Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century review: Loneliness — The next pandemic is already here

Economist Noreena Hertz says it is both an internal state of mind as well as an existential reality

Published - July 08, 2022 06:06 pm IST

Humans by nature are gregarious creatures, and, therefore, are not built for isolation.

Humans by nature are gregarious creatures, and, therefore, are not built for isolation.

People may have just outlived the chilling consequences of the pandemic-induced social exclusion but scars of forced isolation remain deep and disturbing, because loneliness is more than being a state of solitude that has become the defining condition of the twenty-first century. Only by expanding the definition of loneliness, however, can one get closer to its wider societal manifestations. Increasing social and economic inequality is at the root of making it a predominantly lonely world, wherein people feel they have only themselves to fall back on — lacking support from employers, communities, and even the government. Loneliness, defines economist Noreena Hertz, is both an internal state of mind as well as an existential reality.

Pushed to secluded corners

The situation is much worse than what the words may describe. The elderly in Japan are known to commit petty crimes in order to go to jail, to secure not only company of the likeminded but also support and care. Before the pandemic, in 2018 a Minister of Loneliness was appointed in the U.K. to support the lonely from feeling disconnected from society. Research confirms that loneliness has deleterious health effects — it triggers a cumulative stress response, hampers the immune system, increases risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia, and counts for one-third of premature deaths too. In an increasingly contactless world where we are too busy to stop and smile at each other, loneliness is bound to push us into the secluded corners of our lives.

Humans by nature are gregarious creatures, and, therefore, are not built for isolation. But more by design than default, their profoundly atomised living in recent times has made them miss many of the casual and deeper human connections. Increasing digital communication, growing contactless economy, expanding urbanisation, convenient online shopping, and hostile architecture have contributed to the current loneliness crises. Hertz argues that the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s with its free-choice and free-markets doctrine not only prized an idealised form of self-reliance but reshaped our relationships with each other. Should then it be a surprise that we have become more disconnected, siloed and isolated?

The Lonely Century is a fascinating and original work on one of the greatest challenges of our time. Deeply researched, insightful and compelling, the book is not so much about the emotional ache we call loneliness as about the fragmentation of society and its wider political implications. Loneliness, therefore, constitutes many layers of isolation at various levels: how cut off we feel from our work and workplace; how excluded many of us fell from society’s gains; and how powerless, invisible and voiceless many of us believe ourselves to be. All these add up to make lonely individuals extremely vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

Described by the Observer as ‘one of the world’s leading thinkers’, Hertz provides an engaging and compelling analysis of the dangers posed by the loneliness pandemic and our collective failure to bring the disconnected back into the societal fold. As a consequence, the world has never felt this polarised, fractured, and divided. This has become a perfect fodder for political forces to exploit the situation. Quoting research studies from many countries, Hertz believes that loneliness — or perhaps more accurately, marginalisation — is linked to the rise of right-wing politics. Evidence of such corelations are not too hard to find, and this should concern us all because the politicians at the extreme have their ears finely tuned to people’s disaffection with an eye on their exploitation for political gains.

Trigger for many ills

Could loneliness be the only driver to trigger political alienation? Is neoliberalism at the root of the loneliness pandemic? While these questions will continue to get debated, there can be little doubt that loneliness has led to an economic crisis, costing us billions of dollars in health expenditure, and a political crisis fuelling divisiveness and extremism. Hertz doesn’t end at highlighting the physical, mental, economic and societal effects of loneliness, but provides a rousing call for action for government, businesses, society and individuals to address and resolve. Unless a concerted action is mounted at all levels, the world will continue to pull itself apart.

As long as there isn’t widespread realisation of the looming crises, the loneliness economy will cuddle the lonely hearts via the eerie robotic companion. Far from setting society on the right course, tools of the loneliness economy will only reassert the words of one of its champions, Margaret Thatcher, who said: ‘Economics is the method, the object is to change the heart and soul.’ So far, neoliberalism has succeeded in its aim. But Hertz makes the reader feel that there is every reason to be hopeful in our collective ability to reinvigorate society.

The Lonely Century; Noreena Hertz, Sceptre, £20.

The reviewer is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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