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The pandemic has physically isolated everyone.

But another epidemic has been with us for longer than this virus. The loneliness epidemic is a silent killer that breeds in large groups of people. Toxic social media, polarised politics and decades of neoliberal economics, have pushed communities to breaking point.

The question now, how do we avert the lonely century?

Author, Noreena Hertz, met up with host, Ross Ashcroft, to discuss.

The lonely crowd

In the era of the global pandemic, it is perhaps easy to overlook the fact that the miseries of modern urban life existed long before the onset of Covid-19. Associated with the ‘lonely crowd’, atomized dwellers within densely populated cities are often crushed and benumbed by the weight of a social system in which they have neither significant purpose nor decision-making power. The more densely our cities become, the more our lives are characterized by feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Noreena Hertz defines loneliness as not only feeling disconnected from friends or family or lacking the company and intimacy of others, but also more broadly reflected in the growing estrangement from fellow citizens, politicians and the state. Whilst researching for her book, The Lonely Century, Hertz discovered that loneliness viewed through this broad prism mainly affects the young.

Inclusion and reciprocity

The author notes how important it is that inclusive forms of democracy, predicated on reciprocal human interactions, are anchored and nurtured within local communities. Hertz says that a corporation like McDonald’s provide an important ‘third space’ role in helping to build communities but acknowledges that a potential negative consequence of such a nuanced approach is the corporate brand stamping of toxic products and services onto the said communities.

Hertz points to the use by Apple and WeWork of wielded communities as marketing tools, their exploitation of the desire for the public to work and live together and their co-option of the language of community, as an illustration of this process.

In a sense, therefore:

“Communities can be very excluding. So, we can talk about nurturing communities, but at the same time we have to be very cognisant of the need to bridge communities as well and make sure that they’re not so exclusive that the only people who get the privilege of community, are the wealthy”, says Hertz.

From ‘society’ towards ‘economy’

The notion of exclusivity reflects a political shift away from the rhetoric of ‘society’ during the three decades-long post war settlement years, towards the rhetoric of ‘economy’ that mirrors the subsequent neoliberal era.

“This particular form of capitalism has a lot to answer for when it comes to the rise in loneliness in the economic and political sense. A hyper competitive, hyper individualistic mindset, championed by governments’, was never going to be compatible with a cohesive, collaborative society”, says Hertz.

As early as 1992, research indicated a link between social isolation and right wing populist rhetoric thereby reinforcing the notion that communities are exclusive and threatening places. Hertz says that, disproportionately, those who feel lonely tend to show signs of aggression towards outsiders. This is a situation in which both populist politicians and gang leaders have – as a consequence of the vacuum created by neoliberalism – been able to weaponize and exploit.

Language and social media

Hertz notes that language has also played a part in the loneliness crisis:

“We can see it in the way that language has evolved over the past few decades. So whereas in the past, words like ‘duty’ and ‘share’, were used much more regularly, such words got supplanted over the past few decades with things like, ‘individual’ or ‘myself’, says the author.

Another key driver of the loneliness crisis is social media and the use of smartphones. What Hertz’s research makes clear is that social media is playing a particularly significant role in isolating and excluding the young. “On balance, social media clearly is making the world a lonelier, more atomised place”, says Hertz.

The lack of any duty of care by the social media companies towards their customers, amplifies the divisiveness and atomisation which governments help augment as a result of the lack of sufficient regulation.

“In many ways, social media companies are the tobacco companies of the 21st century”, adds the author.

Hertz proffers some solutions to help people come together in a world that’s pulling apart. These include investment by governments’ in the infrastructure of communities, greater regulation of the social media companies and an explicit focus on the core human values of care, kindness and empathy. “Moving forward, claps for carers isn’t enough. We have to pay those in society who care for others significantly more, because if we are to truly reconcile capitalism with compassion, governments will have to step in because there has been a market failure in this regard”, says Hertz.

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