Loneliness and the limits of progressive politics
Today’s Daily Telegraph has a good report on a study by the WRVS on loneliness among older people. Thirty six per cent of men over 75 and thirty one per cent of women over 75 are lonely or very lonely, “many of them going for days on end without speaking to anyone.” There’s a number of organisations looking at loneliness as a social issue, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation funding research and the Mental Health Foundation pointing out that it isn’t just a problem for older people.
If you want an expert discussion of how we could make a difference, they’re the experts. What I want to discuss is a second-order issue: the challenge that loneliness presents for politics, or at least for politics as most politically active people I know see it.
There are well-informed and intelligent discussions of public policy reforms that can help – the Campaign to End Loneliness website has very good section on this, for instance. But I am struck by how managerial they are. The Mental Health Foundation’s Lonely Society report lists as its first recommendation “increased awareness” of loneliness and others include local authority websites mapping relevant services and identifying when someone is at risk of loneliness and isolation at an early stage. The Campaign to End Loneliness guide for local authorities emphasises making ‘addressing loneliness’ one of the council’s outcome measures, responding to individual needs and circumstances and drawing up an action plan. If we look at the Southwark Circle, the best known anti-loneliness initiative, the politicians’ most important input is the funding from Southwark Council.
Many activists will see this as worthy but dull. We’ve all known the idealist who gets elected to the council and, once they become chair of the sewage sub-committee, improving the efficiency of the local works is all they can talk about. For the rest of us, yes that stuff is important but, frankly, if that was all there was to politics we wouldn’t bother.
Loneliness simply isn’t one of the issues that makes most political activists give up hundreds of hours that could be spent with our children or advancing our careers. It isn’t one of the problems political parties and philosophies discuss a great deal.
And that is surprising. Loneliness is very like the issues we do discuss – it is an unnecessary cause of human suffering, it is worse for the poor and weak.
I suppose that one response is that we don’t talk about loneliness because we focus on immediate tasks. In the world I hope we’ll create, relationships won’t be distorted by economic interests, the disadvantages of the poor and the weak will disappear and loneliness will become a thing of the past, or at least much less common (adherents of other politics will have their own version of this.)
There’s some broader political points we could make. One of the weaknesses of Ayn Rand’s philosophy (which dominates the US right at the moment) is that it points to a world full of loneliness, and this seems to me to be a tendency of right wing libertarianism. But this is not true for all conservative thinkers. For Hobbes, life in a state of nature was not just “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”; it was solitary and one of the benefits of the state was that it promoted conviviality. Burke argued for organic communities as against atomised individuals and de Tocqueville feared that individualism plus equality would cause serious social problems, including isolation.
There is no certainty about which organisation of society is most likely to breed loneliness – hierarchical or egalitarian? Most Touchstoneblog readers would vote for the superiority of communities of equals, that we completely escape loneliness only with those to whom we do not feel compelled to defer or stoop.
But our side doesn’t have a strong history of immediate proposals to address loneliness, which is one reason for saying that we should have done more to respond to the Big Society. Of course, this is in part due to the way this was set up by the Prime Minister, going back to his crack about “there is such a thing as society, it just not the same as the state“. Counterposing the public sector – and then taking the idea forward at the same time as making public sector cuts – is bound to arouse the suspicions of everyone who believes in strong public services.
But still, it’s been an opportunity most of us have missed. I’m a strong supporter of public services – even of re-nationalisation – but I don’t think the state should do everything. Which is just as well, because we’re entering a long period when the state’s ability to pay for reforms is going to be constrained.
I believe there is a need for non-state action that takes place alongside a commitment to re-distribution (and pre-distribution). The Big Society and the cuts are an opportunity for us to expand the range of issues progressives care about and add to our repertoire of responses. We have to do this, because otherwise the debate will be dominated by people whose agenda is about dismantling the public sector and leaving inequality untouched.
This has been a rather abstract post, so I’d like to finish with a more concrete example, something that several unions have already started work on. One of the changes in life when loneliness is a particular danger is when we leave regular paid work. Stronger unions could encourage the active involvement of unemployed and retired members and members who have left the labour market to take up caring responsibilities. Unions could involve these activists in a wider range of social campaigns that would be worthwhile in themselves. Of course this happens already, but only to a comparatively small extent – our opportunities for doing more good are tremendous.