Edward Banfield, an American anthropologist, did his foundational fieldwork in southern Italy in the mid-1950s. He gave the fictitious name ‘Montegrano’ to the village where he lived for nine months.

Banfield was drawn to Montegrano because it posed a puzzle. While the farmland wasn’t exactly rich, it was well capable of supporting a decent life for the three and a half thousand people in the area. But those who lived there were desperately poor. They knew what was needed to improve their lot—better schooling, better roads, and so on. But they seemed unable to take the steps together that would improve things, either by lobbying government elsewhere for help, or by solving the problems themselves. Banfield’s question was why. What accounted for the political incapacity of the village?

Banfield’s thesis was put forward in the title of his book; The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958). Montegranese society was “backward,” in a term that is questionable now, because of its moral basis. By that, he meant the moral code the Montegranese lived by, the ideas of what appropriate behaviour looks like. This was not the only impediment to the village’s development, but it was central. He argued that the people of Montegrano followed this rule: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; and assume that all others will do likewise.” Or, in more natural language: look out for your own. Banfield called someone who followed this rule, an “amoral familist”—loyal to their own, but amoral towards outsiders.

It is easy to see that amoral familists do not trust each other. And this was the heart of the problem facing the Montegranese. Because they did not trust each other, they did not cooperate, and this kept them poor.

Some examples: The half-employed stone masons in Montegrano did not help repair the crumbling walls of the local monastery, where nuns looked after the village’s orphans. This would involve giving your time and work away for free, and others might not contribute.

Because of this assumption, the only people who were expected to do anything that would benefit the village generally were the public officials—bureaucrats and elected politicians. But the same people were viewed with suspicion. “They get the office, and then they look after themselves,” one merchant said. “Some take office so as to be able to say, ‘I am the mayor.’ But really there isn’t much honour attached to an office; people here don’t even respect the President of the Republic. The mayor wants to be mayor so that he can keep the population down.”

As you would predict—in a context where public office was assumed not to be performed on the basis of public service—there was corruption. The principal businessman was trying to build a cinema. But he needed a permit to do so. “If I took an envelope with $160 and slipped it into the right pocket, I would have my permission right away,” he reported. “It’s the yellow envelope that gets things done.”

The consequences of amoral familism did not affect the public sphere only. It also poisoned economic relations. When asked whether they would rather own eight hectares of land or sharecrop forty, nearly all peasants preferred the former, though sharecropping for a landlord would offer more than double the return to the peasant. One explained: “If you are an owner, you do not always have to worry that tomorrow your half may not be yours.”

A last observation shows again how serious the problem was, this time from politics. Mussolini’s fascists had been popular in the village in the 30s and 40s. The reason was understandable, for the fascists promised order. In a context where public administration was captive to private interest, the peasants needed the law to be enforced.

Why is Montegrano relevant to us today? It is often customary, in writing about trust, to start by referring to some recent scandals in which trust is betrayed, often with public consequences. The financial crisis of 2008, which was shot through with misplaced, betrayed and missing trust, launched a decade of this. In the UK—my own immediate context—the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 added fuel to the fire. But the reality is that public crises like this have only indirect effects on daily life. For many, it is difficult to imagine a society and a life in which the working assumption is that other people should not be trusted. Montegrano matters because it makes vivid what a low-trust society feels like. It gives us access to an alternative way of experiencing the world, one in which self-protection is the order of the day.

Is this just a hypothetical possibility now, however? There are some reasons to be concerned that it may not be, which I at least find unsettling. One of the central trust-related issues we face right now arises from the possible effects of political polarisation. Banfield’s work helps to explain why.

Political polarisation

In conditions of political polarisation, the centre loses ground to the extremes. The landscape of political debate shifts to a situation in which larger numbers of people have consistently opposed political viewpoints. While a long view will recognise that there have been times of intense political conflict in democracy’s 20th Century heyday, political polarisation has significantly increased in recent years. An effect of polarisation is that it enables you to think tribally. As Andrew Sullivan has described it, “One of the great attractions of tribalism is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on.”

But tribal and polarised attitudes are poison for trust. In one study (Waytz et al), both Israelis and Palestinians were asked a series of questions about why they thought a particular act of violence—of Israeli against Palestinian, or the reverse—was committed. The finding was that Israelis explain violence by another Israeli as being motivated by love for their own rather than hate for Palestinians. And they are more likely to explain violence by Palestinians as motivated by hatred for Israelis rather than love for Palestinians. Palestinians’ explanations showed the same pattern, with the identities reversed. The study found the same pattern for Democrats and Republicans in the USA. One’s own side is understood to act out of love; the enemy acts out of hate.

Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being stumbled over. It is a more complex matter for humans, it seems. When it’s a member of a group we dislike, we do not trouble to ask whether it was a stumble. Instead, we just assume it was a kick.

The problem for trust is clear. When we wonder whether to trust someone, we consider two things: the competence, and the good will, of that person. Both matter. But the other person’s good will is arguably the more important. If you are optimistic that the other likes you, or respects you, or is committed to doing the right thing, then trust follows easily.

Political polarisation is so destructive for trust, then, because of the suspicion about motives that it creates. The connection with Banfield’s “amoral familism” is surprisingly direct. Amoral familists seek to maximise the short-run, material gain to their nuclear family, and assume that others do likewise. Those in the grip of political polarisation seek to maximise the short-run, political gain of their party or tribal grouping, and assume that others do likewise. In both cases, my default assumption about others’ behaviour undercuts the possibility of me trusting them; likewise, my willingness to maximise my advantage ensures that, if they trust me, I will be willing to betray that trust if it is to my gain. On both accounts, trust dies.

I was initially surprised when I realised this structural similarity between the amoral familists of Montegrano and those in the grip of contemporary political polarisation. But perhaps I should not have been. Andrew Sullivan, again, suggests why. Tribalism “is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience. It comes more naturally to us than any other way of life.” This seems correct. What it suggests, however, is that our default way of experiencing the world—the high-trust conditions assumed by a large-scale, market-based, democratic societies—is an historical exception. The experience found in Montegrano in which you look out for your own is much closer to the human “normal.”

Will political polarisation mean that we become poor? Not immediately. For some years, when given a list of occupations and asked who you trust and who you don’t, politicians have come at or close to the bottom, along with journalists. Yet developed democracies seemed to bump along happily enough.

Some features of our situation are new, however, and suggest that this will matter in the long-term. For one, there is evidence from the US that political polarisation is now affecting the ability of ordinary citizens to engage with each other on issues which are politically significant—which is an expanding category. Majorities of Americans are now not confident that others will cast informed votes in elections (57 to 43 per cent), or that they can have civil conversations with people who have different views from theirs (58 to 42 per cent; Pew, 22 July 2019). For another, a polarised electorate puts a different kind of leader into office: one who is engaged in zero-sum conflict, rather than seeking negotiated solutions.

Over time, these attitudes have consequences. The former has effects on the micro-scale, inhibiting trust in the context of individual interaction and civil society. The latter has effects at the macro-scale, through poorer decision-making.

Undoing political polarisation and recovering trust

How do we undo the effects of political polarisation and promote trust? Disentangling the causes and consequences of any major trend is complex. Banfield’s work, for instance, did not adequately address whether amoral familism caused the material poverty and poor institutions of Montegrano, or was itself caused by adverse material and institutional conditions. Material, historical, institutional, and cultural factors all interconnect. Any answer must, therefore, be correspondingly multi-faceted. For present purposes, however, I highlight three important avenues.

First, we need to learn how to handle social media wisely. Beyond the individual imperatives involved in doing so, there are also collective imperatives. It is widely recognised that the drug of anger and collective outrage enabled by social media is having destructive social effects. Institutions need to learn how to use social media wisely, and in particular, to learn when to ignore it. And collectively, closer regulation of the big tech companies is an inevitability. This must go beyond questions of ensuring proper tax is paid or combating fake news, to the social effects of their algorithms.

Second, there is an urgent task for the institutions involved in cultural production to ensure that they are representative. As Roger Eaton and Matthew Goodwin have argued, populism arises not just among those who experience economic insecurity, but also amongst people who are the targets of cultural disregard.

The latter is as significant as the former, and it is the aggregate result of the outputs from our institutions of cultural production—news media, arts, entertainment, academia, politics. These have steadily become populated by, and so cater to the tastes of, those who are tertiary educated, who tend to be cosmopolitan and liberal in outlook, and who may experience a departure from the community they grew up in as a form of liberation. This has been at the expense of those whose outlook is more rooted, locally and nationally, and for whom home is a place to be preserved, the loss of or forced departure from which is experienced as exile. Given this, part of the push to ensure representativeness in media must include the priority for a proper cultural “voice” for the views, hopes, interests, and stories that make sense to those who value rootedness and belonging.

Third, it may ultimately be that the recovery of trust is not something that can be directly forced, but rather, that the best we can do is to set the conditions which enable it to happen. It has often been remarked that trust grows slowly. More subtly, doing so requires a certain kind of stability, in which a set of shared, public norms are reinforced through repeated interaction. Enabling this is one of the functions of the organic boundaries of nation, community, family, and often occupation.

For several decades, however, both culture and policy has pursued increased fluidity—not just in terms of goods and services, but also as it affects people. “Fluidity” for people involves the power to exit relationships, both economic and social, and to adopt new, chosen ones. Such fluidity has been justified at times on the grounds of economic gain, and other times on the grounds of social gain, usually consisting in escape from confined lives or in celebration of the power to choose. There are clear signs, though, that the trade-off between the benefits of such fluidity, and its negative “externalities”—in terms of shrunken communities, divided societies, and isolated lives—is now unbalanced, so that the negative effects exceed the positive.

Redressing this balance involves re-investing in what Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus called the “mediating structures” of society. It will involve policies designed to bring prosperity to people, rather than people to prosperity; paying close attention to how welfare policies and employment conditions affect the ability of those who are least well-off to raise families; migration policies that promote cohesive nations; and rebalancing the education system towards technical, manual, and skilled qualifications over the solely intellectual.

Reining in social media; a culture which places higher esteem on belonging; reinforcing the organic boundaries of nation, community, and family—none of these are magic bullets for rebuilding a culture of trust, but all of them will help. As we face the challenge of repairing the damage to our natural environment, so we have a parallel challenge of repairing the moral and social ecology we bequeath to the future generations. Both require action on many fronts. The sign of success will be when our default attitude to others is not suspicion, but is trust.

Circle Tom

Thomas Simpson

Thomas Simpson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow at Wadham College. In 2017 he was named as one of BBC Radio’s “New Generation Thinkers.” Educated at Cambridge, he completed his BA, MPhil and PhD at the University before returning as a Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex College. Between degrees he served as an officer with the Royal Marines Commandos for 5 years. He served in Northern Ireland; Baghdad, Iraq; and Helmand Province, Afghanistan.