But perhaps the time has arrived to peer into the impact of a fracturing economy not just on mortgages and dole queues but on the way people react to frightening changes in what until recently had seemed the natural order. Part of the problem is that an unprecedented period of expansion has undermined every form of authority, as markets appeared to demonstrate that they were the only reality. Nearly 50 years ago That Was the Week That Was shocked the establishment by presenting religious faith as a consumer choice, concluding if memory serves that Buddhism was the "best buy". Today, only evangelicals and fundamentalists seem to regard faith as a guide to public conduct, and are treated as cases of overstated brand loyalty.
In a world dominated by technology, it is even more startling to contemplate the weakening of the scientific outlook. The more that is learned about the history of the universe, the physics of our own planet and the mechanisms of heredity based on DNA, the less of it penetrates public understanding. Space exploration is reduced to "Is there water on Mars?", the Large Hadron Collider to "Will it create another Big Bang?", and heredity to "Are there genes for obesity?". Meanwhile climate change denialists have flourished and academy schools are handed over to wealthy individuals interested in promoting creationism. No doubt the Royal Society has a good deal to answer for, but how was it or anyone to foresee that commercially-funded modern media would reduce the physical world to the realms of magic?
Now the authority even of markets has gone: not only has their brutality been revealed (it should never have been forgotten), but it is still only vaguely understood that they are the creature of society, which can trim them or to a large extent dispense with them if it wishes. We get the markets we vote for (and therefore deserve).
So the world is on the lookout for new sources of certainty. Part of the rapturous response to the election of Barack Obama is his articulation of an intelligent discourse founded on human values; though in truth it is not easy to discern what practical break he proposes with the past. In the UK the Glenrothes byelection win is represented as Gordon Brown's Obama moment, notwithstanding airport expansion, nuclear power and immigration crackdowns. Something of much greater substance is required if democracy is to be refounded.
The risk is that disenchantment with the old gods will trigger a flight to new and nastier ones. We are already seeing a semi-fascist resurgence in Europe. Stefan Zweig, observing a parallel moment in the Austria of the 1920s, remarked that Austrians had never paid so much attention to art as during the hyperinflation: "seeing that money was betraying us, we felt that only the eternal within us was truly to be relied upon". The Anschluss followed some years later.