The implications of loneliness

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There is a loneliness epidemic, the headlines warn. People feel disconnected, distant and disengaged from those around them. And loneliness kills. Lonely people have worse physical and mental health; apparently, being lonely is the equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

Cartoon of lonely people looking lost and flocking to demagogues. By Chris Johnston

Politicians being politicians have sought technocratic solutions: earlier this year, the UK introduced a minister for loneliness and now Fiona Patten, a Victorian upper house MP and leader of the Reason party, has proposed the state government do the same. The minister would, it’s been suggested, work across the health, infrastructure, justice and communities portfolios.

Loneliness is framed in a quintessentially liberal way: as a health-related issue affecting individuals. But loneliness is a by-product of the liberal social order; by elevating the market above all else and reducing notions of freedom to individual rights, societies have become atomised and fragmented and notions of value are now boiled down to crude forms of economic reductionism.

Similarly, the proposed remedies are extensions of the existing liberal framework. But there can’t be a bureaucratic solution — no matter how many departments the new minister works across — without addressing the underlying social causes. And there are real questions about whether governments — having surrendered so much of their power to the market — are even capable of doing this anymore.

In our market-dominated societies the majority of people have to sell their labour in order to make a living; we've commodified ourselves and, in order to be marketable, there's been a flattening of the self. Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School psychoanalyst and philosopher, argued that under these conditions individuals become 'a reflex of other people's expectations' with the effect that the ‘automatization of the individual in modern society has increased the helplessness and insecurity of the average individual.'

Fromm fled Germany shortly after the Nazis came to power and, in 1941, published The Fear of Freedom, in which he examined why parts of the German population were so receptive to Hitler’s ideology. He argued that 'the modern industrial system in general and in its monopolistic phase in particular make for the development of a personality which feels powerless and alone, anxious and insecure.'

He had a pointed warning for the United States, his adopted home, where he saw many of the same features. There is 'no greater mistake and no graver danger,' he wrote, 'than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual.'

 

"Loneliness sounds benign; something that afflicts losers and misfits and divorced from larger social and political questions. But how often are the American teenagers involved in school shootings described as 'loners'?"

 

In many ways, it's self evident that lonely people are less healthy. But more consequential and little remarked upon these days are the broader societal effects and the kind of politics born out of societies made up of alienated individuals. This was what preoccupied Fromm, though, and he can sometimes read like someone trying to make sense of the current moment:

'If we look only at the economic needs as far as the 'normal' person is concerned, if we do not see the unconscious suffering of the average automatized person, then we fail to see the danger that threatens our culture from its human basis: the readiness to accept any ideology and any leader, if only he promises excitement and offers a political structure and symbols which allegedly give meaning and order to an individual’s life.'

That’s not to overplay the similarities between the inter-war period in Germany and today. As the historian Timothy Snyder has noted, it's a useful frame of reference, but such comparisons shouldn’t be taken as prescriptions on how things will unfold.

Fromm’s analysis of Nazism's rise is not without its flaws, but there is a clear sightedness and complexity to it that’s lacking in almost all the commentary about the current state of affairs. The once daily calls, for example, not to normalise the latest political absurdity were really just the political class' unwillingness to accept the new normal, an expression of the desire to return to the old status quo.

There are also rhetorical challenges for those unconvinced about the connection between the 'loneliness epidemic' and what’s been called the rise of populism. Loneliness sounds benign; something that afflicts losers and misfits and divorced from larger social and political questions. But how often are the American teenagers involved in school shootings described as 'loners'? It’s almost become a cliché now. Loneliness, in other words, is far from benign.

Dictators aren’t elected because people are lonely, but there is a correlation between the dominance of a market-oriented worldview, a growing sense of alienation among those living under these conditions and the rise of authoritarianism. Thus, efforts to tackle these problems — to re-build communities that have been destroyed under capitalism — must be part of the same project.

 

Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, loneliness, capitalism

 

 

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It is true that loneliness is very debilitating. I see it frequently in some community work that I undertake: a large house, a single person living within and lack of easy access to services. As human beings, we are social (to varying degrees). Sadly, though, affection and human charity can be in short supply in the midst of busy lives and society eventually pays the price. Perhaps a subject to be introduced at school: How Actual Relationships Might Be Improved or Corrected.
Pam | 16 November 2018


The school subject you suggest Pam was embraced under a range of philosophical teachings by Catholic Education throughout this country until abandoned in the "enlightenment", allegedly guided by the Spirit of Vat II, which declared that "parents are the prime educators of their children" in a gross misreading (or even non-reading) of the Vatican II declaration on Education in the document, Gravissium Educationis, Vatican II, 1965. This document is readily accessible through Google and critiqued in my book, Controversy Confusion and Catastrophe: Catholicism in the Wake of Vatican II - Connor Court, Modotti Press, Melb, 2015.
john frawley | 19 November 2018


Market capitalism is quite compatible with high levels of social integration. It was the gathering together of very large numbers of proletarians in workplaces that facilitated the labour movement in the nineteenth century. Then in the twentieth century, the existence of huge factories, such as the Putilov Works in Petrograd, and the close-knit working-class living arrangements of the big cities, helped to usher in a revolutionary era in politics. It is technological and cultural change in our era that have contributed to the more extreme forms of social atomisation we now confront. What kind of social changes would reverse these developments?
Philip Proust | 19 November 2018


For the last 20 years I've thought a real revolution in party politics would be the day a party promoted as its social justice centrepiece a policy focusing on Loneliness. I was surprised, and very pleased, to see that in January this year that the UK government had appointed a Minister for Loneliness. My hunch is that the answer must come from several directions, to build a community, or communal approach to loneliness. By communal I mean that people are able to find and join a place in the circle, and contribute to it, and be valued by those others in it, and also be shaped by others in a way that holds people's dignity and helps them grow in their humanity. In any faith group, where community is lacking, the spiritual pulse is often weak. Each of us in our worshipping groups must address that. Individuals connect in churches, and families can be lonely too, as well as individuals! A wider community can give them hope. Vatican II can be seen as an attempt to create a warmer, more connected spiritual and living community within the Church. Our economy has a structural flaw. Many companies justify questionable ethical actions and claims by saying they are bound by the profit motive alone. Profits help build prosperity, but left unregulated, they can cause much harm. Read the transcripts of the Royal Commission on Financial Services: Behind every bonus is a slew of sleepless nights for thousands of customers worrying how they will now keep their family together financially. When that falls apart, it strains everyone. The profit damage goes in all directions: waste, HR savagery, a loss of authentic dealings. We need prosperity, but elevating the profit motive alone seems heretical to me. Town planning also consigns us to cars and boxes - kept in our own bubble, isolated at home sedated by entertainment. Consumption culture is a problem, too. As a culture we do not know "enough", only "more". There's some evidence that economies that are most successful at decarbonising/dematerialising are also communal economies. Doing a social capital survey a long time back, I knocked on houses to enquire of people's connection to community. I met an elderly woman who had not seen another human being for two weeks. We are well fed, but it has not been enough. We are eating more, and yet still hungry.
Adrian Glamorgan | 19 November 2018


Fromm's secular analysis of loneliness leaves untouched the locus of the phenomenon: the human heart and spirit. The Frankfurt School's rejection of God and undermining of the family are major contributors to contemporary alienation.
John | 20 November 2018


Loneliness seems to be one of the key factors in our postmodern age. Many people are not lonely, or don't appear to be so, when they are young, able, earning and enjoying life to the full. Sadly, there is often an inner emptiness which their constant business attempts to cover up. The traditional French peasant of report, who would have had a life of real toil and yet spent an hour a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament, when he 'talks to God and He talks to me' had a contemplative inner space where many moderns have nothing inside. The late Fr Seraphim Rose, an American convert to Orthodoxy, felt that Nihilism was the guiding philosophy of the 20th Century. I feel its baleful influence is well and truly alive today and guiding much social and educational philosophy with dire consequences. To me loneliness is a symptom of what is wrong with our modern Western world. In medicine you don't solve symptoms but attempt to diagnose and then only do you treat the illness. My opinion is that we in the West are suffering from a deep spiritual malaise which needs a real spiritual cure. Without this we are merely treating symptoms.
Edward Fido | 20 November 2018


I thoroughly agree with John and Edward; the fundamental problem in the affluent West is the loss of God. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a response to the invitation to be a member of Body of Christ, and its physical structure in one form or another, would transform society and undo the huge damage of the 20th century heresy and cancer of individualism/autonomy. The Frankfurt School legacy is pure evil!
Eugene | 20 November 2018


I've just voted for the Reason Party, simply because Fiona Patten acknowledges the need for the loneliness issue to be addressed by the state. The Church, of course, addresses it already. Thinking of the Last Supper, I visualizecJesus looking around at his group of friends, eating, drinking, sharing life, and saying "Do this in memory of me". This is living the Eucharistic life, which demands that we acknowledge we are a Body, not a loose collection of individuals. Fiona Patten, not markedly religious, is reaching for an answer that has already been offered to us.
Joan Seymour | 22 November 2018


Social interaction is the way in which individuals gain perspective about their thoughts and ideas. Without interaction, one loses perspective of cultural norms and values which can become self perpetuating. Irrational thoughts and phobias tend to dominate the cognitive processes of the lonely resulting in many kinds of mental disorders. This may explain the increasing levels of shootings in the USA by "lone wolves" and here in Australia where guns in the hands of the public are in short supply, stabbings and running down in vehicles of innocent civilians. If this hypothesis is extrapolated to cultures and sub cultures within society that have been alienated or type cast as having little value or a threat, then they too, lose perspective and perhaps become opposed to the society in which they live resulting in outbreaks of acts of terrorism. The key to social harmony is "treat everybody respectfully".
Nickoli Atomatoff | 24 November 2018


Fromm is an exegist, which he shows in distinguishing between good and evil, rather than the 'ignorance discourse' that fundamentalists embrace. Fromm endorses employing independent action and reason to establish moral values rather than authoritarianism. His Exodus account is an allegory for human biological evolution and existential angst, showing that when the apple was eaten we became aware of ourselves as being separate from nature while still being part of it. That is why we feel "naked" and "ashamed": we have evolved into human beings, conscious of ourselves, our own mortality, and our powerlessness before the forces of nature and society, and no longer united with the universe as we were in our instinctive, pre-human existence as animals. The solution to this existential dichotomy is found in the development of our uniquely human powers of love and reason. For love to be an interpersonal creative capacity rather than an emotion, we distinguish it from various forms of narcissism and sado-masochism that are commonly regarded as proof of "true love". Fromm decries "falling in love", which is blind to care, responsibility, respect, and justice, and cites the story of Jonah, who rejects the residents of Nineveh for their carelessness and irresponsibility.
Michael Furtado | 24 November 2018


I am a wee bit sceptical when politicians attempt to take the lead in addressing and alleviating loneliness. That is because most of them are vastly overprivileged and have no idea how most ordinary people live. They often initiate expensive schemes which do not address societal problems at the grass roots. Some nongovernment services, such as the excellent work done by the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Salvation Army and the Wayside Chapel are geared towards helping desperate, poor and lonely people at the grass roots level, where it is needed. They are often the most effective. I suspect that this is because the people responsible for them really believe something and also put it into practice. We are one of the wealthiest nations on earth and yet seem to have an enormous amount of loneliness, depression, suicide and social malfunction. I think that is because the people who run our various institutions, whatever their purported beliefs, are basically materialists. They can never have enough. Earlier and more simple societies today often have a cohesiveness and sense of belonging we have lost. It was not ever thus and we can regain this but the solution is not primarily a materialistic one.
Edward Fido | 24 November 2018


A thoughtful article on a neglected topic. However, the focus on market capitalism is naive. Socialist solutions provide no answer to loneliness as they do not address the underlying causes. Relativism, combined with social media is deadly. Relativism looks kind from the outside but it is actually incredibly cruel. Once morals and values have been relativised the next step is to relativise people. People then have to a value only compared to others, the intrinsic value of each individual is lost. Social media have the negative side effects of decreasing real human interaction and making it very easy to (unfairly) compare yourself to others! This is feeding into the epidemic of loneliness and anxiety in young people. How is socialism going to address that??? Sadly market liberalism and socialist ideology are simply the two sides of the same coin minted in the Enlightenment. Flipping the coin one way or the other will not solve problems that the failures of the Enlightenment project created in the first place! A higher level of understanding is required. Including a focus on the uniqueness and dignity of each human person.
Robert Stewart | 25 November 2018


As usual an article with great depth from ES, attracting some perceptive and reflective responses. However, I also think that the arm-wrestling and horn-locking approach demonstrated by those of the male variety here (including myself) sometimes misses the point. The feminist writer and spirituality guru, Stephanie Dowrick, has authored a book called 'Solitude & Intimacy' in which she addresses the inevitable paradox in loneliness, which is that we are often at odds with ourselves, as a consequence of which we seek the assurance of constant noise and chatter in order to avoid coming to terms with ourselves. Loneliness is thus not to be confused with aloneness, which is an opportunity for self-exploration and examination: an entering into ourselves to listen to the still voice within, which is often silenced or quelled.
Michael Furtado | 27 November 2018


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