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The implications of loneliness

  • 19 November 2018
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.

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