Only the Lonely: Social Isolation & Industrial Modernity

Only the lonely
Only the lonely

Only the lonely
Know the way I feel tonight
Only the lonely
Know this feeling ain’t right

            Song by Roy Orbison, 1960

The U.S. Surgeon General just released a report on the accelerating degree of loneliness in America and the health consequences of social isolation. The implications are diverse and devastating for social life in America. Loneliness is both an effect and a cause, neither of which is a good thing. Loneliness is an effect of societal disintegration; at the same time it causes a multitude of damaging effects for individuals, families, and communities.

The Surgeon General’s report focused on the damaging effects of loneliness on health and behavior. However, it is very important to understand the causes if we are to do anything useful about this societal tragedy. I have, for a long time, grumbled about the tendency of American medicine to focus on symptom suppression while ignoring the causes. Cures come from understanding and controlling causes. That applies to loneliness too.

An Old Story in New Forms

Who do you trust? Well, if you have trouble naming someone, then you are highly susceptible to loneliness. Why? Because trust is the bond that holds people together and allows them to count on each other and not feel alone. It is also the basis for cooperation and the good feelings that come with sharing. And trust is in very short supply these days.

Looking back, way back, we can see that the coordination of people in small groups such as hunter-gatherers in sparse environments resulted from mutual aid born of trust. And where did that trust come from? It resulted from each individual in those small societies having a clear place, a positon of respect in stable and predictable mutual relations with all the others.

As societies grew more and more complex, especially since the industrial revolution, sustaining predictability and trust became increasingly problematic. Formalizing social control replaced direct relations of trust. Now, as our complex industrial society has become less democratic (democratic in form only, not in actual practice) and as economic and political institutions have come under the dominance by the mega-billionaires and ‘Davos Men,’ maintaining trust is more and more difficult to achieve.

Peter S. Goodman had good reason to name his book, Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World. The intersection of financial and political power has excluded most people from most of the benefits of the industrial economy. The multi-billionaires control the global political economy. It is a predatory system. The financialized economy has no sympathy for the plight of ordinary humans; it is a soulless machine operated by men—mostly old white men—who have one goal in life: to become even richer than any of their super-rich peers. None of this is a basis for trust. The system they have constructed is based on exploiting a population of isolated individuals who have no other source of support than the corporate entities that hire and fire them at will.

Community and Personal Identity in a Connected Society

The core strength of human groups resides in cooperation and trust. In a viable family—just like in a hunter-gatherer society of the past—nobody is lonely because social relations integrate everyone into the extant social structure, which is grounded in mutual trust and mutual aid. The industrial era has created a growing population of individuals isolated from their families and communities by the requirements of working in the larger economy in roles over which they have less and less control.

Only the Lonely remain. At the same time, people everywhere realize if only subliminally, that humans are naturally sociable and that life without others is not the best way to go for almost everyone. Movements are afoot everywhere to re-establish natural social relations, upon which living a good life depends. Ultimately, we are not alone…together.


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