[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: The trusting self

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John Gray: The trusting self
The Times Literary Supplement, 98.3.27

    THE PROBLEM OF TRUST. Adam B. Seligman. 231pp. Princeton University
    Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley. £20.95. - 0 691 01242 3

    Is moral agency on the wane?

    When trust becomes a central category in social theory and political
    discourse it is a sign that something has been lost. But what? As talk
    of trust has become commonplace, the very idea of trust has become
    problematic. Sociologists have tried to explain trust in terms of the
    notion of social capital - the fund of conventions, expectations and
    shared values that enables societies to renew themselves across the
    generations. But theorizing trust in these terms is not very
    enlightening. It does not tell us how trust waxes and wanes, or even
    what it consists in. If people trust one another more in some
    societies than they do in others, what accounts for such differences?
    How can degrees of trust be measured or compared? Can we even be sure
    that, when we talk of trust, we mean the same thing?

    It is far from easy to identify relationships of trust. Societies
    understand what it is for people to trust one another in different
    ways, and social theorists have not always grasped how strange the
    view of trust accepted by their own societies may seem in others. In
    his lengthy treatise, Trust: Social virtues and the creation of
    prosperity (1995), Francis Fukuyama linked the different ways in which
    societies understand and practise trust with different varieties of
    capitalism. He performed a valuable service by observing that economic
    life in societies in which extending trust beyond kin is rare and
    difficult, such as Italy and China, tends to be organized around
    family businesses rather than around the large corporations that are
    found in Japan and the United States. Among economists who are not
    also historians or sociologists, economic life is often understood in
    terms of the operation of a handful of universal laws. Fukuyama showed
    that, even if we grant the existence of such universal laws,
    particular cultural traditions - of religious belief, family relations
    and so forth - have a no less important role in economic life.

    Yet Fukuyama's account of the role of trust in the contemporary world
    was itself strikingly parochial. When he identified Japan and the US
    as high-trust societies, he articulated an American understanding of
    trust that looks strange from the perspectives of the other cultures
    he discusses. For most Europeans and Asians, America's sky-high levels
    of incarceration and litigation set it apart from all other advanced
    countries, most especially Japan. They see the recourse to mass
    imprisonment in the US as evidence that American life is lacking in
    some of the kinds of trust that are taken for granted in many other
    countries. Similarly, most observers will see the American propensity
    to regulate personal life by legal controls as evidence of a peculiar
    paucity of trust. Consider marriage. Prenuptial agreements may be a
    useful device for managing the financial risks of American marriages;
    but they do not betoken trust between those who sign up to them. In
    fact, outside America, few see prenuptial agreements as anything other
    than surrogates for trust, developed in a culture in which it has
    largely collapsed between men and women. Fukuyama appears not to have
    noticed how bizarre such American efforts to control intimate life by
    legal procedures look from the standpoints of other societies. His
    analysis tells us more about the singularities of American culture
    than it does about the varieties of trust.

    Adam B. Seligman's notable study, The Idea of Civil Society (1992),
    was an inquiry into the history and contemporary uses of the category
    of civil society. It was primarily an exercise in the history of
    ideas, which Seligman deployed to probe the ways in which the language
    of civil society has been appropriated by politicians and social
    thinkers today. Seligman's new book, The Problem of Trust, has a more
    radical and controversial objective. It aims to show that trust is not
    a timeless, universal prerequisite of social life but a distinctively,
    perhaps even uniquely modern, social phenomenon. Seligman recognizes
    that trust is indispensable in modern societies, but contends that it
    is being increasingly eroded. For Seligman, trust is not a solution to
    a generically human problem of maintaining order in society. It is a
    bond between people that develops in modern societies, in which
    individuals have acquired the ability to move between roles.

    In traditional cultures, Seligman tells us, individual behaviour is
    governed by heavily ascriptive roles. Trust is unnecessary in such
    premodern societies, he maintains, because the human agents to whose
    uncertainties trust is a response have not yet fully emerged. It is
    only where there are modern subjects, released from the constraints of
    traditional roles, that trust arises, for only then is it needed. For
    Seligman, the emergence of the modern individual and the development
    of trust go together.

    They also decline together. Seligman's diagnosis of trust in
    contemporary societies is markedly pessimistic. He maintains that, as
    the practice of ascribing responsibility for their actions to
    individuals weakens, the power of social sanctions over personal
    behaviour increases. He sees this danger at its most threatening in
    "postmodern" societies, in which the idea of personal responsibility
    has been delegitimated. Postmodernists hold that the human subject is
    not something given by nature; it is a cultural construction. Human
    beings are not au fond individuals who opt in and out of social
    relationships and groups; they are constituted by those relationships
    and groups. Postmodernists believe that viewing ourselves in this way
    will advance human freedom - that if people understand that neither
    society nor they themselves are unalterable facts of nature, they will
    be freer to alter their lives to suit their needs.

    Seligman argues forcefully that this postmodern "deconstruction of the
    subject" does not work to emancipate the individual from the power of
    society. Indeed, he claims that the postmodernist project of
    dissolving individual agency into a social construction has the effect
    of leaving people less capable of trusting one another - and thereby
    more helpless than ever before to the power of social groups. Trust
    depends on people seeing themselves and others as individual agents
    having responsibility for their actions. In so far as that moral
    self-understanding wanes, so does trust. It is only a slight
    exaggeration to say that, for Seligman, trust is an episode in the
    career of the modern subject, which is no longer possible when the
    moral beliefs which underpinned individualism have ceased to be
    generally accepted.

    Seligman's argument is suggestive rather than demonstrative. It
    proceeds by way of examples, analogies and metaphors rather than
    through the rigorous marshalling and analysis of evidence. At times,
    he appears to suggest a cause-and-effect connection between the
    currency of postmodern ideas and the decline of trust as a
    contemporary social phenomenon. Any such simple causality is
    inherently implausible. Postmodernism is an academic and literary
    ideology; its leverage on any social institution other than the
    academy is slight. Its influence may have made the choice of curricula
    on American campuses more intractably disputed than it would otherwise
    have been. But who can bring themselves to believe that the hermetic
    discourse of postmodern writers has had much of an impact beyond

    It may be true that at the end of the twentieth century we find
    ourselves in a postmodern condition in which no way of life can
    credibly claim universal authority. Perhaps the values of Western
    democracies are not universally authoritative but mark only one way in
    which contemporary societies can achieve a tolerable modus vivendi
    among different ways of life. I think that this is indeed the case.
    But if it is so, it is not because postmodernist ideas have become
    fashionable. It is a consequence of the practical relativization of
    Western values by the growing power of non-Occidental societies, by
    mass media that give access to an unprecedented diversity of cultures,
    world views and lifestyles, and similar changes in the world.
    Postmodernist thinking is not a good guide to these changes.

    Seligman's account of the decline in trust is often highly speculative
    and it is surely not the last word. If relations of trust have become
    less common, the explanation may well be found in such mundane factors
    as the mobility of labour and the impact of new technologies more than
    in changing cultural attitudes to personal responsibility. In that
    case, Seligman is guilty of attaching too great a causal role to
    cultural factors and too little to changes in material conditions.
    Nevertheless, his discursive reflections add up to a deeply
    interesting line of thought. In effect, what he has attempted is a
    transcendental deduction of trust - that is to say, he has asked what
    must be true for it to be possible and concluded that the necessary
    conditions of trust are disappearing in contemporary societies. He has
    gone on to speculate that it is precisely a hypertrophy of the sense
    of individuality which made trust possible that, over time, has made
    trust increasingly difficult to achieve.

    Seligman may have captured a dialectical turn in the ethical life of
    modern individuality, in which the very beliefs that made it possible
    are contributing to its dissolution. If this is anywhere near the
    truth of the matter, there is an irony in the modern development of
    individual agency. The modern individual emerged as traditional social
    roles became less constraining. Ideas of personal responsibility
    strengthened individual agency. In so far as people came to believe
    they were responsible to themselves as individuals, the authority of
    social groups over them was diminished. In this way, a form of ethical
    life which hinged on personal responsibility had the effect of
    emancipating individuals from dependency on others. With the further
    growth of individuality, this species of ethical life came to be
    perceived as repressive. Internal norms and sanctions of conscience
    were experienced as curbs on personal freedom. Any fixed moral norm
    was resented as a constraint on autonomy. But it was the
    internalization of such norms that constituted the modern subject.
    When they were repudiated, the necessary conditions of personal
    autonomy were undermined. And, as Seligman rightly notes, when
    personal autonomy becomes impossible, so does trust.

    Is Seligman also right that as inner, moral sanctions on personal
    conduct lose legitimacy, the external forces that maintained social
    order in a more distant past are making a comeback? Certainly many
    people today classify themselves and others - as they did in
    traditional societies - primarily as members of social groups rather
    than as individual subjects. It does not matter much whether the
    criteria of group membership refer to lifestyle, religious belief,
    economic status, or ethnic lineages. What matters is that the
    predominant relationship between human beings in late modern societies
    is often not that of individuals who trust (or fail to trust) one
    another. Often it is a relation of status and bargaining in which
    trust has little place.

    Perhaps, like the novel, trust may belong to a "bourgeois" sense of
    self, to which the late modern world is inhospitable. But if we are
    entering a world without individual subjects who can trust or mistrust
    one another, it may not be a world of playful, freely floating selves
    like that dreamt of in postmodernist utopias. Instead it could turn
    out to be a world of tribes and gangs, where membership is not chosen
    but fated, and the dominant mode of interaction is not trust among
    individuals but the making of alliances among groups. Post-Yugoslav
    Bosnia and the ethnically riven areas of Los Angeles may be examples
    of how human beings interact in the wake of trust. Adam Seligman's
    impressively thoughtful book suggests that the logic of waning trust
    in the late modern period may be to return the human subject to a
    premodern condition.

    John Gray's new book, False Dawn, is reviewed on page 11.

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