brother, the mentally retarded and hypersensitive Stevie, by using him to place the bomb at Greenwich.
Conrad's scorn for revolutionaries is comprehensive and unremitting. He represents Verloc as a man whose life is ruled by indolence and a perversely refined notion of respectability. Much the same is true of Verloc's revolutionary comrade Ossipon, who is described as a weakling who lives by exploiting the vulnerability of women. All of these professed revolutionaries are shown as being hopelessly compromised by the same vices and illusions that permeate the society they reject.
Even the book's most sympathetically portrayed anarchist, the Professor, is presented in terms that are half-comic. His beliefs are a ragbag of the pseudo-scientific superstitions of the time, such as Lombroso's theories of inherited criminal degeneracy and the bastardisation of Darwinian ideas to supply a rationale for exterminating the weak. Like many progressive thinkers, the Professor affects a lucidity of thought that is devoid of sentimentality. In fact, his thinking is credulous and self-indulgent, shaped by a naive positivist belief in science not much different from the faith in progress that animated the Victorian social order he despised. His fate goes unrecorded, but it seems likely that, like the weaker Comrade Ossipon, he will end "marching in the gutter as if in training for the task of an inevitable future", shoulders bowed, "ready to receive the leather yoke of the sandwich board".
Unlike Dostoevsky, by whom he was much influenced, but whose Christianity he found repugnant, Conrad saw no redemption for revolutionists. To him, revolutionary violence was vain, deluded and inherently criminal. But nor did he believe in the fundamental health of the society that revolutionaries tried to disturb. In Conrad's radically Hobbesian view, social institutions are themselves tainted with criminality. Society is a dim battleground of predatory and fragmentary egos, in which self-interest and self-deception leave nothing untouched. Thus, in The Secret Agent, Conrad portrays London as a sightless wasteland, where "the dust of humanity settles inert and hopeless out of the stream of life", and human hopes are consumed in the everyday struggle for survival. But his most direct statement of the inherently criminal aspect of every social enterprise is in Heart of Darkness, his celebrated fable of imperialism.
A great deal of ink has been spilt attacking Conrad's views on colonialism, but it is safe to say that few, if any, of Conrad's 20th-century critics had the imagination to anticipate that the age of empire could return. With an irony Conrad would have appreciated, however, that is what is happening today. Partly as a matter of self-defence and partly for familiar reasons that have to do with the control of natural resources, the world's great powers are reviving the imperial projects of the 19th century. There are differences between then and now, some of them vast. Today's great powers include countries that were subject to western rule in Conrad's day, notably China and India, and, though it is at present economically weak, Japan remains potentially hugely powerful. These parts of the world will not return to European or western hegemony. The new imperialism centres on regions where states have collapsed, with damaging spillover effects on migration, crime and terrorism.
Equally significantly, the Great Game has become less dangerously competitive. With the shared goals of countering terrorism and securing control of central Asia's reserves of oil and natural gas, Russia and the US appear to have entered a long-term strategic partnership. Furthermore, the great powers are now to some degree inhibited by the danger of exposure in the mass media, and by the need to legitimise intervention through transnational organisations. These differences have led some to argue that the new imperialism will not revive the exploitative rule of a century ago: rather, it will supply desperately needed benefits, otherwise beyond reach, to people living in failed states. This is the view expressed by Robert Cooper, an adviser to the Prime Minister, in a recent pamphlet for the Blairite Foreign Policy Centre.
The merit of his line of thought is that it candidly faces the realities of state failure that have for too long been evaded. But it is impossible to suppress a sense of irony about the prospects of the new imperialism: not the fashionable kind of irony that takes nothing seriously, but the irony explored in Conrad's writings - the unintended consequences and inevitable moral ambiguity of all our enterprises. This is a pervasive feature of his interpretation of imperialism. As Conrad pictures him, Kurtz - the ivory trader at the Inner Station in Heart of Darkness - is corrupt, power-obsessed and hardly sane. Yet Conrad also describes him as "essentially a great musician", and wrote: "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz."
Conrad had no illusions about the civilising mission that was invoked to justify imperialism in the 19th century. He knew that European expansion into Africa was fuelled by much baser motives. Yet Conrad also shows how it emerged from, and worked to undermine, the European sense of self. The dissolution of civilised values that occurred in the Belgian Congo was a disaster for its inhabitants. At the same time, it exposed the illusions - of progress, enlightenment and universal humanity - that shape the modern European self-image.
What is truly distinctive about Conrad's perspective is that he does not view this development as somehow liberating. Taking their cue from Christianity, European progressives imagine that perceiving the darker side of civilisation enables us to move on to higher levels of enlightenment. Conrad accepts no such inference. Always finding Christianity distasteful (he once described it as an "absurd oriental fable"), he rejects the idea that we can improve our condition by understanding it better. For him, this humanist faith is only the Christian conception of redemption dressed up in the language of reason and world-improvement. Conrad's was a more austere view, a modern renewal of the ancient pagan sense of fate that is given voice in Greek tragedy.
The political religions of the 20th century were at one in rejecting the idea that history is fated. Marxism and market liberalism both promised a time when its tragic contingencies could be left behind. Both saw history as a process of progressive emancipation ending in a universal civilisation. Both believed that, with the growth of knowledge, all of humanity would come to share the same humanist values. This is the core of the Enlightenment faith in progress that Conrad rejected. Nowadays, our thinking made lax by a constant emphasis on feeling, we imagine that the idea of progress expresses an attitude of optimism, and its rejection pessimism. In fact, the idea of progress does more than express an attitude: it embodies a theory - one that has never had much to support it, and which was falsified in the century that has just ended.
The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The 20th century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can - and will - also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the 20th century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge - not even in the long run.
It is no accident that nothing approaching a great political novel appeared in the last decades of the 20th century. The shallow orthodoxies of the time were not propitious. Not only the right, but also the centre left, had made a sacred fetish of science - not, as in The Secret Agent, the science of astronomy, but the decidedly shakier discipline of economics. Practically every part of the political spectrum accepted the ridiculous notion that the secret of unending prosperity had been found. Free markets, balanced budgets, the correct supply of the correctly measured money, a judicious modicum of state spending - with such modest devices, the riddle of history had at last been solved.
The savants who announced the end of history took for granted that the globalisation of markets would lead to peace. They did not notice that savage wars were being fought in many parts of the world. The economists who bored on about a weightless economy, which had dispensed with the need for natural resources, contrived to pass over the 20th century's last big military conflict, the Gulf war, which was fought to protect oil supplies. None of this mattered much so long as the boom continued, and the illusion of peace was preserved. But the price of living on these fictions was a hollowing-out not only of politics, but also of literature. It is a telling fact about the closing decades of the 20th century that the closest approximation to a notable political novel was probably The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Conrad is our contemporary because, almost alone among 19th- and 20th-century novelists, he writes of the realities in which we live. At bottom, we know the dilemmas we face are not wholly soluble; but we prefer not to dwell on that. In order to avoid ethnic and religious enmities interacting with the rising scarcity of oil, water and other necessities, we need a worldwide programme of restraint and conservation; but such a programme is difficult to imagine at the best of times, and impossible while crucial regions of the world are at war. The realistic prospect is that the most we can do is stave off disaster - a task that demands stoicism and fortitude, not the utopian imagination. Which other novelist can school us so well in these forgotten virtues?
Conrad's greatness is that, by an art of enchantment, he brings us back to our actual life. The callow, rationalistic philosophies of the 20th century, promising world peace and a universal civilisation, are poor guides to a time in which war, terror and empire have returned. It falls to a novelist without much faith in the power of reason to enlighten us how to live reasonably in these circumstances. As to the ideologues of the end of history, prophets of a new world united under the sign of the market, their day is done. It will surely not be long before we find them, like Ossipon, marching in the gutter in the leather yoke of the sandwich-board.
John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. His Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals will be published by Granta in September