UCL European Institute


A Question of Trust

13 August 2014, 12:00 am

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The age-old question of what holds our societies together re-emerges periodically, particularly in times of crisis. In a world ever more globalised and virtual, the answer is often cast in terms of "trust", with its pivotal role as regularly called upon as its health called into question. How has trust risen to this centrality, and is it all as straightforward as it seems?
Dr Uta Staiger
13 August 2014

The age-old question of what holds our societies together re-emerges periodically, particularly in times of crisis. In a world ever more globalised and virtual, the answer is these days often cast in terms of "trust". Trust is arguably vital if we are to cope with the freedom of our fellow human beings, whose unpredictable, unknowable future acts we have to reckon with. Yet is there enough to go around these days? Networks, organisations and institutions are meant to assist us in generating trust by stabilising expectations and reducing risks. But aren't we ever more wary of their own trustworthiness? Whether as 'horizontal' trust in fellow members of society, or 'vertical' trust in our financial and political institutions, the pivotal role of trust is these days as often called upon as its health is called into question.

How has trust risen to this centrality, and is it all as straightforward as it seems? A look at the genealogy of the term offers intriguing responses. Historian Ute Frevert has recently traced it from pre-modernity, in whose highly contingent environment trust was fundamentally a reliance on God, to the Enlightenment's secular and constitutional frame, and on to our days. On the way, she finds, trust accompanied - indeed determined - European democratization. Whether in Britain, where John Locke defined his "government of trust" as a close relationship between (a restricted circle of) citizens and their representatives in parliament. Or in continental Europe, where the fall of the ancien régime triggered its rise as a key political concept a century later - prepared perhaps by its private, emphatic use in the 18th century social reverence of friendship. Trust, this genealogy suggests in any case, was key to the secular, socio-political organization of modernity.

Of course, the modern expansion of electoral rights transformed the role of trust in politics yet again. With the electorate no longer restricted to a limited elite out of whose pool the representatives were drawn, trust lost its personal touch. It became institutionalized, delegated - and soon morphed into the mutual mistrust, which arguably characterizes democratic systems today. The electorate's trust after all is reversible: it grants political legitimacy, but may also withdraw it any time. Trust, in extremis represented by the vote of confidence, is liberal democracy's ultimate touchstone.

This is where a comparison with conceptually related and historically contiguous concepts is instructive. Frevert herself uses trust's pre-modern predecessor, fidelity, to drive home her point. As unmitigated loyalty, fidelity, she argues, was both irreversible and one-sided: binding only the subject, not the absolutist monarch. It was furthermore propped up, as the period's ubiquitous writings on social behaviour remind us, by warning of the fickleness of human relationships, which only convention and hierarchy could offset. By contrast, the reversible nature of trust gives modern politics a dimension of qualified reciprocity: citizens are to trust their representatives who, in turn, need to gain and honour that trust.

But a different concept making headway in the 18th century may be even more useful, certainly when horizontal, social trust is our primary focus: "sympathy". Now more readily understood as empathy or solidarity, for David Hume it was to "enter into the sentiments of others". A "fellow-feeling" (Adam Smith), which arose out of an act of imagination: of being able to put oneself in another's place. In Rousseau's view, such "sentiments of sociability" were necessary in order to be a good citizen, stabilising both (post-feudal) institutions and society. Kant of course disagreed, calling them nothing but "pathological love" - and unmanly to boot. But at the turn of the 20th century still, Dewey still invoked "active sympathy" as the cultivated imagination, on which "all that we call state, society and humanity" are based.

But both these 'neighbouring' concepts also allow us to think more critically about trust. Firstly, as 20th century history as shown, the dividing line between trust on the one hand, and obedience, fear and delegation of responsibility to "trustworthy" leaders on the other, may not be very clear-cut. Perhaps the politician who most invokes trustworthiness - remember, "we're all in this together" - deserves particular distrust? Secondly, why do we trust others, and how is such trust to be consolidated? Hume thought that sympathy depended to a great degree on "resemblance" - of manner, country, character, language. Others argued that a state-sponsored, secular "religion" might be needed to inculcate feelings of social unity (Rousseau even suggested banishing dissenters for "being unsociable"). Do resonances of this still inform our efforts to generate trust today - even if we now couch them in terms of "common values"?

Trust, we've established, is not only a major indicator for social wellbeing; it is essential to the socio-political organization of our modern-day democracies. But trust grows organically, over time, in particular places. Its causes, features and consequences we still know little about. We thus need to be careful to decree, from above, the stuff of which trust is to be made. Critical thought and diverse forms of public imagination must always form part of any such effort. History - political and intellectual - has a way of reminding us of that.

Dr Uta Staiger, Deputy Director, UCL European Institute

First published as a guest entry in Dr Aarathi Prasad's blog in the Huffington Post, 12 August 2014.