Who can you trust?

Politicians frequently agonise over whether voters find them trustworthy. But the more important que

Trust, David Trimble observed recently, is "overrated and frequently misplaced. The issue in politics is, rather, can you do business with the other side?" The Northern Irish politician was discussing efforts to put the Good Friday Agreement into practice, a process which, in Northern Ireland, has also illustrated that the greater issue is not whether trust is built among politicians, or whether people trust politicians, but whether people trust each other.

That question is overshadowed in public debate by politicians who are more concerned about the degree of trust they themselves enjoy. Thus we hear, expressed frequently and hollowly, concern about loss of public trust and avowals of intention to rebuild it. The emotional undertone to these protestations is that people should feel warmth towards, as well as confidence in, those who govern them. In other words, people should feel the same way about their relationships with those who seek or hold political power as they do about their relationships with each other.

This personalising of civic relations, overestimating their emotional content, then spills over into ideas about relationships within politics. It may underpin views such as one expressed by Jonathan Powell, which sees trust as a means to achieve co-operation rather than an outcome of it (which Trimble was criticising in his Guardian review of Powell's memoir when he made his remark above). But where trust is concerned, relationships among politicians and relationships among people are fundamentally alike. Trust is an expectation that others will incorporate one's interests into theirs, as the American political scientist Russell Hardin insists. Sometimes that will be with love or goodwill; sometimes it will just be business.

By starting off from self-interest, the real value of trust becomes clearer, and so do ways to build it. Throughout history and before it, across geographical and cultural distance, trade has proved its worth as a starting point. One party wants to eat; the second has food to sell. If the buyer pays the agreed price and is happy with the goods, the exchange may be repeated. As the exchanges proceed, mutual trust will develop, opening up possibilities for more extensive co-operation: the buyer may be prepared to make larger orders, for instance, and the seller may offer credit.

Beyond that, the relations between the two of them will be relaxed rather than tense, tolerant rather than suspicious, and cordial rather than impersonal. Much of what is meant by quality of life is expressed in these contrasts. If everyday exchanges typically have these qualities, society is in good shape. The individuals who enjoy these exchanges are also likely to be in better shape. Lives led at odds with those around one, continually stressed and on the defensive, are likely to be not only unhappier but shorter. Stress tells on the arteries as well as the mind.

The chances that any particular exchange succeeds are heavily influenced by the success of everyday exchanges in general. Where suspicion prevails, individuals will find it hard to co-operate no matter how rationally they calculate it would be in their interests.

The sociologist Diego Gambetta describes the failure of taxi drivers in the Sicilian city of Palermo to organise an efficient radio-despatch system, in contrast to their counterparts throughout mainland Italy. In these systems, the despatcher announces the customer's location and nearby drivers report their positions; the job is allocated to the driver nearest the fare. For the arrangement to work, drivers have to trust each other to report their locations truthfully. A driver who frequently claimed to find himself close to customers would arouse suspicion, because, "in Sicily, there is nothing as suspicious as luck".

Eventually the drivers agreed a compromise under which they gathered in car parks to be allocated customers, who paid the price of endemic mistrust in higher fares and longer waits.

Palermo drivers were not necessarily more mistrustful than drivers in other cities, but they were, in fact, less likely to act on their suspicions. Elsewhere, drivers could police cheating by going to announced locations: if they got there before the driver who had claimed the job, they could report him, and he could be punished by disconnection from the radio network. Gambetta suggests Palermo drivers may have been unwilling to check out fellow drivers in case the cheat turned out to be under Mafia protection.

Mafias, however, were not the cause of social mistrust. According to Gambetta, they originally arose as a solution to it. He quotes a rueful 19th-century Naples coachman lamenting that he had bought a useless horse because of the absence of his camorrista (Neapolitan Mafia) protector, who would normally have overseen and guaranteed the transaction. Protection was originally a genuine service, rather than a racket, offered in conditions where levels of dishonesty were so high that buyers and sellers felt unable to make arrangements between themselves.

There are those - particularly, in Italy, to the north - who are inclined to blame this kind of dysfunction on collective character flaws. Others find the roots of dispositions towards trust in culture or patterns of social structure.

Francis Fukuyama notes how Catholicism's fervent invocation of the family can encourage families to trust family members but, in socially adverse conditions, hardly anybody else. The result may be a tense social ecology of mutually suspicious clans. Fukuyama attributes the industrial success of Japan, from among east Asian countries, to the readiness of its companies to form strategic alliances: this, he argues, has its roots in a traditional pragmatism that allowed Japanese families to co-opt competent outsiders into enterprises. By contrast, he suggests, Chinese enterprise is limited by a more rigid adherence to family limits.

Trust is an outcome not just of tradition, but also of policy. Gambetta points to the destructive effects of the Spanish Habsburgs and Bourbons, who controlled southern Italy in the 18th century through "the promotion and selective exploitation of distrust". If their efforts to divide and rule can be blamed for the failure of Palermo taxi drivers to organise themselves efficiently more than a century after Italian unification, it bodes ill for societies whose more recent communist rulers also did their best to prevent citizens from making arrangements among themselves. In Cuba, for example, it may be easier to let a market economy arise than to undo the effects of neighbourhood Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, which enforce party discipline in place of civil society.

In liberal societies, policy tends to be preoccupied with how best to promote healthy social relations between people of diverse outlooks and backgrounds. The political scientist Robert Putnam notes, with regret, that in the United States, the more diverse a locality, the less likely its inhabitants are to say that by and large they trust other people. In highly diverse San Francisco, the figure for people who trust their neighbours a great deal is about 30 per cent; but it is around 80 per cent in a rural South Dakota county where "celebrating 'diversity' means in viting a few Norwegians to the annual Swedish picnic".

There is nothing particularly surprising about such findings. As trust is the expectation that others will take your interests into account, much depends on having confidence in your ability to predict how others will behave. This confidence will be supported by shared culture and norms: if you know that others have grown up with similar ideas about how to behave, you can answer the question of how they are likely to act by asking yourself: "What would I do if I were in their position?"

Without this confidence, people may be discouraged from interacting with those different from themselves.

Diversity and poverty

Nothing in these findings implies that trust cannot be achieved within diversity. Thinking about trust in terms of respective interests suggests the obvious strategy: promote it by minimising conflicts of interest. Since diversity often correlates with poverty, it may require material investment. The larger the cake, the less people's interests in pieces of it will conflict. And it may be just as important to reduce inequality as to reduce deprivation, particularly when inequalities are perceived between groups.

Measures to reduce inequality have to be seen to be opportunities for all, not handouts for some, particularly, for example, where everyday trading relationships are blighted, such as mistrust between customers and shopkeepers from a different ethnic minority and the belief that one is prospering at the expense of the other. The promotion of trust does not sit comfortably with encouraging identity politics.

Even if true, the reports of warmth between Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the Democratic Unionist Party's Ian Paisley affirm that rule. Northern Ireland's agreement for politicians to share power permits their constituencies to share the province while having as little to do with each other as ever. If the politicians trust each other to uphold the deal, it is so their constituents don't have to trust each other in everyday life.

In the province and in cities around the world, trust will develop when people see that it is in their interests to build relationships with others of different cultures. They will have to build on the elements in their cultures that they have in common - which may mean building a new, shared, culture. This does not mean facing in surmountable barriers in human nature, despite what those who dislike diversity frequently imply; just the normal difficulties that arise in any relationships that are worth building. Trust is the reward of self-interest properly understood.

Marek Kohn's "Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good" is published by Oxford University Press (£10.99). He will take part in "Trust in Me?", an event at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London W1, on Monday 30 June

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.


The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.


The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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