Like many contemporary social problems which pit private freedoms against public interests, a real solution to traffic congestion is unlikely without acknowledging the changed social and economic context of recent decades. We are living with the consequences of a transformation which has seriously weakened the social contract upon which civil society depends. Congestion charging is an attempt to enforce one clause of that contract which previously required no recourse to law. Usually when the social contract shows signs of strain, politicians are unwilling to legislate for a remedy and we are left to navigate our way through a minefield of competing interests and irreconcilable rights and freedoms. With traffic congestion and its triple impact - on the economy, the environment and on our individual quality of life - one politician has decided that something has to be done. If nothing else comes from it, perhaps congestion charging will prompt us to assess, with honesty, the changes of the last twenty-five years and their implications.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the nature of these changes. They are the outcome of a political project, albeit one with strong economic and cultural components, driven by an ideology which says that the best kind of society is one based on deregulated markets, unlimited capital flows, private ownership of all productive resources, and the commercialisation of as much human activity as possible. This must be encapsulated in an economy which grows steadily and without end, which need only be measured in terms of output growth (rather than in terms of social and human consequences), and which requires us to constantly increase our consumption at rates which threaten the life-supporting capacity of our planet, lest the whole structure collapse.
Great swathes of legislation have been passed to enable this transformation; it is not the consequence of some natural evolution in society and the economy. Among the few people who realise the true objective of the project - to create conditions in which the wealthy and privileged are best able to safeguard their position - are those who use their control of the mass media to persuade us that there is no alternative and, although it might not be apparent, that the interests of all people are best served by this new order. As a result we are unable to articulate ideas for viable alternatives or even to argue for the possibility of a society framed by a different set of values.
The cultural assault on values that consolidates the success of this social transformation constantly reinforces the notion that selfish individualism is not just permissible, but perfectly acceptable. Today the message is disseminated with more subtlety than in the 1980s. This permits us to look back with distaste on the excesses of that decade, and feel better as our selfishness and greed are transformed into matters of personal freedom and choice. If these now culturally embedded values and attitudes are to be overturned, they must be challenged at every opportunity. Currently they go unchallenged and the consequences are keenly felt in the arguments over congestion charging.
The creed of selfish individualism insulates us from the notion of social responsibility, and blinds us to the fact that if society is to remain viable many of our day to day decisions must take into account the similar decisions of other people. Traffic congestion is a particularly good example of the conflict between personal freedoms and the public good responsibility because it involves all of us; nobody can insulate themselves from it effects. When too many people use their cars, everybody gets stuck in traffic, we are all forced to inhale the fumes, and people everywhere suffer the consequences of global warming.
The social contract calls for an appropriate balance between personal freedoms and social responsibility, between private comfort and public good. It requires us to curtail our private desires and accept that there are legitimate constraints on our rights as individuals. One reason it is coming under strain is that the ability to exercise rights which we are told are universal, now often depends on what you can afford. When the assertion of supposedly inalienable rights becomes a question of spending power, people become suspicious. Unusually, the right to drive a car is affordable for large numbers of people; this is why we feel so strongly about defending it. This rationing of personal freedoms according to wealth is another consequence of the changes of the last three decades. Despite our getting collectively richer, life for most ordinary people is getting harder. Paying for something which has traditionally been free seems like that last straw to many. That the need for congestion charging is the inevitable outcome of a changed society which constantly throws up irreconcilable conflicts of interest is beyond most people's consciousness.
Civil society functions most effectively when people see that their own interests will be served by giving consideration to the wider public good. Unlike the post-war period when this held true for most people, it no longer does. People cannot see how, if they agree to give up certain rights, their sacrifice will translate into a wider public good. This is because our new social context makes it impossible for acts of public spiritedness to have any tangible impact. Transport for London cannot convert revenues from congestion charging into visible improvements in public transport infrastructure and services quickly enough to make the project appear worthwhile. Until we acknowledge that there are no answers to the problems resulting from the changes of the last quarter century without initiating a further transformation of similar magnitude, there can be no solutions. The congestion charge will not solve the traffic problem, but it might just spark a debate about its root causes, and help people see that it is a product of a much wider social crisis which demands new thinking and real change.
Real solutions require political will and a commitment from the pedlars of the simplified media messages which have such influence that it's time to adopt a different line. It's always easier to persuade people to be selfish and to legislate for a society which indulges our baser instincts than it is to create conditions in which more noble human ideals and aspirations can come to the fore. Like all attempts at improved economic justice and greater social inclusion, progress depends on public-spirited individuals taking action and encouraging others to do likewise.
A new social transformation does not mean a return to the social and economic structures of the pre-Thatcher world, but it will require a resurrection of some of the values which inspired that time, and a recognition of the essence of the social contract. There is an equilibrium position, an optimum balance between private and public, between individual and collective which, if sustained, adds strength to the social fabric, and brings security and fulfilment to the lives of increasing numbers of people.
At the personal level such change demands a realisation that the mill we currently tread is endless, and cannot bring contentment. At the political level it requires recognition that an ideologically inspired social transformation must be succeeded by one based on the equality of the interests of all people and on economic arrangements which safeguard the life-supporting capacity of planet. These are the values which hold the key to the next great transformation. Unless politicians start selling the idea of an alternative they will condemn us all to social gridlock, and themselves to increasing irrelevance. We are struggling because we changed the way we organise our world. Things will only get better when we realise this, and set out to change it again.