For some years now, we have been living in a highly polarised society, where opposite world views and clashing identities divide us. This division is experienced by most people in the form of deep distrust: distrust in ‘the other’, in institutions, economic agents and banks, political parties and government, law enforcement, experts and the media. Distrust in the media, politics and experts has even become part of the ideology of the alt-right in the United States, where ‘fake news’, ‘corrupt politicians’ and ‘phoney experts’ have become the leitmotif of the presidential narrative.


Nevertheless ‘Trust’ is the precondition for mutual cooperation. Trust made it possible for us humans to create the level of welfare we now enjoy. Trust has been called the “lubricant of cooperation” or “the emotional basis of cooperation.” In turn distrust destroys cooperation. If distrust is complete, cooperation will be impossible.

None of this would have been possible without collective action and solidarity based on trust.

Trust derives from the nature of humans as social creatures, who developed an extraordinary talent to cooperate in very large groups, forging empires, boosting international trade, starting the industrial revolution and developing mind-blowing technologies which saves lives and even lead us into space.

None of this would have been possible without collective action and solidarity based on trust. We live in a period of history in which we need to rely on each other more than ever if we want to address the challenges we are facing.

Avoiding climate change, which can threaten all of humanity, might be the ultimate cooperation challenge we face. Restoring trust will be the key to our future progress.

Going back in time

To understand how we humans have reached this level of cooperation, we must return to our past. Maybe even some 70,000 years ago, when homo sapiens was foraging the plains of Africa. Our ancestors did so in small groups, working closely together. These groups could not have been larger than 150 individuals, the so called Dunbar number, named after the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

He suggested that 150 individuals is the maximum number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relations. In these close relationships you know who each person in the group is and how these persons relate to one another. Because you know these people, you can guess how they will react to certain events, thus minimising risks.

Interdependence in your group was based on trust. Trust in its turn was based on kinship, friendship but mostly on reputation. Reputation was the key element for trust, as it is still the case in small groups of friends and acquaintances. To trust someone, you needed to know his of her reputation.

Beyond the Dunbar number, you haven’t got a clue as to who is who, what their motives are, and how he or she will react to certain events. It would be impossible to trust these ‘outsiders’. The risks would be too high, so cooperation is impossible. For roughly 100,000 years humans lived in this situation, only trusting their own group members, seeing others as potentially dangerous outsiders.

A lizard might learn how to fly through genetic evolution, but it takes millions of years. We learned how to fly much faster by working together and building airplanes.

The cognitive revolution

In his now famous book ‘Sapiens’, the Israeli historian Noah Yuvah Harari writes: “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans, is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.” This all changed some 70,000 years ago, when humans found a way to extend ‘trust’ – and therefore mutual cooperation and solidarity – beyond the Dunbar-number of 150.

He calls this enormous leap in human development the ‘cognitive revolution’. What we did was fantastic and opened up whole new possibilities. We used an extraordinary talent humans have: our imagination.

Humans used their imagination to create common myths and imagined worlds, which were able to unite millions of strangers. It made it possible for us to “change” our behaviour much faster than through natural evolution. A lizard might learn how to fly through genetic evolution, but it takes millions of years. We learned how to fly much faster by working together and building airplanes.

Modern day critics of religion tend to say that religions create divisions amongst people, but their original purpose was just the opposite: to create unity amongst large groups of people, by giving them common goals and rules.

Probably the first of these ‘myths’ are still well known: religions. Their purpose is to create common rules for large communities. The Judeo-Christian tradition for example has its Ten Commandments, stating for instance that you don’t steal from one another or “bear false witness against thy neighbour”. Even if you don’t know your neighbour very well, if you both accept the same moral code of the Ten Commandments, you know that these rules apply to the both of you. It builds trust and creates safety.

Modern day critics of religion tend to say that religions create divisions amongst people, but their original purpose was just the opposite: to create unity amongst large groups of people, by giving them common goals and rules. These rules are by no means natural. In reality humans, like other animals, do steal. And even when the Ten Commandments state that “you shall not desire your neighbours wife”, in reality, humans, like other animals, do have these desire sometimes and even act on them.

But now the group had rules, and those who violated the rules, could be punished. These punishments or sanctions in their turn, create security or, as we would call it today: legal security.

Creating Laws and Rights

Indeed, present day legal security derives from laws and regulations, rules we imagined to make large groups or communities work peacefully together. In their turn they are all based on imagined ‘superpowers’ who made these laws. First by Gods, but later on Monarchies and now Democracies. None of these institutions exist in the natural world, they are all created by our imagination.

One of the oldest sets of secular rules is the famous Law Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian King who lived nearly 4000 years ago. It is very detailed, dealing for example with matters of contract, establishing the wages to be paid to an ox driver or a surgeon. In this way you could trust a complete stranger to pay a fair price for a ride with your ox wagon. Or, in modern terms: setting a fixed price for a doctor’s visit is necessary if you want to trust your doctor. Hammurabi’s Code is also the earliest example of the idea of presumption of innocence.

Again, imagined rules created trust amongst large groups of people. The same principle accounts for our modern laws, or even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In theory everyone threatened by war or oppression should be able to trust upon the fact that he or she can find a safe haven in another country.

In theory I say, because we know that some political groups are questioning the Universal Declaration of Human rights, and so undermining trust amongst the world community of humans.

The financial crisis and restoring trust in banks

A major binding institution in our society is something we take for granted: money. It does not exist in the natural world and is therefore imagined. It is a symbolic representation of value, solely built on trust. If I give you a piece of paper on which the figures one, zero, zero (100) are printed, you trust upon it that other people will believe it is worth a hundred euro. It is not, it is just a piece of paper, but its value is built on trust. That’s why we get very angry when this trust is violated. Remember the banking crisis, where major banks created monetary bubbles – based on value which did not really exist? We lost trust in the banks and for almost ten years the political discourse in the European Union was all about “restoring trust” in the banking sector by imagining new regulations.

A lot of our modern day conflicts concern this issue of trust. If we want to be able to solve them, we should be well aware of the extreme advantages of large scale human cooperation. Without it we would never have been able to build our industries, to develop new cures for diseases, to create the internet or to fly to Mars. We would still be foraging the plains of Africa, killing competing groups of humans. Politicians who feed on distrust are undermining human development and welfare and lead us on a dangerous path to the past.

Evolving worlds

The tricky part of our capability to create imagined realities, is that they are never written in stone. What worked yesterday to build trust, does not necessarily mean that it works today. This means that we are constantly trying to find solutions for new challenges.

The imagined realities we create, are like the two sides of a medal. What unites people can in time become a source of division. When I told you that religion was originally a ways of uniting large groups by offering them the same moral rules, it now has become a source of division.

In a world where easy and cheap transportation and communication technology increased migration, and people of very different religions with very different sets of rules are living next to each other, trust is in danger of fading away. Solidarity and cooperation are becoming more difficult. Restoring trust then means that we need a new paradigm, a new set of rules suited for the world of today and tomorrow.

It has always been like that. In Hammurabi’s Code of Law for example punishments depended on your status or class. For the same offence a slave would receive a more severe punishment than a free woman, who would in turn be punished harder than a free man.

Today this rule seems outrageous. In our new imagined set of rules, all people are equal. But you do see the tendency to create new categories of people: fugitives versus people belonging in and to the nation state. The latter, it is said, should have more rights than the former. The question is valuable and points to the new challenges we are facing, proving again that rules are not written in stone and we should constantly adapt the basis of trust.

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Cultural identity, the nation state and Europe

The harsh discussions we are facing today, are all about the group we belong to and in which we can trust: the nation state and our cultural identity, both – again – are fruits of our imagination. Nation states are a recent phenomenon, dating back only to the 18th century. It is argued that nation states arose to enable large-scale cooperation in war struck Europe. Europe’s most successful ruler of the time was able to gather an army whose size was vast in comparison to any other previous army in world history. To do that, he used identity and ideology to create a feeling of togetherness. Of course Napoleon’s enemies needed to do the same thing, otherwise they would not be able to match an army of 600,000 men. And so nation states with specific cultural identities came into being. They provided security and unity in a still much divided Europe.

This division led to the most horrific wars Europe has ever known, and the solution to this was not more, but less division. We did that by creating the European Union, evolving towards a set of post-national rules unifying the peoples of Europe, creating an even larger scale of cooperation. The Union is not God given or imposed by a monarch, it is forged through democratic means. The question we face today is: do Europeans trust the European Union? The rise of nationalist and populist parties, the Brexit referendum, or even the undermining of the rule of law in countries like Poland or Hungary all point towards a deep distrust in the European Institutions.

In September last year the Dutch newspaper Trouw asked Thomas Piketty if democracy could exist outside the frame of the nation state. “To share the burden of debt with Greeks and Italians,” the journalist said, “you have to be sure that things will get better in these countries. But we can’t trust in that.”

Again: Trust.

Piketty answered: “Loyalty and trust are things that can be built, as history proves. Solidarity is never something natural. People living in the Paris area are not by their very nature more capable of solidarity with people from the Limousin in the South of France, than with those from Catalonia in Spain. Solidarity is a construct.”

What Piketty was saying, is that limiting solidarity and trust within the borders of the nation state is not a law of nature. Indeed, to be able to trust the Greeks and the Italians, we must be sure we all play by the same rules. That is why deepening the European Union is a must if we want to be able to trust one another and to collaborate.

The Union is, let’s say, half a century old and it is not a finished project. But is does answer major challenges we face in an interdependent world. Answers which could never be given by the nation state, for example in questions on international crime and fraud, climate change, trade and so on. A Union this size cannot be built on cultural and ethnic identity, as these differ too much to form the basis of belonging.

The discussion is still ongoing, but we are evolving towards a European identity built on civil rights, democracy and the rule of law, where sharing these basic values should be the pillar of social trust, cooperation and solidarity. We see this evolution happing right now, when the European commission is initiating infringement procedures towards Poland for breaking the rule of law. How can we trust Poland if the Polish government plays by a different set of rules? Can we trust Poland because of Polish identity, or because we share the same civil and legal values and rules?

With this I am not saying that cultural identity does not exist or has no value at all. It does. But we must be aware of the fact that the cultural identity of a group is not a natural law and that it changes. It even mixes with foreign influences.

In 2014, to give you a pleasant example, the Flemish community recognised the frietkotcultuur, the chips shop culture, as a part of its cultural heritage, making it a part of Flemish cultural identity. Wallonia did it two years later, which could make us wonder if fries are Flemish or Walloon. We should also be aware that fries are a way of preparing potatoes, a product which arrived from South America in the sixteenth century. Being a curiosum or used as cattle feed for more than two centuries, in the 19th century most probably a creative Walloon tried to fry them in fat, thus inventing the fries. Fries only exist for 4 or 5 generations, but are now part of our cultural identity. If we would have told Robert of Béthune, The Lion of Flanders, that fries were part of his cultural identity, he would not have known what we were talking about. He would not even have had a clue of what a potato was.

The fries story shows how powerful symbols of our imagined identities evolve and how we constantly create new imagined worlds to cope with our present reality and to rebuild trust amongst people.

The Betrayal of Trust

Our unique cognitive abilities, which made it possible not only to exchange information but to build imagined worlds, made the difference for humans. The key was and still is: building trust. Or as the Flemish philosopher Diederik Aerts posted recently on his Facebook wall: “Indeed, I do believe more strongly than ever before that ‘trust’ is the most important substance for ‘the good life’ to be able to flourish.”

The betrayal of trust is therefore dramatic for most people. Not only in interpersonal relations, but also when public trust is broken. We feel deep resentment when we learn of doctors performing unnecessary surgery on elderly people in order to gain profit, of multinationals like Volkswagen or Monsanto which are fooling us with defeat devices in their cars, or falsifying scientific research, or of corrupt politicians and judges who accept illegal bribes. Those who betray public trust inflict serious harm to the heart of civil society. It is this assault on trust, much more than the simple illegality of the act, that makes us angry.

If ‘trust’ can be ‘made’ by creating imagined realities like laws, human rights or economic regulations, then this puts a great responsibility on the shoulders of those who make these laws and regulations and see to it that they are enforced. It is therefore shameful that populist and nationalist movements throughout Europe are deliberately provoking distrust, hence destroying the fundamental basis of cooperation and solidarity.

The objective of trust is to answer deep concerns which make people feel vulnerable and uncertain. The agents of distrust are doing the opposite, fostering vulnerability and uncertainty. They do so by creating an atmosphere of fear of the unknown.

As one of the participants in a poll by the newspaper De Standaard[2] in September last year said: “Fear is ultimately the absence of trust. (…) Security then is the reassurance that your fears will not become true.”

The marketing firm Edelman found in a recent report that ‘trust’ is in crisis in many countries. More frightening is that people trust ‘others like them’ or ‘their peers’ more than institutions, meaning that we are moving back to reputation based trust. Trust based on our imagined worlds, our institutions, laws and rules, is under threat. “People are taking authority back from institutions they no longer trust,” it is said. Populism is exactly that. It is the case in the US, as it is in the UK with Brexit.

It is our duty as progressive politicians, not only to rebuild trust in the institutions – government, the media, experts – but to offer trustworthy solutions for present day challenges.

Rebuilding trust in the institutions is therefore vital.

In my opinion progressives should not only accept the challenge, but are best placed to act. That is because ‘trust’, according to George Lakoff’s theory on the difference between conservatives and progressives, is a basic progressive value. According to Lakoff people make decisions based on their value systems, who in their turn go back to basic family values. For conservatives these are authoritarian values. In these families children are not trusted, and need to learn the rules in an authoritarian way. Progressives on the other hand build their values on the concept of the nurturing family, in which trust, honesty and open communication are key elements. In these families cooperation is important. This is the reason why distrust is more present in conservative voters than in progressive voters, and fear for the unknown is less important for progressive voters than conservatives.

It is our duty as progressive politicians, not only to rebuild trust in the institutions – government, the media, experts – but to offer trustworthy solutions for present day challenges. This means that we need the courage to rewrite our imagined worlds, creating new narratives for the future which can unite people in a world of greater diversity and a planet under threat. We need to set new common goals, like fighting climate change, reforming our economic model, making it sustainable and circular in the service of the many, not the few.

Like the famous American developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, working at the Max Planck institute in Germany said: Humans are unique for their capacity to form joint goals for large groups, creating a uniquely human sense of ‘we’. We need to overcome the divisions in society and re-imagine a new ‘We’. Only then shall we be able to cope with the global challenges which threaten the future of humanity.

The lecture was given on Tuesday 27th of February 2018 in deSingel (Antwerp) as part of The eighth lecture series Studium Generale – Chair Kinsbergen, an initiative of Artesis Plantijn University College Antwer


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