My colleague at Davenant, Justin Redemer:

This is correct. It is also extremely bad.

Here’s why: Althusius argues that the purpose of politics is to make necessary relationships mutually delightful. Lingering behind that definition is the simple recognition that no person can beĀ wholly self-sustaining. I’m wearing clothes that I didn’t make. I ate food this morning that I did not grow. I live in a house I did not build. And even in the pre-industrial world where there was a broad general competence with many manual skills, people still relied on other people to sustain their material existence.

But we can also push this a little further: Not only are you and I not individually self-sustaining, our known relational networks are not either. My immediate group of friends, neighbors, and church members here in Lincoln is also not sufficient to sustain our own lives entirely on our own. And, again, this applies as much to more traditional communities as it does to atomized communities living under late capitalism. The Bruderhof is much closer to being self-sustaining than we are, but even they are not.

What this means is that we all depend on people we do not know personally to sustain our lives. So how do we structure those relationships so that they are reliable and defined by trust when there is no face-to-face, in-person encounter? One of the chief ways is via institutions. We implicitly understand this: Think about Airbnb or Lyft as an institution. We sleep in a stranger’s house or get in a car with a stranger all the time, but we don’t really think of what we’re doing in those terms because we’re simply “staying at an Airbnb” or “getting a Lyft.” The institution steps in to create a sense of trust and mutual comprehension, such that two strangers can encounter one another for a short time, each receive something beneficial from the exchange, and then go on their way.

Institutions are a kind of proxy for trust, in other words. But what happens when institutions are not trusted? It seems to me that there are only a few possibilities:

  • We learn to do without the benefits that institutions provide, namely the ability to exchange goods and services and mediate brief encounters between strangers. Realistically, this can’t be the entirety of our response to the crisis because we can’t entirely do away with our dependencies on strangers.
  • We build parallel institutions that recreate trust between strangers. The difficulty here is that these parallel institutions exist within the sameĀ polis and so they actually have a way of reenforcing mistrust of (some) strangers and even enmity toward (some) strangers. This will not be good for the long-term health of the nation.
  • We try to reform institutions. This is unlikely to succeed because American society has become so fragmented, our institutions have become in-grown, decadent, and inaccessible, and late capitalism has so eroded many traditional competencies necessary for day-to-day life, that I don’t think we have the people necessary to repair institutions, nor are our institutions (for the most part) willing or able to receive members intent on reform.

Where this leaves us, I think, is in a highly combustible state that feels alarmingly like the pre-1914 world of Europe, as circumstance kept adding more and more explosives to the slow-building powder keg that was European politics at the time. No one knew when the keg would blow, but when it did no one benefitted.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.