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12 January 2024

From Bowling Alone to scrolling alone

Why loneliness is the defining political crisis in America.

By Lee Siegel

In the final chapter of her masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt arrived at the sine qua non for totalitarianism: loneliness. “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world,” she wrote, “is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.” For Arendt, loneliness is the cardinal political condition of our time.

With liberalism under attack from populist movements on the right and left, and stumbling under its own neoliberal and libertarian mutations, you might think there would be a great ferment in the way loneliness is discussed and represented in culture – especially in America.

After all, America has invented new forms of loneliness the way Picasso invented new forms of art. In Moby-Dick, Melville described the crewmen of the Pequod as “‘Isolatoes’… not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.” DH Lawrence, sounding like a hard-boiled American writer in the vein of Hemingway or Raymond Chandler, famously opined that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer”. Tocqueville, apparently haunted by loneliness – “This profound saying could be applied especially to me: it is not good for man to be alone” – saw civil associations as the only social form standing between tyranny and the weak, disconnected, powerless individuals created by modern American democracy. “In democratic countries,” he wrote in 1835, with America in mind, “the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.” In 2000, the American political scientist Robert Putnam published a groundbreaking book called Bowling Alone, in which he demonstrated that the civil forms of association in America that Tocqueville had placed his faith in were, in effect, dead.

The dark warnings about atomisation issued by one modern thinker after another seem almost beside the point in the context of American isolation and loneliness. In the late 19th century, Ferdinand Tönnies observed that in the wake of the Industrial Revolution a sense of community (Gemeinschaft) was giving way to radical individualism and loneliness (Gesellschaft). Max Weber was sanguine about what he considered a Protestant ethic of capitalist individualism, but Émile Durkheim argued that this distinction was the cause of higher suicide rates among Protestant individualists than among Catholics who still felt bound to their religious communities. This dynamic, in Durkheim’s most famous formulation, resulted in the disease of anomie, which was the collapse of social norms that guide behaviour and nurture positive expectations. In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Georg Simmel took up the theme of a corrosive, isolating capitalism and traced the dehumanising effect of money culture (have you counted your social media followers?). In some fundamental ways, Tönnies’ distinction still holds, as both right-wing traditionalists and left-wing advocates of group identity seek a return to Gemeinschaft in their different ways, even as both sides seem helplessly at the mercy of a commodified solipsism that might have given Weber pause.

But all this theory, as prescient and astute as it was, crumbles before contemporary American loneliness. It cannot begin to account for the child in despair with a bottle of the opioid Percocet in their hand, the child shamed and humiliated online, the isolated adult falling through the gap between instant pleasure on the internet and delayed gratification off-screen. The mind is struck dumb before the seeming unreality of a bullied American teen reaching in rage for their father’s semi-automatic weapon – the feel in the hands of the murderous discharge of a gun, perhaps the last, twisted iteration of ownership of the means of production.

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Despite the sometimes vicious permutations of American loneliness, the public conversation about it follows predictable lines. There is no discussion of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense, as a dangerously consequential political factor that permeates diverse spheres of society. Last summer, in an essay published in the Atlantic called “The weaponisation of loneliness,” Hillary Clinton did associate American disconnection with the rise of Donald Trump, he being perhaps the most complete embodiment of anomie in recent history. But Clinton soon lapsed into various bromides about the dearth of volunteer organisations, and the perilous isolation of poll workers, not to mention a plug for her own weary, if admirable, notion of the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child”. (Not if the village exists on the edge of starvation.) America still has not plumbed the weird depths that the fusion of its politics with its loneliness could lead. Instead, loneliness is isolated from its multiple contexts and elevated into – or reduced to – an Important Issue that is redundantly talked about in the most general, abstract terms, as an Important Issue.

On the surface, the subject of loneliness currently looms large in America. Ruth Westheimer, aka Dr Ruth, a famous sexologist who the governor of New York has just appointed the state’s “loneliness ambassador”, touchingly pledged to “work day and night to help New Yorkers feel less lonely!” At 95, she had better get cracking. Then there is Dr Vivek Murthy, the country’s present surgeon general who, by the standard indicators of happiness, must be the least lonely person on the planet, having attended both Harvard and Yale, begun raising a family with his wife, a prominent and influential physician, and who has served in his current role under three presidents. A few years back, Murthy produced a best-selling loneliness book – which is a little like being a nonagenarian sexologist – followed by, just last year, the publication of “Surgeon general’s advisory on our epidemic of loneliness and isolation”, a pamphlet that fell briefly into the grateful lap of a media always excited to broadcast new alarms, and then impatient to walk away from them.

And what were Murthy’s well-meaning solutions for American loneliness and despair? More parks, more public transportation, more paid family leave, for physicians to be better informed about loneliness, more sensitive social media, and the cultivation of a “culture of connection” – the last of which sounds like the sort of Silicon Valley rhetoric that has supercharged American loneliness into American despair over the past 20 years.

There is no real sense that, aside from conditions like old age, the remedy for loneliness is not merely to foster “little platoons” of companionship, as essential as they are, but to address how a person is made to feel when they are alone.

Arendt made a rich distinction between loneliness and solitude. In solitude, you divide yourself in two so as to carry on a dialogue with that part of yourself that is linked with other humans; in that way, the solitary operation of your moral imagination leads you back to the company of others. But in America, where people are more dependent on screens and technology than in any other place on Earth, the serene, replenishing depths of solitary thinking and imagining have been made to disappear in a maelstrom of rapidly forming and dissolving social relationships, even as screen-based isolation has become a new condition of existence. From Bowling Alone to Streaming Alone. Not to mention the emotionally blunting effects of almost universally used psychiatric drugs, which often disable the capacity to carry on a dialogue with yourself in the process of making you bearable to yourself.

To really gauge the fate of solitude in America, you might consider two recent movies that tackle the subject of genius, the flourishing of which requires solitude the way Popeye needs spinach: Oppenheimer, about Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the atomic bomb, and Maestro, about Leonard Bernstein.

The first, directed by Christopher Nolan, moves so fast from one time frame to another that the narrative is ground into portentously incoherent pieces. The second film gins up the unexciting obscurity of mental composition into an exciting and heart-tugging romantic relationship, roiled as it is by Bernstein’s fluid sexuality and his helpless infidelities. Both movies represent the creative process with one type of action sequence or another: Bernstein sweats a lot, snorts cocaine and cries, and we get a visual sequence showing nuclear fission while Oppenheimer makes love to a girlfriend. We do, fleetingly, see Bradley Cooper’s Bernstein sitting alone at the piano and composing, but the actor is of course surrounded by cameras and people and fully aware of being watched by an audience. The movie makes an artist’s solitude into a crowded spectacle.

Then again, how else to portray the operations of the intellect and imagination without putting the audience to sleep? But the effect of all this action is to make irrelevant the reality of creative solitude, even as the action keeps us from experiencing the movies in a receptive, creative solitude of our own. In that sense, putting the audience to sleep, perchance to dream, might have been the most fitting – if least entertaining – homage to the movies’ subjects.

It could be that the gradual extinction of solitude in America, a sort of parallel to climate change, is why the national conversation about loneliness is itself so atomised. In its intellectual and artistic representation, loneliness has been made lonely. You don’t need Louis Althusser to see that we are starting to think in the same decontextualised way that we are now living. Rather than addressing loneliness as a phenomenon that is organically attached to countless other phenomena in culture, society and politics, we separate it out from the whole, isolate it and parade it like a stand-out new product to be sold rather than as a human experience that is part of all other human experiences. Loneliness becomes “Loneliness” becomes LONELINESS!

Or, as in the work of anti-liberalism’s star celebrity, Patrick Deneen, the phenomenon of contemporary loneliness gets swept up into a thick miasma of “deep” thinking, a specialised flatulence that wafts from one right-wing populist theorist to another, so that they all sound like the students of the stylish post-structuralist left you might have encountered in graduate school in the 1990s. (Maybe assimilating the style of the glamorous liberal elites that you claim to despise is the whole point.) Invoking Arendt and others, Deneen glibly, and incredibly, substitutes “liberalism” for “totalitarianism” and declares that liberalism creates lonely people who turn to the state for companionship and thus hasten the process of civil disintegration.

But Deneen writes in some sort of disconnected theoretical bubble, as if Hitler, Stalin, FDR and Lyndon Johnson were peas in a pod. As if individuals turned to some abstraction called “the state” and not to people assigned by the state to administer policies that help the poor, the sick, the elderly, the frightened, the despairing, the suicidal, the lonely. As if higher taxes on the wealthy, which would make precious goods like education, housing and medical care less expensive and thus more accessible to everyone, as well as having the effect of cooling off the American mega-super-competitiveness that is like pouring barrels of gasoline on the fires of loneliness – as if a less loneliness-producing tax rate were not one significant answer to Deneen’s familiar formulation of liberal malaise. But Deneen barely mentions tax rates in his latest two books – Why Liberalism Failed (2018), Regime Change (2023) – though he does invoke the policies of Viktor Orbàn’s autocratic Hungary and propose that the federal government use taxes to elevate couples with children over people who have no children, and to punish universities that allow professors to teach along “woke” lines. So much for anti-statism.

Deneen, second-rate imitation of Edmund Burke that he is, thinks the answer to loneliness is more religion, more family and more country. In bold 12th-century style, he calls for “a revitalisation of our public spaces to reflect a deeper belief that we are called to erect imitations of the beauty that awaits us in another kingdom” (pity the poor civil servant instructed to draw up concrete proposals for “imitations of the beauty that awaits us in another kingdom”). This has made Deneen the darling of America’s faintly burgeoning theocratic Catholic right. But he has nothing to say about people who have no religion, no family, and whose loneliness and despair are not consoled by patriotic sentiments. He has nothing to say, for example, about Christ, who arrives in the Garden of Gethsemane lonely and despairing, having risen during his human interregnum above religion, identified with no country or empire, and rejected (see Matthew 10:37) the very notion of family.

American democracy pulls ideas in two directions: up into big, baggy, contradictory abstractions that fit the dimensions of a big, baggy place with lots of contradictions; and down into marketable commodities that democratically console a practical people for feeling inferior to ideas. Consider instead, in this season of Maestro, as an alternative way of imagining American isolation, the mordantly and ironically titled “No One Is Alone”, a song by Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein’s sometime collaborator, from Sondheim’s 1987 musical Into the Woods. As a critique of neoliberalism’s impoverished and impoverishing presumption that every person comfortably makes their own morality in the emotional chaos of the market’s “spontaneous order”, the song returns loneliness from Big Issue or Big Idea to its sources in ordinary life:


You decide what’s good
You decide alone
But no one is alone
I wish…

Who can say what’s true?
Nothing’s quite so clear now
Do things, fight things

Feel you’ve lost your way?
But–
You decide, but
You are not alone
Believe me,
No one is alone
No one is alone
Believe me,

Truly.

In the erosive capitalism with a caring face that prevails in a declining American republic, there is no consensus on what is good, and many people are lost. In these troubled American woods, populism – on the right and on the left – is contemporary America’s offering to a country of lonely people who want passionately to believe that they are truly not alone. (So ardent is this desire to feel not alone that alleged sightings of UFOs in America exceed that in any other country; the Pentagon has even established its own office devoted to tracking possible interplanetary friends.) Hatred is the quickest kind of intimacy, and populism’s fevers consist of powerful aversions that have the effect of binding the hater to the object of their hatred.

Love is hard, and so is friendship; both depend on the ego absorbing blows and staying the course of affection. Hatred cuts past the complexities of emotional bonds and leaps straight into a purely gratifying relationship. On the watchful American progressive left, you grow intimate very quickly with your enemies. The inexorable logic of social justice is set: you know who they are. You stalk them in the news, monitor them in school, at your workplace, in your community. You have a perfect apprehension of these Others. They are with you always, and when your ego falters into the disturbing softness of self-knowledge and uncertainty, the hated ones arrive, much like a loyal friend, to return you to your strong, indomitable self.

If the populist left is obsessed with racism, sexism, transphobism and carbonism, the populist right is obsessed with, even more than immigrants, gas hobs and non-binary people, the left. The rioters on 6 January took mementoes from Democratic congressmen’s offices as though stealing locks of an unattainable lover’s hair. In populism’s teeming force-field, the stalwarts of right and left are never lonely so long as they have each other, far into the screen-illuminated night.

Arendt had a profound understanding of this strange psycho-political landscape of loneliness. She arrestingly concludes her magnum opus by quoting Martin Luther, who said that “a lonely man always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst”. She adds: “The famous extremism of totalitarian movements… consists indeed in this ‘thinking everything to the worst,’ in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions.” She warns about the “ice-cold” reasoning of fascism and communism, which serves as “a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon”.

America is now in the grip of an ice-cold algorithm of catastrophic thinking on the left and the right. On the left, rational and humane worry about injustice and climate has devolved into an iron apocalypticism, in which nearly all authority is unreliable and malign, an apocalypticism that is nevertheless cheerfully and lucratively promoted by the liberal media. On the right, rational and humane worry about crime and disorder descends into calls for revenge against unreliable and malign authorities, for violence and even civil war.

Contrary to American problem-solvers, loneliness, as part of the human condition, is not going to be bullet-pointed and policied away. But one effective way to push back against the gravitational force of loneliness might be for what remains of America’s democratic culture to resist the deducing process of catastrophism, and to start representing the world, for all its deformities and depravities, as not just a habitable, but a beloved place. A place where it feels safe, and good, to be alone.

[See also: Inside the loneliness bureau]

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