We live in a time of unprecedented material abundance and security. Technological advances over the past two centuries have meant that we now live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors, and are able to produce more from less labour. At the same time, the institutionalization of the international state system, and the spread of broadly liberal values around the world, has also meant that we are less likely to be engulfed by the types of widespread conflict that consumed millions of civilian lives throughout the ages. Despite all of this, it is clear that many of the problems that have always plagued the world – poverty, exploitation, persecution, and war – continue to blight the lives of hundreds of millions of people. While it would be fair to say that the average citizen of the world is now much better off than an equivalent person from several centuries ago, the persistence of these problems is nonetheless surprising because humankind now arguably has the means through which to address these issues in a more substantive way. The very same institutions that have underpinned global prosperity in the recent past – the democratic state and the national economy – possess the capacity to ameliorate the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized elements of global society and yet, this has not happened.

The central paradox at the heart of the contemporary world, namely the existence of widespread deprivation and subjugation alongside tremendous wealth and freedom, is made even more troubling by the fact that it seems things are only going to get worse. In the context of the global financial crisis, but more broadly since the ascendancy of neo-liberal economic thinking in the 1980s, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the central contradictions at the heart of speculative financial capitalism, have called into question the ability of even the most advanced industrial economies to continue providing for their citizens. As austerity eats into European budgets, triggering cuts in welfare provision and state subsidies, the economic insecurity experienced by millions of working class people has prompted the rise of a populist strain of politics, often tainted by far-right ideologies, that has rebelled against a political and economic system that has demonstrated its inability to represent anyone other than a plutocratic elite. In the developing world, even in the few places where there has been ‘growth’, society continues to be defined by rising inequality, with the towers of the rich casting a long shadow over the slums of the poor. Conflict over scarce resources has fuelled ethnic, religious, and sectarian violence across the world, and no number of international treaties or conventions have been able to save the hundreds of thousands massacred in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Syria. If that were not enough, the threat of catastrophic climate change continues to be ignored, with repeated warnings from scientists and experts being sidelined in the quest for short-term economic gain. The injustice of the current global order is perhaps best exemplified by the reaction to the Ebola virus in West Africa; while the developed world possesses the means through which to help develop the kind of health infrastructure that could be used to treat victims of this disease, and indeed of curable ones like Malaria and Tuberculosis, tens of thousands of African lives are deemed to be of little importance or consequence in the grand scheme of things.

Since the Enlightenment, the idea of progress is one that has underpinned much of human endeavor, with the assumption being that the fruits of science and reason will contribute to the eventual but inevitable perfection of a human civilization premised on delivering the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the post-war prosperity generated by Keynesian economic planning was heralded as signifying the ‘End of Ideology’ and the emergence of an institutional framework that would guarantee future human progress. History repeated itself as recently as the 1990s, when the collapse of Soviet Communism prompted some ideologues to announce that the ‘End of History’ had arrived, with the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism allegedly signifying their perfection as economic and political systems through which humanity could realize its potential.

Such pronouncements have clearly proven to be premature. While capitalism is the world’s dominant economic system, it has failed to improve the lives of the underprivileged and has arguably contributed towards perpetuating their subordinate position in society. Similarly, while liberal democratic values do set the benchmark for effective governance, their application across the world remain patchy at best, with the global erosion of civil liberties since 9/11, the continued tolerance displayed towards millinerian monarchies, the de facto political inequality generated by economic disparity, and the use of democracy as a justification for unleashing war in the Middle East and elsewhere, all undermining any attempts to move towards a more democratic global order. The real tragedy is that while all of the problems listed above could be solved, they are not.

Given the chaotic state the world is currently in, it may just be the case that the best of times are now behind us, and that the Enlightenment’s promise of unending progress is nothing more than a comforting myth. Indeed, if events continue to unfold as they have in recent years, there is no reason to expect that things will improve; the rich and secure will continue to crow about progress as they latch on to the latest electronic bauble, even as violent conflict and rising sea levels gradually wipe out the gains made over the past few centuries.

While there are considerable grounds for pessimism about the future of the human race, there is still hope. It is clear that the current system of capitalist accumulation that defines the global economy, predicated as it is upon the generation of wealth for the few at the expense of the many, can not be relied upon to provide the kind of global recalibration and distribution of wealth that would be required to start addressing humanity’s most pressing problems. It is also clear that the current political dispensation, in both its authoritarian and democratic forms, requires a radical overhaul that makes it more responsive and accountable to the people. It is imperative that the status quo be questioned at a global scale, and that to reorient local politics in a more progressive direction that is cognizant of the failings of orthodox, right-wing economics and politics. Those arguing that there is no alternative to the dominant ideology of our times, shared by mainstream political parties across the world, are simply abetting our inexorable march towards apocalypse.

    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.