Saturday, 1 December 2018

Who Can You Trust?

William Davies recently sought to explain why we stopped trusting elites. My initial response was to wonder when we ever started trusting them, but I appreciate that I might be a member of a unrepresentative minority on that score. The article did feel suspiciously like it had been shoehorned into the Guardian's over-arching narrative on populism, though Will assured me via Twitter (the power of social media) that this was coincidence (trust but verify is my maxim). I haven't yet read his new book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, from which the article's argument is apparently drawn, but I get the sense from reviews that it doesn't quite make the case that we are living in unparalleled times, and anyway I'm naturally sceptical of any work whose subtitle suggests that anything above the microbial has taken over the world. But these are just quibbles about presentation and the unhelpful framing that publishers often insist on. In his essay Davies makes a series of quite subtle points, though these are a little lost amidst the crowd-pleasing numbers about Trump as performative anti-truth and Brexit as the bastard child of the expenses scandal. There are three ideas worth noting.

First, that illiberal democracy is latent within liberal democracy: "Too often, the rise of insurgent political parties and demagogues is viewed as the source of liberalism's problems, rather than as a symptom". Second, that technology has not democratised the data of public affairs so much as displaced its traditional gatekeepers: "Journalists and whistleblowers were instrumental in removing the pressure valve, but from that point on, truth poured out unpredictably". And third, that what we are living through is a regime change: "But what is emerging now is what the social theorist Michel Foucault would have called a new 'regime of truth' – a different way of organising knowledge and trust in society. The advent of experts and government administrators in the 17th century created the platform for a distinctive liberal solution to this problem, which rested on the assumption that knowledge would reside in public records, newspapers, government files and journals. But once the integrity of these people and these instruments is cast into doubt, an opportunity arises for a new class of political figures and technologies to demand trust instead".

If you put all these together, the essential argument is that liberal democracy is reconfiguring itself in response to a combination of pressures - the negative consequences of neoliberalism, the institutional impacts of new technology, resource depletion and war leading to disruptive migration - and that this response includes testing authoritarian shortcuts like populism and limits on dissent as well as more traditional attempts to control the encroachments of the market and re-assert the utility of the state. The question is whether this amounts to a new "regime of truth", replacing an institutionalised paradigm of expertise and bureaucratic competence that dates from the aftermath of the English Civil War, or if it merely marks another reconfiguration of that paradigm and is thus more akin to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the mid-19th century. While it would be fair to say that the jury is still out, I think there is enough evidence to suggest that the original paradigm is not about to be swept away.

Davies's titular subject is the loss of the public's trust in elites. His opening definition of trust is epistemological: the ability "to believe the same things about reality". I'm not sure that is helpful in this context, essentially because we don't really rely on elites for our fundamental beliefs (cue "Who ya gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes"), but I guess it sets up the citation of Foucault. The argument encompasses "public figures and professionals", but the central characters are politicians: "As the past decade has made clear, nothing turns voters against liberalism more rapidly than the appearance of corruption: the suspicion, valid or otherwise, that politicians are exploiting their power for their own private interest". Given Donald Trump's flagrant venality, I'm not convinced that voters necessarily turn against self-interest in the way that Davies suggests, and nor do I think Trump gets a free-pass because he presents as a "whistle-blower" on corrupt insiders. Corruption may be more damaging for liberal politicians because of the charge of hypocrisy, but it has never been a bar to either electoral success or trust. Indeed, clientelism assumes the two are complementary: you trust your man to advance your interests.

This highlights that there are two types of trust: the transactional (you get what you pay for) and the social (you expect others to act in the public interest). While Davies's argument focuses on the latter, many of the examples of a decline in trust actually relate to the former. The coming to prominence of phrases such as "the British promise" in political rhetoric should be a clue, not to mention the cynicism among the young about the returns on educational investment and the chances of buying property. The growing feeling is that the system is rigged rather than that everybody else is in it for themselves. As the market has advanced into more corners of our lives over the last 30 years it has replaced the social with the transactional. Public figures and institutions thought to embody the values of society, such as MPs, judges and the BBC, may be copping disproportionate blame in a growing climate of mistrust, the causes of which most people find difficult to pin down. Given that Davies has elsewhere described neoliberalism as "the disenchantment of politics by the market", the absence of that word from the article is noteworthy.

The assumed decline of social trust is perhaps a reflection of the decline of the welfare state and specifically the idea of a reciprocal contract. We trust doctors because we assume they have our best interests at heart, and we trust our fellow citizens not to abuse a system of collective insurance. The prominence of stories about hospital abuses and benefit cheats obviously serves an agenda committed to the replacement of welfare with commerce, but it also amplifies the claim that there has been a decline in social trust. As more of our dealings with the state become commercial, or mimic commercial transactions, trust as a presumption of good intentions and social responsibility will inevitably decline. But this reflects a deliberate narrowing of the field of trust between citizen and state rather than a unilateral withdrawal of trust by the former: we are given less opportunity to trust, regardless of our willingness to extend it. As ever, there is a tendency to blame the people for the consequences of a reconfiguration of the state orchestrated by vested interests.

Davies notes that populist practice blurs "the distinctions between different varieties of expertise and authority, with the implication that politicians, journalists, judges, regulators and officials are effectively all working together." There is obvious truth in this observation (the conspiracist charge that "they're all in it together" is almost routine), but I think it also obscures the degree to which the boundaries between different areas of expertise have been deliberately blurred since the 1970s by attacks on the "closed shops" of the professions. Not only has the social authority of these groups been challenged by deregulation but their claims to a local monopoly of expertise have been questioned. The rise of the often opaquely-funded "independent expert" and lobbying groups has been mirrored by a tendency among some professionals, most notably politicians and journalists, to insist that they possess sufficient expertise to encroach on other professions' turf. Michael Gove's famous "experts" quote is important here because the bit that few remember was a specific attack on others, not a blanket rejection of expertise: "I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong". In other words, "trust me".

A starring role in the decline of public trust in politicians is given in Davies' analysis to the 2009 expenses scandal, and a straight line is drawn from this to the 2016 EU referendum. The impression given is that disgust over MPs' snouts in the trough led to a backlash: "One of the decisive (and unexpected) factors in the referendum result was the number of voters who went to the polls for the first time, specifically to vote leave". The problem with this interpretation is that the increased turnout in 2016 was actually a return to turnout levels seen in general elections in the 1990s. In other words, the decisive leave votes were likely to have come from older people who fell out of the habit of voting, not from those who had never voted. 2016 was an anti-political vote, but one that reflected a growing disillusionment with the political establishment since the millennium. I suspect the expenses scandal simply confirmed an already low opinion of the political class. Its prominence in Davies' history owes much to the idea that it "set a template for a decade of elite scandals" based on the leaking of insider data. Key to this model is not just the appearance of a leaked archive but "one that, crucially, does not depend on trusting the secondhand report of a journalist or official".

The idea that the growth of data archives, easily leaked to the public domain and amplified by social media, has eroded public trust is questionable. The number of people with the interest, patience and technical capability to exploit modern digital archives is probably no greater today than it was 50 years ago when such archives were based on paper, magnetic tapes and microfiche. If there is a greater appetite for tales of wrongdoing, that is not the result of new technology. While there is a lot more data today, there does not appear to have been an increase in the shock-value of revelations. In other words, there has been a quantitative growth but not a qualitative one. The WikiLeaks "war logs" of 2010 were less consequential in terms of public opinion and official policy than the leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, while the recent Panama Papers revelations were a pale echo of the original Panama Affair of the 1890s. For the materialist case that digital technology has eroded trust across the board to be proven, you'd have to assume a counterfactual in which the non-appearance of this technology resulted in a static or even increasing level of public trust in the professions. It's surely more likely that trust would have declined anyway, and for reasons to do with broader social change.

One of the earliest examples of technological disruption was the phone-hacking scandal, a case of a rogue elite exploiting a new potential that opened up in the 90s, well before the emergence of WikiLeaks and social media. While mobile phones were accused of encouraging solipsism and anti-social behaviour from the mid-80s onwards, their role in the natural history of trust was limited to tales of call-logs revealing extramarital affairs. It was only with the emergence of the News International phone-hacking scandal in 2011 that trust came to the fore, though the discovery that the Dirty Digger's business was unethical and connived with criminals was hardly a surprise to anyone who had read Private Eye at any point since the 70s. The greater damage to public trust was probably the decision of the government to cancel the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, which was set to look at the relations of the press with politicians and the police. You couldn't have scripted a better denouement to reinforce the popular suspicion that "they're all in it together". In comparison, the revelation that MPs illegitimately claimed expenses for second homes, even when it ran into thousands of pounds, seems comically trivial.

Popular disdain for the cupidity and self-interest of our elected representatives is hardly new, and its encouragement as a positive and healthy sign within the polity is a recurrent feature of populism. But that same disdain is also cast in a negative light as part of the critique advanced by anti-democrats ever since the earliest moves to widen the franchise and representation: the mob lack the virtue necessary for public affairs. That prejudice lives on today in the liberal horror at the lack of decorum and respect exhibited by outsider critics of the establishment, and in the patronising contempt for the supposed gullibility of the masses and their insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. As Davies freely notes, trust as measured in opinion polls has been in decline for decades. This is a long-term trend, not an inflexion point or sudden step-change that occurred in the last decade, and is likely to reflect a healthy decline in deference as much as an unhealthy decline in social trust. Caution should also be exercised in relying on polls (such as the Edelman Trust Barometer) organised by lobby groups or commercial firms promoting a view of civil society in which business is deemed as potentially more trustworthy than the state.

As regards trust in politicians in particular, the decline started in the UK at least as early as the Profumo affair, and faith in the wider establishment didn't survive the defection of Kim Philby. You could even argue that trust in the establishment has never really recovered from the First World War. It's also worth considering whether the relative fall in trust for a particular group reflects a change in its standing within the establishment, rather than a more general decline. In other words, less the result of an exogenous change in popular regard than an endogenous reconfiguration of power relations or a reflection of underlying material changes specific to a particular profession. For example, the standing of academics is being eroded by propaganda about close-mindedness and obscurantism as part of an ongoing campaign to commercialise the higher education sector, while print journalism is suffering as its commercial base is legitimately disrupted by new technology (the media inevitably projects its own declinist anxieties onto wider society).

I've been quite picky in my critique of Davies' article but I think it remains a solid argument if you sideline the hell-in-a-handcart litany of woes and ignore the anti-populist and anti-technology flourishes. Despite the photos of Farage, Trump and Murdoch (boo, hiss), the key image is Tony Blair and Bill Clinton clasping hands. This is fundamentally a criticism of liberalism's erosion of its own institutional base in pursuit of a market nirvana: "Unless liberal institutions and their defenders are willing to reckon with their own inability to sustain trust, the events of the past decade will remain opaque to them. And unless those institutions can rediscover aspects of the original liberal impulse – to keep different domains of power separate, and put the disinterested pursuit of knowledge before the pursuit of profit – then the present trends will only intensify, and no quantity of facts will be sufficient to resist". Amen to that.

1 comment:

  1. In many ways the analyses of 'populism' are a bit too wide, and confused by obsessions with 'horseshoe theory' and tarring left and right with the same brush.

    I think what is almost always ignored is that the 'movements' that pol-scientists and pundits ceaselessly observe are in most cases the repository of opinions that were for years associated with the fringes of establishment political parties of the right and centre. UKIP under Farage resembled the Tory Monday Club, and there were plenty of Tory admirers of apartheid right up until its demise. In Germany the predecessors of AfD were asserting themselves in the late 80s and early 90s, and in less stable party systems such as those in France, Italy and the old Eastern bloc, or PR systems like Benelux or Scandinavia, it should be no surprise that the bigoted now choose more focused 'nasty' parties in a time of socio-economic uncertainty.

    If anything I think the present 'crisis' has its roots in the contradictions of right-wing establishment politics. As capitalism develops through crisis and recovery it requires a more 'colour-blind' approach, where, as you've pointed out in regard to political correctness, customers and 'job-providers' are valuable and need to be flattered, no matter what their race, religion, sex or gender orientation. However, in a system where hierarchy and 'divide and rule' is still very important in maintaining the authority and esteem of the propertied, reconciling the liberal and illiberal sides of capitalist politics is proving an almost impossible task.