Loneliness And Capitalism – OpEd

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The epidemic of loneliness is spreading rapidly in our hyper-connected world of social media. Studies by the World Health Organization suggest that “20-34% of older people in China, India, the United States, and regions of Europe and Latin America experience loneliness.”

Similarly, there is a crisis of friendship and meaningful connections among young people. Research by the Campaign to End Loneliness in the United Kingdom has revealed that “49.63% of adults (25.99 million people) are lonely, and approximately 7.1% of people in Britain (3.83 million) experience chronic loneliness, meaning they feel lonely ‘often or always’ in 2022.” In 2017, the Jo Cox National Commission on Loneliness estimated the cost of loneliness to employers at £2.5 billion a year in the UK. It is impossible to calculate the social and emotional cost of loneliness. According to the report “The State of Loneliness 2023: Office of National Statistics data on loneliness in Britain, June 2023,” published by the Campaign to End Loneliness, there is an alarming rise in loneliness among all age groups. The growing crisis of loneliness leads to deaths, destitution, depression, ill health, mental health crises, crime, and other forms of unsocial and antisocial behaviour in society. Loneliness is a global social and health crisis.

In modern capitalist societies, the notion of loneliness is not solely a product of individual disposition but rather a consequence of broader capitalist structures and processes shaped by new forms of digital capitalism. The ideals and culture of solitude can be a deliberate personal choice, but loneliness often emerges as a result of systemic factors deeply ingrained in capitalist culture. Within this framework, the emphasis on individual success and self-promotion can lead to a pervasive sense of isolation, as people prioritise their own advancement over collective well-being. This narcissistic culture perpetuates a cycle of alienation, where individuals become increasingly disconnected from one another and their communities. The very fabric of capitalist societies, with its emphasis on competition and material gain, cultivates environments that prioritise profit over the social bonds essential for human fulfilment. Thus, loneliness emerges not as an inherent trait but as a by-product of the alienating conditions fostered by capitalist society.

Capitalism thrives on alienation, perpetuating and reproducing all forms of alienating conditions. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx discussed four types of alienation: i) alienation from one’s own product and labour, ii) alienation from the process of labour, iii) alienation from one’s own self, and iv) alienation from other fellow human beings/workers. These four forms of alienation continue to be the foundation of modern capitalism in the age of digitalisation. The technological advancements have accelerated all these forms of alienation. These alienating conditions generate helpless and lonely individuals who lack control over themselves. Their lives and freedoms are dictated by those who control capital and organisations.

Alienation is not an isolated condition; it is an integral part of the capitalist system, where the destruction of meaningful human and social connections is central to the creation of an insidious economy at the expense of society. Society is dismantled to promote a profit-driven economic system based on the exploitation of labour and nature. Such an exploitative system can only sustain itself by fostering disconnected and atomized individuals, thus promoting the growth of a ‘loneliness economy’ where capitalism becomes the only available alternative.

Capitalism, with its relentless pursuit of profit, often comes at the expense of the collective spirit and innate social nature of humanity. It champions ideals such as individual space, freedom, happiness, utility, pleasure, and satisfaction, which are often portrayed as attainable through material wealth and consumption. However, the pursuit of these ideals within a capitalist framework can be insatiable, leading individuals into a perpetual cycle of labour and consumption, where fulfilment remains elusive. This is because the essence of these aspirations inherently lies in collective experiences and relationships rather than in the accumulation of material possessions or individual success. In a collectivist society that prioritizes sharing, cooperation, and empathy, these ideals find fertile ground for realization, as they are inherently intertwined with the well-being of the community as a whole. Thus, there exists a fundamental misalignment between the individualistic ethos perpetuated by capitalism and the communal nature of human fulfilment and contentment.

Capitalism has eroded the collective foundations of society to such an extent that even the hyper-connected world of social media cannot change it. It is central to the production of insecure, lonely, powerless, fearful, and disconnected individuals who grapple with depression and anxiety in their everyday lives. These weakened individuals are unlikely to question the exploitative and unnatural underpinnings of capitalism. There is no threat to capitalism in a society populated by lonely and alienated individuals. The notion of a free, happy, and prosperous capitalism is nothing more than a myth.

Capitalism, in all its forms, breeds loneliness. The digital fantasies of capitalism can’t end loneliness.  Therefore, the struggle to end loneliness is a struggle against very foundations of capitalism. A society liberated from exploitation and inequality, one founded upon principles of solidarity, compassion, and collective sharing, stands as the sole alternative to the pervasive isolation endemic to capitalist societies. 

Bhabani Shankar Nayak

Bhabani Shankar Nayak works as Professor of Business Management, Guildhall School of Business and Law, London Metropolitan University, UK.

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