An ace mall with quite a nice stadium attached

Two reports from the society of the spectacle.

In his new book The Beach Beneath the Street, McKenzie Wark makes a strong case for the "contemporary resonance" of situationism, in particularly the theoretical writings of the Frenchman Guy Debord. In his masterpiece The Society of Spectacle (1967), Debord wrote the following: "The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life."

Two pieces in today's Guardian provide melancholy evidence for the claim that the commodity has indeed achieved "total occupation of social life" in this country.

Exhibit 1: under the headline "Welcome to London 2012. But first take a walk through the shopping centre", Esther Addley reports from Stratford in east London, where work on the Olympic stadium and adjoining mega-mall is going on around the clock:

No matter which sport you are going to see when the third London Olympics begin, a visit to 2012 park will mean one thing - walking though a very large shopping centre first.The high-speed Javelin train from King's Cross - set to deliver 25,000 spectators an hour to Stratford International - exits to a busy row of shops and restaurants, constructed by the Westfield Group. Crowds arriving at Stratford's tube and mainline station can exit either via a concourse leading directly into Westfield's complex or walk across an elegant rusted steel bridge - again built by Westfield, again delivering sports fans into the heart of the retail development.

Years ago there was a now notorious advertising campaign for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in which posters carried the strapline "An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached". You might say that the "Olympic Park" in Stratford is an "ace mall with quite a nice stadium attached".

Exhibit 2: the intellectual historian Stefan Collini unpicks the dismal, economistic logic of the higher education white paper, which encourages the students currently scrambling for university places to "think of themselves as narrowly focused consumers, searching for 'value for money' among different forms of employment-directed training". This government understands very well the logic of Lord Browne's crudely utilitarian, unabashedly economistic review of higher education that was published in the autumn. As Collini puts it:

Whatever view you take of this government's macroeconomic policy, the truth is that the new higher education system will not reduce public expenditure in the short or even the medium term. Indeed, the reason why the white paper now proposes a more centrally controlled system than at present - in terms of determining how many students with particular A-level results universities will be able to take - is because the government has belatedly realised that the new fees will otherwise increase public expenditure in the short term. In fact, the independent Higher Education Policy Institute, which published its analysis of the proposals this week, thinks the government is still underestimating the cost to the public purse of the new system. The measures are clearly being introduced for political reasons, to install the simulacrum of a market and to make universities serve the economy more directly.


Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/