My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ivan Krastev paints a bleak picture of the current state of democracy around the world. He argues that we so deeply mistrust our democratic institutions that it’s unclear what a corrective path forward looks like.
In Mistrust We Trust builds off Ivan’s 2012 TED talk in which he makes an abbreviated version of his argument based on five revolutions he identifies as contributing to the transformation of democratic society. First, the cultural and social revolution of the sixties destroyed the idea of a collective purpose by increasing individualism. This was followed by the market revolution of the 1980s whereby we saw a huge increase in inequality—decoupling the reduction of inequality with the spread of democracy for the first time. Then there was the end of Communism and the Cold War, which tore social contract between elites and the people in Eastern Europe. Then, the internet revolution, which brought echo chambers and political ghettoes—making it more difficult to understand people who aren’t you. Finally, Ivan points to the brain sciences revolution as arming political consultants with the knowledge that emotional manipulation is more powerful than ideas.
While the theory of revolutions is interesting and worth reflecting on, the most compelling part of the book is Ivan’s critique of transparency as a political religion riddled with inaccurate assumptions of how to “manage mistrust” in government. He argues that in fact we are fostering mistrust by trying to keep our representatives honest through monitoring, in other words we are assuming that control over others is equal to trust.
Without public trust democracy doesn’t work and a sustained campaign of transparency will only make it worse. We can’t simply design a foolproof system of good governance because that’s insufficient to convince us it is foolproof; it will merely press us to inspect it closer, confident we will find corruption lurking.
Ivan warns readers at the beginning of the book that it will not offer answers or solutions. It is a provocation. And I think it is an important one, especially for the civic activists and technologists in my circles. In some ways, Ivan is calling for the community-based and community-building efforts we celebrate in participatory design. BUT, if those efforts are always in opposition to and alternative from public institutions, rather than attempts to build them up into something we can believe in again, will things just keep getting worse?
A short, thought-provoking “must” read.