David Andress, Professor of Modern History, has recently been awarded £166,657 over 3 years by the Leverhulme Trust for his research project How to Trust: Interpersonal Evaluation & the French Revolution.
How do we know who to trust? With people we know personally, direct experience can help us make up our minds (for good or ill) as to a particular person’s trustworthiness, but in a globalised modern society we cannot possibly hope to extend such personal experiences to all potential encounters. Trust and risk, therefore, continue to form a shaky and problematic partnership, as they have done for centuries.
One solution, adopted from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, was to protect our social interactions within an “armour” of regulation. We came to know that our doctor was professionally registered, and food standards became enshrined in law. This regulation and standardisation continued to develop over time into a whole host of consumer-rights legislation. Of course, such an approach requires people to trust “the authorities” in ways which seem to have become far more problematic in the twenty-first century.
A recent alternative has been to look for guidance in the opinions of others. Online shopping websites are more often than not accompanied by an array of consumer reviews. Some services, like the aptly-named Trustpilot, exist solely to extend such provision to an even wider audience.
Yet it has become clear in recent years that many sellers are “gaming” these systems. If blocked from posting favourable reviews of their own products, they will post negative ones of their competitors, or – in a cunning twist – post clearly fake positive comments on competing items before reporting those sellers as cheats!
Professor Andress’ project returns to the origins of such modern phenomena, and asks whether the shattering experience of the French Revolution – so fundamentally grounded in issues of public and personal trust – can tell us anything about such dilemmas.
France in the latter-half of the eighteenth century was critically short of public trust. At a time when faith in France’s governing systems was crumbling on all sides, the need to deploy decisions about trust in everyday life was pervasive. Upfront cash transactions were almost unheard of, and people at every social level survived on credit both literally (through the extension of financial credit) and metaphorically (by making a social judgment as to the reliability of the debtor).
Revolutionary politics asked the French to extend such social “credit” into the political realm in dramatically new ways. The Revolution created a public sphere run at every level – from the local to the national – by elected officials but then imposed dire ideological divides on top of this.
By the time of the infamous “Terror”, this had resulted in a system where nobody could trust anyone else: a system where this complete breakdown of trust would prove fatal to so many. How this happened, and how France slowly recovered, may have important lessons for our current, trust-deprived world.