The Age of Loneliness?

The loneliest bird in the world died last week. Nigel, a gannet bird who lived on Mana Island off the coast of New Zealand was found dead near a decoy mate he spent years trying to court. According to an article in the Washington Post, Nigel migrated to the island in 2013, which was populated with some 80 decoy birds, meant to entice other followers. Nigel fell in love with one of the wooden birds, grooming her, building a nest for her, nuzzling her faded paint.

A pair of gannet birds (Source: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nigel is not alone. In the past week Quartz, The Cut, the New York Times, TIME, and The Washington Post have all published articles on loneliness.

Last month Britain appointed a Minister of Loneliness to help deal with the rising rates of isolation individuals feel. Reports revealed that roughly 15 to 20 percent of British citizens regularly feel lonely. The appointment was in part a response to the 2016 murder of Jo Cox, who was killed by a man with connections to the far-right. Loneliness had been one of her primary policy issues. Prime Minister Theresa May said of the appointment:

“We should all do everything we can to see that, in Jo’s memory, we bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good,” May said in a statement in mid-January. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”

Loneliness is a problem in America, too. According to researchers from UCLA who crafted a Loneliness Scale, approximately between 20 and 43 percent of all American adults over the age of 60 experience “frequent or intense loneliness.”

And it is clear to researchers that loneliness has significant health impacts:

“The bodies of lonely people are markedly different from the bodies of non-lonely people…” One researcher added, ‘Prolonged loneliness can put one at risk for chronic health conditions, exacerbate various health conditions, and ultimately put us at increased risk for premature mortality.’ The bodies of lonely people are more likely to have high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Despite these statistics, Eric Klineberg, writing for this week’s SundayReview, argues that loneliness is not a health epidemic. Instead he argues loneliness is a result of our contemporary society:

“Anxiety about loneliness is a common feature of modern societies. Today, two major causes of loneliness seem possible. One is that societies throughout the world have embraced a culture of individualism. More people are living alone, and aging alone, than ever. Neoliberal social policies have turned workers into precarious free agents, and when jobs disappear, things fall apart fast. Labor unions, civic associations, neighborhood organizations, religious groups and other traditional sources of social solidarity are in steady decline. Increasingly, we all feel that we’re on our own.
The other possible cause is the rise of communications technology, including smartphones, social media and the internet. A decade ago, companies like Facebook, Apple and Google pledged that their products would help create meaningful relationships and communities. Instead, we’ve used the media system to deepen existing divisions, at both the individual and group levels. We may have thousands of “friends” and “followers” on Facebook and Instagram, but when it comes to human relationships, it turns out there’s no substitute for building them the old-fashioned way, in person.”

It’s clear that loneliness is intimately connected to the political moment we’re living in. Klineberg’s attention to changing social networks and media forms reflects that, but he is unwilling to call loneliness an epidemic, for fear that we’ll end up causing social panic and not helping those in need. That seems reasonable, but I think in making that judgment he misses the larger political implication of calling loneliness an epidemic. The rise of populism in the United States, a pervasive sense of social disconnection, the surge in suicide rates, the continuing drug epidemic, the fear of immigrants, are all interconnected.

It is not surprising that loneliness is appearing at this moment as a Western problem. Loneliness, as a condition of modernity, has always posed a threat to democracy. And right now, democracy is suffering. When people feel cast out, unable to connect and find meaning, they often turn toward social movements or ideological leaders in order to become a part of something. Theodor Adorno called this the “American Joiner Mentality.” Hannah Arendt argued that loneliness was the breeding ground for totalitarianism.

It’s ironic in a way that since the election of Donald Trump, Hannah Arendt’s epic work The Origins of Totalitarianism has been selling at record rates. Most people are drawn to the work despite its bulk because it offers an understanding of totalitarianism as an emergent political force in the world. What they don’t expect to find at the very end is a careful analysis of loneliness in relation to the rise of mass social movements.

Arendt understood the political threat that loneliness poses to the fabric of a plural society. She called it “the common ground of terror.” At the end of Origins, she writes:

“While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

Anti-democratic forces like the new waves of populism we are experiencing in the United States and throughout Europe thrive on loneliness, appealing to those who feel as if they have no place within society. With the collapse of society, individuals find themselves increasingly isolated. Today, technology and the disintegration of the public realm continue to alienate people from one another and the world, empowering political leaders like Donald Trump.

This is why throughout her writing Arendt emphasizes that we must share the world in common, embracing one another in our plurality and difference. Feeling at home in the world, having a sense of social life, as well as private and public, is essential to what it means to be human. Loneliness is as much a threat to liberal democracy as any other political force we can imagine.

Samantha Rose Hill, Assistant Director and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College