Living Lightly: Reciprocal Bonds and the Trust Horizon

Posted on April 23, 2012 by


BY BEN HABIB.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the role of community as we become increasingly enveloped by the converging financial, energy and climate crises and in particular, have mused over how other socieities have coped with chaotic circumstances in the past and carried on the business of everyday life in the absence of strong legal and market mechanisms.  As someone with a research background in East Asian affairs, the modern Chinese experience immediately comes to mind.  Exploring that thought led me to pen the following piece for the Living Lightly column in the Border Mail

Ben Habib, ‘Living Lightly: Glue that holds community together’, Border Mail, Saturday 21st April 2012, p. 70.

One of the exiting aspects of living lightly is the opportunity it provides for community building and connecting with other people. 

Strong social networks will become increasingly important as we grapple with environmental problems, energy insecurity and financial turmoil at the end of the age of growth. 

As a specialist in international relations, I look to Chinese culture for ideas on building social cohesion during tough times. 

A small village in Liaoning Province, China. Are the social bonds that hold places like this together appropriate for Australia in the Age of Consequences?

Between the First Opium War in 1836 to the beginning of economic reforms in the late 19702, Chinese society endured a long period of social chaos, continual revolution and war.  For ordinary people, life was often nasty, brutish and short, where mutual trust between people was the only barrier between order and anarchy.

Imagine the practical difficulties of everyday life without law and order and strong government.

The Chinese people managed by drawing on a cultural practice called guanxi (pronounced “gwan-shee”), which is about maintaining networks of ongoing personal relationships baed on mutual benefit through reciprocal ties and obligations.

Guanxi was the basis for greater social stability at the local level in China than would have otherwise existed during this turbulent period.  While 19th and 20th-century China is not a close historic parallel to 21st century Australia, there are some lessons we can take from the Chinese experience.

We can maximise our own well-being by consciously being less selfish and placing greater emphasis on the good of the community.

As the trust horizon shrinks from the national to the local level in a society under stress, strong networks can provide the glue that holds a community together.

In tough time, people benefit not only from strong social support networks but also reliable suppliers of everyday goods and services, particularly when there are cost pressures and scarcities.

For us this might mean joining a community garden where one can grow and share produce, or establishing an ongoing purchasing relationship with a farmer.

Any reciprocal action for mutual benefit can form the glue of strong social bonds.

I do not suggest we abandon our own cultural practices.

However, other cultures have good ideas that we can borrow from.  As a multicultural country, Australia is well-placed to take advantage of the experiences of other societies.

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Carrying on the Business of Everyday Life in the Absence of a Strong State

The key issue raised in my Living Lightly piece relates getting things done in the context of eroding or dysfunctional legal and market systems.  We need only examine Greece for a real-time illustration of what this erosion is likely to look like, but there is growing evidence of societal decay to be found throughout the industrialised world as the converging financial, energy and climate crisis kicks in.

Observers including Nicole Foss and James Howard James Howard Kunstler have described the rollback of the state that inevitably occurs in these circumstances in terms of an erosion of the “trust horizon.”  Nicole Foss (‘Beyond the Trust Horizon’) is worth quoting at length here…

Relationships of trust are the glue that holds societies together. Trust takes a long time to establish, and much less time to destroy, hence societies where trust is wide-spread, particularly for long periods of time, are relatively rare. In contrast, societies where trust does not extend beyond the family, or clan, level are very common in history.

The spread of trust is a characteristic of expansionary times, along with increasing inclusion, and a weakening of the ‘Us vs Them’ divide. Essentially, the trust horizon expands, both within and between societies. Over time it can encompass higher levels of organization – from family to community to municipality to region to nation and beyond – so long as the expansionary dynamic continues to support it.

Within societies this leads to relatively stable and (at least temporarily) effective institutions, and bolsters the development of the rule of law. The rule of law means that law constrains the powerful (more than usual), and there is a reasonable degree of legal transparency and predictability, so that people are prepared to trust in the fairness and accessibility of justice. Naturally, the ideal is never reached, human nature being what it is, but it can be approached under the most favourable of circumstances.

Within societies, trust also confers political legitimacy (ie a widespread buy-in as to the right of rulers to rule). Where there is legitimacy, there is relatively little need for surveillance and coercion. A high level of trust (all the way up to the level of national institutions) is thus a prerequisite for an open society.

Between societies, an expansion of the trust horizon tends to lead to political accretion. Larger and more disparate groups feel comfortable with closer ties and greater inter-dependence, and are prepared to leave past conflicts behind. The European Union, where 25 countries with a very long history of conflicts have come together, is a prime example.

However, all expansions have a limited lifespan, as do the benefits they confer. They sow the seeds of their own destruction, especially when they morph into a final manic phase and begin to hollow out the substance of social structures. Institutions, whether public or private, retain the same outward form, but cease to operate as they once did. For a while it is possible to maintain the illusion of business as usual (or effectiveness and accountability as usual), but not indefinitely. Everything is subject to receding horizons eventually, and trust is no exception.

Over time institutions become sclerotic, unresponsive, self-serving and hostage to vested interests, at which point they cannot be reformed, as the reform would have to come from those entrenched individuals who have benefited most from the status quo. Institutions become demonstrably less effective, while consuming more and more of society’s resources. Corruption, abuses of power, lack of accountability and the loss of the rule of law become increasingly evident, exactly as we have seen with unauthorized wire-tapping, extra-ordinary rendition and many other actions undermining the open society. Once this happens, trust is living on borrowed time. That is very clearly the case in many developed societies today.

In a society under stress, how can people manage everyday life as the trust horizon retreats?  Pondering this question led me directly back to the Chinese cultural practice of guanxi.  The cultivation of personal relationships that provide a level of certainty through reciprocal ties and obligations makes a great deal of sense within the context of dysfunctional or non-existent legal and market systems.  For the Chinese, guanxi was a recipe for greater social stability than would otherwise exist during times of uncertainty.

A corrolary of guanxi is the concept of mianzi, or ‘face’.  During China’s period of turmoil, disrespecting people could get you killed or damage your guanxi network, which could in turn harm your survival prospects.  In the absence of legal recourse, saving face (mianzi) allows conflicting parties to de-escalate gracefully, rather than escalate to violent conflict.  Giving face also allowed new personal relationships to form and develop, facilitating the expansion of guanxi networks.

Of course sometimes it is necessary to tell the truth and cause someone to lose face.  Slavish adherence to maintaining face is bad for one’s emotional development and a recipe for dysfunctional relationships stemming from emotional blackmail.  Similarly, guanxi in the context of a thriving complex indutrial society can lead to corruption and impede the development of legal norms.

Nonetheless, through guanxi and mianzi the Chinese demonstrate a more comprehensive awareness of inter-personal dynamics and relationship savvy than we’re accustomed to in the West.

In Australian society there is legal recourse for solving business disputes and navigating personal disaggreements.  Over the past two centuries, China did not have this luxury and there is much we can learn for our own times from its historic precedent.

Specifically, building credit in the “trust bank” of our communities and establishing non-markent, non-monetised forms of cooperation and exchange could be very helpful as our own trust horizon retreats as the financial, energy and climate crisis intensifies.

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Further Information:

Ben Habib, ‘History Study Companion: The Chinese Revolution’, Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

Ben Habib, ‘The End of Economic Growth: The Economic Face of Natural Limits‘, Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

C-Realm PodcastInfinite Rehypothecation: Interview with Nicole Foss.

Foreign Teachers Guide to Living and Working in China: Mianzi and Guanxi in China.

Millie Rooney, ‘Sharing: if it’s so good, why don’t we do more of it?The Conversation, 20 April 2012.

Russell Shorto, ‘The Way Greeks Live Now,’ The New York Times, 13 February 2012.

The Automatic Earth: Stoneleigh (aka Nicole Foss) – The Storm Surge of Decentralization.

The Automatic Earth: Stoneleigh (aka Nicole Foss) – Beyong the Trust Horizon.

The Kunstler Cast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler…The Tragic Comedy of Suburban SprawlKunstlerCast #190: The Trust Horizon.

Words of the World: Mianzi (face).

Zhang, J, & Pimpa, N, Embracing Guanxi: A Literature Review, International Journal of Asian Business and Information Management, 1(1), January-March 2010, pp. 23-31.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

 The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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