What is modernity? It is a concept that’s grappled many a social theorist and philosopher over the ages. Depending on your time sensitivity, modernity is a concept that exists in a continuum; ever-changing and evolving definitively over time. With so vast a breadth, the frameworks for understanding modernity too, is extensive. Many thinkers have attempted; identity, economics, politics, religion – the list is endless.

Out of the many frameworks, the one I would like to explore in this essay is trust. Trust, in my view, is one of the cornerstones that define modernity.

To begin understanding trust, we need to understand legal documents and how they’ve come to define and shape modernity. I must state here that I am not trained in the legal profession, and that my analysis and exploration of the subject is from a sociological perspective. That said, legality, as a tool, has been instrumental in shaping modernity.

Risk Society

Two key sociologists, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, coined the term Risk Society to illustrate a society “preoccupied with the future” and one that is always reflexively preparing for and dealing with risks. To clarify, while the discussion of Risk Society may seem to deviate from our conversation about trust, the concept of risk is situated at the heart of trust and is necessary for understanding the space that trust inhabits.

While Beck and Giddens place risk within the context of a post-World War Europe and the Chernobyl disaster – risk mitigation as a concept was already in practice since the European colonial era. Marine insurance became a key business in the 18th century during the heydays of colonialism1. Imagine: trade vessels crossing the rough oceans with precious commodities onboard. Traders took up insurance from banking companies such as Lloyds to mitigate losses, ensuring that if either cargo or vessel is compromised during the journey, some form of compensation would be in place. These insurance policies were documented in a legally binding document acknowledged and signed by involved parties. Why is this example important?

We have to establish that the legal document of an insurance policy becomes a mediating platform that, 1) allows the company to continue trading despite perceived and unforeseeable risks and 2) creates a space that allows the trading company to ‘trust’ the future, knowing that should any misfortune befall, they would still be partially compensated and saved from total financial ruin. It is worth noting that nowadays, insurance is a multi-billion industry that not only covers commercial applications, but also the personal2.

Drawing also from Orientalism as a discipline, colonial institutions were obsessed with collecting data and observations from their colonial territories to understand and establish a corpus of native landscapes and their societies. A practice which Edward Said states functions as a discourse methodology of control and authority over the Orient, a foreign and unknown landscape3.

Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient-dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

– Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

By using documentation and legality, both society and institutions establish a space that creates a baseline standard of trust – so that they may trade or engage with the colonies with the insurance of the written word. Hopefully, this discussion on risk society and its overarching concept will serve as background and inform how trust fits into the larger picture of modernity.

Constitutions, Agreements

Modern nation-states and their socio-political landscape are governed by the single all-binding document known as the constitution. Constitutions are intended to organise a nation-state’s sociopolitical structure in particular ways4. A constitution too, defines the core responsibilities and rights of those who inhabit its space; the relationship between state and citizen, and that among a nation’s citizens.

A noteworthy example is the Medina Charter, drawn up by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 622CE as a way of managing the relationship between the Mecca emigrants and already-existing Medina tribes. For all intents and purposes, the Medina Charter, in legal clarity, outlined the civic and binding duties of all citizens who resided within Medina5. In 47 articles, the Medina Charter made clear the social contract between the Quraysh emigrants, Jewish and Medina tribes – with definitive rights enjoyed by these constituencies, and the consequences for breaking the social contract.

To return to the modern-day constitution, this overarching legal document operates on the same spirit of defining rights and trust-building. With the root of it, as we’ve established earlier, to mitigate risk. But in what context does risk exist in the 20th and 21st century? If we were to broaden the scope beyond constitutional documents and look to the field of the legal documentation – the current Brexit dilemma, now in its third year running, offers an interesting case study.

For almost three years now since the referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was enacted, the ruling government faced challenges in negotiating the fine-details of the political, economic and legal system that had been so intimately fused with the EU6. The treaties that govern all nation-states in the EU are incredibly detailed; its economic, administrative and security provisions carefully outlined. The process behind the consultation, re-examination and re-negotiation of these decades-old treaties is not a process that can be done within the period of a single-term government. Leaving the EU is not simple; it is messy, complicated and requires a legislative rethinking of the UK’s relationship, not only with its neighbouring countries but also the rest of the world.

At this point, it is worth examining the purpose of the EU’s creation. Coming off the end of World War 2, the EU was formed by a coalition of European countries with a commitment to ensuring economic and political peace that historically, was unstable within the region7. Over the decades, the EU’s formation and corresponding agreements and treaties, expressed in legally binding documents, expanded to govern areas of political administration, trade, technology, commodities, security and more recently, the environment.

More importantly, Europe’s advancement into modernity is marked by the many treaties and agreements it legally binds itself to, in order to mitigate the risk of conflict, and hence, ensure a conducive environment for trade and economic prosperity to grow.

Scripture as moral foundation

If constitutions are meant to shape a nation state’s socio-political structure, then scripture can be said to shape the foundation for society’s foray into modernity. Religious scripture such as The Bible and Quran outlines a moral-ethical system to guide its followers; the societies it seeks to govern. There is no clearer example of this than the enforcement of Shariah law in a majority of Muslim-majority countries. Shariah Law, in these instances, is an interpretive reading of the social, moral and ethical code outlined in the Quran – and realised in the form of a modern legal system8.

Sometimes, scripture and its legal codes such as the Ten Commandments are clear codes of conduct meant to govern relationships between individuals in communities9. In other instances, however, such as the case of the Quran and Bible, the legal system is derived from tales, mythology and symbology in the texts – then reinterpreted and contextualised for application in modern society10.

Unlike modern day constitutions and treaties, the function of scripture and its legal outlines is simple: to establish a moral-ethical system to facilitate and guide societal life. Arguments can also be made that religion establishes a standard for a moral and ethical life – one that holds an individual’s actions and intents to the highest standards11. These standards (or objective framework) is important in ensuring peace between communities and constituencies.

Scripture and its legal framework may have a less complex objective but strives to create a baseline of trust between individuals, and by extension society. The mitigation of risk and conflict achieved via spiritual and divine consequences such as eternal punishment in Hell12. This, in which punishments are often described in great detail as to strike a sense of fear, and to hopefully deter immoral behaviour that could potentially be disruptive to overall societal peace and conduct.

How we manage relationships

Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues that humans can form up to 150 interpersonal relationships13. The limited number of relationships is rooted in the human socio-biological construction – which historically, manifested itself in the form of tribal groups and later on, villages. These relationships do not necessarily need the mediation of a written, legal document – and instead operates based on trust in verbal form.

These form of relationships do not necessarily need contracts as a form of mediation, as it operates on social norms and expectations. This form of unwritten (self)regulation has been examined and argued by French philosopher Foucault, who terms this social regulation as normalisation14. I.e. Society, and by extension, institutions, create standards and regulates one another to adhere to those standards. The failure to comply is met with correction until the individual is able to meet those standards. The goal of normalisation is to create a shared sense of identity and uniformity – as well as a tool of social control that every level of society participates in.

Globalisation and the expansion and/or porosity of borders, however, changes the entire dynamic of relationships15. The intermingling of communities; emigrants from different socio-cultural backgrounds introduces a dimension of complexity in communication and negotiation – an essential tool to trust-building16. It is logical then that legal documents emerge from this social phenomenon as a way to manage relationships. The legally binding document offers a space in which all parties can negotiate and interact with one another based on trust. Trust that has been established through legal commitment17. These are the principles that guide the Medina Charter, as discussed earlier.

Trust as a foundation

Without trust and commitment, society will find difficulty in managing itself, let alone navigate the complexities of social activities such as rituals or commerce. Modernity is marked in mitigating risk and further expanding the language of trust. The written (legal) word is an aspirational universal form that seeks to create that space, by accounting for a society that is in constant expansion and interacting with cultures outside its own.

Commitment to a legal framework, a shared negotiated space, is the modern-day equivalent of humanity’s effort to build the Tower of Babel; cooperation between different communities guided by a larger purpose, made possible by shared trust and a universal language.

I’ve discussed how trust is a cornerstone to modernity on BFM’s Bila Larut Malam, that you can listen to below. The discussion is in Malay: