A lot of people are concerned about the loss of “normal” freedoms and rights that have been brought into focus by the pandemic. But I think the breakdown in trust that I see is even more concerning. Ultimately, I believe, this breakdown in trust will lead to the end of free societies, because a free society depends on an atmosphere of trust. Let me explain:
At one level, a free society requires a trust that people and individuals will act with fairness and responsibility towards each other and the wider society. Whenever people are doing stuff together, whether it’s a cricket match or workers’ cooperative, or people driving cars, or a country, there are rules and conventions designed to make it work for everyone. The more people voluntarily follow those rules and conventions the less force and intervention is required. The more people try to get away with stuff, the more police, inspectors, speed cameras, lawyers, judges and jails are required to enforce the laws.
But for most people to willingly do the right thing, they need to trust that the system is fair, that nobody is above the law and that the laws are fair and to the benefit of all the people, not favouring some above others. It doesn’t need to be 100% trust (impossible) just a basic trust that the system on the whole works well enough for them.
For people to trust the system, there must be transparency and accountability – which means that we trust the government and institutions to tell the truth about what they are doing and why, and we trust the media to report it honestly and without bias.The less people trust in the system, the less likely they are to play by its rules and do what the government asks.
And the less the government and power structures trust people to comply with its rules and directives, the more they will use force to enforce compliance. And not only force – they will use big tech to increase surveillance of people’s social media use, where they go, who they talk to, what they say, what internet sites they visit and what they search for.
Back in the late 1980s I witnessed firsthand the breakdown of communism in central and eastern Europe and the aftermath of the 1989 revolutions. Living in Poland in the early ‘90s I realised that one of the major casualties of late communism was a breakdown in trust. For years it had been obvious that what the communist government and institutions said did not match up with the reality that people saw with their own eyes. It was a system built on lies. Not only that, but because the government didn’t trust the people it governed there was a network of secret spies and informants, so people couldn’t trust other people outside their close friendship circles.
Governments that know they are not ruling with the consent and trust of the people will use the age-old technique of “divide and rule” to maintain power. If they can keep people distrustful and divided then they will expend their energy fighting each other rather than the government.
The communist system fell because people were able to overcome their distrust of each other enough to stand in solidarity against the government they distrusted. The movement in Poland that kick started that revolution was even called “Solidarity”.
Unfortunately that solidarity didn’t survive long afterwards (and few people understood why it was important and valuable after communism was overthrown) and the growing divisions in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe meant that a new generation of authoritarian governments rose up.
Now we in the West face a very dangerous situation. For decades, our trust in our own governments and institutions have been undermined by the corrupt influence of capitalism. The revolving door between government and, for example, the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists or the financial sector, meant that government has been acting more in the interests of those industries than in the interests of the people. The media is no longer trusted because it too has been bought by those corporations who want to use it to shape public opinion to vote in governments who are friendly to big business. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the extent to which people now distrust the institutions of science and medicine because of the way the financial interests of Big Pharma has directed what gets researched and what gets suppressed.
At the same time, people like Putin and Trump are actively trying to sow division and distrust through social media, Q-anon conspiracy theories and the constant accusations of Fake News and constant lying. The aim is to create a culture where we can trust nothing and no-one, because this makes us easy to control.
It’s all something that worries me a lot!
But understanding this also gives me a direction – something I can do:
Trust is like the oxygen that a free society needs to breathe, and we are like the trees that can emit oxygen.I can either create more trust or more distrust.
This gives me a lens for how to look at my presence on social media, for example. I won’t pass on stuff on unless I have a very high degree of confidence that it is true and that it is useful. There are certain poisoned wells of information that I will never drink from (people in my social media feeds who have been brainwashed by the various variants of the Q-anon conspiracy cult – and also the Rupert Murdoch press, for example).
Back in the 1970s, the great Russian writer and political dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that there is a strong link between what he called “The Lie” and violence. Violence must always hide its ugliness through The Lie – and The Lie can only govern by way of violence. The answer, Solzhenitsyn said, was not to participate in The Lie. “Let The Lie come into the world, even dominate the world, but not through me”. And he quoted a Russian proverb “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”