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A Suspended Apocalypse

Does anyone in the financial world actually know how to prevent the coming disaster? Is it too late?

We are living in an extraordinary time.

The world has been badly shaken.

In the space of a few days a system that we thought was as secure and assured as the air we breathe lost all its landmarks, its clarity, and was seemingly swallowed up by a black hole.

Money--essential to the spirit of peace--congealed, like blood in veins.

Credit--this fine word is also expressive of people's faith in others--like a machine that jammed, and then stopped.

Confidence--the famous "confidence" that is also integral to the pact among citizens and the reasons it must be perpetuated--like a spell that is evaporating.

The situation brings to mind the words of Thomas Hobbes, whose attempts to shed light on the enigma of the institutions of society were only taken half-seriously.

One recalls "Leviathan," Rousseau's "Social Contract," de la Boetie's "Discourse on Voluntary Servitude": theories that had almost fallen out of view but in fact described what is taking place now in plain view, during a worldwide crisis unprecedented in the history of our various capitalisms.

What is a social bond and how is it broken? Voila. Here we are. This debacle, this shipwreck, is showing us the answer.

What is political time and how does it get away from us? Take the four days wasted by American legislators before they committed to voting for the Paulson plan; take those four short days that we know really counted doubly, triply, perhaps even more, wreaking irreparable damage. That is the type of procrastination that prevails in situations that qualify as "pre-revolutionary."

Is man a predator of man? Does the fear of this predator slumber within us? An anxiety, formerly concealed by a poorly applied varnish of civilization, about a state of nature that is re-emerging? Consider the princes of finance, once so polite, so complicit, so civilized, who have been facing each other at the edge of the abyss, waiting to see who will be the next to fall; consider that dance of wolves, the ferocious ballet of battered predators sniffing at each other, detecting the scent of death on their neighbors, coveting their remains; consider the tango of white-hot hate that has been discreetly called the "drying up of interbank credit."

The scent of execution and of collective suicide has been circulating in the middle of the pack.

It is as though we have been watching a deadly dance around a fire, where those same people who, through their irresponsibility, devastating egoism and, it must be said, intelligence, turned mad and led the financial world toward implosion, thinking that they could pull themselves out of the furnace by pushing the others in first.

And the result has been, for all of us, a suspended apocalypse, in which it is easy to lay out the implacable chain of consequences, but also a situation in which no one knows how to defuse the mechanism. How to respond if account holders attempt to withdraw cash that the banks no longer have? How should we react if electrical and gas utilities default on payment to their employees? What will happen when an angry mob of ruined savers, mainstream borrowers harassed by those who pressured them to go into debt in the first place, and the desperate and unemployed erupt in protest and--according to a scenario that we in France know too well--shout their rage beneath the windows of the speculators, loan sharks and others with golden parachutes?

At that time, those who are responsible will have two options.

They are all afflicted with an ignorance of the dark, unknown world bristling with new threats that they enter with us.

They are all feeling their way, stumbling along. Many leaders have had a terrible time avoiding here a gaffe, a rhetorical stumble there, at quelling the nearly imperceptible bodily ticks that betray one's vertigo.

Nonetheless, there are distinctions among them.

There are always leaders who--as historian Raymond Aron said of a defeated former French president--ignore the fact that "History is tragic," who believe that everything always works out. After such a long time, they think, isn't History used to playing out its confrontations without hurting anyone? Is it not dedicated to convulsions that are not and will never be more than innocent pirouettes?

Conversely, there are those who are sensitive to Tragedy, who know that nothing is more fragile, precarious and quick to disintegrate than a well-established social bond--as French poet Paul Valery wrote, "All that holds it together is magic." You start off with a financial crisis, then the whole cloth begins to unravel little by little: At the beginning you have a terrified crowd, and at the end, a lynch mob.

In the second category, we find French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In the second category, we sometimes find leaders who--like him--are concentrated, determined, inhabited by circumstance at the same time they grapple with it: In their gaze, we see a little of the lucid terror that defines all great statesmen.

Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism, was published in September by Random House. This piece was translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.