Do you feel lonely? If so, you’re not alone. The number of people who lack meaningful human connection, intimacy, love, or friendship, has been ever creeping up. According to self-reported statistics, it has doubled in the past 50 years. With it, has come deaths of despair: drug overdose, suicide, and mental illness have accelerated. As Democritus observed millennia ago, “Life is not worth living for the man who has not even one good friend.” Take that as a cold numerical fact, and perhaps 27% of millennials do not even have something to live for.
This loneliness, taken in sum, is an ever growing trend going back not just decades but centuries. It is also a cause of radical violence today: from far-right attacks, to radical street brawling, to incel shootings, to ISIS terror. Violence turned outward, rather than inward. To understand it, we can’t allow pity or moral outrage to cloud our judgment, as we consider what loneliness is, and what people seek out in radicalness.
Loneliness is, after all, the lack of love, of intimacy and friendship. It is the frustrated desire, the longing, to seek out those things. In the hierarchy of basic human needs, love and belonging are one step removed from bare physical homeostasis in their immediate importance. People who cannot find love, or more generally cannot find belonging in intimate and meaningful human social fabric, in a directly personal way will find other ways to channel that desire. They will adopt more desperate schemes for its eventual fulfillment. Extreme variations of how people abstract their love are well-documented. People become obsessed with the likenesses of famous actors, animated and fictional characters, or other inanimate objects. This one-sided love, abstracted further, can also find a home within ideology, as the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm suggested more than half a century ago as he struggled to come up with explanations for the disastrous rise of nationalism in the buildup to World War II.
In this telling, far from being driven by a primal hatred and distrust of the other in the first instance, nationalism was motivated by love. But not the kind of intimacy that can exist between two actually existing people: love abstracted. Love focused on something which exists mostly in the framework of their ideology: the organic community of the nation or race. From here comes the introduction of hatred of the other, and the most vehement kind of hatred. Hatred borne from the perceived slight against the object of their affections, the jealousy of a lover.
In another possible telling, the desperately unfulfilled need for human belonging produces a radical dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a lack of social bonds tying one to the status quo. The lonely person can easily come to believe that a radical upheaval is necessary to produce the kind of world which would be acceptable to them, and which would accept them. If that upheaval would be brutal and violent, without bonds of love they have no particular reason to care. Beyond radicalism, the desperate yearning for belonging can power all kinds of otherwise unconvincing narratives of promise, like consumerism, lifestyle choices, and the rat race itself.
These motivations apply to radicalism across the board, whether violent or not, and many things not normally considered radical. The resurgence of socialism and nationalism, much like in Fromm’s time, are two highly visible symptoms of this. More mundanely, you can see it in everything from increasingly tribal identity politics to simple consumerist fandom. It need not be any kind of radicalization at all. It could be the familiar mainstream desperate clamor for promotion, wealth, status, and success.
The question of radicalism or normalcy here has little to do with the accuracy or level of consciousness of the ideology. It’s not just that person who turns to radicalization out of frustration has adopted some kind of false narrative, or that the mainstream normalcy is correct or healthy. Rather, the important feature is how the unfulfilled need for belonging or other basic psychological and social needs can motivate radicalization. Sometimes, the implied plan in the ideologies we turn to out of loneliness may be completely out to lunch. But sometimes the radical ideology is in fact a much more rational, healthy and accurate perception, that society as it is will in fact never work for that person, whether because it is simply dysfunctional, or actively hostile.
There is an important distinction, however, between the radical violence of the early 20th century in Europe and the radical violence of the early 21st century, even if we allow the loneliness hypothesis. The working class radicalism that Marx was so interested in, developed as it was in the factories where workers were alienated from one another, had its roots in a certain loneliness. But it was still a communally experienced loneliness. Thus, it gave rise to radical organizational forms such as the workers councils, militant trade unions, communes and Soviets, etc.
Despite the wide girth of difference, the anti-semitic explosion of violence in Germany in 1938 did share something in common with the explosion of anti-capitalist working class violence in the revolution just 20 years earlier. It was also a communal experience.
Relatively recent scholarship on Kristallnacht has highlighted just how the violence was a social affair, one that, while carried out by the Nazi Party and state apparatus and eventually sanctioned by Hitler, also included a large amount of involvement from non-politically affiliated actors. Neighbors who harbored grudges from mundane humiliations or arguments involving Jews in their community would use the opportunity to torment them. Factory employees, often organized by their employers, and children released from school, were brought into the frenzy. One account describes a man playing the organ for the Nazis and rioters sacking a synagogue as if it were a celebration.
Fromm contends that herd conformity, which is often brutally enforced in totalitarian societies as in Nazi Germany, is a method of solving the problem of aloneness. He suggested that the socialization of the means of production, the consolidation of capital and labor into massive corporations and unions during the 20th century, were the source of this conformity. The highly mobilized totalitarian conformity is a way of pretending, via imitation, that we are not truly separate, that we are all unified in the same multi-cellular organism. The desire to be a meaningful and valued part of a larger social organism is deeply natural, and deeply motivating. Despite not actually offering the substance of such an organic community, the mass totalitarian movements of the 20th century could use its allure as a motivator for their supporters. The intense need for belonging would be abstracted and redirected into participation in the mass conformity rituals.
This is the fundamental difference between then and now: loneliness is no longer a communal experience. But to understand why that is the case, why this communal experience has expired, we have to first understand precisely why loneliness has seen a dramatic increase.
There are several theories.
One theory is that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s should receive the blame for our current predicament. The socialist cultural critic Angela Nagle, French provocateur Michel Houellebecq, and disparate right-wing anti-feminists are among the major promoters of this narrative.
The argument goes something like this: the sexual revolution, by destroying the nuclear family, monogamy, and traditional cultural norms, inadvertently increased social isolation as the usual methods of finding and keeping companionship and close relationships broke down, and the notion of free love was discovered to be vapid.
There is an element of truth to this theory. Capitalism, with its constant need to innovate, find new markets, and place the capture of monetary value above all else, will tend to uproot traditional institutions, customs, and mores, in order to bring more transactions into the market sphere. All that is solid continues to melt into air. This includes the nuclear family and monogamous relationships.
But this doesn’t explain why loneliness trended upward far before the sexual revolution. The American 1950s, in particular, was a time of self-recognition of this loneliness. 1950 was the year that The Lonely Crowd was published, a widely read critical sociological and psychoanalytical analysis of American society. The automated, mechanistic working breadwinner in Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, consumed by big business, big unions, the accompanying bureaucracies and Fordist production framework, was a socially isolated figure, alienated from other workers and society as a whole. These men, even though their jobs were secure and their prosperity the object of envy for contemporary workers, were slotted into an anonymous machine that left them without the dignity that comes with power in their own social environments.
As was the archetypal housewife of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, for whom social mobility was severely repressed after marriage and who was expected to suffer through her side of the division of labor alone, in a household structure that had itself been alienated from work and extended family. Where traditionally a woman had a meaningful domain at the center of a household that was embedded in a thicker social fabric and in economic production, in the new nuclear family structure she was now left alone in a glorified bedroom.
Yes, these were complaints of a largely well-off middle class, one that was the beneficiary of a wide ranging social safety net and decades of successfully entrenching their position. But these kinds of problems are often first problems for the upper classes, first and foremost the bourgeoisie. They are the first adopters of the new, the destroyers of the old. They are the guinea pigs of their own social experimentation.
The bourgeoisie welcome revolutionized commodity relations with open arms, because at least in the short-term it is in their interest. They thus will be among the first to feel the consequences of disruption, besides those workers who are trapped in such precarity that they have no choice but to embrace marketized relations.
The nuclear family itself was one such innovation, which atomized, standardized, and commodified the relationships that used to be embedded in the extended household. I’ve felt the history of this innovation in my own family, through the stories of my grandmother, now 98 years of age. She grew up in a crowded, poor, multi-generational home in South Texas, with grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, all together, supporting each other and enmeshed in mutual relations. A common experience among Latinos at the time. When the war started, she went to work as a welder in the shipyards—the kind of job that allowed her to support her family and move into the middle class. She’s told us so many stories about these times in her life, stealing walnuts from the trees in town with her cousins, estranged hobo relatives coming to visit, watching her mute aunt reenact the movies she saw. In the shipyards, she earned the respect of her male supervisors as one of the best welders they had, a Latina version of Rosie the Riveter. Every time we sit down to eat together, she tells us about the time the whole shipyard went down with food poisoning from bad chili and people got to thinking the Germans had attacked. But those stories stopped once she settled down with my grandfather, who became an accountant after returning from the war. This is when she started her life in the nuclear family, and her social circle became much smaller. As for my grandfather, he won an award for never missing a single day of work. Once he was finally forced to retire, he lost a lot of meaning in his life. He died when I was still young, but now Grandma lives with us—an echo of the sort of multi-generational home that used to be.
Loneliness as a secular upward trend cannot be said to begin with the sexual revolution. In fact, the sexual revolution was a reaction to the already existing loneliness of society in the 1950s.
The sexual revolution, after all, was built upon the ideas of psychoanalysts such as Wilhelm Reich and J.L. Moreno who wished to solve people’s anxieties and hang-ups with either new methods of releasing sexual repression, or find ways to cultivate personal relationships through acting out and making explicit emotions. They, and others, spoke against the conformist and repressed society they found themselves in. Moreno in particular, by inventing the sociometric diagram (the web-like graph which displays relations between individuals), put the focus on connections between people. He believed that this mapping out of relations would eventually allow clinicians, which he called Sociatists, to diagnose and treat disorders within our “social atoms,” the constellation of emotional connections we uphold—the geography of our friendships and companions. When we grow older, we begin to lose more and more relationships without any easy means of replacement. For Moreno, “A man dies when his social atom dies.”
No profession like Sociatists ended up being created. Instead, sociometry was only much later put to work in digital marketing as the internet and social media took off.
Reich, on the other hand, attempted to solve the problem of aloneness in one of the less direct time- honored methods: eroticism and the communion of the flesh. The Hippy Free Love movement was one such outgrowth of this instinct.
As one might guess, these attempts ultimately failed. Finding oneself participating in restrictive social relations that have lost their purposes and larger material context, which thus no longer make the sense they once did, it is easy to idealize less restrictive alternatives like free love. But the loosened alternatives cannot solve the actual problem, which is structural. They amount to just another reactive symptom.
Both Nagle and the anti-feminists, however, insist that such loosening morals have led to the emergence of contemporary reactionary movements and violence. The phenomenon of incels (involuntarily celibate men, often in the same ecosystem as those earlier mentioned anti-feminists), as well as the violent outbursts and shootings at the hands of ideologically driven incel perpetrators like Elliot Rodger, is taken to be an especially visible consequence of this. But when broken down empirically, the direct cultural explanation doesn’t work. The first generation of men to come of age after the sexual revolution did so in the 80s and 90s. But virginity rates among young people did not begin to significantly trend upward until 2008, the Great Recession, thus suggesting a material economic and not cultural cause. The 2008 recession created a much more intensive rat race for a shrinking pool of positions, and changed much in the economic landscape to make healthy relationship formation harder.
More mainstream academic theories tend to shift the focus towards broad forces, such as individualism. Individualism as a source of loneliness in the Anglophone world was documented as far back as the early 19th century, where narrow self interest and social isolation dominated life in Britain and the United States. Modern academics sound a similar note, suggesting myths about rugged individualism, containing figures such as the lone gangster, businessman, or cowboy, have an unhealthy grip on the American consciousness. People strive to find success on their own, at the expense of isolation and bitter disappointment in failure. But this emphasis on individualism versus collectivism risks falling into a kind of ahistorical and Anglo-centric dead end. Loneliness and social isolation are just as prevalent if not more among Japanese society as American, all while still maintaining formal collectivist traditions. And loneliness hardly decreased in those periods of American history where collectivist attitudes were at their strongest, whether the conformist 50s or the eroticist 60s. The connection is, at best, tangential and contingent, at worst, spurious.
What, then, is the ultimate cause of this trend?
The cause is the commodification of social relations and the growth of atomization more generally. As was mentioned earlier, commodification breaks up traditional social relations, replacing them with the dizzying arithmetic calculations of exchange and price. Instead of friends, family, neighbors, and patrons, there are buyers, sellers, employers, and employees, who are, on a structural level and oftentimes on a personal level, either mutually alienated from each other or outright adversarial.
To explain what I mean by atomization, I think it’s best to refer to two illustrative metaphors.
In economics, atomization is the opposite of socialization or integration in terms of production. If socialization integrates different aspects of production into a single enterprise with direct coordination/cooperation, atomization is the dispersion of production into a multitude of different actors who only coordinate/cooperate indirectly and transactionally. Near the end of feudalism in Britain, textile production was originally atomized and undertaken by individual households who would then have their products taken by merchant guilds to markets. This production was slowly integrated as the economy of scale in factories and the invention of the power-loom made such atomized production obsolete.
Individuals can also become atomized on this simple material level. Commodification is one way this sort of atomization proceeds, but so can, as we’ve seen, changes in the organization and economic role of households. And the historical record in this account is startling. In large cities, those households composed of one person living alone has increased at an almost exponential rate in the West since the 1500s, not surprising considering that it seems to correlate linearly to economic development of the type we have experienced.
Of course, living alone doesn’t not mean that you are lonely or “alone” emotionally. To understand that emotional distance, it’s important to return to the social atom of Sociometry. The lines of connections in a sociometric diagram, informed empirically by whom we communicate with, for how long, and with what level of intimate language, are representations of that emotional bond. If we were to produce a time series of the Sociometric diagram for one individual experiencing atomization, it would reveal the ever decreasing number and strength of these connections.
On the internet, it is possible in theory to maintain intimate personal ties even though geographic distance remains large, and yet, despite the ability to close thousands of miles, social media does little to replenish our social atoms. It doesn’t take much to realize just why. Consider, for example, how social media data is used: to provide analytics for advertisers. Rather than using such data to understand and develop the relations between individuals, something which is only done as a purely theoretical activity for researchers, this data is commodified itself and every effort is put towards directing our attention and emotions towards products, rather than people. The same data which could be put to use in a Sociometric analysis on the health of our social atoms is instead used to form social relations with commodities.
The alienating, atomizing nature of today’s internet landscape has been credited as a major radicalizing force, but what is unique about the internet is not the degree of radicalization it cultivates, but rather the level of abstraction of that radicalism. For lone wolf ISIS or incel terrorists, the organic community they profess their allegiance to is immaterial compared to those of radical movements of yesteryears; the German Nazis who carried out anti-semitic violence on Kristallnacht at least lived among an “Aryan” race (even if the contours of this race was an ideological fiction), the socialist revolutionaries in 1918 still had a real connection to the Worker Councils and the labor movement (even if that movement lead to the establishment of a Social Democratic Republic, rather than direct rule by the Councils). Modern day violent radicals, who have grown up in the information age, have no such connection. What is the community of betas and virgins to the incel? There is no such community. What is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the ISIS terrorist or supporter in the West? Nothing but a faraway symbolic fantasy. Not even a fantasy with a material representation in their lives.
It is this level of abstraction that makes our current experience of atomization so dangerous. It used to be the case that violent, radical movements had the end goal of either influencing policy or taking state power themselves. Totally atomized radicalism throws such assumptions on their heads. Without intimate personal relations, and concrete goal-directed organized form, traditional methods of social control break down. Material carrots and sticks lose their value along with the dearness of life itself. Suicidal violence projected outwards is a threat that states are not, and cannot, be prepared for. It’s the only kind of violence that can fully actualize the possibility of a war of “all against all,” which was previously only hinted at in the threat of civil war.
This threat of atomization, through the replacement of relations between people with relations between quantities, has been the lingering horror of all civilization up until our present epoch. Some anthropologists suggest that the creation of patriarchal religions among nomadic and early agricultural societies was a reaction against the simultaneous creation of money and prostitution. The Nigerian Tiv, who isolated themselves in the mid-1750s as the African slave trade menaced the region, are well known for their horror stories of mystic creditors coming due. The restriction of commerce and debt to Jews in medieval Europe has often been cited as one of the historic reasons for anti-semitism, but one should also consider the opposite side of the question: why did commerce and debt have to be so restricted to a single ethnicity for easy scapegoating and containment?
Post-structuralists called this historic fear the fear of “decoding,” the negation of all social formations into an unnamable, horrifying Thing. Primitive societies required this fear to reproduce. It demanded people cling to familial and tribal relations all the more dearly, in order for those relations to re-form when they became impearled by shocks, whether from within or without.
But now that fear has been realized.
The modern secular state itself was an attempt to bring these tendencies of atomization and decoding, of capitalism and its prehistorical seeds, to heel. To bring order to the chaos of social disruption, innovation, and economic development, so that society may not suddenly and vehemently undo itself. This state presupposes a certain level of atomization. Indeed, when Thomas Hobbes began his justification of the social covenant that demanded Leviathan, he constructed a model of human atoms and the characteristics of these atoms that caused discord and cooperation. Taken in its most abstract form, it’s not too different from the empirical and specific sociometric diagramming Moreno would do hundreds of years later: looking at who in a community was attracted to whom, and who was repulsed by whom.
The reason the state requires this atomization is simple. In order for the modern state to have authority, it must formally take people as atomistic political actors: citizens, voters, subjects, etc. These actors, who may or may not form organic political communities on their own, must ultimately see their unity in the state. They must acknowledge the state’s laws as having some authority above them, beyond both their own ideological pretenses and the physical military power backing such laws up.
However, this necessity exists only on a structural level; it is necessary for its reproduction. Historically, it came about as a contingency. The first instance, in that of Britain, this atomization was a socio-economic fact on the ground. Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan not long after the economic process of primitive accumulation was formalized by the state, whereby the British peasantry was removed from their lands to make room for pasture, creating a large mass of landless peasants. With them came the fear of “masterless men” more generally: ephemeral, impoverished creatures who’d wreak havoc wherever they went with no social ties to hold them in check, and no home to return to. With the de facto break down of the old feudal authority structures, such as the church and tying of the peasants to the land, a new justification for authority was required, especially after the earthquakes of the English Civil War. Gone was piety, in was necessity.
But the unity of interests in the state was always a mere ideological convergence. It cannot solve the problem of atomization and aloneness any better than tribalism, radicalism, or a life-size cardboard cutout of Chris Evans. Fundamentally, Hobbes’s model still depended on there being relations between these atoms, attractions and repulsions. But what if no such relations exist?
Consider atoms in a void, falling in parallel. Without collisions, there can be no relationship between them. It is a totally static system, without anything you could ascribe meaning to. Humans in such a situation, trapped, for example, in an eternal labyrinth doomed to wander forever without encountering another soul, missing a potential companion in an infinitely expanding tragedy of errors, every desperate turn the wrong one, would lose all things that characterize us as humans, including language. And this is the horror of atomization.
The possibility that this labyrinth could be of our own creation is just more cruel irony.
But atomization is just a historical tendency, and a feature of the way we have organized ourselves so far, not an iron law of the universe. Counter-tendencies exist.
For example, multi-generational homes are on the rise again in the U.S. This is due in part to an influx of immigrants who are more likely to maintain such arrangements, partially changing economics, and partially a conscious reaction to the horror of atomization. It’s possible to imagine Internet services, at least on a purely technical level, that use the power of data and algorithms and design to boost human intimacy and community and productive relationships, rather than advertisements. The economic precarity and rat race unleashed after 2008 for young people, especially in the drive to get into good colleges, can be reduced. A focus on a more traditional liberal/humanist education methods as opposed to testing could make the experience less artificial and abstracted. A return to education having to justify itself as such, rather than as monopolized credential-issuance, could radically reduce the forced demand of degree inflation. Economic reform to provide a more certain living, with less hours spent working and buying, and more participation in growth for most people, could make healthy relationship formation much more natural and viable.
But of course, it is easy to come up with solutions to tackle atomization among those whose familial status is set. Children and teenagers were among the few groups who up until recently were able to escape this trend for this very reason; they had their families and well maintained social institutions to socialize them. While self-reported sufferers of loneliness grew generally from around 15% to over 40% the past 50 years, the very young have only started experiencing such estrangement over the past 10 years. Likewise, the most dangerous kind of atomization is not evenly distributed; it’s among that group of youth which is expected to leave their family and set out on their own.
What awaits this cohort is what will be the biggest determination of the damage atomization will bring. It is with regard to them that we should consider the ultimate causes, which, of course, are those same forces which fester the very loneliness inherent in the human soul. But loneliness is always the absence of love and belonging. That’s the one thing to remember in all of this. Unlike the promise of ontological completeness implicit in the siren song of abstract devotion, human intimacy and the contentment that comes with it is actually possible. It is a possibility at hand for everyone willing to reach out for those around them, and create thicker social fabric for their friends and neighbors. And that desire for intimacy, rather than the fear of losing something we’ve already lost, is the only path forward.
But the problem is ultimately structural. It wasn’t caused by individual or moral failure. It’s not the kind of thing that was caused by or could be solved with individual action or even a moral or cultural shift. It can only be solved with reorganization on the level of institutions, to understand the precise nature of our problems and build a society that creates more moments of real human contact, more decommodified spaces, and more possibility for intimate meaning and thick social fabric. Ultimately, the struggle is to find redemption in one another, not in fictional abstractions, nor in mere commodified quantity.