Capitalist Modernity And The Dynamics Of Trust – OpEd


In The Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens notes that modernity connects the local and the global in such unprecedented ways that distanciated relations come to form the structural foundation of our immediate experiences. The constitution of a “genuinely world-historical framework of action and experience” indicates the existence of “disembedded institutions,” namely mechanisms that lift the task of coordination from particular locales to impersonal systems. In this way, our existence becomes tied to absent others. Absence is closely linked to trust: “There would be no need to trust anyone whose activities were continually visible and whose thought processes were transparent, or to trust any system whose workings were wholly known and understood.” 

Since modernity involves the encoding of absence in social structures, it is essential that the existential anxiety resulting from such a form of organization be warded off. Giddens locates the basis for such a mechanism of containment in the psychological features of infancy. Through the establishment of day-to-day routines, the caretaker is able to create a bond of mutuality and involvement with the child. Once the infant comes to see others as reliable, they are not troubled by their absence. “Trust in the reliability of nonhuman objects, it follows from this analysis, is based upon a more primitive faith in the reliability and nurturance of human individuals.” If this kind of mutual attunement isn’t carried out during childhood, then the resultant adult personality will display an inability to believe in the stability, self-identity, and continuity of the world. “For basic trust in the continuity of the world must be anchored in the simple conviction that it will continue, and this is something of which we cannot be entirely sure.”

The dilemma that Giddens articulates is one between the hyper-objectivity of tradition and the hyper-subjectivity of modernity. While the former elevates norms into unquestionable rules that precede the normative attitudes of individuals, the latter treats norms as mere projections of our normative attitudes with no practical significance. Giddens resolves the conflict between the two outlooks through the foregrounding of habits as the instrument through which an individual can gain ontological security. However, his account of infancy is over-optimistic. If the child enjoys a relationship of intersubjective harmony with their caretakers, then what is it that accounts for their further progression into the social world? Why doesn’t the infant choose to live in the private paradise of ontological security? This is explained by the disharmony of infancy – the child sees others not as persons of integrity but as sources of inhibitions erecting barriers to its fantasy of self-sufficiency. Reality announces itself not as the gentle touch of trust but as a slap in the face. It is only when the infant is able to relinquish its feeling of omnipotence that it acquires the capacity to form connections with others. 

Trust in others is paradoxically sustained by a prior moment of distrust, wherein I am forced to deal with the alienating presence of socio-symbolic forces and confront the failure of my invincibility. It is only because my security has been undermined and I am uncertain about the reliability of the Other that I take an interest in wider areas of my situation. If I was hermetically sealed in the certainty of trust, I would have no motivation to deepen the details of my life through practices of experimentation, questioning, discussion, etc. In other words, trust without distrust is the fantasy of authoritarian harmony, which eliminates any space for agency. Only when the infant realizes that its security has been disturbed by an uncontrollable Other does it start interacting with the world to fulfill its desires. 

Giddens ignores the foundational role of human insecurity by deeming it a destabilizing form of existential angst that has to be interned in the coils of routinized trust. This analytical error is founded upon the fetishistic misrepresentations operated by capitalism. Under capitalism, the commodity exists both to be used and to be exchanged. However, the use-value and exchange-value of the commodity are mutually exclusive: “this phenomenon can be seen in the fact that a house cannot be lived in and ‘exchanged’ simultaneously – that’s why realtors ask tenants to leave when they are showing the house to prospective buyers.” Since the commodity’s concrete existence as my object of consumption and abstract existence as a priced commodity are made incompatible by the capitalist system, the divide between subjective attitudes and objective structures becomes entrenched. 

While the buyers and sellers are social actors exchanging their commodities according to market-determined values, the consumer is a private individual concerned only with the singular usefulness of their commodity. “Hence, commodity buyers and sellers understand themselves to be private minds in the public sphere”. Due to the constitution of capitalism as a social order inimical to swathes of humanity, structures become hubs of stability to which the individual’s existential uncertainty has to subordinate itself. Consequently, trust exists for trust’s sake, for the mechanical reproduction of ontological security. Meanwhile, our private individuality becomes an abstract atom with no distinguishing properties, fashioning in the glitter of marketized diversity without any awareness of its subjugation.  

Philosophically, capitalist trust corresponds to the maintenance of the binary between crude realism and crude conceptualism. The realist view asserts that the objects that underlie our conceptual representations or subjective attitudes are more important because words must have a referent in reality if they are to be useful. The conceptualist perspective maintains the priority of subjective attitudes – concepts and discourse – vis-à-vis things, since objective reality is meaningful only if it is recognized in language. Capitalist trust is the contradictory co-existence of both the views: structures of private production congeal into hefty chunks of immobile reality while our private domain of consumption appears as a free-floating reservoir of subjective attitudes. 

This binary view suggests that the only option to capitalist trust is an extreme form of subjectivity, where all norms break down, depriving everyone of their rights. However, this apocalyptic scenario is repudiated by dialectical materialism, which emphasizes the reciprocity of the individual and the social. Society exists because it’s impossible to live in the complete isolation of pure independence. Independence is always dependent on the actions of others. Since we can never achieve a transparent state of absolute completeness, we try to fill the void of incompleteness with the help of incredibly complex detours through society. In the words of Fabio Vighi, “we are always connected with the social precisely because we are split, i.e. because we are never really connected with ourselves…Social and cultural exchanges are in the end correlative to our attempts to deal with the impossibility of true communication, which is why the fundamental limit of the human condition (the fact that we are split, unable to connect with ourselves) is also its condition of possibility.” 

In a dialectical materialist schema, trust is linked not to the blindness of faith but to the critical consciousness of distrust. Once we understand the rational links between society and individuality, we trust others not because they are coherent figures of identity but because they are chaotic receptacles of existential void like myself. Others’ incompleteness makes their personality uncertain and hard to understand, so I approach them with a sense of cautious curiosity. Instead of trying to restrain unfamiliarity, a communist cherishes it without its subordination to a pre-determined goal. 

Whereas as capitalist trust declares that the fall of ontological security will only lead to anarchy, dialectical materialism argues that the resultant insecurity can itself function as a form of positive identification. The criterion of success/completeness can be replaced with failure/incompleteness. It is the very failures of history (its limitations, contradictions, blindspots, etc.) that drive history forward. Success is not a ready-made framework of identity that guarantees our security. On the contrary, security is nothing apart from the historical process of failures through which we gain greater determinateness in our relationships. 

The open-endedness of the trust that arises out of distrust doesn’t mean that we are forever doomed to the pursuit of incoherent and unfocused projects. Rather, it means that the relationships that we will forge based on the exploratory outlook of human indeterminacy will possess far greater depth than the ones we create under the pressure of capitalist ontological security. Take Roronoa Zoro, a character from the Netflix series “One Piece,” for example. At first, he’s a formidable pirate hunter who’s unreflectively ensconced in his own business. But things change when he’s arrested for standing up to the son of a corrupt Marine captain who mistreated a young girl. Monkey D. Luffy, the main character who values piracy not for its exploitative opportunities but for its freedom, is impressed by Zoro’s kindness and sets him free, even though he knows the latter is a pirate hunter. 

Zoro, despite his initial denial of any obligation to Luffy, is also inspired by Luffy’s determination to pursue dreams without restrictions. Over time, his skepticism turns into trust, and he becomes friends with Luffy, joining the Straw Hat Pirates and embarking on risky adventures together. We can observe how a moment of deep distrust – between a pirate hunter and a pirate – transforms into a tightly structured dynamic of trust wherein the persons involved dedicate themselves to the fulfilment of their dreams. Ontological security plays no role here; everything is determined by the explosiveness of distrust, which jolts people of their dogmatic slumber of trust and exposes them to the disturbing uncertainty of others. 

This uncertainty paves the way for the creative interaction and interpretation of desires, in which the mutual insecurity of individuals, the ceaselessness of their boundary-defying dreams, constructs a clearly delimited socio-normative perspective. In this case, the looseness of the initial moment of distrust is inextricable from the almost mechanical coldness of Zoro, who spares no efforts in using his swordsmanship to defeat enemies. A similar rule applies to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which uses all the democratic energies of the masses to suppress any counter-revolutionary opposition to the communist project. In this sense, the dynamism of distrust can be sustained only through the subsequent construction of a psychic environment wherein individuals can recognize each other’s indeterminacy and materialize it in the form of creative failures. 

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]. He has published more than 250 articles on social, political, economic, and cultural issues. He is the author of the book "Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia".

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