The two aspects of millennial frenzy - the apocalypse, on one hand, and the biggest binge of all time on the other - are part of the same phenomenon. The celebration is, in some measure, a consequence of the certainty that we are entering the last days: party now, for tomorrow we perish.

By Jeremy Seabrook

May 1999

Millennium is a time for endings and consummations. Its coming is heralded by signs and portents. It is preceded by prophecies, irrational beliefs and strange cults. Millennium is the hour of the apocalypse, when revelations are made and the wildest happenings find fulfilment.

It has not been difficult to discern these features in our time. Leaving aside the fact that the coming millennium has a specific and local origin (that is, in the Christian West), there is no doubt that the whole world is apprehensive at the prospect of an apocalypse foretold. Indeed, this anxiety arises precisely out of Western global hegemony; and a fear that this uncontrolled dominance may be a progenitor of doom.

It is a paradox (or perhaps it isn't) that a culture which has ceased in any meaningful way to practise the religious values which it claims to embody should nevertheless seek to act out a secular version of its debased and neglected beliefs, should appear hell-bent (if that is not too loaded an expression) on precipitating the dreaded Day of Judgment, not in the hereafter of course, but in the here and now, in the living present-day world which the West bestrides with all its power and might. It seems that faith, crushed beneath the weight of fabulous material wealth, nevertheless asserts itself; and it reappears in the almost mystical conviction that the global social and economic system which has grown out of Western wealth and power can continue in perpetuity, even if, in the process, the earth, its treasures, and its peoples are all sacrificed. In this way, faith and apocalypse are fused.

Of course, this is not how the prospect of the millennium is being greeted in the West. There, it is presented as a celebration, the party to end all parties, a feasting and jubilation such as the world has never witnessed. Certain singers, entertainers and pop-stars are commanding millions of dollars to appear for one night at Las Vegas, Los Angeles or New York. Flights to exotic destinations have been fully booked for months; airlines have tripled their fares, since millions of privileged people wish to awaken to the dawn of a new millennium on some soon-to-be spoiled beach in Africa, on a Pacific island, or some five-star mountain-top hotel.

To create the once-in-a-thousand-years occasion presents certain problems. Since to provide its happy people with perpetual fun is now the deepest purpose of Western civilisation, it is quite a headache to achieve the orgiastic transcendence called for by the event, the gargantuan hype befitting a millennium. The response has been extra days of Bank Holiday, a plan for the pubs to stay open all night, the creation of a Dome, the contents of which are still at this late hour in a state of disputatious uncertainty - such are some of the epic gestures being contemplated by a millennial Britain.

These two aspects of millennial frenzy - the apocalypse, on one hand, and the biggest binge of all time on the other - are not exclusive. Quite the contrary. They are part of the same phenomenon. Indeed, the celebration is, in some measure, a consequence of the certainty that we are entering the last days: party now, for tomorrow we perish.

And all this is no more than a culmination, an intensification of the daily reality of a world tormented to extinction by an indifferent hedonism careless of a future already consumed. The millennium is expected to yield only more of what already exists - a continuation of the rapacious, extractive devouring of the earth: this is, after all, no more than a description of the model of development in which the whole of humanity is inextricably caught up.

Those who have seen evidence of millennarian fantasies in the mere cultural artefacts of the West - in, for instance, the growth of cults, survivalism, the fascination with horror-stories, aliens, ghouls, monsters, extra-terrestrials, the preoccupation with the paranormal, out-of-body experience, the superstitions of soothsayers and fortune-tellers, card-readers, oneiromancers, all the purveyors of frissons of fear to those whose lives appear impregnably comfortable and secure - have been looking in the wrong place.

These are all harmless diversions - off-the-peg undemanding spirituality, the merchandising of mysticism, the hucksters of inner, as well as outer, space, the salesmen of mind-altering substances, from Ecstasy to Disneyland, these are the vapid, visionless imaginings of the market, the pedestrian interpreters of a future already inscribed in the predictable certitudes of junk culture.

The real millennarists are more subtle. They talk a different language. The true chiliastic zealots who menace the world with destruction will be found elsewhere. These bearers of apocalypse are the more deceptive since they do not peddle apocalypse. They have penetrated all the governments on the planet. Their nostrums of salvation permeate every agency, every institution, every instrument of governance in the world. They do not meet in seedy back-streets, they do not huddle over crystal balls behind red velvet curtains, they do not wear the trappings of gypsies and mountebanks.

Rather, they assemble in hushed teakwood conference suites, leather folders at their elbow, together with fresh spring water and fruit juices from every fruit on earth, at tables garnished with mortuary floral arrangements of stiff lilies or gerberas. They sink into soft padded chairs beneath the purring of unobstrusive air-conditioners. The tones of their discourse are measured, the utterances and revelations that fall from their lips are grave and stolid. They speak an unintelligible tongue called economics, of a blandness and ambiguity in keeping with their tasteful hand-crafted suits, silk ties and soft leather shoes.

All this serves to conceal the impossibilist vision they are evoking, the lurid fantasies that lurk beneath the cliches, the unrealisable scenarios of universal prosperity, happiness and secular salvation which they proffer to the credulous peoples of the earth. The runaway unreason of their version of the future of humankind is dissimulated behind a torpid imagery long become familiar.

They, officials of the International Monetary Fund, representatives of the World Trade Organisation, functionaries of the World Bank, emissaries from this United Nations agency or that international acronym of global dominance, step from their first-class berth into VIP lounges, before being whisked away to the capital city (it doesn't matter which country), leaving a scent of reassurance, exuding an aura of certainty and a hint of expensive cologne; to where, between the lobster, tiger-prawns and ancient whisky, they will confide to the country's leaders, rulers and governing classes, the secrets of growing rich like the West.

They pour into the receptive ears of the elite recipes for securing the same advantages which they so conspicuously enjoy. They have come bearing, not gifts exactly, but loans, lending facilities, packages, blueprints for rescue, moneys made available for structural adjustments, economic rectification. Theirs is a blind faith in privatisation, liberalisation, transparency, economic reform, fiscal rectitide, good governance, human rights, democracy and freedom.

What they mean is, sell to us your country's resources, its minerals, its forests, its fishing-grounds, its precious stones, its crops, its natural landscapes for tourist-traps, the labour of its people, the lands of subsistence farmers and peasants, the real-estate occupied by the urban poor, and we will make you rich. They promise their avid hearers they can expect the amenities of foreign bank accounts, unlimited foreign travel, property in California, Acapulco or the Riviera, education in the most prestigious academies for their children, access to the most fabulous consumer toys the busy global market can provide.

The real merchants of millennial fantasy are those whose errorless vision, whose clarity of understanding, whose high-octane intelligence, whose peerless know-how and sense of justice and humanity have brought whole continents to the verge of collapse; have driven millions of people in Indonesia, Brazil and Russia into incalculable suffering and ruin.

They and their disciples have brought the planet such exotic and thrilling visitations as bovine spongiform encephalitis, genetically modified organisms; they have enhanced our daily bread or rice or corn with their value-added chemicalised improvements, they have modified our immune-system with their gentle carcinogens, and with their agreeable additives and bracing radioactivity they have irreversibly altered the gene-pool of humanity, reducing the sperm-count, inducing cancers of the breast and prostate and all reproductive organs except those mysterious and sacred instruments which generate and procreate money.

These bringers of the millennium know neither remorse nor repentance. They are enthusiastically received everywhere, welcomed, looked to for the latest tranche of salvation or the next instalment of hope, the latest disbursement of charity. The sobriety, seriousness and high-mindedness of their presentation conceal the chiliastic premises of their discourse, disguise the millennial madness of their proposals.

This only makes them more dangerous. No wonder they are inviting us all to celebrate the millennium and to party like there is no tomorrow. For there will be no tomorrow if their diagnoses and prescriptions continue to dominate this poor wasting world we must call our home. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.