The Capitalist Disease of Loneliness
The current unity and mobilisation of the country in the face of Covid-19 has illustrated people are yearning to live in a more connected society where the central emphasis is on human interaction and solidarity.
This is in stark contrast to the message conveyed by politicians and the right-wing media over the last few years about how divided and polarised a nation we are. They have separated us into Remainers versus Leavers, young versus old, North versus South, employed versus people on benefits, cities versus the countryside. The list of divisions has been seemingly inexhaustible.
Compounding this sense of fragmentation is the fact that overall rates of loneliness have reportedly been exponentially increasing regardless of age, educational background or geographical location. Capitalism engenders feelings of insecurity and loneliness by limiting the majority of the population’s access to crucial resources, creating distrustful competition between people, a phenomenon exemplified by the rise in xenophobia and racism towards migrants.
Contemporary art and fiction has begun to contend and reckon with the issue of modern loneliness through novels like ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ and ‘The Lonely City’. However, loneliness continues to be a largely unaddressed need in our society with a lack of robust government policy tackling it.
In 2017 the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness made recommendations as to how the government might seek to address this problem. In response, Theresa May launched the first government strategy stating loneliness was ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.’ The Conservatives promised initiatives including increasing the amount of green community spaces and encouraging doctors to refer lonely patients to activities like cooking classes to ‘reduce demand on the NHS’. Despite these promises, underlying causes of loneliness have nevertheless been greatly exacerbated by the government’s own austerity measures.
The Campaign to End Loneliness states health conditions associated with loneliness include dementia, heart disease and depression. Meaningfully addressing loneliness would invariably require investing more money in vital public services including education, increased employment opportunities and mental health services. Marginalised groups, such as BME communities, who struggle to access these services, are at greater risk of loneliness and its adverse effects, compounding their disadvantage. There have not necessarily been clear-cut electoral gains for the Conservatives in placing loneliness high on the agenda resulting in the issue being neglected.
In the last few weeks our world has been impacted profoundly by Covid-19. A catastrophe on this scale starkly throws light on the reality of how we live and who we are. Many people, who for years wanted to reach out to neighbours but were unsure how to, are now joining Mutual Aid groups.
In response to over 500,000 people signing up as NHS volunteers, front pages of national newspapers resounded with applause. The Daily Express called the volunteers a ‘people’s army of kindness’ whilst the Daily Mirror declared them ‘an army of kind hearts’. The current mood of the country flies in the face of Margaret Thatcher’s famous assertion there is ‘no such thing as society’, a statement influencing rightwing politics ever since.
Whilst we should certainly praise individuals fighting Covid-19, we also need to hold in mind the dismantling of the NHS by the Conservatives. To help pay for the 2008 bank bailouts, the government cut funding and attempted privatisation, outsourcing staff contracts to private companies paying considerably less than NHS rates, cutting staff numbers and closing facilities. If these changes had not been forced on the NHS it would be better positioned to cope with Covid-19.
We all desperately hope the world’s scientists can produce a vaccine for Covid-19 as quickly as possible. When this occurs and the pandemic subsides we will find ourselves inhabiting and navigating a transformed world. None of us knows quite how this new world might look or feel. However, this crisis has already demonstrated people want to live in communities that are empowered, unified and where comprehensive support is available to all. We know that these are already core principles of the Labour movement.
Going forwards, we must reflect on how the Left can demonstrate to the electorate how Labour’s economic and social policies support united, cohesive communities of the kind we have glimpsed during the pandemic which guards against individuals experiencing chronic feelings of alienation and loneliness.
- Tamsin Ssembajjo Quigley has worked as an academic mentor in a sixth form college, at a housing charity and as a social worker.