The Liberal Trust Crisis

By Adam KellyFebruary 28, 2021

The Liberal Trust Crisis

This Is Not Normal by William Davies

DISTRACTED BY THE escalating spectacle of Donald Trump’s term as US president, observers could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the same years will go down as some of the most turbulent in the peacetime history of the United Kingdom. From the moment that 51.9 percent of voters unexpectedly elected to leave the European Union in June 2016, “Brexit” has played havoc with traditional political alignments, parliamentary processes, and visions of the national past, present, and future. Like the Trump phenomenon, the Brexit crisis did not emerge from nowhere, serving as both a symptom of, and major accelerant for, tensions and contradictions that preexisted the 2016 rupture. These tensions surfaced during the decade of austerity, scandal, and protest that followed the 2008 financial crisis, while the contradictions date back at least as far as the neoliberal revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. As has been widely acknowledged, this revolution has now produced its populist backlash, one indelibly shaped by the economics, politics, and technologies of neoliberalism itself. In his new book on Brexit Britain, William Davies offers a bracing contribution to our understanding of the present moment. This Is Not Normal is distinguished from other diagnoses by the emphasis Davies places on the contemporary crisis of public trust in institutions, and by his persuasive treatment of the consequences of that crisis for liberal democracy, in Britain and elsewhere.

A professor of sociology at Goldsmith’s London and co-director of its Political Economy Research Centre (PERC), Davies has emerged of late as one of Britain’s most insightful public intellectuals. Since 2014, he has published four books — The Limits of Neoliberalism, The Happiness Industry, Nervous States, and This Is Not Normal — aimed increasingly at an educated general readership alongside specialists in his field. A significant feature of Davies’s writing, one to which I’ll return, is that it regularly appears in the mainstream organs of the Anglo-American left-liberal press — The Guardian, The New York Times, The London Review of Books — while also finding a home in outlets positioned further to the left, including New Left Review, openDemocracy, the PERC blog, and Verso Books. This Is Not Normal reprints a series of articles from these venues in the form of a chronological narrative in three chapters, beginning on the day following the Brexit referendum and ending with the landslide victory of the Boris Johnson–led Conservative Party in the general election of December 2019. The book thus reads in part as a chronicle of these remarkable years in British political life, serving as a reminder of how strange things became, and how quickly. But as an example of what its author calls “real-time sociology,” the book harbors more ambition and more value than just a chronicle. Building on theoretical insights developed in his earlier work, Davies undertakes an applied investigation into the intertwined fates of liberalism, democracy, and media in the Anglo-American present, an investigation anchored in the problem of trust.

Political liberalism has always depended on the manufacture of trust. For Thomas Hobbes, it was the sovereign state’s capacity to create and enforce laws that offered the security necessary for social relationships of trust to develop. For the merchant capitalists and bankers that shared Hobbes’s 17th century, by contrast, it was “the economy” — inscribed in newfangled book-keeping techniques that formed the basis for insurance and bond markets — that enabled the forging of systemic trust among people not otherwise in close contact with one another. Drawing on Joseph Vogl’s work, Davies observes that liberalism’s dual origin in politics and finance established an ongoing tension in the conditions of public trust. Liberal regimes across the succeeding centuries managed this tension in various ways, most recently when the post–World War II Keynesian state — which reined in the power of finance in order to create social cohesion through welfare, progressive taxation, and public education — was itself reined in by the neoliberal project. The state would now be subjected to the discipline of global financial markets, ushering in a regime defined by what Davies, in The Limits of Neoliberalism, pithily dubbed “the disenchantment of politics by economics.” The hegemonic high point of this regime was the 1990s and early 2000s, but the global financial crisis of 2008 signaled the bankruptcy of the neoliberal model to all except the elites who would insist on its restoration and continued enforcement. The results of this restoration, seen in the tumultuous events of 2016, was a dramatic comeback by politics against economics, or — in terms Davies invokes here and more fully in a forthcoming academic paper — “the revenge of sovereignty on government.” Although the fallout has been more eye-catching in the United States — Trump’s use of federal executions and pardons as expressions of his sovereign power has been hard to miss — the deeper rupture has arguably occurred in the United Kingdom, whose parliamentary system has been a standard-bearer for liberalism for centuries.

Davies’s account of the populist backlash centers on the role of contemporary technologies in reshaping the social and political spheres. “The two inventions that have caused the greatest disruption within liberal democracies over the last half century,” he writes, “are the credit derivative and the digital platform.” Both of these exemplify a defining purpose of the neoliberal vision, “to take existing relationships built around mutuality and trust and then exploit them for profit.” Securitization turns the bond between creditor and debtor into something that can be owned by a third party. Digital platforms work the same way: Facebook, YouTube, and Uber “didn’t invent friendship, cultural creation or municipal transport, but found a way to intervene in existing networks of these things in pursuit of profit.” In both cases, profit is generated via a new regime of data, which is something very different from the statistical fact that underpinned the liberal order. Following Mary Poovey, Davies argues that the fact emerged in early modernity through the standardization of measures and methodologies that went on to be treated as scientific and apolitical. This apolitical status for factual knowledge could only be preserved by developing new institutions — statistical agencies, universities, an independent civil service — that would serve as neutral repositories for public respect and trust, not so much informing political society as constituting its very basis.

Once these institutions are overtly politicized, however — once they are seen as serving and benefiting elite interests rather than all citizens — the facts that they produce and circulate become suspect. Gradually, and then all of a sudden, liberalism loses its claim to universal legitimacy as the frame of public life and is reduced to no more than “an ethical persuasion or a cultural identity.” In Britain, the New Labour government of 1997–2010 attempted to ward off this moment of delegitimization by turning politics itself into a science and embracing a supposedly transparent and meritocratic regime of audits and rankings. But in doing so they merely accelerated the disenchantment of the public realm, “generating a spirit of surveillance and paranoia” while exposing the ways in which increasing economic inequality could be supported and furthered by liberal proceduralism. This technocratic politics, grounded in statistical measurements like GDP, eventually stopped speaking to large swathes of the population. “In talking of society as a whole, in seeking to govern the economy as a whole,” Davies stresses, “both politicians and technocrats are believed to have ‘lost touch’ with how it feels to be a single citizen in particular.” The political balance shifts from fact to feeling.

This shift is powerfully abetted by the phenomenon of “big data.” Where statisticians must decide in advance which categories to use in order to collect and interpret data, in the age of digital media “a dizzying array of numbers is produced by default, to be mined, visualised, analysed and interpreted however we wish.” This data is examined retrospectively, thereby promising a more open and fluid account of social life, a greater attentiveness to “the identities people bestow upon themselves (via hashtags and tags) rather than imposing classifications on them.” Yet this democratizing promise is in important ways a mirage, since the shift from facts to data is also a shift from conscious projections to unconscious sentiments. “If risk modelling (using notions of statistical normality) was the defining research technique of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” Davies writes, “sentiment analysis is the defining one of the emerging digital era.” Sentiment analysis reveals, for instance, that financial markets, supposedly built around risk modeling, are driven as much by the mood of investors as by empirical reality. This turn to sentiment erodes the interpretive and communicative roles that liberal societies have traditionally granted to scientists, journalists, and professional experts of various kinds. The world of publicly available facts that these figures marshaled and mediated for ordinary citizens becomes increasingly divorced from the hidden world accessed by the miners of private data, with the result that new sets of insiders and outsiders are created and the workings of power become increasingly opaque. The ground is laid for conspiracy theories to replace consensus about reality. According to Davies, we have entered a new regime of truth, one with scant time for the shibboleths and separations — “between public and private, between state and market, politics and media, and between the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judiciary)” — that defined the liberal order.

In this new regime of truth, the notion of “the public record” is displaced by the archiving of all acts and words, so that one’s past can be dredged up at any moment. With the threat of exposure for hypocrisy now ever-present, the rise to power of a new brand of politician is ensured. Traditional political parties come to be led not by smooth technocrats like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton but by figures who have either acted with remarkable consistency over a long period of time — Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders — or whom the taint of hypocrisy doesn’t hurt because no serious claim to consistency was ever made in the first place — Johnson and Trump. In both cases, an apparent disregard for how one is seen by others — seeming not to give a damn — becomes a sign of authenticity. Thus we have Trump and Johnson gleefully pulling back the curtain to reveal public life as a sham, and being rewarded by an angry public for doing so. These men become political stars because of their ability to dominate the neoliberal attention economy, driving up ratings. It is no coincidence that they come from commercial and media careers, since the increasingly revolving door between the political sphere and the worlds of commerce and journalism is part of the story Davies is telling. In a particularly suggestive piece of analysis, Davies observes that figures like Trump and Johnson emerge into a public realm that more and more resembles the stand-up comedy club, where criticism is reduced to heckling and the only feedback that matters is the audience’s attention, which can be engaged through the body as easily (or more easily) than the mind. This somatic quality of post-liberal politics helps to explain its imperviousness to fact-checking and promise-breaking: “As with live comedy, so for wrestling and Trump rallies: the critic is blindsided by an event where everything is in the delivery, and the lasting contribution is neither here nor there.”

Brexit, it turns out, is the same kind of event: an adrenaline-inducing fantasy of sovereignty with no obvious relationship to a future reality. Davies dutifully wades through the history of Tory Euro-skepticism and the utterings of the Brexiteers in search of a clear picture of the motivating future they envisage for their country. The closest he can get is to locate their vision in a return to laissez-faire Britain as a global power. “Paraphrasing Stalin,” he remarks mischievously, “the utopia of Brexit might best be summed up as that of ‘Liberalism in One Country.’” This back-to-the-future plan is not only unrealistic in an economically interdependent world, it also disregards the fact that Victorian laissez-faire “depended on empire and slavery.” Hence the necessity of the culture wars currently bedeviling a Britain that cannot afford politically to come to a full reckoning with its own past. In this claustrophobic context, the comic character known as Boris provides some welcome distraction from the harsh specter of historical truth.

Reflecting on the elusiveness of the case for Brexit even among its most fervent supporters, Davies reads this glaring absence as a symptom not only of a post-liberal but of a non- or even anti-hegemonic politics. After the referendum, the Brexiteers repeated ad nauseam that the result showed that “the people have spoken” and that “the will of the people” must be carried out. Placing sovereignty in the people (or 52 percent of them) does not accord with the premises of British liberalism, in which the monarch devolves sovereignty to parliament as the representative voice of the people. Overturning this liberal tradition, the Brexiteers’ populist catchphrases promoted a vision more in line with the thinking of the German political philosopher Carl Schmitt, where the identification of enemies and friends trumps any pretense to consensual rule (a stance made even more conspicuous by the “anti-hegemonic project” of no-deal Brexit). It is this invocation of popular sovereignty, Davies remarks, “that paints suspending Parliament as an act of democracy.” Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign and the man widely held responsible for the extraordinary act of proroguing Parliament in autumn 2019, clearly believes that “MPs are a pompous waste of space, and civil servants are a cartel of self-interested cowards, whose main function is thwarting policy.” While such views no doubt offend politicians and civil servants, “in pubs up and down the country, they are almost an orthodoxy.” Populism connects with the people because it speaks to their growing sense — supported, as Davies acknowledges, by plenty of evidence — that elites are self-serving and corrupt. And he draws a direct line between this populist politics and the new regime of truth, enabled by the “anti-hegemonic technology” of the internet, in which trusted intermediaries are bypassed in favor of “the illusion of direct access to reality itself.”

A further word is needed here on Davies’s idea of a politics without hegemony. This Is Not Normal does not offer a single sustained theoretical argument; nor, as a punctuated chronicle of the Brexit years, does it need to. It is not that Davies avoids invoking theorists — major figures including Arendt, Deleuze, Foucault, Latour, Schmitt, and Weber make cameo appearances, and each time the matter at hand is illuminated through a lucid summary of their relevant views. But the book’s analysis throws up deeper theoretical questions that it is not inclined to puzzle out fully. Perhaps the most interesting is the relationship between hegemony and trust, two of the book’s key concepts. In the brief outline of his vision for “real-time sociology,” Davies suggests that his method is “not unlike the kind of ‘conjunctural analysis’ that Gramscians have long aimed at, and for which Stuart Hall’s work has been a model.” But while Gramsci and Hall were avowed Marxists, Davies has commented in an interview that he is “not a Marxist, though I am Marxian in some of my approach and thinking.” So while his approach is “not unlike” Gramsci, Hall, and Marx, it is not identical in its precepts or commitments. It is in the alignment he assumes between hegemony and trust that the difference is perhaps most evident.

“Democracy without Representation,” the essay that opens the third chapter of This Is Not Normal, originally appeared in the LRB under the equally telling title, “They Don’t Even Need Ideas.” Written during the Conservative leadership battle that followed Theresa May’s Brexit-induced resignation, the essay’s central question — also the book’s — is whether the idea of representative democracy in Britain has run its course, whether “we are witnessing a new type of democracy.” Davies is partly inspired here by Paulo Gerbuado’s The Digital Party, in which Gerbuado identifies a contemporary process of “disintermediation” whereby the traditional “third element” of the political party, the layer between leadership and mass base that Gramsci saw as crucial to the production of hegemony, is disavowed and increasingly bypassed by digital technology. In Davies’s view, the new conditions that have impelled the digital party into existence have also made liberal hegemony — which he describes as “the mass psychological impression that we have all given our consent” to be ruled by our elected representatives — impossible to achieve. The impression of consent and the manufacture of trust in representative politics are replaced by exercises in direct democracy like the Brexit referendum, where complex decisions are boiled down to binary choices. In this situation “[n]o leader, party or ideology can credibly be presented as serving the common good,” Davies writes. “There are only factions battling other factions.” A Gramscian Marxist would respond, however, that it is precisely out of such factional battles that new hegemonies can be built. In Policing the Crisis, published the year before Margaret Thatcher came to power in what could certainly be called a highly factional moment, Stuart Hall argued that the future prime minister’s authoritarian populism nonetheless rested on “a powerful groundswell of popular legitimacy.” It was Thatcher’s inventive rather than restorationist approach to the crisis of the late 1970s that enabled that crisis to pass from “conjunctural” to “organic,” allowing her to establish a new hegemony on the basis of a new social bloc.

For Davies, by contrast, Brexit populism doesn’t equate to popular legitimacy, and the current crisis remains (in Hall’s terms) conjunctural rather than organic. The key feature of this reading is Davies’s alignment of hegemony with trust: the illusion of consensual rule is broken when public figures are assumed to be lying all the time. “Who or what will voters and businesses be placing their trust in,” he asks, “when political speech has finally been reconfigured as mere mood music, to be used to soothe or excite, but never to constrain?” Given his liberal conception of hegemony, Davies cannot see a way for a new hegemony to be built without public trust as its basis. But is trust really a requirement for hegemony?

Arguably not, if the ruling power makes no strong claim to being a liberal one. In that case, it might even be possible to achieve hegemony by “undermining trust, contaminating the grounds of agreement,” to cite Davies’s formulation against his own argument. What seems to be emerging in Britain is, admittedly, an unfamiliar brand of hegemony: the current conservative ruling faction is perhaps most remarkable for their willful neglect of those institutions that Gramsci would have seen as indispensable to the operations of hegemony — the civil service, the Church, universities, local government. The prevailing tactic appears not to be to convert those institutions to a new “common sense” — as Thatcher and Blair did by introducing marketized modes of discipline — but simply to withdraw support, leaving them to wither and die. Bypassing civil society, today’s conservatives aim to achieve a ruling coalition by speaking directly to voters through wedge issues like Brexit, sovereignty, and national history, appealing to their grievances without attempting to win their trust.

Behind this lie the requirements of capital, or specifically the fraction of the capitalist class that practice what George Monbiot has dubbed “warlord capitalism.” This is a capitalism that “sees all restraints on accumulation — including taxes, regulations and the public ownership of essential services — as illegitimate,” whose practitioners “fetishise something they call ‘liberty,’ which turns out to mean total freedom for plutocrats, at society’s expense.” [1] Davies himself acknowledges that “it’s no longer clear that contemporary capitalism has need of a norm-based, legal model of the state,” but his liberal vision of hegemony (along with the purpose and structure of his book) deter him from following through on the full implications of this insight. The reality, however, is that for this now-dominant element of the capitalist class, the trust that undergirded liberal hegemony has become dispensable. While Davies is right that it is now common sense that no politician, journalist, or scientist can be trusted, it is equally evident that this doesn’t stop certain politicians, journalists, and even scientists — not to mention warlord capitalists — benefiting from inculcating this common sense in a skeptical public.

The question of where hegemony without trust leads is of course the most important one. And here it is not difficult to share Davies’s worries. The present is not normal, Davies argues, because normality depends on norms, but if all norms are open to transgression in a context where public trust has given way to “animosity towards outsiders and those perceived as disloyal,” the ground is laid for “neo-illiberalism” and even fascism. Political liberalism, certainly, cannot survive in such an atmosphere. And there may be many on the left who would not wish it to survive. Davies acknowledges the critiques of feminists, Marxists, and postcolonialists who have attacked liberalism for serving the interests of patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. But he nevertheless calls for the preservation of institutions that can support public trust, with a view to transforming them to more equitable ends: “[W]e should demand normality, but of a superior kind.”

In the afterword to the book, written in the late summer of 2020 and taking in the implications of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, Davies reminds his reader that “the starting point of socialist critique and organisation is that liberal freedoms are necessary but not sufficient. Freedom in the political realm is a mere abstraction, unless it is matched by freedom in the economic realm.” He goes on to argue for a bridging of liberal and leftist responses to the current conjuncture — a position implied, as I suggested earlier, by the venues in which he publishes his essays and books. Such a rapprochement will require the liberal establishment to begin to acknowledge that today it is the left, ironically, which often finds itself defending the norms and institutions of liberalism, despite harboring skepticism regarding the ends those norms and institutions have historically been made to serve. As Davies puts it in the book’s concluding lines:

It seems too often that, while the left is willing to defend key liberal planks of political modernity such as human rights and attention to facts, this is not reciprocated with support for economic democracy and wholesale redistribution of wealth and income. The crisis ushered in by coronavirus has accelerated the need to find this common ground between the defenders of institutional norms and those who agitate for economic justice. Long-standing liberal-socialist ideals, such as universal basic income, have acquired unprecedented plausibility in the context of the global pandemic. If this moment is to be seized by something other than nationalism or a type of privatised platform technocracy, a coalition of legal and economic rebuilders will be needed.

While we might argue on aspects of theory and praxis, this is as persuasive a vision of the broad basis for a progressive coalition as I have seen articulated in contemporary commentary. Combined with the freedom-centered philosophical Marxism of Martin Hägglund’s This Life, the various policy proposals for a Green New Deal put forward by Naomi Klein and others, and the powerful articulations of racial justice that remind us, among other things, of the flaws in the original New Deal, Davies’s vision could offer a path forward.

But will enough people listen? Davies writes that in our current moment the figure of the critic, central to the liberal conception of the public sphere, “risks being ignored and unfollowed, and is therefore replaced by the troll, who denounces and attacks for spectacular effect.” In a post-liberal society, “the data archive and the algorithm are what knit together society’s past, present and future, and not public speech or writing.” The service provided by Davies’s writing is to translate the implications of the archive and the algorithm into the language of the critic, that crucial intermediary still concerned to retain fidelity to fact and truth. It is the job of the critic to remind us that social trust, “something that is so ubiquitous, so ordinary, that we scarcely ever stop to notice it,” is in fact a historical achievement that we should attempt to conserve and extend. There may well be much about actually existing liberalism that deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history, but without a critical commitment to public truth and public trust, it is difficult to see how any form of political life can survive, never mind thrive. We often hear today that we cannot go “back to normal,” that we are inhabiting a “new normal”; we must hope that Davies’s “superior normal” is a destination we can reach, and soon.


Adam Kelly is associate professor of English at University College Dublin.


[1] George Monbiot, “Brexit stems from a civil war in capitalism — we are all just collateral damage,” The Guardian (November 24, 2020). Monbiot opposes warlord capitalism to “housetrained capitalism,” which “seeks an accommodation with the administrative state, and benefits from stability, predictability and the regulations that exclude dirtier and rougher competitors.”

LARB Contributor

Adam Kelly is an associate professor of English at University College Dublin. He is the author of American Fiction in Transition: Observer-Hero Narrative, the 1990s, and Postmodernism (2013), and is currently completing a book about the aesthetics and politics of sincerity in American fiction during the period 1989–2008. He is the principal investigator on “Imaginative Literature and Social Trust, ,” a four-year project funded by the Irish Research Council.


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