Paul Vallely: The subversive dynamism of market forces

There is more to all this than what time the bills and bumf drop through the letterbox

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A fairly typical bundle of post landed on the mat this morning. A hospital appointment for our two year old, 10 days hence. A phone bill. A change of address card. A postcard from holidaying friends. A newsletter from a pressure group. Two charity appeals. Three letters for people who don't live here any more, importuning, if the envelope logos were anything to go by, the addressee to apply for a platinum credit card or a cheaper car insurance quote.

A fairly typical bundle of post landed on the mat this morning. A hospital appointment for our two year old, 10 days hence. A phone bill. A change of address card. A postcard from holidaying friends. A newsletter from a pressure group. Two charity appeals. Three letters for people who don't live here any more, importuning, if the envelope logos were anything to go by, the addressee to apply for a platinum credit card or a cheaper car insurance quote.

It would not have mattered in the slightest if I had not had sight of the postman's bundle until the evening, or indeed, for most of it, if it had never come at all. Indeed when I lived in the outer suburbs of London, and faced a journey of up to two hours each way into the office, I had often left home before the post arrived and seemed to survive the experience.

Still, I bridle at the suggestion that the company which is about to be formerly known as Consignia is now planning to charge us £14 a week if we want our mail to arrive before 9am.

Of course there are ways round this. We are told we can go down to the sorting office and collect it ourselves if we are expecting something important, though, of course, the Royal Mail won't promise that a letter posted on time will necessarily be there – much as the train companies refuse us a guaranteed time of arrival, or even a seat. Either way we will end up peeved.

In part, our disgruntlement is based on a dislike of change. If the Royal Mail has managed to deliver letters on a one-stamp-gets-anywhere basis since 1840, what kind of progress is the system it is now to pilot? But, if we can exculpate ourselves from the charge that we haven't done anything to make Consignia less profitable, we are on shakier ground with two cases which surfaced yesterday in which the powers-that-be are planning to shift responsibility from the corporate to the individual spheres.

There is a plan afoot from the Prime Minister's personal think-tank, the Performance and Innovation Unit, to start charging us if we leave out more than two plastic bags for the binmen. Britain's annual household waste mountain, currently 30 million tons, is evidently rising at 3 per cent a year. Which is why they are considering billing us £1 a bag, a flat fee of £5 a month or even a charge by weight.

Actually there is more of a case for this. Economic disincentives do work. Try getting a carrier bag in the Irish republic nowadays; the Dublin government's introduction of a 20p tax on plastic bags has produced a marked change in social behaviour. Perhaps if we had to pay for rubbish removal, we might start removing excessive packaging in the supermarket. Though, of course, it is just as likely that we would start dumping it in lay-bys or increasing global warming with an epidemic of garden bonfires.

But it is yesterday's proposals on pensions that tell us most about the steady erosion of our sense of social collectivity. Again it is partly our own fault. We are all living longer, which means that the pension industry is finding itself increasing strapped for cash. So perhaps, unless we're prepared to pay more, we have to accept the suggestion of the Pickering report that company pensions should no longer be forced to rise in line with inflation.

Yet we should not underestimate the impact on the national social psyche of all these moves to throws us back on a sense of individual provision.

These days you don't have to be a pension holder with Equitable Life to have experienced a severe blow to your confidence in the shibboleths of modern consumer capitalism. First came pensions and insurance mis-selling, then fraudulent corporate accounting and now collapsing stock markets – all of which makes the ordinary individual feel that whatever happens those in authority manage to screw us both ways.

There is something metaphysical about the damage done in this atomisation of our sense of the common good and our promotion of individual choice as the primary modern value. The Pickering report may sound as though it is merely keeping up to date with present-day realities when it says that "in the modern world, many couples would prefer to ensure they both have an independent income in retirement rather than relying on derived rights".

But there is no disguising the fact that its plan to ditch widows' pensions is not some gender equality breakthrough but evidence of the way that the weak go to the wall when our sense of collective responsibility is constantly fragmented.

Such things do not happen on a tide of inevitable globalisation. It may be true that there are now 17 pension schemes run by FTSE 100 companies that are now facing a cash shortfall, compared to only seven last year. But many such companies were happy enough to take pension holidays in the last two decades, taking the benefits in the good years and now passing on the costs in the bad ones. People took decisions for which they prefer now not to be accountable. But there was nothing inevitable about them.

What all these changes underscore is that the subversive dynamism of market forces inexorably dissolves our social forms. And that is something that has to be scrutinised and guarded against. Which is why there is more to all this than what time the bills and bumf drop through the letterbox.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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