Society’s ‘invisible bonds’ come into the light

Dr Neal Curtis looks at all the points of implicit trust within society, and how Covid-19 is revealing how important this trust is

As I stood in the queue to get into our local supermarket it was encouraging to see how carefully people were engaging in social distancing to minimise the spread of coronavirus. Admittedly, it was a beautiful sunny morning and we are still only a few days into the lockdown, but everyone seemed to be stoically accepting the inconvenience, with many in decidedly good spirits.

Speaking to the woman stood two metres behind me, it dawned on me just how much more aware of her I was than if this were a normal visit under usual conditions. My awareness of her did not stem from any sense of threat or danger, but from the recognition that as I was thinking about her, she was thinking about me. Curiously, our practice of distancing had actually brought us closer, not physically, of course, but in terms of being mindful.

Ordinarily I would get through the shopping as quickly as possible. I would no doubt need to exercise some form of etiquette to let another shopper pass in a crowded aisle, but awareness of being connected to that person would be minimal, if non-existent. That seems quite different now.

In a 1987 interview for Woman’s Own, Margaret Thatcher famously declared "there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and their families". In saying this, she was drawing together words from two of her favourite thinkers, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Her claim was, of course, just another way for her to justify ‘rolling back the state’, depleting public services and embarking on widespread asset sales and privatisation, but she was also making a more significant moral claim about an absence of both dependency on and responsibility for others.

I am struck that if there were only self-reproducing and self-sufficient individuals and their families, the current situation would be much less of a problem. Wouldn’t we all just be carrying on, untouched by what is going on around us? The crisis, aside from the very grave dangers of the virus and the risk to life, is in fact heightened precisely because we are all interconnected and dependent on each other. This is not just to do with the corporate sector continuing to function, but a whole set of social institutions relating to health, education, transport, and communication (official and interpersonal) that support the complex functioning of our daily lives.

We have also become increasingly aware of jobs that are done in the background, the importance of which we regularly fail to register. It is different now. Consequently, I’ve been thinking about a little book by Geoffrey Hosking called Trust: Money, Markets and Society. This is a book whose brevity and diminutive size belies the importance of its argument. What I believe the current crisis has brought into relief or revealed like lemon juice on invisible ink is what Hosking calls "unreflective trust". By this he means the amount that we do in fact depend on others without consciously acknowledging it.

Talking about travelling by air, he writes: "Which of us before boarding an aircraft, demands to see the pilot’s qualification to fly it, or checks every rivet, joint and fuel duct in it? Or even the competence of the engineers responsible for maintaining and repairing those parts. Obviously we do not. Yet our lives depend on the impeccable working order of every one of those parts, and on the skill and conscientiousness of the engineers. The fact is we take them on trust because everyone else does so and because aeroplanes very seldom crash. Besides, to do otherwise would require us to have time and skills we don’t possess. We don’t 'decide' to board an aircraft—we just do it."

In this process, we rely on and trust the workings of society in all its complex, manifold, and interlacing facets. We trust symbolic systems such as the sciences of aeronautics, mechanics, and metallurgy; we trust institutions of regulation and oversight, of teaching and training; we trust corporate health and safety standards; and we trust the media to accurately report risk. Now imagine for a moment just driving through a busy city in the morning and all the points at which your unreflective trust is implicit but absolutely necessary.

"Trust", Hosking argues, "especially unreflective trust is part of the deep grammar of any society. It generates the templates within which people relate to each other, and within which they think and feel about how to face the future". These are society’s "invisible bonds", and while there remains a constituency that wants to belittle and decry the actions of the government, I really hope that something good can come from so many of us beginning to see these bonds.

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