“Loneliness and darkness have just robbed me of my valuables.”
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 same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual.’
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.
(A version of this was originally published in Eureka Street on 19th November, 2018.)