The Politics of Loneliness at the End of History

As the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain began to fall in the late ‘80s, Western states celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy. American author Francis Fukuyama argued that the dissolution of the Soviet Union signaled “not just… the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” [1]. We have largely accepted the idea that liberal democracy and free markets reign supreme. As cultural critic Mark Fisher once speculated, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to capitalism” [2].

But what happens when you reach the end of history, and the economic and social system that proclaims to make your life better has failed to fulfill this promise? As democracies move toward “the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” we might feel nostalgic for the “courage, imagination, and idealism” that we felt during wartime struggles for liberalism and democracy [1]. Perhaps what we feel, even more acutely than a sense of nostalgia, is a sense of loneliness. 

Loneliness has become the dominant disposition and silent killer in the end of history. Social scientists articulate the feeling of loneliness in many ways, but there is a common sentiment that loneliness is an undesirable feeling of isolation. While loneliness may seem like a timeless, universal experience for us today, the concept of being lonely wasn’t a lived experience until fairly recently. The concept was first used by sermon writers in the sixteenth century to invoke the loneliness and isolation of hell. The thought of being so isolated from others, and from God, was an almost unthinkable punishment for early modern Christians [3]. Today, though, loneliness permeates numerous facets of our day-to-day life. Researchers, using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, surveyed 20,000 adults throughout the United States and found that fifty-four percent said they “always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well,” and that the average loneliness score in America is forty-four, when scoring forty-three and above is considered lonely, indicating that most Americans feel isolated from one another [4]. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote that during his years of service, the most common pathology he saw “was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness” [5]. A study done by BYU in 2010 found that loneliness shortens a person’s life by fifteen years, which is about the same effect as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day [6]. 

These feelings of isolation and unbelongingness manifest themselves in different ways. Lonely people are at greater risk for heart attacks, cancer, depression, and drug abuse [6]. Lonely girls often develop eating disorders or spend hours editing pictures of themselves for validation on social media. Lonely men who feel ostracized by popular media and rigid social norms turn to dark, ideologically nihilistic corners of the internet, searching for friendship and community, hoping that they aren’t the only ones who feel isolated from the people around them. Lonely college students will often opt to stay in their apartments rather than go out if they feel they are different or alienated from their classmates.

There are certainly a myriad of reasons that we feel lonely. The Great Recession in 2008 highlighted not only how volatile and destructive liberal economies can be, but how much power economic conditions have over our wellbeing and relationships with others. Much of our loneliness stems from financial uncertainty, and the anxiety we sometimes feel to do something fun or social outside of trying to secure financial stability. When money is tight, it feels impractical to leave your apartment that so much of your paycheck goes toward renting.

But the predominant repeat offender in proliferating loneliness is our liberal ideology. If we conducted a face-value examination of liberal or, more aptly, neoliberal ideology, the source of our loneliness seems very clear. Neoliberalism, associated with free markets, privatization, liberalization, and austerity, centers itself around the idea that competition is the defining characteristic of human relations. Communities and cultures that existed before neoliberal hegemony did not primarily believe in the individual as central to a functioning society. But as states and societies democratized and liberalized, the value of the individual increased exponentially. In many ways, neoliberal societies run counter to natural human tendencies. We are social beings wired to respond and interact with other people living in an economic and social structure that seeks to erode our willingness to help others without seeking profit. 

Whether we explicitly believe in neoliberal practices or protest against them is beside the point. The basic tenets of individualism and competitive self-interest are entirely saturated in our consumption and interactions with others. We most often turn to neoliberal products in order to find respite from our neoliberal-induced loneliness. Social media often reaffirms not only the feeling of isolation from one’s peers, but assigns a visible numerical value to the quality and perceived success of individuals through followers and ‘likes’. Economists at the University of Milan have research suggesting that television helps drive competitive aspirations, and that those who watch a lot of TV “derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little” [7]. There is now an entire loneliness economy; there are startups like Tribe, a co-living space in New York where lonely millennials can pay to live in close proximity to others in search of friends, or WeWork, a coworking space aimed at “building a new infrastructure to rebuild social fabric and rebuild up the potential for human connection” [8].

While markets have found a way to profit off the loneliness epidemic, American, British, and other liberal governments have done little to alleviate loneliness. When Thatcher and Reagan came to power in the 1980s, they worked under the assumption that the tragedy of the commons, among many other neoliberal principles, was correct. The tragedy of the commons dictates that if communities have shared access to something useful, they will inevitably exploit and spoil the common good, leading to diminished efficiency and profitability. As a result, governments under Reagan and Thatcher slashed large swaths of public services, shifting trillions of dollars worth of state-owned enterprises to private investors. More important than the actual policies the two governments initiated was that they signaled the principle that public spaces, public options, labor unions, and collaborative efforts are not economically viable and that these public goods hurt individuals’ ability to earn more for themselves. Privatization and marketization of services like water, public transportation, education, roads, and prisons enables corporations to set up shop and charge for necessary goods and services, leaving ordinary citizens, and even governments helpless to their whims. A large proportion of the American and British populations doesn’t know any alternative to private goods and services. But as public services and spaces become private commodities, there has not been any meaningful increase in the real wages of American workers, which means we don’t have the same ability to engage in public spaces with others without paying steep prices for services [9]. 

When we see the erosion of social safety nets, growing economic disparity, and the dissolution of communal ties, it is easy to see why a rhetorically anti-establishment, populist President Trump was elected, or why formerly fringe organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America saw their membership triple after Bernie Sanders’ 2016 candidacy. Even if people have different ways of capturing the early twenty-first-century zeitgeist, there is a clear social erosion in communities, discourse, workplaces, and homes. Many would say that we are lucky to live in an end of history where we have time and resources to even consider the loneliness a major sociological problem. But an examination of loneliness under neoliberal ideology seems to provide insight to many of the larger concerns politicians, theorists, and everyday people have about a wide variety of political issues; like why Americans are becoming so polarized, the rise of organizations like the alt-right and ANTIFA, or the mental health epidemic. As Milton reminds us in Paradise Lost, the first thing God named not good was loneliness (Genesis 2:18). The spiritual well-being of societies is often contingent on the political and social ideologies we communally adhere to, as well as the material conditions these ideologies produce.

[1]. Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?”. The National Interest 16: 3-18. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184?seq=1

[2] Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books.

[3] https://theconversation.com/a-history-of-loneliness-91542

[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden

[5] https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic

[6] https://theweek.com/articles/815518/epidemic-loneliness

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us

[8] https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/4/29/18511580/loneliness-co-living-coworking-friend-app-tribe-wework
[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickwwatson/2018/09/25/real-wage-growth-is-actually-falling/#f029e1f7284f

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Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

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