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Pakistan is at war with itself, with blackouts, corruption and terror attacks. Now there are calls f

Pakistan has become a very unusual place. In Lahore, the heart of Pakistani cricket, the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in broad daylight by masked gunmen carrying guns and rocket launchers, because you never know when a rocket launcher will come in handy during an urban attack. The government had been warned of a potential terror threat but, true to form, ignored it. After killing eight people, mostly policemen, and wounding several others including the foreign cricketers, the gunmen ambled leisurely away. They were caught on CCTV camera calmly mounting their motorcycles and surveying the scene before deciding they had other places to be.

Immediately the cacophony of ludicrous claims hit the media. “The attack is to ruin our [the ruling party’s] image,” bellowed Raja Riaz, a Pakistan People’s Party hack. Er, no. “The motive was to damage the state of Pakistan and end cricket here,” said Imran Khan, head of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Er, no. The Pakistan cricket team are perfectly capable of ruining the state of cricket in the country on their own; masked gunmen are not required, thank you very much. Incidentally, on Monday night local police attacked the offices of Khan’s party brandishing Kalashnikovs and pistols. It’s probably not a coincidence that Khan has been openly critical of the Zardari government.

It’s fear. That’s what it is. It’s the state of a nation at war with itself. When vigilantes armed with sophisticated weaponry can attack a team of cricket guests (and there are no guests more esteemed in south Asia) in the middle of the afternoon, what they’re telling you is that no one is above the reach of the terror that has taken over Pakistan. It’s startling how adept this government has been at losing control of law and order, leasing out Pakistan’s stability for an increased role in the war on terror in preparation for the troop surge in Afghanistan, and generally running the country to rot.

“Droned” is a verb we use now in Pakistan. It turns out, interestingly enough, that those US predator drones that have been killing Pakistani citizens almost weekly have been taking off from and landing within our own country. Secret airbases in Balochistan – what did we ever do before Google Earth?

The PPP-led government, hailed as being “democratic”, capitulated to the Pakistan Taliban’s demands for sharia law in the Swat Valley in February. There was no vote, no referendum, nothing. The government, tired of fighting those pesky militants who’ve been burning down Sufi shrines and local girls’ schools, just declared that a part of the country would be ruled no longer by federal law, but by a myopically interpreted and Taliban-approved “Islamic” code. And verily it shall be.

We’ve just had senate “elections”. Of course, there are no actual elections involved: the ruling party puts forward winners and they end up in parliament. On Monday, in a shock move, President Asif Ali Zardari’s former attorney, who defended the erstwhile criminal on corruption and murder charges, was made chairman of the senate. What a gas!

Meanwhile, with Delhi still beating war drums over the November Mumbai attacks, our former dictator/president Pervez Musharraf travelled to India recently, and there he warned our neighbours of an all-out war should they strike Pakistan. He also let us know that he is ready to return to the call of political duty. Outsiders might be confused at this change in the situation – what’s he doing there? Didn’t he resign in August? Here’s the beauty of it all: Musharraf’s re-emergence has many middle-class Pakistanis excited and hopeful. Is he back?! A series of op-eds in a local English newspaper (not highly censored because no one reads them) was titled “Why I miss Musharraf”. When a dictator tickles your fancy, you know something has gone very, very wrong.

So, the mood in Pakistan is one of confusion. How did we come to this? How do we get out?

On the eve of spring, it is the same problems that blight the country’s poor – there is no electricity, there is no potable water, and food inflation continues to rise. The newspapers warned us this week that “load shedding” in the summer will be some 15 hours long, which is not that bad considering the fact that we’re sitting in darkness for 12 hours a day now. Pakistan has long missed its millennium target goals of eradicating polio, largely because we can’t keep the electricity going long enough for the vaccines to be properly refrigerated, so they keep going bad. And we’re a nuclear country, a grossly corrupt one at that.

The press censorship continues unabated with future threats of an absolute blackout on any criticisms of the government safely enclosed within the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act that the parliament is currently sitting on. The bill, which imposes jail sentences from three months (for having an email account not registered in your real name) to the death penalty, and criminalises the acts of “spoofing”, “spamming” and “character assassinating”, will apply to the width and breadth of the country and to any person, regardless of nationality or citizenship. It will crack down on all objectionable – the definition of what is objectionable is typically vague – messages sent via, but not limited to, “electrical, digital, analogue, magnetic, optical, biochemical, electrochemical, electromechanical, electromagnetic, radio electric, and wireless technology”. So any subversive content found on cell phones, computers, or toasters will soon be illegal. Your head should be spinning by now.

Pakistan is in a dire situation. Religious extremism, violence and a faltering economy have made the state of affairs here decidedly grim. Joe Biden and John Kerry see American dollars as the only way of helping Pakistan stave off extremism; but Yankee aid donations and senatorial money will not help us now. It is estimated that President Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, stole between $2bn and $3bn from the country’s treasury during their two previous stints in power. Now Zardari has claimed his personal wealth to be somewhere in the ballpark of $1.8bn. Nawaz Sharif, leading coalition partner and head of the Pakistan Muslim League, declared his fortune to be not as grand, at only $1.4bn. You do the maths.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood