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Towards the end of Melbourne’s second lockdown, as the number of new cases continued to fall, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg joined the growing chorus of people calling for restrictions to be eased, and specifically for retail and hospitality businesses to be allowed to re-open. The lockdown, he said, was doing great damage to both the economy and people’s mental health. As evidence, he told reporters that a friend of a friend, whose business had been severely impacted by the pandemic, had recently died by suicide. 

For months, anti-lockdown groups have been claiming Victoria is in the grip of a ‘suicide epidemic’ – a falsehood peddled by Sky News talking-heads, whose videos are shared as irrefutable proof in the very Facebook groups that manufacture the misinformation in the first place, in a brain-melting feedback loop of conspiracism and culture war nihilism. The Coroners Court has debunked this, releasing data to show that there has been no increase in Victoria’s suicide rate. But unsurprisingly, among groups that openly dispute the government’s Covid-19 numbers, this hasn’t altered their fundamental belief that, as Donald Trump put it, the cure is worse than the disease.      

In telling this story, however, Frydenberg tacitly acknowledges that there is a direct relationship between individual mental health and financial insecurity, something that anyone who’s ever lived below the poverty line understands only too well. Much is made these days about the fact that mental illness doesn’t discriminate, that it can affect anyone. While this has been part of a commendable and, it should be said, largely successful effort to remove some of the stigma around mental illness, the fact remains that there is a clear and measurable link between social and economic inequality and poorer mental health. Yet the Treasurer only shows concern when those affected are business owners – not, say, people on social security, or international students excluded from government support during the pandemic.

Frydenberg has now all but abandoned his commitment to providing the unemployed with a living wage and reducing social isolation as an effective suicide prevention strategy. The government’s initial response to Covid-19 proved that the former is possible. The latter is a more intractable challenge, and the subject of Noreena Hertz’s new book, The Lonely Century. In an age where every emotional state seems to be pathologised, loneliness sounds benign – undesirable, perhaps a little pathetic, but not destructive. The book is filled with examples that suggest otherwise.

Carl, for instance, overwhelmed with the idea of dating, pays Jean to cuddle. Before long, he is also paying other women – not for sex, but for intimacy and hugs – so much money that, in order to maintain his busy roster, he has to devise ‘a hack’, as he puts it. ‘To pay for it,’ he tells Hertz, ‘I now live in my car.’ Then there’s the rising number of Japanese women over the age of 60 who commit crimes in order to go to jail, a prospect that is apparently more appealing than their socially isolated freedom. 

These individual tales of loneliness are tragic and seemingly the lens through which most people think about it – as a personal burden. That is the underlying logic of the assumption that lockdowns inevitably lead to a rise in suicides is that loneliness, while tragic, is essentially just a by-product of being alone. But, while Hertz acknowledges that there ‘are over 130 studies that have found a link between loneliness and suicide, suicide ideation or self-harm’, she suggests that the focus on loneliness (and suicide, for that matter) as an individual malady is too narrow. Echoing Émile Durkheim, she has a more expansive conception of loneliness:

“It’s about feeling disconnected not only from those we are meant to feel intimate with, but also from ourselves. It’s about not only lacking support in a social or familial context, but feeling politically and economically excluded as well. I define loneliness as both an internal state and an existential one – personal, societal, economic and political. 

Loneliness has become a feature of modernity, a hallmark of late capitalism, woven into the technologies and built environments that form the architecture of our lives. There are many paradoxes of the current moment. Smartphones keep us in a state of ‘perma-connection’, yet we’ve never felt more alone and never struggled with being alone so much. Every day, my inbox fills up with invitations to connect, but real connection – connection in the Forsterian sense – has never been so elusive. We live in a world that, despite promises to the contrary, is pulling us apart.

Loneliness is not a new phenomenon. But the present moment is unique in that alienation is the defining social condition of our age; one that, according to Hertz, corresponds with the hegemonic rise of neoliberalism, 

“…an ideology with an overriding emphasis on freedom – “free” choice, “free” markets, “freedom” from government or trade union interference. One that prized an idealised form of self-reliance, small government and a brutally competitive mindset that placed self-interest above community and the collective good. 

The problem, as she understands it, is not capitalism, per se – it’s just this ‘extreme’ variant. Part of the solution, therefore, must be ‘to implement a more caring and kinder capitalism.’ She proposes a number of top-down policy suggestions, drawing on initiatives that have had some success, like regulating social media companies, more progressive taxation and increasing democratic participation. None of these are, in and of themselves, bad or undesirable. But nor do they remedy the fundamental problem; instead, they merely ameliorate some of the worst aspects of capitalism, they (to enlist an overused metaphor) treat the symptoms while ignoring the disease. It’s not clear to me, for instance, how the tech behemoths that now exert enormous influence over our lives can be regulated within the same system that paved the way for their rise. Similarly, low tax rates are part of a suite of policies that have disproportionately favoured the wealthy, not only making them obscenely rich but also facilitating an enormous transference of economic, political and social power. Having created a monster, it’s fanciful to think that the wealthy elite will willingly relinquish these gains, particularly since politicians are less likely than ever to pursue an agenda against them. 

Hertz maintains what seems like an irreconcilable faith in capital – in its ability to reform itself in ways that are contrary to its interests. ‘If capitalism is to be reconciled with care,’ she writes, ‘we need to reconnect the economy with social justice as a matter of urgency and acknowledge that traditional ways of defining success are no longer fit for purpose.’ But can capitalism be reconciled with care? If the economy prioritises care over profit – or if the paradigm of production and consumption is replaced with care and freedom, as David Graeber proposed – then can it really be properly described as capitalism? Those who look to the market as a liberating force are either misguided or mendacious. It isn’t – and never has been – a vehicle for freedom, despite what the likes of Hayek and Friedman claimed, a definition Hertz too willingly accepts. Neoliberalism is better understood as a system that undermines democracy in the interests of capital and is more accurately described, to borrow from Teju Cole, as ‘market totalitarianism’ – a phrase that captures the absolutist, oppressive nature of the system we survive under. 

This was something one of the twentieth century’s most astute critics of totalitarianism instinctively recognised; George Orwell’s working title for Nineteen Eighty-Four, before his publisher wisely talked him out of it, was The Last Man in Europe. Resistance is a lonely, solitary endeavour in societies where collective bonds have been actively undermined, where everyone is made to view those around them suspiciously, whether they be potential informers or competitors. Thus, it’s not merely that Winston Smith is the last man in Europe; everyone is the last man in Europe. All men are islands. An axiom integral to the survival of totalitarian regimes, as well as the promise of capitalism.    

The market is not something that sustains people or provides them with a sense of meaning or purpose; it is, rather, a vast network of exploitation. In many instances, the pandemic provided a moment of respite, whether it be a break from low paid service roles or an escape from draconian office life. If only briefly, it stripped away some of the shame and stigma of unemployment; to have been laid off as a result of the pandemic was a mark of misfortune, not – as being out of work is often misrepresented – a moral failing. ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’ is the much beloved slogan for political parties across the ideological spectrum, but work is not the solution to any of the multitude of challenges we currently face – it’s the problem.  

The lonely office worker – sequestered alone in his one-bedroom apartment, eating his TV dinners, constantly scrolling through Facebook, hot desking during the week and devoid of social interaction on the weekend – may not appear to share much in common with Marx’s nineteenth-century factory worker. However, it’s the institution of waged labour – and, by extension, the separation of labour from the basic means of production and subsistence – that, according to Marx, created the conditions for alienation. If anything, the situation is more dire now; Marx at least saw hope in the revolutionary potential of the working class. Today, there is no majoritarian, class conscious working class and that’s, in a sense, why the likes of Hertz, who recognise and write thoughtfully about aspects of neoliberalism, can’t imagine an alternative to it. It’s a mark of how hegemonic capitalism has become that people as seemingly ideologically opposed as Hertz and Frydenberg can identify two of the cruellest ways capitalism manifests itself in the lives of individuals and still both end up proposing the cause as the solution.

(This was originally published in Flood Media on 18th February, 2021.)