Privatizing Trust

By Jim Selman | Bio

of the central tenets of my work is that everything happens in a
context of relationship—a shared background of concerns, commitments
and practices—what I call a background of relatedness. We may make
commitments as individuals, but we always fulfill them in networks of
relationships with other people.

The other day I was asking,
“What does it mean for an economy to collapse?” What is the worst-case
scenario of the current ‘meltdown’ and ‘freezing of credit’?
(Interesting that these two most frequently used metaphors, extremes of
‘hot’ and ‘cold’ are referring to the same thing and both are ‘state’
changes.) My conclusion is that the collapse of an economy means people
stop trusting each other and are, therefore, unable to exchange goods
and services using some form of ‘promise’. In other words, we lose a sufficient background of relatedness to do business
based on some symbolic form of exchange such as money. Since people
will always need to coordinate action to survive this means other kinds
of ‘relatedness’ replace that which we normally take for granted in a
healthy economic space. An obvious substitute is bartering, but in a
meltdown, it would probably be focused within a community of people
that one can trust.

When I went to Argentina in 1999, one of
my questions was “What is it like to live in a reality when money isn’t
worth anything  (e.g. 1500% inflation) and people stop trusting the
government and each other?” What I learned (while oversimplified) is
that, in the face of no certainty about the future and not a lot of
background of relatedness, at the level of a society, the result is a
population that learns to live in the ‘now’ and to create and live in tight communities.
The people who are unable to achieve either of these become almost
immobilized by fear and cynical to the point that they lose all
possibility beyond what is already happening. Moreover, commitments
become subordinate to mood and circumstance. In general, new
initiatives become very difficult to launch in the face of a prevailing
resignation that reality is ‘beyond our control’ and, to some degree,
not of serious concern.

In this kind of environment, corruption and black markets become rampant. In fact, one way to look at corruption is as the ‘privatization of trust’.
When you can’t trust the systems and institutions of the society, then
you must seek and do favors for friends or those who may make it worth
your while. Once these kinds of patterns take over (and become a kind
of de facto economy), they displace other values and cultural norms and
are extremely difficult to change, since most people have lost touch
with any possibility that things can change or that they have choices
about the way things are.

How we navigate the coming years may
determine whether this current breakdown will give birth to a stronger,
more economically stable and sensible society or whether we will go the
way of Argentina and many other nations and just resign ourselves to
wait for better times and some mythical leader who will change ‘the way
it is’. I suggest that this is likely, unless a lot of mature,
responsible individuals take on designing new practices, new
institutions and, above all, rebuilding a background of relatedness in which real possibilities can be created and acted upon.

I think that Elders are such people. If not, then who can be? We must clean up this mess before we die.

This means me.

This means you.

This means now.

This means here.

So let’s do it…

© 2008 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.