Freedom and solitude

Loneliness is not just a side-effect of Coronavirus: it’s been here for a while

Books

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


You could hardly imagine a more fortuitous moment to publish a book on the politics of loneliness. Although Noreena Hertz began work on The Lonely Century long before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the current crisis pulls together all the different strands of her argument and ties them together in a big, persuasive bow.

We were living through lonely times even before the advent of social distancing. In 2019, one in eight Britons reported that they did not have a single close friend they could rely on, up from one in ten five years earlier. Some 60 per cent of UK employees report feeling lonely at work, and a similar proportion of older people report that television is their main source of company. The picture is just as bleak across the rest of the developed world.

The Lonely Century By Noreena Hertz Sceptre, £20

The psychological effects aren’t the only reason to worry about this outbreak of loneliness. Lonely people are 29 per cent more at risk of coronary heart disease, 32 per cent more at risk of stroke and 64 per cent more at risk of dementia. All in all, almost 30 per cent are more likely to die prematurely. Alarm over this new epidemic led in 2018 to the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness, whose job has this year become a whole lot harder.

To the miserable figure of the elderly or disabled person shielding from the outside world for months on end for fear of Covid-19, Hertz adds a host of other players: the elderly Japanese women committing petty crimes in the hope of finding some kind of community, however grim, in prison; the middle-aged people hiring a professional “friend” by the hour to pretend to enjoy their company; the man living out of his car because he has become addicted to “cuddling” services and has not a soul in the world who will give him a hug without payment.

To these extreme examples can be added the pressures bearing down on the rest of us as we spend more time on our phones, less time with friends or family, and report fewer and fewer meaningful relationships. Hertz is very good on the troubling nature of this phenomenon, and enriches her thesis with colourful anecdotes and interviews. But she is rather less good on explanation and remedy.

I am partially convinced by her argument, which leans heavily on the destructive effects of a form of neoliberal capitalism that emerged in the 1980s, “an ideology with an overriding emphasis on freedom — ‘free’ choice, ‘free’ markets, ‘freedom’ from government or trade union interference.” The triumph of this ideology has led both to an increase in inequality and a valorisation of competitiveness and selfishness.

Hertz cleverly highlights this through recourse to pop song lyrics, which over the last 40 years have apparently become less likely to use the pronouns “we” and “us”, and more likely to use “I” and “me”. Similarly, collectivist words like “belong”, “duty”, “share”, and “together” have declined in use, to be replaced by words like “achieve”, “own”, “personal”, and “special”.

Donald Trump is good at using collectivist vocabulary, speaking constantly of “the people”: “the beautiful people”, “amazing people”, “great people”. This kind of language appeals not only to those who are lonely according to the conventional meaning of the word, but also to those who suffer from Hertz’s more expansive definition, lacking support not only “in a social or familial context, but feeling politically and economically excluded as well”.

But the weakness of this book lies in the fact that Hertz is so markedly partisan, a weakness which is apparent not only in her rather condescending attitude towards people who vote for Trump and other populist politicians, but also in what she chooses to include and exclude from her analysis of the loneliness crisis.

Included are an awful lot of lefty hobbyhorses. So, for instance, we have several sections on the erosion of shared public spaces as a consequence of austerity, and a call for greater urban mixing between groups otherwise segregated on the basis of ethnicity or class. I have no objection to any of this, but the link between loneliness and a lack of diversity is not obvious to me (can’t highly homogeneous communities also be collectivist?)

Moreover, some of Hertz’s examples are rather flimsy. When she laments the construction of a London housing estate that included both expensive and affordable housing, but only permitted the wealthier residents access to the pool, I looked around and wondered if I should be outraged at the fact that none of my neighbours have paid for a pool for me. Is it really true that combating loneliness must necessarily include the socialisation of pool access?

Then there is the big, gaping exclusion at the heart of the book, addressed abruptly in the final chapter when Hertz dismisses those conservatives who “frequently cast the blame [for loneliness] on the breakdown of the ‘traditional family’.”

While she acknowledges that there are “elements of truth” in this idea, the book as a whole carefully avoids dwelling on the decline in marriage rates and the rise in childlessness and divorce, which are surely central to understanding the loneliness crisis. When a third of baby boomers are now living alone, mostly people who are either divorced or who have never married, how are we to avoid a cohort of lonely elderly people? And when another third of millennials say they don’t intend to have children, who exactly is going to be visiting these care home residents in 50 years’ time?

There is a way of folding this family factor into the narrative of neoliberal capitalism, since economic inequality puts strain on relationships, high property prices disincentive childbearing, and a culture of individualism encourages impulsive divorce.

Thus it would have been perfectly possible for Hertz to make her case while recognising that solutions that are popular with the left — such as housing co-ops and trade unions — can sit alongside and even complement more conservative solutions like organised religion and (not necessarily heterosexual) marriage.

If this loneliness problem is as urgent as Hertz says it is — and I’m more than willing to believe that it is — then remedies from across the political spectrum seem to be required. This important, interesting book would have been strengthened by a more open-minded approach.

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