The Five Letter Word That Spells the End of Societies
It’s Not “Trump”. So What is It?
By umair haque
Feb 8 2017
What really went wrong for America? Before the demagogues, before the crisis, before decline — there was a general, systemic, and unprecedented loss of trust. In everything and everyone. A loss of trust in institutions, from the government to corporation to the media. A loss of trust in people, from neighbors to intellectuals to fellow citizens. A loss of trust that was like an ice shelf collapsing.
Trust has collapsed. Who do people trust the most? The demagogue. Trust isn’t absolute: they might not love and admire him. The levels of trust are still low. But they trust him relatively more than the media, the government, banks, corporations, intellectuals. And that is the problem.
Trump’s approval rating of 40 some percent is still higher than the trust ratings of every other democratic institution in society. Those hover somewhere between zero and the low thirties.
Only the military is higher — and they don’t play an active role in constitutional democracy. And yes, we’re not comparing like for like. But if we were to, we’d probably find an even sharper divergence — trust is stickier, more enduring, less fickle, than disapproval. What does all this tell us?
You might think: trust isn’t that important. It’s just soft stuff! You can’t touch it or taste it or smell it, like, say, fresh money, a gleaming new car, apps. But trust precedes all those. Without it, the money doesn’t get spent, the goods don’t get made, the investments don’t happen. Do you spend much of yourself on what and who you don’t trust? Your money, at stores? Your time, with coworkers, Your love, with people? Perhaps you see the point. Trust is a kind of capital that precedes money and effort and ideas, financial and human and intellectual capital.
So there is a link. Somehow, suspicious of each other to the last, the American economy has turned extractive: GDP “grows”, while life expectancy falls. Think about that for a moment — it means that extreme capitalism is eating itself, you, me, democracy, the planet, society as we know it.
Why? What is the link between a loss of trust, an extractive economy, and a collapsing society — one where the government itself is turning authoritarian?
What’s a place where there’s no trust? A jungle. Maybe a prison. Choose your metaphor. It doesn’t really matter. The point is the same: without trust, a society can’t be a society. It becomes something else entirely: a place where predators rule. If I can’t trust you, and you can’t trust me, then what else is there left but for us to prey on each other? I can’t trust you, the media, the government. But maybe, just maybe, I can trust people like me — a little bit. Now we fragment into tribes of like for like — and damn the rest of society to take our burdens and our costs. But society cannot function that way: it isn’t just a collection of tribes: that’s a prison, isn’t it? There must be some level of trust that binds people together, or else a society will almost inevitably decay into demagoguery, collapse, and ruin.
Let me explain precisely why.
A society is first and foremost a vehicle for collective investment in public goods. Public goods are the basics of a good life: healthcare, transport, education, and so on, don’t just make people “productive” — they make educated, serene, brave, strong people, who can take risks to do genuinely great things. You’re not going to create the next world wide web if you’re worried about you can’t pay a life-destroying medical bill, for example.
But a society without trust can’t invest in public goods. If you don’t trust your neighbor, your city, state, society, government, and so on, you’ll be obsessed with the cost of “tax dollars”, instead of what social investments yield. Hence, Americans can’t have what the rest of the rich world takes for granted: public healthcare, education, finance. They live profoundly crippled lives: precarious, anxious, afraid. They will never retire, can’t afford to educate their kids, and their incomes have been stagnant for decades. No wonder there is widespread rage.