Why do some societies tend to have much higher levels of trust — both interpersonal and between citizens and institutions — as well as civic cooperation? I've finally discovered their secret ingredient, not that we can re-create it or steal it, unfortunately. It is their lack of imperial history, either as the source of an expansionist empire, or their rapid incorporation into a nearby empire.
I'm breaking this series up into three digestible posts. This first one will do the theoretical overview. Part 2 will look at cases of collapsing trust in the wake of imperial collapse. And part 3 will look at the few cases where there has never been an empire, and where trust levels are famously high.
I'm drawing on Peter Turchin's model of the rise and fall of empires, popularized in his book War and Peace and War, whereby intense expansionist pressures on the other side of a meta-ethnic frontier cause the targeted group to cohere and cooperate for mutual survival. He borrows a term from Ibn Khaldun, asabiya, for this potential for collective action. A meta-ethnic frontier is one where the two sides are incredibly different across a range of tribal markers (language, religion, clothing, subsistence mode, etc.).
Being pressured by an expanding Other does bring the benefit of rising asabiya, which in turn allows the group to become a strong expansionist power in its own right. Not to mention other towering achievements that come from patronage of the arts and sciences, which only happens when the elites with wealth, the skilled artists and intellectuals, and a mass audience among the commoners, all feel part of a specially chosen Us who cannot help but accomplish great things, and must all cooperate and play their roles to make those great things happen.
However, that Golden Age only lasts as long as the phase of rising asabiya (social psychology) and imperial expansion (economics and geo-politics). As those run out of steam, the empire starts contracting, becomes fragmented, perhaps invaded and conquered, and its former wealth gets squandered by newly parasitic elites and stolen by conquerors.
Turchin describes the landscape of imperial decline as a "black hole of asabiya," which I interpret to mean not only are the people less cooperative than before, they actually grow more suspicious, resentful, spiteful, and narrowly tribalistic than they would have been had they never riden the initial wave of imperial expansion and soaring asabiya. In my view, it's similar to a refractory phase in an excitable system — a hangover is not merely the absence of a high, i.e. a normal state, but a dizzying, paralyzing, energy-draining crash below a normal resting state.
Declining empires suffer from a crippling social-psychological hangover, preventing them from achieving those former heights of geo-political expansion, material conquest and tribute, or even the grand achievements domestically in the arts and sciences. Not only can people no longer work together — they despise one another, and remain so suspicious and double-crossing towards those who are not in their immediate social networks, that large-scale endeavors become impossible.
Also, this state of affairs becomes public knowledge, so even the rare cooperator would anticipate getting screwed over by the majority of his society. So why bother?
As with a refractory state in any other excitable system, eventually it wears off and the system returns to a normal unexceptional state. But the time-scale for imperial growth and contraction is on the order of centuries, so this hangover can also drag on for centuries. In the very long meantime, its citizens will have to endure what seems to be, within the time-scale of their own lifetimes (and even those of their grandparents and grandchildren), an unchanging climate of suspicion, hostility, envy, and sabotage. From the Golden Age, to the Age of Haters.
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The collapse of trust in the wake of imperial collapse receives very little attention from the only people who are concerned about low / falling trust levels in America or "the West" — namely, right-wingers.
The left stopped caring about trust, cooperation, and solidarity decades ago, as the material basis for their wealth and status became more dependent on non-labor-intensive sectors of society, principally the various internet / online / dot-com bubbles that have inflated and popped since the 1990s Clinton-Gore heyday of techno-optimism.
When an activity is not labor-intensive, it's only the elites and managers of that sector who need to trust one another, and perhaps a thin layer of professionals they employ. There is no vast, sprawling supply chain or military chain-of-command that depends on trust and cooperation at multiple levels of complexity, across various geographical regions.
So, they are more inclined to just impose their will top-down within the sectors that they have a monopolistic control over. Trust from the citizenry does not matter since they have no alternative to the single mega-corporation that non-labor-intensive activity always leads toward (e.g. finance, media, entertainment, info-tech).
The right draws its wealth and status from labor-intensive activities like manufacturing, military / police, energy extraction, and agriculture. These activities require cooperation across a large number of individuals, at varying levels of complexity. So their elites are more concerned with everybody getting along enough to make sure the gears of the entire machine keep on a-turnin'.
But for their part, most right-wingers are genetically incapable of modeling things in dynamic terms, where things change over time due to internal mechanisms. Moral conservatives value in-group solidarity to such an extent that it blinds them from seeing that the rot is coming from within. In their minds, large-scale bad things can only be blamed on external forces, whether it's a wealthy foreign donor (Soros, an oil royal, etc.), or immigrants from low-trust societies. Or at most, the opposing political tribe (never their own).
In reality, if those do play a role in a particular case of collapsing trust, they are only a symptom of an underlying disease from within.