Society on the brink as second lockdown looms

Hannah Arendt: Loneliness is “the essence of totalitarian government ”.

Does loneliness threaten democracy? Charities warn of a mental health “time bomb” as lockdown drives soaring levels of alienation – leading to a surge in angry populism and social breakdown.

Age UK says it has seen an “unprecedented” 88% rise in calls and emails from lonely pensioners since March.

And Childline has had 3,168 calls from anxious and abused children since April.

Experts said the country faces a mental health crisis that could cost lives – the Samaritans say they are getting more than 600 covid-related calls per day.

Age UK says that further lockdowns will leave the elderly more isolated. A new study by the charity found 2.9m over-70s say their mental health has already suffered.

“They’re worried about their health if they go out, and crushed by loneliness if they stay home. It’s going to be a long, tough winter.”

Experts have long warned that loneliness affects both mental and physical health – increasing the chance of strokes, heart disease and dementia.

But now there is mounting evidence that it can also damage social cohesion and democracy.

It was Hannah Arendt — one of the titans of 20th-century thought — who first wrote about the link between loneliness and the politics of intolerance.

As a young Jew, Arendt fled Germany in 1933. After the war, she devoted herself to making sense of why the country had descended into barbarism. In 1951 she published The Origins of Totalitarianism.

It is a wide-ranging book, encompassing the rise of anti-Semitism, the role of propaganda and imperialism’s fusion of racism and bureaucracy. But at the end, she turns to what appears to be a surprising factor: loneliness.

Noreena Hertz, author of a new book, The Lonely Century, argues that in a world reshaped by globalisation, automation, austerity and most recently by the coronavirus and an ongoing economic downturn, loneliness also encompasses feeling excluded from society’s gains, and feeling unsupported, powerless, invisible and voiceless.

“This combination of personal and political isolation helps to explain not only why levels of loneliness are so high globally today but also why loneliness and politics have in recent years become so closely linked.”

Hertz points out that a 2016 poll by the Centre for the Study of Elections and Democracy revealed Donald Trump voters to be significantly more likely to report having fewer close friends, fewer acquaintances and to spend fewer hours a week with both than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

So, is she right? Does loneliness fuel populism and threaten to undermine democracy?


Yes. Think of Trump’s rallying cry that “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer” or Marine Le Pen’s oath to serve “a forgotten France, a France abandoned by the self-appointed elite”. It’s an appeal that resonates most strongly with those who feel newly forgotten and abandoned.

No. Even if there is clearly a correlation between the growth of right-wing populist politicians and the increase in levels of global loneliness, this does not imply causation. Although worldwide levels of loneliness and right-wing populism may have grown concurrently, that does not prove that one has caused the other.

You Decide

  1. Is there a difference between loneliness and being alone?
  2. Countries run by right-wing populists have, in general, suffered the most cases of COVID-19 as well as the most deaths caused by it. Why do you think this is?


  1. If right-wing populism is an effect of loneliness, what are its causes? Make a list of the factors you think may have led to an increase in levels of loneliness.
  2. Loneliness undoubtedly poses a medical and economic threat to modern society. Write a letter addressed to the secretary-general of the United Nations explaining what you would do to combat this issue.

Some People Say...

“Loneliness does not come from having no people about one but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.”

Carl Jung (1875–1961), Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the world has become a lonelier place since the turn of the century. Before the lockdown, one in five adults in the UK said that they felt lonely most or all of the time. In 2018, the then prime minister, Theresa May, appointed a Minister for Loneliness. Elsewhere, the rest of Europe, the US, Asia, Australia, South America and Africa have all recorded similar data.
What do we not know?
Why this is. Several causes have been suggested. Some argue that neoliberalism is the cause. It has created a society that encourages economic competition over collaboration and individualism over cooperation. These factors may have led to a collective feeling of isolation. Others say that social media is the main factor, especially among young people. In the UK, 65% of adolescents have experienced cyberbullying, leading to a rise in social anxiety.

Word Watch

A registered charity “that works to make sure there's always someone there for anyone who needs someone”, especially those contemplating suicide.
National organisations working to tackle loneliness and build social connections have been invited to apply for a share in a £5m Loneliness Covid-19 Grant Fund allocated by the government
A type of politics that claims to represent the common people in the fight against a powerful and “elite” establishment.
A connection between two things in which one thing changes as the other does, but it is not necessarily the case that one thing has caused the other to change.
The principle that nothing can happen without a cause.
Free and confidential help for young people in the UK, a charity founded in 1986 by Esther Rantzen.

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