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The Lonely Century

Review of The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that's Pulling Apart

Author: Noreena Hertz

Reviewed by: David Towell

This original and challenging new book from Noreena Hertz is a very timely contribution to our individual and collective agenda for 'building back better' from the Covid-19 global crisis. 

There are different ways of approaching these agenda: clearly the pandemic crisis gives us advance warning of the much greater climate catastrophe that awaits us without urgent environmental action; its economic impacts reinforce the need for new strategies that value both people and planet; it has also illuminated and greatly magnified the social isolation many of us experience. Hertz's book explores in depth this third dimension arguing persuasively that loneliness is becoming the defining condition of the 21st Century but that we have the power to reverse this through rebuilding community.

Her opening chapter summarises this thesis as follows:

'If we are to come together in a world that's pulling apart, we need to reconnect capitalism to the pursuit of the common good and put care, compassion and cooperation at its very heart, with these behaviours extending to people who are different from us'. 

Yes indeed!

Hertz stretches the definition of loneliness to encompass both the personal and the political. Of course we understand it subjectively as the feeling that we lack valued ties and connections. But she suggests that it also encompasses the larger phenomenon of feeling oneself to have been marginalised and neglected by the dominant interests in society - not so much left behind but left out. The former is very bad for our health; the latter is dangerous for our politics.

She unpacks these ideas in detail, exploring the multiple determinants of how we got to here, even before Covid-19 confined us to our own homes. There are three major strands in this diagnosis.

Starting from the overtly political, the dominance of neo-liberal ideology in the 1980s and since not only greatly increased inequality and social exclusion, it encouraged an individualism ('there is no such thing as society') in which the 'I' became more important than 'we' and increasingly people understood themselves as consumers not citizens. Since then, the decline of traditional occupations and the communities they supported, alienation at work, loss of social status and an increasing sense of isolation have all strengthened the experience of disconnection. It is this that offers fertile ground to the populism that gave us both Brexit and Trump, the common features here being a leadership that pretends to be listening to those left behind and offers someone 'other' (immigrants, elites) as the focus of blame. (I am writing the day after Trump encouraged his supporters to attack the Capitol building and then told them he loved them.)

Second, the conditions of everyday life both at work and outside are increasingly isolating. Many white-collar staff feel alone even in (or perhaps especially in) 'open-plan' offices and communicate with people across the room using e-mail! Many others (like the workers at Amazon) feel disempowered by both the 'gig economy' and digital surveillance as Ken Loach's film Sorry We Missed You so movingly dramatises. Outside the city life most of us share has become increasingly anonymous as we rush to meet our commitments, don't know our neighbours and find decreasing opportunities to meet others informally as public spaces (parks, libraries, local shops) all decline - something greatly accelerated in the UK by the ten-plus years of austerity that preceded the pandemic.

Third, social media that are, in fact, actively anti-social. It is said that some small children now learn to say 'Alexa' before they say 'Mama'. On average people check their smart-phones more than 200 times each day (and night). There used to be a cigarette advert, 'You are never alone with a Strand'. Now it is more accurate to say that 'you are never completely together with someone who has a smart-phone in their hand'. Moreover Facebook and the like are encouraging us to present inauthentic versions of ourselves in exchange for the weakest form of social validation, 'likes'. All this undermining our capacity for genuine engagement with significant others.

So, what is to be done? We need to wake up to the scale of these trends and create equally profound responses. Hertz outlines the shape of a transformative programme to rebuild community. 

My summary includes:

  • We need political leadership that, like New Zealand, makes sustainability and well-being key national goals, not GNP growth. It means addressing inequalities, allocating more resources to universal social security and therefore taxing global corporations fairly to help pay.
  • Equally, we need massive investment in a green new deal that brings dignified work and stronger worker representation.
  • We also need a revival of urban planning that, like the city of Bristol, invests in recreating public spaces with inclusion and community at their hearts.
  • We need to regulate social media in the public interest and especially reduce the impact they have in the lives of children.
  • We need to revive democracy! This means creating many more opportunities for people to feel seen and heard, not just as voters but as contributors from their experiences. On a very local scale we need to encourage every opportunity for civic association and for honing our democratic skills in strengthening mutual cooperation.

But this needs to be personal as well as political. Every day we can show empathy, demonstrate kindness in myriad ways and help others. Typically the helper benefits just as much as the helped. This is a responsibility for all of us. 

Importantly, although the pandemic has forced us apart, it has also showed us who are really the 'key workers' and encouraged us to rediscover (and reinvent) 'community' as a resource to each other. The Lonely Century shows us how the pandemic experience can be a tipping point for a better future.


The publisher is Sceptre.

The Lonely Century © Noreena Hertz 2020.

Review: The Lonely Century © David Towell 2021.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

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David Towell

David Towell

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