The Absence of Trust

When I was in university, I took a few classes in Italian history and loved every single one. Some of the books I read then I still come back to, and of one of them is Edward Banfield’s seminal work on southern Italy: “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society”. His work is heavily referenced in Robert Putnam’s books “Making Democracy Work” and “Bowling Alone”. Putnam talks a lot about social capital, defined like this by Wikipedia:

In sociology, social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.

Banfield himself didn’t use the term social capital, he wrote about trust instead, but the concept is the same: when there is trust between people in a society, it encourages transactions and investments in the future. You might lend me a tool, because you trust that I will give it back, and that allows me to build a house, for instance. I might employ someone from outside my family, because I generally trust that people will do a good job. Trust breeds trust – one trusting action leads to another. (I am paraphrasing heavily since I haven’t read the book in ten years, but this is the general gist.) People will associate with others and start self-organizing.

Front CoverIn southern Italy, Banfield points out, this trust is almost non-existing. People only trust those in their inner circle, usually the family or the clan. This means that it is difficult to set up organizations or start improvement projects for the community, because nobody believes that other people will have good intentions and are just doing it for the greater good. Banfield shows how, for historical reasons, southern Italy has developed this lack of trust almost to an extreme. While his book was written in 1956, unfortunately a lot of this still rings through, and southern Italy is still way behind the north on all economic and social indicators. And on a very prosaic level, many southern Italians will only go to the butcher de fiducia, the one they trust.

So what does this have to do with my blog, and with Argentina? Well, I believe that one of the things that the Italian immigrants brought to Argentina was exactly this lack of trust. (I am of course simplifying here – there are many other reasons to why people in Argentina are reluctant to trust others.) I am time and again struck by the lack of trust that people in Buenos Aires have towards each other. (And, the corollary to this: the almost overabundance of trust that they have towards me – this idea that as a foreigner and a northern European I am different and trustworthy.) It’s weird, because at the same time I see actions of solidarity and giving a helping hand – someone paying for another passenger’s bus fare, or helping someone carry a heavy load. But when it comes to any kind of transaction, the lack of trust is very obvious. Here are a few examples:

– As I wrote about in my post on housing for foreigners, the long-term rental contracts are quite complicated. For instance, they require a garantía: a guarantee granted by a friend, family member (preferably) or employer who has to be a property owner, and who promises to pay rent if the renter does not pay, and to intervene if the renter does not vacate the premises when he or she has to. The contracts themselves tend to be very detailed, and from what I hear, it is very common not to get the security deposit back. Some renters solve this by simply not paying the last month’s rent. I think this is the perfect example of how lack of trust breeds more lack of trust – I don’t trust that you will uphold your end of the deal, so I act on this assumption and withhold the money. In general, it seems to me that the relationship between landlord and renter has a lot more animosity than other places I have lived. (Luckily, I have a great relationship with my landlady!)

– Something very small, but that I still think has roots in the same cultural heritage: dinners, outings with friends, or meetings are confirmed and reconfirmed several times – it is like people don’t believe that you will show up unless it is reconfirmed over and over again. Weird!

– A general idea that any grouping, whether it is a political party of a building owners’ association, does not have the best interest of the collective in mind. This of course is tied in closely with the long history of populism in the country, but I also think it is linked to the lack of trust.

– Work contracts: Labor law in Argentina is complicated, and I see a real Catch 22 here: The unions are very strong, and can create a lot of problems for employers. Of course there are historical reasons for this, with worker exploitation etc., but now it means that employers often are reluctant to put people in the white, because if they want to fire them, it is very difficult, and employers often end up paying large sums to people they fire, either because they are mandated to do so by the convenio, or because the worker sues their employer. One scenario that happens often is this: an employer pays a worker in the black for two months, and then hires her officially. After nine months, the employer is no longer happy with the worker, and decides to fire her. The worker then goes to the union, who helps her sue the employer for having had her work in the black. So there is just so much lack of trust here – the strong laws and the strong unions are in place because there is and was exploitation of workers. But because nobody trusts that the other party has their best interest in mind, they are trigger happy when it comes to suing and taking advantage of the laws. Employers therefore constantly mistrusts their workers. Agh!!! (The solution, to me, would be a flexible system of short-term or trial contracts, so that the employer could hire them on trial for two or three months, with no repercussions if the contract is not extended after the trial. It could also help close the gap between the privileged workers in the strongest unions, and the really bad conditions of many of those who work in the black and are not unionized.)

It is quite obvious that all these examples create obstacles for people in many parts of their lives, and I really wish it wasn’t so. I find Argentineans to be creative and open-minded, and I wish that so much of that wasn’t stifled by lack of trust and difficult laws. But at the same time, I don’t really see how it could change. These societal patterns are difficult to change, unfortunately. Most Argentineans celebrate their Italian roots, but this is one area where old structures should have stayed back in the old country.

(Speaking of southern Italy, I have to mention maybe my favorite book about the region: Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Read it!!)

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5 Responses to The Absence of Trust

  1. WBBsAs says:

    The term “backward society” makes me uncomfortable, but this is otherwise well-written and insightful.

  2. limel95 says:

    The Absense of trust in others is the lack of trust in oneself, may be. Is it true that the History and corruption don´t help. In my case, my father is italian´s son and my mother, fom Bulgaria, moreover, I am connected with other cultures (for my profession) and I have observed that many foreigner people (non Spanish speakers) prefer to join at the own community.
    I think values and education are important to change it, to change the conditioning and the system. Conscience, spirituality and love are the key.
    Thanks for the book´s recommendation.

  3. El Queso says:

    One small correction related to labor laws here in Argentina: By law people can hire others in the white for 90 days without long-term compromise. They can fire the employee up to the 90th day without having to pay their indemnizacion (the penalty you were talking about if an employer fires people after the 90 days) But as you can see, it hasn’t helped the situation at all.

    I think there are two big reasons why people hire in the black here, preferentially: 1) because the government puts a heavy burden on businesses in a variety of ways, the worker’s taxes and other requirements like aguinaldo (an entire 13 month’s salary, a forced bonus) being big ones, and 2) if you hire for 90 days, that person can easily (as you mentioned) be good for three months and screw-off afterwards to their heart’s content.

    You are so right about the unions here. Imagine bus drivers and train conductors who make more money than doctors, as an example. While teachers are left making very low salaries. and these unionized workers strike all the time (very similar to Italy) and impact people in very real ways, not just inconvenience.

    My wife’s oldest sister lives in Jose C. Paz, about 50 kilometers from the city down lengthy back roads once you leave the single north-bound freeway. She was caught in the city yesterday when the train driver’s union went on strike. They do this on purpose – they are open in the morning and then people get caught in the city in the evening, the only way to return is often via a long bus ride. We drove my wife’s sister out to her place last night and arrived about 10:00 PM (we left a little before 9). Friends and neighbor of hers who got caught in the city had left via the long bus around 7:00 PM and had not arrived yet. Just imagine how packed those buses must have been…

    The distrust via advantage-taking is everywhere here. I was talking to an Argentine friend of mine the other day about the landholders in the north, the breadbasket, of the country. According to him (I have not yet confirmed this) the landholders basically own everything. This includes land, the stores and the very money the workers are paid in. According to my friend, the landholders have a “script” that they issue, which is not Argentine Pesos and therefore is not accepted outside of the landholder’s area. This causes people to buy from local merchants who accept the script (because they have to as well), keeping the people in the area basically as “serfs” working the land for the “lords”.

    Meanwhile, the Argentine government is making deals with China to help feed their billions, which may result in China’s continued “colonization” of weak countries, like they have done in Africa, a deal that is completely against labor (and other) laws here in Argentina.

    Trust is indeed required to get ahead economically and Argentina is sorely lacking.

    • Thanks for the comment! Sorry I just approved it now, for some reason I didn’t get an email alert and only saw it when I logged in. I think we are in total agreement about these things, what you say about the train union is so true and so unfair to people! And don’t get me started on the deals with China. 🙂

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