The old man found crouched over hot water bottles and blankets in a stone cold home seven days after he died last week had no obvious connection with President Trump but if we don’t understand the links there will be more solitary deaths and more Donald Trumps.
The story of the pensioner was the first I’ve read this winter. There will be more, there always are. Everybody dies but dying alone offends our common humanity and it scares us. Some of us are sociable, some less so, but no one wants to be unnoticed. We belong here and have a right to be seen. We have a part to play and want to be wanted. We have a voice and a right to be heard. These are the simple reciprocities, the give and take, of a place where people belong, a place where, to use the phrase that we have been discussing on this blog in recent weeks, meaningful relationships are the central operating principle.
A Gransnet survey for the Jo Cox Commission reported in March 2017 that 73% of older people in the UK say they are lonely, 49% “have been for years”. Befriending schemes for this age group are really important but not enough. As more and more are living lives of quiet desperation it becomes more and more essential to track back, understand the causes and tackle them at source. The “doing what anyone would do” story in Connecting Well blog 3 showed the importance of connecting better through out the life course. If it was an explicit policy objective the likelihood of dying unnoticed would be, if not eliminated, significantly reduced.
And it is in this tracking back, understanding the root causes that we find Donald Trump. Over the course of my lifetime our institutions and our businesses have got bigger and more remote. Neo liberalism has become the default mindset in Westminster and Whitehall, competition rules. Citizens have been recast as consumers. Aggressive self interest has emerged as both the dominant political and economic orthodoxy and also the way in which we are all encouraged to behave and to view ourselves and others – it is the new popular common sense. On a practical level increased insecurity and inequality has reduced the time and opportunities that we have to form broad social connections. In short and in sum, economic liberalism has undermined social connection.
Perhaps it is, as George Monbiot has concluded “unsurprising that Britain, (the country) in which neo liberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neo liberals now.” ( Neo liberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems, George Monbiot. Guardian 15/4/16)
The political theorists gathered around the Blue Labour and Red Tory movements would further argue that the decline in family , faith and community, what David Brooks has called the “covenantal attachments” has created a. state where “Freedom without covenant (has become) selfishness … that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis…… Freedom without connection becomes alienation and that’s what we see at the bottom… frayed communities, broken families…. Freedom without a unifying national social connection becomes distrust, polarisation, and permanent political war”. (David Brooks, Our elites still don’t get it, New York Times , 16/11/17.)
There is a nostalgic attraction in the idea that a return to family, faith and flag would restore the values we need to use our economic freedoms in ways which benefit us all but I think the toothpaste is out of the tube. As with so much on this blog we need to look forwards not backwards. If the economic model has contributed to the devaluation in the currency of relationships, and if that devaluation has played some part in wider social dysfunction resulting variously in elderly neighbours dying alone, a shrill and divisive public discourse and base national leaders appealing successfully to crude self-interest, then we need to rethink the ways in which we relate to one another with approaches which challenge, change or supersede the current economic and political models
That could mean, Will Horwitz. suggests, “institutions which gain power through the relationships (formal or informal) between their members – social movements, unions, Citizens UK. It could be institutions which act as an alternative to market-based activities – Coops, Housing Associations, Community owned assets. And it could mean all the community-level activities which operate outside the market and which we have discussed here previously – allotments and Big Lunches and the school gates.
Equally it could mean identifying and avoiding apparent ‘solutions’ which actually entrench the economic model that. is causing the harm. We might for instance avoid large corporate platforms like Facebook which might facilitate relationships but also seems to have an overall negative effect on mental health. Recent American research (1) has shown that 8th Graders (13 year olds) who spend 10 hours or more on social media are 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who spend less and heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27%.
Would those numbers change if the underlying motivation was not to sell ads but to improve social connection for its own sake? Would a cooperatively-owned version of Facebook be organised and managed in the same way and would it have the same impact on mental health?”
Social care would be another obvious area to reconsider. A community in which carers are commissioned for seven minute visits, retendered every three months has been driven by the inappropriate. ideologies which hold that every need can be best met by the market. If relationships were considered to be the central operating principle we would learn from the successful Buurtzog model in Holland and develop new provision which not only changed the basis of the service but also challenged the business model. Services would be provided, as they are in the Netherlands, by locally owned mutuals staffed by small neighbourhood teams trained and trusted to allocate their time at the discretion of the group.
“You have got to think about big things while doing small things so that all the small things go in the right direction” wrote Alvin Toffler. Most obviously personal relationships are about the smallest and most local points of connection. We need to nurture and embed them close to home because it is here that they are most important in themselves, more important than anything else.
It is also and equally true that communities, neighbourhoods, cities, nations are built from the aggregation of countless millions of individual relationships. Doing it better involves challenging and changing the prevailing economic orthodoxy into one that recognises meaningful relationships as the heart of the matter. Do it badly or inadequately and it is the idea of a good society, organised, civilised, serving more than individual interest but a common good, that dies slowly and unnoticed.
(1) Twenge, JM (2017) iGen: Why todays super connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy and completely unprepared for adulthood (and what that means for the rest of us. Atria Books.