According to George Monbiot in The Guardian, “this is the Age of Loneliness” – with various surveys reporting high levels of social isolation among young and old alike:
“Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults. Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50, and is rising with astonishing speed.”
Loneliness may be a subjective experience, but its impact on health and wellbeing is all too tangible:
“Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”
Monbiot argues that this is a deeply unnatural state of affairs for an essentially social species:
“We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before.”
There’s a lot of truth in this, but Monbiot goes too far in describing human beings as “mammalian bees.” Bees, like ants and termites, aren’t just social, they are what zoologists describe as eusocial: hierarchical caste societies, in which the needs of the individual are routinely sacrificed to those of the collective.
As it happens, there is a eusocial mammal: the utterly bizarre naked mole-rat – which, I’d suggest, provides no sort of model for humanity (apart from its remarkable resistance to cancer).
History shows we have more to fear from collectivisation than the opposite. Nevertheless, individualism can go too far – and our own country would appear to be a prime example:
“A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?”
Monbiot claims that our culture positively celebrates social isolation:
“The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone…
“You have only to think of the wall-to-wall auctions on daytime TV, Dragon’s Den, the Apprentice and the myriad forms of career-making competition the medium celebrates, the generalised obsession with fame and wealth…”
As a man of the left, it’s no surprise that Monbiot identifies this culture with capitalism. Yet, in doing so, he disregards other equally powerful forces of atomisation.
The spirit of free enterprise has been part of British life for centuries – which is why modern industrial capitalism got its start on this otherwise obscure and windswept island. However, the breakdown of community that Monbiot laments is a more recent phenomenon with more recent causes.
For instance, one can’t ignore the impact of the post-war welfare state, which encouraged people to rely on distant bureaucracies instead of one another. Rather than building upon the British tradition of voluntary action, as exemplified by institutions like the friendly societies, it was comprehensively abandoned (against the advice of William Beveridge). The same technocratic arrogance was at work in post-war planning, housing and immigration policies, which did lasting damage to the physical and social fabric of working class community life.
To all this we must add the consequences of social liberalism – in particular, the weakening of marriage as a social institution. If you want to identify the single biggest cause of loneliness, then I doubt you could find a more convincing candidate than the splintering of the family and the casualisation of sexual relationships.
None of this is to absolve capitalism of its share of the blame, but rather to recognise the malign interactions between economic and social liberalism – not to mention the top-down bureaucratic state that keeps the whole mess from falling over.