Do we live in a post-cynical age? As previous certainties crumble around us, and political and economic orthodoxies succumb to their own hubris, are we experiencing an era of 'overtrust'? GK Chesterton said that it wasn't the case that when people stopped believing in God, they believed in nothing. The problem was that they'd believe anything. It feels that we are living through an age of post-belief that has allowed the rise of incredible (literally) and potentially dangerous ideas.
At the Sarum Colloquium on Facilitating Faith Organisations last week, the Susanna Wesley Foundation (SWF) brought together a range of thinkers and practitioners to identify and discuss the main challenges facing the leaders of Faith-Based Organisations. The issues of trust and populism figured large in our discussions, especially how FBOs, along with others in civil society, might reweave a community and culture of trust.
What do I mean by overtrust? The seismic shifts taking place in the politics and economics of the Western world seem to have caught us unawares. The, sometimes, aggressive reaction to the divisions created by a lop-sided economy and exacerbated by an elite-driven politics is attributed variously to racism, anti-globalisation and resurgent nationalism. The populist tide currently being ridden by a kind of politician is seen as naïveté at best and gullibility at worst. I want to suggest that it is not that shallow. It is significant enough to have shaken people out of their passive cynicism and onto the streets. The young who have seen the future disappear before their eyes have been joined by many in the 'never-voted-before' category. It would be incredibly foolish to write this off as a temporary blip in the ongoing story of liberal democracy. It is fuelled by anger, yes, but also by a search for a narrative that makes sense of the world in the midst of a huge cultural transition. And there is a profound fear that, whatever emerges as the new cultural paradigm, it will be even crueller to the left out and left behind that our present reality.
As the poor, the young and the excluded face the future, they are seeking something solid in which to invest their political and intellectual capital. A post-ideological liberalism, where politicians of different parties are all drawn from the same political class and offer a weak managerialism at best, has little to excite those who have already been badly let down. And the realisation is slowly dawning that the economic system created to the serve the interests of those who already have much, will eventually turn and devour the children of those elites. In the race to the bottom, there are no winners in the end. No wonder then that so many are turning to those who offer to help them make sense of it all and steer the way through the uncertainty into a new future. The danger is that this overtrust will allow unscrupulous leaders a blank cheque to implement the politics of blame and scapegoating, offering easy certainty in the short-term.
There is good news! For the first time in a generation or more, people are looking for values and not simply value for money. This level of trust comes with extremely high expectations and the fallout of disappointment will be violent and messy. But there is an enormous opportunity for the political Left, faith communities and civil society to help shape a new future by offering a narrative of community, trust and true equality. The search for a coherent narrative that makes sense of the macro, as well as policy initiatives that shape the micro, can only be satisfied with ideas that give meaning and offer a hopeful image of humanity. It is time for all of us to step up and deliver.