The crisis of a lonely world

21 Sep 2020

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The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

THERE is little doubt that the present era is among the most unsettled moments in contemporary history. The 75th session of the UN General Assembly has begun at a time of deep divisions in the world even as it seeks to reaffirm the collective commitment to multilateralism, now under unprecedented stress. This is being challenged by big and regional powers trying to rewrite the rules of the game by unilateral actions, which is eroding even the semblance of a rules-based international order. This urged UN Secretary General António Guterres to recently reiterate that multilateralism is needed more than ever to “repair broken trust in a broken world”.

Many paradoxes characterise the global landscape today. The world is more interconnected than ever before and yet so atomised. International solidarity has never been more needed to deal with common challenges but unity remains elusive. The Covid-19 crisis has thrown these paradoxes into sharper relief.

Noreena Hertz’s new book deals with this and more. As the world grapples with the coronavirus crisis, The Lonely Century deals with another pandemic afflicting the globe, which the author argues, is both personal and political, and whose linkages and varied aspects she explores in her work, punctuated by research findings from several disciplines. She defines loneliness as not just a feeling of being unsupported in a social and familial context but also by fellow citizens, governments and the state. An example she cites is of the years preceding the coronavirus crisis when two-thirds of people living in democracies felt their governments were not acting in their interests.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness soared, she writes, during the lockdowns and social distancing imposed by Covid-19. But what she calls the lonely century didn’t begin in 2020. Even earlier, people felt isolated and disconnected. We are, she asserts, in the midst of a global crisis of loneliness. It is also a political crisis, she maintains, fuelling divisiveness and extremism in the US, Europe and across the world, and closely connected to right-wing populism.

The world is more interconnected today than ever before and yet so atomised.

She argues that a conflation of diverse causes and events have generated a ‘lonely planet’ — “structural and institutional discrimination”, an urbanisation wave, rise of neoliberalism and fundamental changes to how we live. Smartphones and social media have also played an “integral role”, making us “more angry and tribal”. She describes neoliberalism as a particularly harsh form of capitalism and maintains that this has made us “see ourselves as competitors not collaborators, consumers not citizens, hoarders not sharers, takers not givers, hustlers, not helpers”.

Having known Noreena, an economist and writer, over the years, I spoke to her about her latest book and asked how she manages to write on such diverse subjects. Her first work The Silent Takeover was, as its subtitle indicated, about global capitalism and the ‘death of democracy’. It examined how governments had been losing power to private business and its impact on 21st-century politics and society. Her last book, Eyes Wide Open dealt with the present era’s information deluge and navigating this complex data landscape to make smart decisions.

She explained that the common theme in all her books has been to understand a world in profound change and help to shape the personal and political choices citizens have to make. Did the Covid-19 crisis motivate her to write her latest book? She said she began researching it two years ago and was completing the book when the virus struck. The global loneliness trend the book discusses predated Covid-19 but was accelerated by it. What about the connection between the loneliness phenomenon and support for right wing populism? She said populist leaders exploit vulnerable, disconnected citizens by offering a ‘manufactured or branded community’ to elicit their backing by giving them a sense of belonging.

As this is among the more insightful parts of the book it merits greater consideration. Hertz argues that the ties that bind people to each other and to the state have been eroding as increasing numbers of people now feel isolated and disconnected from other citizens and their governments. This trend she fears will be compounded by the pandemic as economic stress will likely fuel more disaffection from political leaders. These conditions, she shows persuasively, offer an enabling environment for extremist politicians to manipulate. They, in turn, foster even more the politics of intolerance often invoking the threat of their country being taken over by immigrants or those of other ethnicities and religions.

Of course, perceptions of isolation are not the only factor behind support for right-wing populism. Hertz acknowledges this and recognises that populism in different countries has different underlying reasons. But she points to a growing body of data that shows that feelings of isolation and alienation have played a key role in shaping today’s fraught political landscape. And she cites the Trump phenomenon as the case of a leader exploiting people’s economic vulnerability and their sense of going unheard by traditional politicians.

Her chapter on digital distraction, brought on by technology, and social media is also very insightful. She uses research findings to press the case that these too are contributing to the loneliness crisis. Smartphones “fragment our attention”, estrange us from people and “create a splintered self” — among other damaging effects she mentions. Apart from pushing people into isolated digital bubbles, social media is creating a meaner, more aggressive and angrier world. This is more than apparent from ‘trolling’ and offensive online behaviour. Therefore, Hertz urges the need to hold social media to account and acknowledge the great dangers of “tech addiction”.

As she explained to me, her aim in her book is not just to analyse the worrying trends of a lonely century but to call for action — for politicians to listen carefully to public concerns and grievances, for capitalism to align itself to the common good, for governments to address long-standing inequalities and for people to put tolerance and compassion at the heart of their pursuits. Governments have a unique opportunity “to seize the moment to rebuild our post-Covid world”.

The question is whether this sensible advice will be heeded by those who are shaping the destinies of their nations and of a deeply troubled world.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2020