Who can you trust?
These days it often seems that we live in a world of strangers, and that
'stranger danger' is all around. Everybody is bemoaning the loss of a 'Golden
Age' of community spirit. Meanwhile a stream of new reports, stories and
studies suggests that from the cradle to the grave we are now at risk from
The dangers other people pose can apparently begin even before birth, with
mothers who smoke while pregnant now accused of abusing their fetus. If
a baby manages to escape the smoke-filled womb intact, we are warned that
it will spend its childhood at increased risk of physical, emotional and
sexual abuse from all kinds of adults. Since the experts redefined child
abuse to include everything from being shouted at to being sent to bed with
no tea, it appears that everybody has become a potential abuser.
When they are not under suspicion of child abuse themselves, parents are
constantly warned about the dangers other people pose to their offspring.
Fears that children might be abducted, molested or killed by strangers have
soared (despite the fact that the real number of such crimes has remained
at a very low level). A recent Mori survey revealed that many more children
are now effectively imprisoned by their parents, who are loath to let them
play outside and insist on taking them to and from school. Even when you
have delivered your child into the teachers' keeping, your worries are not
over. Teachers are strangers too. And experts claim that playground bullying
(a category of behaviour now expanded to include pulling a face at anybody
in school uniform) is booming in nineties Britain.
Adult life appears no less full of pitfalls and stranger dangers. Drive
your car, and you can be torn between guilt over polluting other people's
air with your exhaust fumes, and fear of what the potential 'road rage'
sufferer in the next lane might do to you with a monkey wrench. You could
leave the car at home, but that bloke who asks you the time on the bus could
be one of the many psychopaths said to be enjoying the benefits of the government's
Care in the Community policies.
Arrive at work or college, and you can feel yourself besieged by other people
who, if the new codes of conduct are to be believed, are forever threatening
to invade your space with cigarette smoke or harassing hands. Go out to
socialise, and you enter a sexual minefield in which it now appears that
every prospective partner could be a ticking time bomb. And if you survive
all of that and make it to old age, don't bother celebrating. You will still
have to negotiate the apparently growing problem of elder abuse before you
can rest in peace.
Many of these panics might sound like reasonable enough causes for concern
in their own terms. But put them all together and a bizarre pattern starts
to emerge. If you took all of these scares at face value, you would spend
your whole life looking over your shoulder in the expectation that somebody
was about to do you some serious damage. The common message underlying all
of them is that you cannot trust anybody: not your parents, nor your neighbours,
nor your workmates, nor your children. In a world of strangers, nobody is
beyond suspicion, so everybody needs to be kept at arm's length and under
What does this outlook say about you and me? We are, after all, a part of
the same humanity which we are encouraged to hold in such low esteem. The
temper of the times suggests that humanity is little more than a mob of
untrustworthy individuals living by the morals of the veal crate. The implications
of that idea are scarier than anybody you might meet on the bus. If we can
trust nobody, then why should anybody trust us? Indeed how can we even trust
ourselves? We clearly need to give up our independence and seek help from
the experts and authorities.
The assumption that we are all at risk means that we need to be constantly
protected from each other and from the beast within each of us. And who
is going to provide that protection? Step forward the policemen, the magistrates,
and all of the 'caring professionals' who somehow seem to be immune from
the infection which makes the rest of us so untrustworthy. In July, a judge
jailed two parents (who were not even accused of abuse) for daring to 'snatch'
their own children back after the social services refused to release them.
And Derby City Council is making not smoking
a condition of employment for new staff (see page 20). These are increasingly
typical tales of our newly authoritarian times.
The notion that we live in a world of strangers gives a licence to all manner
of outside agencies to intrude further into our affairs. The idea that people
are responsible adults capable of sorting out their own problems together
is under relentless attack from a growing army of counsellors, helpline
operators and other third parties, telling us that we cannot cope without
the special rules and expertise which only they can bring to our lives.
It is enough to make you wonder how humanity ever managed to make it out
of the dark ages BC - before counselling.
The sense of general suspicion in society also extends an open invitation
for everybody to spy on everybody else and report them to the authorities.
The Labour Party now wants the courts to let neighbours give anonymous evidence
against each other, while the police are trying to recruit postmen and milkmen
to spy on their customers. Britain appears to be well on the way to becoming
a suspicious, self-policing nation of narks.
How have these destructive and divisive attitudes wheedled their way into
the public imagination? Whether the issue at the heart of the panic is child
abuse or school bullying, there is no evidence to suggest that the real
risks have increased. What has changed today is the perception of what constitute
the major problems in people's lives. It seems that the widespread insecurities
generated by the failures of the capitalist system have been reinterpreted
as a problem of untrustworthy individuals.
The prolonged experience of economic slump and social stagnation has ensured
that, despite the government's best propaganda efforts, few of us feel good
about life in Britain today. Yet, so far as the organisation of society
is concerned, almost everybody now concedes that 'There is no alternative'
to the market system. With the market accepted as the 'natural' state of
affairs, and the case for social change temporarily off the agenda, the
tensions and anxieties created within capitalist society have been reinterpreted
as an issue of other people's bad behaviour. People experience the problems
of society at an individual level - and that is often where some kind of
practical solution still seems most plausible.
For instance, countless thousands of working people are suffering under
a new management regime of longer hours, worse conditions and pay restraint
at work. But in an age when real trade unions are a thing of the past and
strikes are only organised by Nato, there seems little an employee can do
to hit back at the boss. The old geezer in the post room who smokes cheap
cigars and tells dirty jokes in your vicinity is a far more immediate and
accessible target against which to vent your frustration. It is a similar
story at home. Today the idea of a public campaign for decent housing for
all seems Utopian. Far more realistic to make the neighbour with the noisy
stereo the butt of your anger over having to live in a dump.
The mood of general mistrust is at root a kind of dissatisfaction with society,
but one which circumstances have channelled in a narrowly individualistic
direction. That is worse than a simple confusion. It is a dangerous trend
that threatens both to divide us from one another, and to make us increasingly
dependent on those in authority to protect us and police our affairs.
In reality we have to trust each other. Every aspect of our experience confirms
that we can only live our lives through what we do together, whether that
means working to produce and distribute the wealth we all need or organising
to care for and educate children. The fashionable panic about the problem
of 'road rage' ignores the fact that behaviour on the road provides an everyday
example of how people have to cooperate for the common good. If we really
could trust nobody, and the next driver truly was more than likely to be
a psycho, nobody would ever get in a car and speed down a crowded motorway
The problem today is that the societal relationships on which we all rely
are often poisoned by an atmosphere of insecurity, suspicion, fear and isolation.
They become at best an exercise in damage limitation. And all too often,
the upshot of that mistrust is to invite intervention from some official
or semi-official third party - something which can only exacerbate tensions
and mistrust, and make matters worse all round.
Nobody can overcome their problems entirely alone. The question is, who
are we going to trust - other imperfect people like ourselves, or the apparently
Whatever the problems we might see with other people, one thing is certain.
It is always better to trust the likes of us than to trust them - the government,
the employers, the police, the caring professionals. All of them have their
own agendas to pursue, and controlling us is never far from the top of it.
When they involve themselves in our affairs, it is never for our benefit.
The basic antagonism of interests between them and us, between the powers
that be and you and me, leaves no grounds for genuine trust.
By contrast, the 'ordinary people' who make up the majority of society have
every reason for cooperating in the search for a solution to our problems.
That is not said out of any naive faith in the goodness of human nature.
Everybody can think of people they would not want to rely upon even to feed
their cat. The point is, however, that a real basis for trust and cooperation
with others does exist, thanks to the common interest we share; a common
interest in trying to change the way things are run, so as to meet the needs
of the majority rather than preserve the privileges of the few. Which is
why, however much the smoker at the next desk annoyed me, I would know that
I have more in common with her as a workmate than I ever could have with
our employer and his no-smoking disciplinary codes.
The first step towards establishing a new basis for mutual trust is to insist
that we are all responsible adults capable of sorting out our own problems
and disagreements together. That means saying no to any further intrusion
into our lives by the authorities, and rejecting all suggestions that we
should be dependent upon third parties to regulate our affairs and relationships.
It is only as independent, self-respecting individuals that we can come
together to focus our collective anger on the broader social problems which
really are screwing up our lives, and start trying to develop an alternative.
In November in London, Living Marxism is sponsoring the weekend 'Get
A Life' conference, where we will be discussing some of the key personal
and political issues of today: the notion of an at-risk society; the balance
of rights and responsibilities; the trend towards third party intervention;
and the problem of personal autonomy to name a few. I trust you will be
there to help us work out some appropriate answers.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 83, October 1995