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interviews

Living in a Low Trust Society

by Chris Rojek
February 28, 2021

This interview with Chris Rojekprofessor of sociology at the University of London and author, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Chris | I've written on popular music. I've written on leisure. I've written on social work, but in the last 10 years or so, I've been looking at fame and celebrity. And currently, I'm looking at the rise of a “low trust society.” I'm also writing a book on contemporary idols. 

Let's start with contemporary idols. How do you define celebrities and how do you think about the evolution of celebrity in modern time? 

There is no one definition because there are three types of celebrity.

The first type is ascribed celebrities. And these are people who are famous by reason of them being born into a family of influence like a king or a queen or occupying a social position in society like a president. 

There is achieved celebrity, which until recently, has been the dominant form. They started to arise with the rise of miscommunications, urbanization, and industrialization in the 19th century. These are people from ordinary backgrounds who are famous because of their talents, skills, or accomplishments. These are our movie stars or soccer stars. 

In the age of social media, we are experiencing a new type of celebrity: the celetoid. Celetoids are people who were created by social media websites, as well as people who have short periods of fame. A celetoid might get famous for holding up a bank robbery. Everybody knows the person's name for two or three days, and then the acknowledgment of the name disappears. We find it hard to remember these people. Social media is also creating a sub-branch of that, the micro-celebrity, which is a kind of do-it-yourself celebrity, where you create a profile and attract an audience, and on that basis, you become a figure of renown.

You write in your book that there were three converging factors that created an emergence of celebrity as a preoccupation: the decline in religion, the democratization of society, and the commodification of everyday life. Can you speak a little bit to the idea of celebrities as a commodity? 

Well, I look at it the other way around. After societies have achieved the struggle to survive, after a society has produced sufficient wealth to feed, to house, to shelter, most of its population, the preoccupation ceases to be about survival and instead becomes about attention, approval, and acceptance. They want to be liked. This is perfect for the rise of celebrity. 

Commodification simply means the turning of emotions and feelings into products that can make money. That's been a strong line of the study, but I don't think it explains the passions that people have for celebrities.

The overwhelming sense that celebrity gives meaning to life is not really explained by the fact that they are mere products.

Some people, even as I speak to you, are on Kim Kardashian's profiles, and though they've never met Kim Kardashian, they're feeling intense displeasure at the impending divorce of Kim Kardashian from her husband. Individuals are having emotional turmoil as a result of identifying with somebody that they've never met,  likely will never meet, and only know about through the media. This is new. This is not something that was the case 50 years ago. Social media has transformed our feelings of connection with celebrities. I call this presumed intimacy because we have intimate relations with people we have never met and will never meet. This is quite a new phenomenon in western society.

How you think that the connection that people feel to celebrities then carries over to how they feel about themselves and about their position in society?

It doesn't exist. 

Most people feel that they don't really have a place in society.

When you look at what we mean by low trust society, it's a society in which the majority of people feel that they are powerless, their lives don't have much meaning, and that they have elected to power people who they do not admire. They have elected people to power in Congress, in America, or to Parliament, here in the UK, who they don't really believe in and they don't really trust. 

More broadly, low trust societies are societies in which people have ceased to trust experts. They don't trust medical staff. They don't trust lawyers. Unless a specific problem arises in which they need those people, the general feeling about experts and professionals is that they speak a language that the ordinary person cannot understand. Experts are aloof. Experts do not empathize with ordinary life.

This is one reason why Donald Trump rose to power in 2016. People had felt that the established institutions of power in America were no longer representing them, no longer functioning for them.

So, they turn to a new Caesar: somebody who had no expertise and who claimed to be one of them, despite being a billionaire.

They formed intense relationships with him, despite four years of, let’s say this charitably, questionable behavior. I mean, Donald Trump got over 17 million votes in the last election. From a European perspective, that is truly mind-boggling. Much of what he said was simply a lie. 

The reason why Biden is seen as rather boring is that his politics is all about policy. Trump's is all about personality. He didn't have any policies except "make America great again," which is extremely vague and very hard to pin down. I saw a TV program about a year ago from America, where an interview was asking Trump supporters, “You like Trump because he wants to make America great again. When was the last time that America was great?” And they said, “Something like 1776, when we beat the British.” And the interviewer said, “That was a time when we had slavery, unemployment, hunger. You think that was great?” The people that support Trump have no historical perspective, they have no depth of knowledge about American history. Otherwise, they wouldn't support somebody whose policies are so based on simple hot air.

Does this exist everywhere politically? AOC is a good example of savvy social media presence, creating celebrity etc. Is America primed to only ever have celebrity presidents instead of civil servants?

Civil servants are rather faceless beings. So in a sense, they don't really have a role because they're invisible to the public. The relevant politicians in a democracy are those who want to be leaders. 

AOC, I think, exemplifies the divisions that exist on the left in American society and in European society. The idea of a united left is untrue. There are major splits among the left. Both in America and here in Europe, the left is in retreat. Biden is not really left-wing at all. Biden is essentially middle of the road. Bernie Sanders is seen to be genuinely on the left, but Bernie Sanders can't win an American election.

There's a very famous book by Werner Sombart, called, Why is There no Socialism in the United States. He says that if you look at an American in the early 20th century, however poor and miserable their life is, such is the strength of American ideology that they believe that one day, they will have a lucky break. If things go well and they work hard, they will make it. His argument still holds true. A belief that fate will play into your hands and suddenly you will stumble upon something that will make you millions of dollars is deep-rooted in American culture in a way that it isn't in Europe. Very few of us actually believe that kind of thing here. 

Which makes it baffling why, in American society, when you don’t make it, there isn't intense resentment about it.

It seems that people should say, "You know, you're telling me to work nine hours a day, seven days a week, and still I'm living on $20,000 a year. What's going on?"

That thinking in the 19th century in Britain led to the trade union movement and led to strong socialist movements that challenged the rule of capital. You don't have that in America. In my view, you don't have any political movement that has a chance in hell of challenging the rule of business and industry.

I mean, you have over 500,000 dead from the virus, you are almost certainly going to hit 650,00 deaths, and there hasn't been a mass reaction to that.

There might be in some areas, but it's not countrywide. You don't even have an effective vaccination program despite being the richest country in the world. Why? Partly, it is because of Donald Trump, but it's also because of this American view that we will sort our own problems out. We don't need other people. We're tough. We will make it on our own. An interdependent country, nevermind an interdependent world, is crazy to Americans. 

Collective action is hard when you see your condition as a personal failing or a personal success, which we do. 

It also goes back to wanting to be liked and wanting to be approved. The idea of building a collective resistance is very hard to achieve in a society that has such a strong emphasis on individualism and wanting to be liked and wanting to be approved of.  Society's move from the struggle to survive as the key thing in life, to a society that wants attention and approval from others, is one reason why celebrity culture is so strong.

What happens if people begin to feel that their needs are not being met? I do think that there is growing discontent in America, and for a lot of people, whether they are able to survive in America, is coming into greater question. Can that link break? And what changes if it does? 

Well, I don't see a rising solidarity. I see a rising discontent with the Trump moment and what led to Trump and what's still going on. I see discontent, but I don't see solidarity in America.

There was an awful lot of pushback to celebrities commenting on issues related to the virus. They were releasing statements with security walls around them. Who are they to try and pump out messages about life and death when they themselves are in no risk whatsoever? There was a reaction against that. I've been on some programs here where people have asked the question, is this the end of celebrity? I don't think it is. Celebrity is here to stay, unfortunately, and it's here to stay because one of the things that we all need in life is someone to look up to. Now, you have a bigger population who believe in God in the U.S., the majority is still a bit dubious about God, or don't believe in God.

If God goes, you have to have something else. And that something is celebrity culture.

Do you think that you conceptualize or think about celebrities differently in Europe because you have a different perception of class?

No, not really, because I think we are living in the age of global celebrity.

Class is something that Americans often say riddles British society. But I would say that America is a class-ridden society as well. And in addition to that, American racism is far more extreme than in Europe. 

Marx said that class differences arise from wealth and differences in wealth. The differences in wealth in America are more extreme than anywhere else. And they are intergenerational. You can't tell me that Ivanka Trump thinks of herself as working class. No way. 

There are divisions in American society, which are clearly organized around class. That's why in a town like Philadelphia or New York, there are no-go areas for a middle-class person. You wouldn't dream of having a car breakdown in some parts of Chicago. Here, it's not like that. I mean, you run into trouble you don't think, “Oh god, because of my color or my class, I am at risk.” It's not the same here. It's not great here, but that kind of friction does not exist. 

Right, well as you said, the Trump’s aren’t working-class but they are the arm of the Republican party that has decided to, on a surface level at least, appeal to the working class...

Well, they get around that contradiction by emphasizing individualism, anyone who works hard will make it, and also by emphasizing patriotism, we all love our country equally. Well, you know, some people get nothing from the country in America probably don't love the country. They're probably quite against it. There is this kind of primitive patriotism, which is not productive. It says that my country can never be judged because it's the best possible country in the world, which is just untrue.

Primitive is a good word. 

It feels linked to racism and immigration particularly. Patriotism only exists to defend the country against the “other”. 

Yet nearly all of you are immigrants. Of course, the paradox that within two or three generations, in most cases, often in one generation, you have all come from somewhere else. Yet, a large number of you don't like people coming. I mean, it's a paradox that is very hard to work out. White America and Black America, is made up of immigrants. All of this was taken from the Native Americans, and yet there is this constituency that feeds on this idea that we do not like foreigners coming in and taking our houses and our jobs.

It's very strange. Migration is something that will never stop. For whatever Donald Trump said, the wall between Mexico and America is nothing. And it always was nothing. But it played to people's fears and prejudices and it was effective for a while.

What you would say needs to change culturally, in order to build solidarity in the United States? 

A new tax system. You need to make sure that people without resources get more resources through taxation and through public investment. You cannot sustain the levels of inequality that America currently has.

It's not going to be the case that lots of jobs are going to come back to America through Biden. There are jobs which the Koreans and the Singaporeans and the Filipinos can do at a much lower rate than an American. They're not going to come back. So you need to try and transfer resources from the super-wealthy to the rest. In my class last week, I looked at the latest Oxfam figures. The richest 26 people in the world hold over 50% of the world's wealth. Many of them are in America.

You also need to pay extreme attention to the environment. America is one of the main polluters, and that has to change. This will ultimately impact the poor more than the rich.

There are two things that you need to do, but if it was as simple as those two things, then we wouldn't have the threat of Trump or a mini Trump coming back in four years. The question for the left is how do they build solidarity when the experience of life on the left is so fragmented, so divided by race, gender, sexuality, other things, and it's very hard to get common things agreed upon between those different factions.