65. Loneliness

Loneliness is a highly complex emotional response to isolation or the lack of companionship which human beings can feel intensely but find hard to define. Solitude, with which loneliness is often juxtaposed, refers to finding a state of wholeness or completeness with oneself while alone. Loneliness is related more to a pain in being alone, while solitude enables us to explore ourselves within our environment, often with a sense of enjoyment or pleasure. Solitude accepts the state of being alone; loneliness deplores it. Saints as well as artists have attained enlightenment through the use of solitude. In Zen meditation, for example, practitioners deprived of sensory input and social interaction can attain great calm as well as visionary insights. Loneliness, however, entails no such conscious efforts but also offers few rewards.

Loneliness has become something of a social and communicable disease in the advanced economies of the world. This is a remarkable phenomenon of increasing psychological concern, but it is not well understood. When one person in a group starts to feel lonely, this sense can spread to others, increasing the risk of “infection.” People can feel lonely even when they are in a crowd where there is usually almost no personal contact. Loneliness can therefore be considered as a subjective experience: If you think you are lonely, then you are lonely.

The number of books dealing with his affliction is staggering. This also reflects the far greater attention given to loneliness today than in previous times. A study in the UK by Independent Age revealed that 700,000 men and one million women aged over 50 were suffering from severe loneliness. In the United States 60 million people, or 20% of the total population, admit to pollsters that they feel lonely. Another survey found that the number of people with whom the average American discussed important personal matters had decreased from three to two in the previous twenty years. The number of Americans with no one to discuss personal matters has now tripled as national loneliness continues to rise.

How has this come about? Our socio-economic system, technological innovation, (such as television and the internet) and increased longevity each play an important role in nourishing loneliness. Capitalism, with its emphases on the individual, on competition, greed, money and profit, has overwhelmed previous cultural emphases on cooperation, religious communion, social concerns and responsibilities. The massive move away from agriculture and the land and into the anonymity of larger cities has also contributed to the growth of loneliness. The fact remains that we are social animals and need the company of others.1

One of the tragic outcomes of modern loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people report that the one-eyed monster is their principle companion. Television now keeps “the lonely” in their living rooms while their predecessors in previous generations had gone to the pub, to bars or to the public libraries. Television as a form of self-medication also tends to aggravate the social disease aspect of loneliness.

Similarly, the social media have failed to improve the blight of loneliness in our society. While we recognize the new opportunities to join others on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, the commercial atmosphere leads us to distrust the temptations and potentialities offered by possible new encounters. I have come into contact with no end of people who have joined Facebook but feel they are now even more removed from genuine contact. The new social media can occupy ever more of their time without giving them the opportunity of answering the question: “Why do I still feel so alone?” Twitter raises different kinds of pack reactions involving millions who pin up notices on a global bulletin board. Perhaps this can make them feel more social or tuned-in – but with only a few letters left at-a-go, how satisfactory could such tweeting be in making one more understood? Personally, I am “LinkedIn” but don’t really feel connected. This site is all about “contacts” and professional advancement — not friendship nor closer communion.

Psychologists, sociologists, teachers as well as parents around the world have become increasingly familiar with the deep loneliness of teenagers who want to be desired, to be part of something, to be loved, to be special and to be understood. Sylvia Plath brilliantly described the desperation of such youthful loneliness: “Life is, loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”2

Neither friends nor parties could cure Sylvia’s loneliness. Her creative writing came with solitude far away from the literary crowd. There are clear distinctions between feeling lonely and being socially isolated, as Thoreau and so many more writers have demanded. Solitude is simply a lack of social interaction: being alone. Solitude can help writers as well as philosophers, those engaged in religious practices, and others exploring their innermost being. Psychologists have also observed that solitude can help to enhance one’s cognitive state and improve one’s mental concentration. Solitude consequently can enrich the self, just as loneliness can impoverish it.

“If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company,” said Jean-Paul Sartre. His existentialist school of thought viewed solitude as essential to what it is to be human. Every person comes into the world alone and travels as a separate being throughout his or her lifetime, ultimately dying alone. Loneliness is thus basic to our human condition. The paradox of the meaning of life arises because it is ultimately in conflict with the emptiness and nothingness of our universe. “Why should I feel lonely” wondered H.D.Thoreau in Walden (1854) “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” This writer of solitude saw his condition in greater perspective than the existentialists!

The writer Janet Fitch in White Oleander (2001) confidently declared that: “Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”

Politicians have not done any better than philosophers in coming to terms with loneliness. An exceptional few have promoted a social contract, but few have sought to decrease the sense of loneliness of their electorate. John F. Kennedy sparked the optimism and sense of social engagement of many, while Richard Nixon worked to augment their isolation and insecurity. Initially millions felt inspired in a common cause by both Obama and Tony Blair. Those feelings have now vanished — making many feel more isolated and lonely.

The programs of Margaret Thatcher to deny the very concept of society reflected the sense in Britain that individualism would rule supreme. That is why she bashed the unions, promoted capitalist competitiveness and celebrated individual enterprise. Her efforts greatly increased the isolation and loneliness of the people. This Christmas, The Economist featured “The Loneliness of Tony Blair” on its cover. Inside, The Economist stated that “in his home country he is reviled. The ostentatious combination of money-spinning, globe trotting and commercial deals with some unappealing governments sit uneasily in austere, post-crisis Britain.” His political loneliness is matched by the sense of the voters that they are not being engaged or listened to by their elected leaders. Many feel abandoned, saddened and lonely.

Our increasingly longer and lonelier lives are becoming harder to transform. One specialist on the outer reaches of loneliness, John Cacioppo, has offered a number of tips in his many books on more positive prospects: First of all, your loneliness is an indication that something needs to be changed. It is vital to develop relationships with those who may share your interests and values. Then focus on your positive thoughts and attitudes with those contacts. Consider doing something for your community or other social activity that you enjoy. There you may encounter others who are also seeking similar engagement. There is no guarantee that such popularized advice will decrease the afflicted. Cacioppo fails to reach the inner core of loneliness.

For those who feel strongly that religious belief is one way out, consider Criss Jami’s observation that “A lonely day is God’s way of saying he wants to spend some quality time with you.”3

As opposed to being lonely, there are so many benefits to spending time alone. The shift from the sense of loneliness to one of solitude is not easy, but it can be immensely rewarding: Freedom is considered to be one of the benefits of solitude. A person’s creativity can be sparked when given such freedom. Another benefit may be the attendant exploration of the self. When one spends time in solitude away from others, changes to one’s self-conception and notions of identity may occur. Solitude provides the time for contemplation, for growth in personal spirituality, and for the self-examination involved in finding a sacred place in one’s inner being.


1George Monbiot, Life in the age of loneliness, The Guardian, October 15, 2014, p.31

2Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, (1982)

3Criss Jami, Killosophy (2015)

56. Refocusing politics for a more Humane Program

What is the lesson to be learned from the highly invigorating referendum in Scotland? It is fair to say that ordinary people now feel they can express their points of view as never before. The internet has awakened the participation of millions in the political process. They want to make their country a better place in which to live. It also is evident that the exposure of the media is bringing about great challenges for political accountability.

It is obvious that enormous energy is being exercised in favor of change. Voters not only want to improve their living standards, they also want their thoughts for a better Scotland (Wales and England) to be heard. Aside from the complexities of devolution, how can the much desired improvements take place? How can hope be restored to the people?

The charge is often made that politics in the UK are “too clubby.” Instead of using primaries to select candidates for parliamentary seats, for example, the elite of the upper echelons of the Labour and Conservative parties select prospective members from individuals who have worked for them in Westminster. There needs to be far more competition and choice for the democratic process to succeed, for fresh ideas and innovation to be introduced into policy formulation.

Since coming to power in 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has pushed ”Austerity” on the people and offered ‘Quantitative Easing’ to the banks, the Treasury, and the City. This kind of innovation does not enhance the social harmony of a nation.

What needs to happen now is a shift in direction. This should be focused on greater economic fairness, mutuality, social awareness and cooperation (given by creating co-operatives like the John Lewis Partnership). It also will demand halting the steadily increasing economic division between the wealthier south and the poorer north as well as calling for a stop to the furtherance of the privatization of energy, transport, health, education and even prisons! The wide ranging reductions in welfare benefits — from cuts in legal aid to follies like “the Bedroom Tax” — also will have to be reversed. Altogether that is one gigantic challenge amounting to a social revolution.

Such basic reforms will require politicians and civil servants to rethink in ways which would be sensitively responsive to public opinion. The Tory writer, Roger Scruton, has written that “Conservatives are exposed to the complaint that they have no positive vision, and nothing to offer us, save the status quo — with all its entrenched occupation.” But then he wryly admits that “Thinking is an unusual and precarious exercise for Conservatives.”1

The opposition may “think” more deeply but have yet to light a spark in the electorate. The mass of voters — in both the United States and much of the European Community — have become singularly disaffected by the failures of the traditional political parties. In the United States the Republican strategy of bringing the Congress into a state of gridlock, and its politically driven refusal to cooperate with the executive branch, has resulted in public disaffection with the whole system. Alas, except for their goal of reducing the size of government, the Republicans lack a coherent outlook for the future. Like the Tories in England, they are deeply attached to preserving a way of life — which, in effect, is a Hollywood-style interpretation of the past.

Class solidarity, a modern version of tribalism, was important in the UK until Margaret Thatcher broke both the mining industry and the power of the unions. She replaced the public good with private greed, social justice with corporate capitalism, and society (whose very existence she denied) with a “me first” version of individualism in a toll-booth economy. Rather than halt this anti-social trend, the Labor party under Tony Blair simply furthered the power of the banks, the City and the private sector. This resulted in a dangerously unbalanced enrichment of a small sector of the population. When the Tories then returned in coalition with the Liberal-Democrats, they continued with the privatization of almost everything from the post office to transportation, energy, prisons and even children’s homes — all at the unwanted expense of the taxpayers.

The younger generation has become disaffected and deeply disillusioned by the “politics as usual practice” of both parties. They have been offered no solution to their job crisis and continuing housing shortage. The older generation is more vocal in expressing their weariness and disappointment with politicians, bankers, economists and even the police. Some have described the reaction as part of the “post-democracy” phenomenon.2 Both these groups sense that in combination with globalization and the amazing technological advances, their world is being swiftly transformed into a dislocating, if not an alien, planet.

Language itself reflects the rapid and camouflaged changes in socioeconomic perspective: “reform” now means privatization, “partnership” means selling out to big business, greater “efficiency” means cutting the workforce while “downsizing” generally means replacing workers with automation. “Rationalizing” suggests following the strictures of market fundamentalism. All reveal a degree of embarrassment with the harsh realities of capitalism.

There are groups in both the US and the UK, like the Social Economy Alliance, which are looking at how the best ideas from left and right could be joined together to provide a social alternative in economics. They are asking questions such as, how can social-based economics reduce unemployment and how can it work to create a more responsible economic sector? This Alliance is being launched amid evidence that not-for-profit companies and co-operatives are outperforming their profit-making counterparts.

A decade ago I spelled out at considerable length the ways our faltering economy could be changed. I proposed the end of money as we have known it, the transformation of corporations into cooperatives, and the introduction of universal “credits” for all citizens. You can find the prescriptions for in-depth reform in my book, Dollars or Democracy,3 which I plan to place on the internet in the near future. I have selected a short section of the concluding chapter to whet your desire for more!


1Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative, (2014)
2John Harris, “…politics as usual is finished,” The Guardian, September 12, 2014
3Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy,(2004)


DOLLARS OR DEMOCRACY?

12 CONCLUSION: COMPETITION OR COOPERATION?

Faced with an untenable world economy, I have tried to imagine and project a plausible scenario for a workable alternative. The revolutionary ideas I have outlined present an enormous challenge, but then, risk-taking always has been at the core of our present system. I believe that the incentive economy is based on such long-term principles as are most likely to effect human well-being and happiness.

We are not the captives of capitalism. We do have a democratic choice. We have it within our power to change the economy to suit our needs without resorting to violence or coercion. But this demands careful thinking, vigorous discussion and debate, followed by planning and decision-making. This book has offered you choices, not destiny.

There is no doubt that we are, in every way, living beyond our means. Not only is capitalism driving us head over heels into personal and national debts, but we are destroying the very carrying capacity of the Earth. The U.S. Academy of Sciences estimates that ever since the 1980s, human beings have been taking more natural resources from the living planet than the Earth can replenish.* In the very short term all of us are going to face up to the situation where capitalism’s so-called positive-sum game of growth gives way to the zero-sum game of dwindling spoils, deflation, and stagnation; where brother fights brother over limited water, air, dwindling oil supplies, and land. We are talking here about the survival of the human race on this planet—a provocative subject which laissez-faire market capitalists desperately try to avoid. The environment concerns each and every one of us. “Climate change is no respecter of national boundaries,” writes David King, the British government’s chief scientific adviser. Most of the important aspects of the environment are public goods. No one individual can enjoy a cleaner or healthier environment unless others do. The exclusion principle cannot be applied here. “What we do unto others, we do to ourselves.”

Theorizing about economics is one way of eventually making the seemingly impossible economically plausible. It can be a way of presenting economic configurations, which the experts do not want to take into account and which challenge the given truths of an era. The failings of the economics profession has been a recurrent theme in this book. Dishonest economic drivel, such as the “trickle-down theory,” “the Laffer curve,” and “Fedspeak” as practiced in Washington, have tended to give economics itself a foul name.

Yes, some economists have had good ideas for reform: the Brandt Commission in the 1970s proposed a global armaments tax the revenues from which would go to help the development of third world countries. Such a tax would also have cut down the murderous and steadily expanding trade in small arms. In the eighties, the Brundtland Commission proposed a tax on pollution both to save the environment and to promote third world education. In the 1990s James Tobin, a Yale economist and Nobel laureate, promoted the idea of a minimal tax on speculative financial transactions, like derivatives. Even a tax of a tenth of 1 percent would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for use in the underdeveloped world. But not one of these hopeful ideas has come into being, and no new reformist plan is likely to be more successful in the near future.

Despite strong opposition by John Maynard Keynes, the Bretton Woods economic conference some sixty years ago framed the victory of corporate and commercial property over human rights. For example, it was determined that foreign exchange reserves of other nations will be held in dollars. Instead of the poverty trap of debts which was being foisted on the less developed nations by the United States, Keynes tried to outline the possibilities of a world without debt which would depend on an international clearing union. But Keynes was blocked by Washington and damned the fundamental hypocrisy of capitalism writing: “We must go on pretending that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.” Governance rules were rigged against the poor countries. Washington used the dollar as a weapon to control the world’s weaker economies. This modern version of dollar diplomacy was described almost a century earlier by President William Howard Taft as “substituting dollars for bullets.”

Apart from the incertitudes of globalization, among the multitude of fundamental questions that most economists of the past generation have refused to ask are: Where is our economic world headed? What is economic life all about? Is “growth” truly the only way to create jobs? Do we really want to increase the GDP in order to convert the planet into a man-made environment of cars, roads, housing estates, industrial sites, favelas, and shopping malls? Can we be both economically fair and efficient? Is any kind of stability possible in a capitalist world? When will economic success be measured in terms of leisure time, environmental quality, and economic security? Could we stop using up our real capital—such as timber, oil and top soil—in such a way that future generations also have a chance? What will we have to pass on to our children? I should like the answer to that last question to be: a cleaner, greener, more secure, more cooperative, and generally more mutually satisfying world.

Personally, I reject an unjust world divided between a few billionaires living in guarded communities and billions of people living in deprivation. Money, banks, multinationals, shares, and even capitalism are all our collective creations, and we have both the ability and the duty to change these if they do not serve us well. The moral aspects of providing fairness and better distribution (particularly of food and water) are as important as those of technical advance. In giving the vast brushstrokes for a new economy, I believe the credit system and the incentive economy present the chance for marked improvements all around—particularly in ways to keep a society vibrant, spiritual, creative, and consciously aware of its desired direction.

* Due, in part, to industrial farming and the burning of tropical forests, more than 24 billion tons of top soil, or the equivalent of 4 tons for every human being on the planet, is now washed off into the sea every year.

48. Crucial Shifts in Women’s Voting

The gradual political shift to the left by women voters in Europe and the Americas is a remarkable and significant indicator of the push for greater gender equality. Sociologists point out that the shift of women to the left is striking because only a few decades ago they had voted to the right of men.1 After they had become eligible to vote in 1928 (ending the prolonged struggle of the UK’s suffragettes) women were crucial in helping to keep the Conservatives in power. In the 1950s Winston Churchill won because more women voted Tory than men [by more than 14%]. Ironically, their loyalties began to shift with the fall of the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister. With the greater feminine concern for health care, education and benefits in the election of Blair in 1997, the shift in the UK was complete.

A similar scenario was experienced in the US over the past three decades, where more women have voted for Democrats. Some sociologists have traced this development to the decline in marriages and the rise in divorce which has made women poorer and men comparatively richer.2 Others contend that the rise of female employment in the labor market has made women more likely to favor the left by increasing their awareness of labor market discrimination as well as the demand for state subsidized child care. Whatever the reasons, Romney received less than 45% of the overall women’s vote in his race against Obama in 2012.

In an editorial page article in the Guardian, Seumas Milne wrote that women are significantly more hostile to cuts in benefits, pensions, health and education than men.3 It is important to note here that women make up two-thirds of the public sector work force in the UK and three-quarters of the National Health Service and local government. This has also increased the power of women in the trade unions. The consequence has been an historic shift in the political scene over the past three decades. Women of today are far more vocal in their opposition to the use of force, are more supportive of environmental reforms, are on average in favor of progressive taxation and generally endorse the benefits of the welfare state.

Politics often seem contradictory to common sense. I remain puzzled as to how Republicans in the US and Conservatives in the UK, fully aware of the continuing shift to the left in the voting pattern of women, are doing so little to make their expressed desire to reduce the size of government more electorally acceptable. Prime Minister David Cameron is painfully aware of his unpopularity among his country’s women with an election coming up in the UK next May. What has he promised them? To cut one million public servants by 2017! Now there are more females today working for the government than men and new jobs will be difficult for the women dismissed by the Tories to find. How can reasonably intelligent politicians move so blatantly against their own and the electorate’s best interests? Or are they in some kind of irrational state of denial about the political shift in the allegiance of women?

In the United States it seems most likely that Hillary Clinton will run for the presidency on the Democratic ticket, but the Republicans have done absolutely nothing over the past six years to make their platforms more popular to women. Obama won his second term because of the votes of women who felt more secure with a President who was committed to public services. Today the right wing of the Republican Party wants to cut benefits to a bare minimum. It does not take a brilliant mathematician to recognize that this will almost guarantee electoral defeat. However, the Tea Party, endorsed by sectors of the corporate world, has maintained its gender hostile agenda.

Despite these political shifts by women, their systematic under-representation in the legislatures of democracies continues. They are not helped in either England or the US because female politicians seem to self-select into offices with a high turnover. On the way up the political ladder, the attrition rate is dramatic. Although about a quarter of women hold jobs in state legislatures in the US and in local councils in the UK, when it comes to the House of Representatives and the House of Commons this figure falls to under 20 percent. “As long as females are the default care-givers, they face an uneven playing field,” conclude sociologists Iversen and Rosenbluth, because markets will discriminate against them.4 There are exceptions, however. The deliberate and rational approach of Angela Merkel in Germany, who has become the most powerful leader in the European Union, has gained the reluctant acceptance of both genders irrespective of her political position on the right.

The notion that women in politics function with greater collaboration and effectiveness than men, has long been an appealing but empirically unproven proposition. This past year, however, the 20 women in the US Senate (16 of whom are Democrats and only four Republicans) have been running something of a lab test: These female Senators now chair or sit as ranking members in ten of the Senate’s twenty committees and have been responsible for passing a majority of the bills despite the intense rancor of right-wing Republicans. There is a deep sense that more unites these women personally than pushes them.  “One of the things we do a bit better is listen,” said North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.

In the midst of the political deadlock in the Senate last autumn, Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins took to the Senate floor and, refraining from partisan blame, proposed a plan to end the political gridlock. “I ask my Democratic and Republican colleagues to come together. We can legislate responsibly and in good faith.” Senate Appropriations Committee chair, Barbara Mikulski (a Maryland Democrat) agreed saying, “I am willing to negotiate. I am willing to compromise,” and a few minutes later a democratic Senator said, “I am pleased to stand with my friend from Maine, Senator Collins.” Looking for common ground and ways to work together resulted in a plan that led to genuine talks between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to end the government shutdown.5 In recognition of their contribution to politics, the women Senators were invited to dine with President Obama in the White House. Going around the table, Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California) remarked that 100 years earlier they would have been meeting outside the White House gates to demand the right to vote. President Obama retorted: “A hundred years ago I’d have been serving you.”

Women are more likely to support activist government spending across a range of welfare programs than men. In the UK, women have disproportionately felt the consequences of Cameron’s austerity program which seriously cut back on services and jobs in the public sector.6 In addition, cuts in maternity pay, legal aid, and child benefits as well as wage freezes and pay caps have resulted in increasing numbers of women, half of whom are now members of the trade unions, protesting against gender discrimination. Single women, in particular, are at the forefront because they have to rely on outside options in case they need economic support.

Women are thus rapidly changing the political landscape around the world.  With 50% of the adult population and even a greater percentage of the over 60s eligible to cast their ballots, their impact in the coming decades will steadily increase. How men will react is unclear but it is likely that they will try to cover their insecurity. Beyond that, the possible election of a woman as President of the most powerful nation in the world would alter voter engagement and perspective. It would certainly lead to greater representation of women in legislatures around the world. Such a universal shift towards greater gender equality could well result in the much-needed improvement in global relations which until now have been dictated by men.

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1Torben Iversen and Frances Rosenbluth, Women, Work, &Politics, (2010) p.115

2Lena Edlund and Rohini Pande, in a paper to Columbia University, October 11, 2001

3Seumas Milne, “Women are now to the left of men. It’s a historic shift,” The Guardian, March 6, 2013, p. 31

4Edlund, op.cit. p.169

5“The Last Politicians,” Time, October 28, 2013

6“Ladies in red,” The Economist, April 19, 2014, p.29