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Does Loneliness Give Rise to Totalitarianism?

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“What prepares men for totalitarian domination…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.”

Loneliness is a growing problem in industrialized, developed nations. We know this in our marrow; indeed, the problem has been growing for the last 10 to 50 years, depending on what time frame one uses. Books like The Lonely Crowd talk about the isolation many experienced in the mass culture of the 1950s and 60s. To us, that seems like another world, and for many people today it is, as many of those in the younger generations can’t even imagine what living then was like.

This growth in loneliness and feelings of isolation, serious enough in Britain at least for the government to feel justified in its appointment of a minister for loneliness, is most prevalent among young people. This is perhaps a clue as to why they are the ones who most enthusiastically embrace the identity politics that are consuming more and more of society’s discourse.

The rise in loneliness is due to a range of things: changing living habits, the trend towards smaller families, partly driven by choice and partly by house-price and living cost necessity and the changing patterns of work, especially in the growth of ultra-flexible—and unstable—zero hours work contracts. It is also due to the cost of our increasingly close relationship to technology, especially in the age christened by the first the smart-phone, which Thomas Friedman has written about.

These devices have seen a massive surge in usage over the last few years and have also gone hand in hand with an upsurge in social media usage. Both of these phenomena have grown together, one feeding the other. One might quibble with the idea that these are a direct cause of loneliness, and that this all stinks of Luddite passions. There is some truth in this, as those who declaim about the ills wrought on society through the power of the phone and Internet often stray into apocalyptic language, imbued exclusively with dark tones and little light. 

To pretend that there has been no cost to the new technology is similarly blinkered; everything comes with a cost, and to proclaim otherwise is evidence of a utopian tendency that is a key driver of Silicon Valley. The problem with this is that without a healthy dose of pessimistic realism, utopianism can be destructive in its unguided and unwise optimism. This is most definitely the case with social media and mobile technology.

More and more people from inside the world of Silicon Valley are now coming out and saying that what they created was not thought out enough in its potential to not only disrupt traditional economic spheres of activity but also the realms of value that matter most to us as humans at the deepest level: relationships, love, communication.

People like Jaron Lanier are now decrying the internet and imploring us to delete our social media accounts, while Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, has come out and lamented his role in creating a platform that is, according to him, tearing society apart. Meanwhile, John McWhorter, a Linguistics professor from Columbia University, has made the argument convincingly that Trump could not have won without social media. As we can see, it is not only Christian traditionalists like Rod Dreher that are warning against the deleterious effects of social media on the meaning we gain from living among the bonds that hold us together.

The negative consequences of our greater connectivity are shown in stark relief in Jean Twenge’s work on its effect on young adults born in the mid 1990s, or iGen, as she has dubbed them. Many of these individuals at the older end of the demographic are today’s college students, and have been since 2014/15, when the uptick in college censorship, protests, and identity politics became more obvious. People have mistakenly attributed this to millennials, whereas in reality it is more likely to be those who are just below or bridge the gap between millennials and the next generation. The individuals Twenge has surveyed, whose stories and data are discussed in her book, are more likely to feel lonely, and therefore more likely to have mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

This tech-strengthened passion for utopianism, found on both Left and Right among those of the college-age iGen, is I believe made worse by this increase in loneliness.”

Now, obviously correlation does not equal causation. But, it is an interesting fact that the older cohorts of iGen are those most likely to be the ones to engage in the censorious behaviour to, as they see it, preserve their safety, that many have observed on college campuses over the last several years. Those who engage in this identity politics, whether from the far-left or Alt-Right, are the symptom of the fact that we are currently experiencing a period that is “ripe for utopian ideologies,” as Robert Kaplan argues in his latest book.

This utopianism, this belief in one-size-fits-all ideologies that help explain the increasingly complex and chaotic world, ties into the increase in the usage of social and online media that enables people to reinforce their own biases, their own view of the world, and the ways they should interact with it.

This utopianism, this belief in one-size-fits-all ideologies that help explain the increasingly complex and chaotic world, ties into the increase in the usage of social and online media that enables people to reinforce their own biases, their own view of the world, and the ways they should interact with it. This is all strengthened by the silo effect that social media has on the public debate.  This tech-strengthened passion for utopianism, found on both Left and Right among those of the college-age iGen, is I believe made worse by this increase in loneliness.

Kaplan quotes Hannah Arendt in the closing of her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, where she considers the effects of isolation on the minds of men: “What prepares men for totalitarian domination…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.” The totalitarian mindset, as Arendt sees it, follows from loneliness that leads people to think in a linear manner, engaging in catastrophism that, hurried along by the racing thoughts of isolation, always leads to the worst possible outcome in their faulty, ideologically-influenced mind’s eye.

Totalitarianism is, therefore, a “suicidal escape from this reality,” as men and women march together in concert chanting the slogans of the regime enabled in its domination by their complicity. They sacrifice the terrible and terrifying empty loneliness of atomized individuality for the good of the group, a super-organism that finally provides their lives with the meaning they’ve been desperately seeking to placate the bottomless ache of emptiness that felt like it was tearing away at their very existence.

The electronic swarm, always ready to overwhelm wrongthinkers in a storm of furious virtual stings, is the ultimate negation of loneliness that does not require real effort to participate in. It simply requires an Internet connection and a grievance.

The promise of limitless empowerment that the tech Prometheans magnanimously endowed we mere mortals was never the inherent good they claimed. Technology has instead magnified the flaws of human nature, allowing our worst impulses to manifest with increasing ease. Connecting people, giving them the ability to speak – to think – as one? That is precisely the danger that Arendt and others warned against; social media is Goebbels’ wet dream. As Kaplan points out, the idea that a tweet/post/video sermon has gone viral is the most potent symbol of the electronic negation of the individual in the twenty-first century. The electronic swarm, always ready to overwhelm wrongthinkers in a storm of furious virtual stings, is the ultimate negation of loneliness that does not require real effort to participate in. It simply requires an Internet connection and a grievance.

Movements and groups like the Western Identitarians of all stripes, ISIS, The Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram and others are not merely “extremist” or “terrorist.” They are redemptive millenarian movements that often arise in periods of radical instability and uncertainty. That is not new, but what is new is the potential for them to communicate to a global audience. The religious madmen of yesterday couldn’t conceive of such an audience. ISIS did, and look what happened.

From this, is it really so hard to understand why identity politics are so appealing to more and more young people today? The young people of iGen need something to hold onto, as we all do in the uncertainty of our existence. The hyper-individualism promoted by the 68’ers has met its inevitable antithesis in the calls to retreat to the tribes of race, sexuality, orientation and so on. The need to subsume the inadequacies of the individual meets its supposed love match in the movements among those who play identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum. The identity politics Left, dominant on university campuses, allows the individual to adopt a sense of being part of something bigger than him/herself, part of a group based on the primacy of some aspect of their existence, working towards a goal of overthrowing the inherently oppressive and inequitable structures that hold society together.

The Alt-Right, meanwhile, is the descendent of old-time white supremacy dressed up for the information age. It is partly a phenomenon that has a long and infamous history that has never gone away, while it is also something that, enabled by the internet, has gained new vigor, partly in reaction to the increasingly racialized worldview instilled in college-age young people. Rightly or wrongly feeling shut out of many of the opportunities for participation in the public square, some young white men hear the Left’s cry that Western civilization is built on white supremacist oppression, hear the Alt-Right’s responding, “Hell, yeah,” and decide to go for the side which wears the Left’s accusations as a badge of honor and plays to win.

As Kaplan argues, people everywhere need something to believe in, to hold onto. With the increase of loneliness and isolation, along with the increase in political polarization, fed and enabled by technological division, people are “dangerously ready for a new catechism given the right circumstances, for what passes as a new fad or cult in the West can migrate toward extremism in less stable or chaotic societies.” Given the uncertainty of today’s world, it is perhaps optimistic to guarantee the West’s continuing stability, especially if the tribalism we have recently seen gathers pace. Given what we have observed so far, it is not hyperbolic to argue that the mix of loneliness and modern technology could be too poisonous a mix for civilization to process if we continue to use it as blindly as we have done.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.