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The Political and Other Costs of Loneliness. An Interview with Noreena Hertz
I am pleased to present this interview with Noreena Hertz, who was named “one of the world’s leading thinkers” by The Observer. Her latest book is The Lonely Century – Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart. Her previous bestsellers—The Silent Takeover, The Debt Threat, and Eyes Wide Open—have been published in more than twenty countries. She has hosted her own show on SiriusXM and spoken at TED and the World Economic Forum in Davos. Hertz holds an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD from Cambridge University. She holds an honorary professorship at University College London. This interview, recorded on March 8, 2021, has been edited for clarity and flow.
RBG (Ruth Ben-Ghiat): In The Lonely Century, you argue that we've been defining loneliness too narrowly. It's not just about a lack of intimacy in our personal lives, but also feeling unseen or uncared for in our workplaces, communities and governments. Covid-19 accelerated all of these trends.
NH (Noreena Hertz): I'd been working on the book for two and a half years and had identified a lonely state, a world in which increasing numbers of people were feeling isolated and alienated from each other, but also disconnected from their political leaders and from their employers. I'd almost finished writing the book when the coronavirus struck and accelerated and amplified existing fissures and fractures.
RBG: You locate the roots of our current loneliness in the history and social consequences of neoliberalism, in particular the replacement of the idea of having social duties to one another with hyper competitiveness and self-interest.
NH: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan championed neoliberalism in the 1980s and then it became an orthodoxy across the globe. It gave unprecedented power to the market, minimized the role of the state, and discounted the importance of community and care for each other. There always have been other models of capitalism, more communitarian and collectivist in spirit, but this is the one that has prevailed. An individualistic world is inevitably going to be a lonelier world, in which others are seen as competitors rather than as collaborators.
RBG: Let's talk about the political ramifications of this loneliness. Especially over the last decade, it's been the right rather than the center-left to develop rhetoric and rituals that provide a sense of community. Of course, the right’s community is based on the creation of enemies - the us versus them dynamic - but it's a community all the same. You give some examples of people in France and America who used to vote Socialist or Democrat and then voted for Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump.
NH: Right-wing populist leaders have emerged as the providers of community, the ones who spoke to and understood the marginalized and the forgotten. I think part of the reason is that when we moved from Reagan and Thatcher into an era of center left politics under [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and [American President Bill] Clinton, we essentially continued this individualistic mindset. A state that one couldn't really rely on to support one in times of need continued to deliver deleterious outcomes for particular groups of people. And some who had traditionally voted for the left felt very let down. That really came across in my interviews with right-wing voters, such as with multi-generational Democrat voters who turned to Trump because they no longer felt cared for or heard by the Democratic party.
RBG: You contend that empathy and kindness need to be practiced or they atrophy. We can reinforce these values by making small changes in our daily lives and through interactions in our communities, but should government play a role?
NH: I think there's a lot that government can do. Especially since 2008 and the financial crisis, we've seen a defunding of public spaces where people can come together, such as public libraries, youth clubs, elderly daycare centers, and community centers. In the U.S., federal funding of libraries has fallen by 40% since 2008. People need physical spaces to be together with those who are different from them. Refunding the infrastructure of community is absolutely essential.
In-person interactions also matter. The pandemic accelerated our adoption of a contactless existence - shopping and ordering meals online. One might see that as an innocuous advance that delivers greater convenience to the consumer. Yet it's through those daily face to face interactions that we practice empathy, reciprocity, civility --the values that we need to uphold democracy.
RBG: How has writing this book changed your own habits, and what do you do to keep serene and connected with others?
NH: I try and stay off my phone more. In the evenings, I actually put my phone in a basket so that I can be present with my partner and my family. I also nurture my local neighborhood. I'd always seen myself as a global citizen, as somebody who traveled across the world, worked in many countries, studied in many countries. My research has given me a much greater sense of how important it is to shop locally and show up at community events. Those interactions help us feel a greater sense of togetherness and belonging. And so I try consciously to say hello, in the knowledge that it helps me feel less alone, but also contributes to a greater sense of collective community.