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Obama is part of the problem

War rages in the North-West Frontier and the poor are embracing the Taliban because they at least fi

Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian writer, Marxist and guerilla revolutionary, could have been talking about Pakistan’s present-day civil war in the North-West Frontier Province when he said: “It is necessary to turn political crises into armed crisis by performing violent actions that will force those in power to transform the military situation into a poli­tical situation. That will alienate the masses, who, from then on, will revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things.”

Pakistan’s government, in the small league when it comes to the brain department, does

not understand that it has just entered into a guerrilla war in the Swat Valley and surrounding

areas, such as Buner, Mingora and Bajaur. The prime minister, Yousef Raza Gilani, who exists solely for photo opportunities as opposed to

policy decisions, has declared a military offensive to halt the growth of the Taliban along

Pakistan’s northern frontier. This comes after the government ordered the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz, one of the ideological masterminds behind the infamous occupation of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007 – a siege that ended bloodily when the Pakistan army stormed in and recaptured the building by force.

In addition, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, who on a recent state visit to Washington pronounced himself “commander-in-chief”, unilaterally declared sharia law in the Swat Valley. Behaving in the manner of well-heeled south Asian dictators past, Zardari did not allow the citizens of the Swat Valley a vote. He did not call for a referendum. He simply capitulated to Pakistan’s indigenous Taliban.

Now, the country’s internally displaced population, estimated at one million-strong after US predator drones started flying freely over Pakistani skies last year, has shot up in the course

of just a few recent days. The United Nations is reporting the creation of an additional 500,000 refugees since the government began its own airstrikes against the people of the North-West Frontier Province. Not that this is necessarily disturbing for the government in Islamabad: in the same breath as Prime Minister Gilani declared war against his people, he asked international donors to pony up some cash to deal with the imminent human fallout from the crisis.

The US House appropriations committee has approved a speedy $1.9bn of aid for Pakistan, aid that it assumes will go towards the cause of our growing problem with internally displaced people. It won’t. This government’s history of corruption is well known. Unlike Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh, who are accused

of graft in the measly hundred-thousand-dollar range, obtained through kickbacks from government contracts, Zardari’s record is the stuff of legend and sits somewhere between two and three billion dollars, allegedly looted from the national treasury during his late wife Benazir Bhutto’s two terms in power.

Zardari’s sometimes ally/sometimes opposition leader Nawaz Sharif also allegedly worked in the big-stakes ballpark when it came to corruption. It doesn’t take an exceptionally sceptical mind to doubt where this frantic US handout of almost $2bn is going to end up.

Pakistan is not going to win this round of conflict, not with this government in charge, not with the army battling an entrenched guerrilla force that is fighting on this terrain, with the added benefit of doing so in neighbourhoods that the guerrillas grew up in and in towns where their families live. The Pakistani Taliban, frightening as they are, are not an army fighting on

the orders of US Admiral Mike Mullen; they are defending a cause that they believe in. Fundamentalism does that to a soldier. Pakistan is

going to lose out for many reasons and President Barack Obama’s complicity will not change


So far, the “Yes We Can” president has strictly upheld George W Bush’s modus operandi when dealing with Pakistan. The evidence is frustratingly damning: he signalled to Pakistan and the world during the White House buddyfest, which saw Zardari at his most unctuous, that he and his government will prop up their men in the region; that they will do so with “see no evil”

billion-dollar handouts and military support; and that, faced with fostering democracy in Pakistan, the US will always come down in support of the strongmen instead of the people.

Asif Ali Zardari is unelected. He was brought to the presidency in the same way as General Pervez Musharraf was – by the vote of a reliant and powerless parliament. Zardari did not stand for election in 2008. He does not represent a

constituency, and he does not have the mandate of the people. Ditto Sharif who, unlike Zardari, was disqualified from contesting elections.

Yet this did not seem to get in the way of Obama’s pronouncement of generous support for the government.

Perhaps, as Pakistan “fights for its survival” (the catchphrase for this war), this is a moment for political pause. Two weeks ago I met a man who had just returned from South Waziristan. I asked him about the situation in his home

village and he complained about the arbitrary and constant US drone attacks. After telling

me that his house had been all but obliterated when a drone missed its mark, he continued, more upbeat, “But the situation there is improving. The law-and-order situation is very good, better than Karachi.”

He told me about the case of a young

girl who had been molested by three men after being kidnapped from the market near her house. When the Taliban

forces discovered the crime, they not only rescued the girl and returned her to her home, but also took care of the three men.

“They shot them,” my visitor told me, impressed that some form of retributive justice had been served, quickly and easily.

I shifted in my seat and, uncomfortably, disagreed that what had happened was the right outcome. For one thing, I said, women have been suffering greatly under the rule of these extremists. “Oh they’re fine,” he said, waving a hand

in the air. “They are grateful for the fact that they finally have basic justice and services, you know. They don’t suffer year-long court delays and mercenary police like we do in Karachi.”

So, Carlos Marighella was spot-on. The solution does not lie in the army fighting its own civilians, generating more hatred for a force that has been acting on the orders of foreign powers for the past eight years and alienating the people whom they are sworn to protect in the process. The solution does not lie in the United States funding and propping up corrupt and illegitimate governments in the face of incompetent leadership and unrest across the country. The

solution is not more money.

The solution lies, rather, in recognising that the residents of Swat didn’t choose the Taliban. They did not vote for sharia law. The Taliban are only there because they built roads that had been unpaved for decades. They provided education, for boys at least, when the government schools failed millions of local children. They opened medical centres when the government hospitals shut down because of lack of funds. They meted out justice when the courts started protecting the government and not the people.

It’s corruption, stupid. It’s the force we need

to be fighting now; it’s the head of the monster, the wellspring of the Taliban’s strength in Pakistan. I for one don’t plan on putting on a burqa any time soon. l

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom

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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