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)



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.