Imperial Economies of Trust: Suspicious States and Surreptitious Subjects, 1500–1918

AHA Session 282
Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Johan Mathew, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Johan Mathew, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Session Abstract

In 1906, the German sociologist Georg Simmel observed that modern society—characterized by its reliance on credit and faith in science—was cemented with trust. Just over a century later, alarmed pundits are heralding a global “crisis of trust” not only in economic life, but in government, media, and interpersonal relations. The arc of the last hundred years, though perhaps distressing, is hardly unprecedented. With this panel, we place the making and breaking of trust within a single frame. Drawing attention to Ottoman and Russian examples, we argue for an approach to studying trust that is trans-regional and spans the early modern and modern eras, paralleling the expansion and contraction of powerful Eurasian empires.

How does an imperial state decide whom to trust? Why—and how—does that trust collapse? While much attention has been paid to the seeds of social suspicion sown by totalitarian states, for example, states cannot expand only on the basis of mistrust. These papers collectively shift our gaze to the internal logics of states themselves. In doing so, we are careful to disaggregate the state, examining the actors who were responsible for manufacturing the proliferation of trust across imperial networks. The decision to trust, we posit, played a significant role in state-making. How did central bureaucrats establish trusting relationships with their far-flung agents? Looking to Ottoman postal couriers, Mongol nomads, and alleged Arab subversives, we demonstrate how imperial authorities defined and redefined the boundaries of trust within their realms. How bonds corroded is as central to our discussion as how they were forged. When did states decide to stop trusting? From where did suspicions surface as a potent force, undermining existing relationships of trust? Our papers address these questions through the lens of both institutions and individuals, and through bureaucratic paperwork, private letters, and informers’ reports. Opening a conversation between scholars of the early modern and modern worlds, this approach both offers insights into the symptoms of crisis and de-exceptionalizes it.

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