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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Application Developer / Software Developer

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software development compa...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Loren Hughes: Senior Finance Analyst

£65,000 - £75,000: Loren Hughes: Are you a post qualified accountant? Do you h...

Loren Hughes: Commercial Finance Analyst

£55,000 - £60,000: Loren Hughes: Are you a newly qualified accountant from a B...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kanye West performs live at the Brit Awards 2015  

UK Grime is finally getting the recognition it deserves, but why has it taken so long?

Paul Gibbins
 

Jihadi John went to my university – so what?

James Tennent
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower