Ihave been asked to speak on ‘the crisis of ideology, culture and civilization’ today—an enormous subject, and one not easy to define.footnote Yet very few people will doubt that there is today such a crisis, even if they cannot say precisely in what it consists. So let me begin by trying to compare the present situation with earlier periods in the era which began with the great revolutions of the late eighteenth century, that is to say, in the era in which, one way or another, human beings have lived in a material world and in societies undergoing constant and unpredictable change. In some respects, at least for those who think and write about society, all times since the French and first Industrial Revolutions have been times of crisis, for every generation has been faced with experiences and developments that had no precedent, and for which past experience and theories based on it provided no guidance—or at least no adequate guidance. And yet it is also true that historical change in some periods has been so headlong and profound that it has been more than usually difficult to come to terms with or even to grasp, let alone understand, it. We are now living through such a moment, and we have been living through such a period for the past generation or two. I am thinking not only of the dramatic events in world politics that have been taking place before our eyes for the past two or three years—and I use the words ‘before our eyes’ literally, for the network of modern television has made it possible for us actually to see these events taking place almost as they happened; and modern communications technology has enabled us to participate in them, if we so wish. I am here thinking of a schoolteacher in the English provinces who was in constant contact, via electronic mail, with her colleagues in Moscow during the abortive coup of last August. She could actually inform them of the situation as it was reported on television in Staffordshire, but not, at the time, in Moscow. This was certainly the first occasion in history when time and distance were thus virtually eliminated.

The events of recent years have indeed been spectacular and worldchanging—and also unexpected and unpredicted. Yet the revolutionary nature of the period we have been—we are still—living through goes far beyond those changes in global politics which are now making it impossible for cartographers to prepare atlases that will not be out of date in a matter of months. Never before in history has ordinary human life, and the societies in which it takes place, been so radically transformed in so short a time: not merely within a single lifetime, but within part of a lifetime. Let us consider three such changes.

For much of recorded history most human beings have lived off the land and its animals. This was so at the time of the Second World War, for even in highly industrialized countries like the usa and Germany a quarter of the population still lived by agriculture. Yet between 1950 and 1975 this ceased to be the case over the greater part of the earth’s surface. In Europe, in the Americas, and in the western Islamic world—in fact everywhere except Continental South and East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—peasants now form a minority of the population. And this process occurred with dramatic speed. In Spain and Portugal, in Colombia and Mexico, the percentage of peasants halved in twenty years; in the Dominican Republic, Algeria, Iraq and Jamaica it dropped by more than half in the same length of time. (I deliberately take my examples from the less-developed world.)

The second change to consider is the unprecedented creation of intellectuals as a mass demographic phenomenon. Before World War II, people who underwent higher, or even secondary, education, formed a negligible fraction of the population even in the most developed countries. Three of the largest, most developed and most educated countries—Germany, France and Britain—with a total population of 150 million, then contained no more than 150,000 university students. In the 1980s Ecuador alone contained more than twice as many. In fact by then educationally ambitious countries had upward of 2.5 percent of their total population (men, women and children) in higher education at any time. Once again this expansion was explosive. To stick only to well-schooled Europe, the numbers of students multiplied up to ninefold (Spain, Norway) in twenty years.

The third change is in the position of women. Let us consider merely one figure. In 1940 only 14 per cent of married women in the usa who lived with their husbands went out to work for pay. In 1980 more than half of all us married women did so. Once again, the percentage just about doubled between 1950 and 1970. I need not stress the fact—unthinkable before 1950—that women are today common as prime ministers and elected presidents.

I could go on, but there is no need. For I have said enough to demonstrate that human societies, and the relations of people within them, have undergone a sort of economic, technological and sociological earthquake within the lifetime of people who have barely got beyond middle age. There has never before been anything like it in world history, for, as I have pointed out, these are not localized or regional changes but global ones—even though their specific impact differs from one country to another. And it would be quite astonishing if such drastic changes in material life did not also produce crises in what Marx called the ‘superstructure’ of ideas—in culture and civilization.

However, the developments of the second half of this century have also, and inevitably, generated new material problems with which all societies and—in so far as they are affected by them—all human beings have to grapple. I shall mention only three. The first is the extraordinary demographic explosion which has, since 1950, multiplied world population by about 2.5, and that of Latin America by almost 4. A world of over 6,000 million human beings has no precedent. The second is the growing inequality between rich and poor countries, which has been reinforced by the disproportionate growth of the population in the poor countries. To put the matter simply—no doubt too simply—the developed economies of the postwar period, that is, the members of the oecd, in the first half of this century represented about one third of the world’s population. Today they represent no more than 15–20 per cent. And the gap between the gnp per capita of the rich countries and that of the poor has widened at an accelerating rate since 1950. Today twenty-six countries, with just under 15 per cent of the world’s population, enjoy a mean gnp per capita of over $18,000. This is about five times the mean gnp of the world and fifty-five times the gnp of the 3,000 million—rather more than half of humanity—who live on a gnp per capita of about $330. An obvious symptom of this unprecedented global disequilibrium is the dramatic surge of migrants from the poor countries into the rich that is now taking place, in so far as racism and xenophobia in the rich ones does not erect barriers against it. But for how long can this situation persist? No world of such spectacular and growing inequality can remain stable for long.