Ah! Look at all the 'lonely'...Trumpers?
A recent book sets out to explore how loneliness may be the most pervasive disease of the age, but mostly reveals its author's Trump Derangement Syndrome.
There is a relative of ours whom my wife and I try to visit when we can. She lives in an institution, and though getting on in years is extremely healthy of body and mind. She fills her days with walking, reading, listening to the radio, and the odd prayer. She has plenty of company, though by virtue of her high intelligence, not necessarily of a stimulating kind. We bring her books and other reading stuff and take her out for lunch, and sometimes for short holidays down West when the weather is good.
Several times, when we have arrived with little or no warning, she has half-humorously scolded us for not giving her enough notice. This, she stressed, is not on account of any disruption to her routine or other such inconvenience, but because she would like more time to look forward to our visits. She loves it when we can tell her a week or two in advance, so that she can savour the event and, in a sense, draw it backwards towards herself.
I used to think this an endearing eccentricity until I read The Lonely Century, the recent book of Noreena Hertz (published by Sceptre). Now I realise that it is much more than that, revealing an intuitive awareness of the deep benefits of compatible human company.
One of the better aspects of the book is the way it sets out the importance of human contact and interaction as vital physiological phenomena. What our relative was expressing was not some childlike sense of excitement at our visits and an endearing desire to prolong the experience, but an inbuilt, instinctive reflex, designed and implanted to protect her health and prolong her survival. By knowing of an impending visit by people who make her feel better, she extends the beneficial period of the visit by several days, perhaps a week or two, thereby multiplying the benefits. The way I read it is: her prolonged anticipation of our arrival is sufficient to disperse any feelings of loneliness, even when we are not yet there. Although most of us would not generally think in those terms, knowing the individual in question I cannot rule out that she is perfectly aware of this in precisely these physiological terms.
The Lonely Century was released in Q4 2020. I don’t follow the cathedral media, so didn’t know of its existence until January, when I stumbled upon a pristine, unopened copy in a secondhand shop, and bought it for €2. That shouldn’t happen. It suggests that the book is already a failure, which I would call, with some caveats, unfair.
The idea, for a start, that loneliness defines our era perhaps more than any other quantity, is a topic for writers to-die-for. It’s the kind of topic calculated to have every would-be chronicler of the age trying to kick him/herself in a fit of I-knew-that! envy. The idea is in part well executed, but there are, as the shrinks say, issues.
From a research viewpoint, the book could hardly be better. Hertz gets out and about, talking to people and using intelligently most of what they tell her.
She has unearthed the most fascinating sets of facts and data. Did you know, for example, that walking speeds have increased on average by 10 per cent since the 1990s, in Singapore by 30 per cent? Time is money. Have you been introduced to the jaw-dropping concept of mukbang, whereby in North Korea, Taiwan, Japan, India and the US, people who live alone are availing of the internet ‘service’ whereby, rather than eating dinner by themselves, they can click on to their favourite ‘mukbang celebrity’ and eat along together with him, discussing their meal as they go. Mukbang is one of the internet’s fastest growing sensations, with some of the big stars making six-figure sums from advertising and sponsorship.
The book contains some fine meditations on trends like the increasing isolation of the office space, job interviews replaced by ‘algorithmic pre-hire assessments’, the alienation wrought by ‘hostile architecture’ (public benches you can only perch on) and the ‘contactless age’. There’s an excellent exploration of robotics and human culture in the age of digital assistants, robot companions and sexbots.
Another fascinating sequence begins with mention of ‘poor doors’ — the separate entrances for residents of affordable housing units in the much-vaunted era of equality. ‘Social housing’ is, to a high degree, a form of elitists virtue signalling that comes with a guarantee of built-in social apartheid. There are also some more encouraging vignettes from the increasingly isolating urban landscape — like the ‘Happy to chat’ benches that have sprung up all over Cardiff after a woman found herself complexed about whether it would be okay to sit beside a lonely-looking old man on a park bench and initiate a conversation.
Hertz raises all the correct ethical hares concerning these developments. Already, what with diminishing sexual activity among the young, the growing marginalisation of the old, and the increasing ‘humanness’ of robots, we seem to be moving towards some kind of quasi-mandatory acceptance of these radical and unpredictable shifts in human behaviour. It seems, Hertz observes in passing, ‘that the sophistication of today’s robots is capable of fulfilling and emotional need that twenty-first century human society is failing to supply…‘
From there she elaborates the idea that neo-liberal economics are central to the growth of loneliness in the West — one plank of her case being that neoliberalism has induced us see ourselves as ‘competitors not collaborators, consumers not citizens, hoarders not sharers takers not givers, hustlers not helpers.’
The book is crammed with interesting research — about the health consequences of isolation, the link between loneliness, stress, depression and reduced life-expectancy.. Loneliness, she writes, has been shown to reduce the human body’s ability to fight both infectious and non-infectious conditions, making it ‘weaker and more susceptible to disease, especially viruses.’
Did somebody mentions ‘viruses’?
This is the first of two major flaws in the book. The Covid episode seems heaven-sent to set Hertz’s material on fire, but she doesn’t seem to have got the message. The book reads like it might have been finished before the onset of the ‘pandemic’, and has had short references to the Covid business sprinkled throughout the text, such as ‘even before the coronavirus struck…’ and ‘in the years preceding the coronavirus pandemic’. These references, in fairness, do not ignore the elephant in the elevator, but somehow they succeed in denying the elephant’s nature while periodically acknowledging his presence. The tone of all such references is rooted in the idea that the ‘pandemic’ is unquestionably as serious as the authorities claim. It does not appear to occur to the author that Covid is the culmination of everything she is writing about, a staged acceleration of human alienation.
Near the end of the book, she voices the belief that Covid is but a temporary disruption to human relations. ‘If anything,’ she writes, ‘the desire for face-to-face human connection will be even stronger for many once the fear of contagion wanes.’ Oh! that she were correct, but I fear not: The impact of face masks, the depiction of the human person as a walking biohazard, the level of hysteria generated about hygiene, all these and more symptoms will endure to all but certainly ensure that the generality of human interactions will never return to what they were at Christmas 2019.
What is bizarre is that her tacked-in references to the Covid episode invariably treat it like a patch of bad weather, something that descended on people through an Act of the God, sometime in the early weeks of 2020. For example, she puzzles over the phenomenon whereby, even before the Covid assault, many young people were already losing the capacity to read other people’s faces, but without referring even once to the highly germane phenomenon of compulsory face masks. There are occasional dizzying sentences, like this one: ‘I understand the appeal of having a robot rather than a person look after you at a time when human contact comes with a safety warning.’
In a reflection on the changes in urban life, she notes that, by 2050, almost 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities, noting that densely populated conurbations are the most uncivil because their populations are less likely to be on first-name terms. She seems to be unaware that those who assume the right to decide what the future will look like have already decided that micro-apartments in ‘hive cities’ are the optimal model for the neo-feudal set-up they have in mind for us all. In other words, loneliness will increase exponentially, and by government fiat.
This failure to go beneath the ideological apparel of Covid blights her book, condemning it to premature arrival on the remaindered shelves. For all that she has dared to look into a dark corner of human reality, Hertz seems not at all to distrust the powers-that-be, even those whose neo-liberal economic thinking she clearly objects to. She refers to the kinds of choices ‘we’ will make about ‘how we will live our lives post-Covid’, seemingly unmindful that the whole point is to take all such choices away from us. There is not a sentence in the book that asks a fundamental question about the intentions of those who speak blithely about the ‘new normal’, or what they have in mind for the human race.
The book is bedevilled by another bizarre agenda, hammered gratuitously in to a degree that approaches the level of pathology, but with no connection the subject matter. In what at first promises to be an interesting angle, Hertz defines loneliness as not only embracing the traditional ideas of our feeling bereft of love, company or intimacy, feeling ignored, unnoticed or uncared for by family, spouse, friends, neighbours — but also about our civic situation, how we relate — or don’t — to employers, fellow citizens, state and government. And this she defines not just as political and economic exclusion, but as a feeling of being unsupported, of alienation: ‘[L]oneliness is not only a reflection of how connected to other individuals we feel, but also how connected we feel to other groups of people, institutions and society as a whole.’
This thesis might have gone off an any number of interesting directions, but very soon it emerges as a device to float what crystallises as one of the central ideas of the book: that there is a connection between loneliness and ‘far right’ politics.
She begins this section by ritualistically invoking the protection of the great Jewish scholar, Hannah Arendt, and her treatise on loneliness at the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Hertz claims that Arendt has baldly connected loneliness to a susceptibility to totalitarian induction, a complete misreading of this section, which she supports with a radical cherry-picking and misquoting of several passage. She does not appear to have read the other 600-odd pages of the book, for if she had she would at least have gathered that, by Arendt’s telling, totalitarianism is not the same as dictatorship or autocracy, of which Trump is frequently fatuously accused.
Arendt’s analysis relates to the build-up of totalitarian forces within a society and the effect it has on the population, individually and collectively. The totalitarian symptom of loneliness of which she speaks, but Hertz misunderstands, is the decision, once reached by a sufficiency of men, that nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon. Then the situation becomes malignantly ripe.
Arendt’s point was that totalitarian tyrannies seek to isolate men before going on to rule totally over them. She stressed strong distinctions between the concepts ‘isolation’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘solitariness’ — all, of course, occasional companions of every human life. Isolation is an essential attribute of the creative, working life. Solitariness enables man to be alone with himself, whereas loneliness shows itself acutely in company with others. Loneliness causes him to become ‘one’ — deserted by all others. But isolation does not become loneliness until the private realm is invaded, when the work of man is usurped, unleashing ‘superfluousness’ and ‘rootlessness’ among the previously functional population, causing the individual to lose his place in human society and the world, and, by afflicting the totalitarians and their victims all at once, creating the potential for radical evil. Thus tyranny become totalitarian.
Arendt was warning that, in an age when human beings are being driven apart by industrialisation, technology and ideology, men are being separated from their very selves, and this, increasingly the commonplace experience of humanity, had let loose a ‘sand storm that could cover all parts of the inherited earth.’
Arendt wrote: ‘[O]rganized loneliness is considerably more dangerous than the unorganized impotence of all those who are ruled by the tyrannical and arbitrary will of a single man.’ So, even if Trump were all the things Hertz and his other anathematisers claim, he is not the kind of phenomenon Arendt was talking about. What she described was right under Noreena Hertz’s nose as she was revising her book to accommodate some references to a strange and unexpected virus that had locked human beings all over the world into their own heads and homes, all at once, destroying their work and intimacy. The inchoate conditions for totalitarianism, of which Arendt did indeed most solemnly warn, were to be observed not in anything remotely connected to Donald Trump and his followers but in the mass alienation being generated by centrally-driven government policies all over the world under the guise of combating a minor respiratory infection: mandatory face coverings, social distancing, mindless police harassment of people engaged in the most ordinary human activities, effective prohibitions on human contact under numerous headings. Yet, in seeking a target at which to aim her tendentious summary of Arendt’s acute observations, Hertz settled on those offering the sole resistance to these trends and tendencies: the ‘populist’ warrior, beloved of his alienated people. To describe the four years of the Trump presidency as bearing any relationship to what Arendt was saying is beyond travesty: it is mischievous, disingenuous; and ignorant.
When she writes about the relationship she intuits to exist between loneliness and ‘right-wing populism’, Hertz adjusts her bedside manner and begins to speak of loneliness as though it were a form of mental illness. Her starting point is the assumption that an alienation she finds to be questioning of her values and ideology is ipso facto unfounded and dangerous. Her use of the word ‘populism’ is the standard journalistic one: dangerous extremists seeking to use baseless claims of exaggerated imperfections of society to stir up the masses. Even though she herself has already denounced the ‘neoliberal’ order, she tendentiously — scathingly — describes ‘populist’ politicians summoning up an unfair economic and political context dominated by an ‘elite’ (she puts this in quotes as though to underscore the absurdity of the idea) when ‘that often includes key institutions that hold a lawful and tolerant society together, whether parliament, the judiciary or the free press.’ It does not appear to occur to her that these definitions are now up for scrutiny, and never more so than in the Time of Covid. How representative, anymore, are parliaments? How lawful is the behaviour of judiciaries and police forces? How free is the press? What does ‘free’ mean? — the freedom to lie, to propagandise, to enspell whole populations at the behest of criminal establishments? None of these questions appear to occur to Ms. Hertz.
She’s done the shoe-leather thing but, despite interviewing several Deplorables at some length, still doesn’t get it. She is determined that her foundational analysis will be made to stack up: ‘It seems the more we are enmeshed in our wider community, the more we feel we have people around us who we can rely on, the less likely we are to heed the siren-call of right-wing populists.’ People who tend to be joiners of things like community associations, volunteer groups etc. are significantly less likely to vote for ‘right-wing populists’. Supporters of Donald trump in the 2016 primaries, she relays, were ‘twice as likely as those of his main opponent Ted Cruz, to have seldom or never participated in community activities like sports teams, book clubs or parent-teacher organizations.’ It does not appear to have occurred to her that the reason for this correlation may also have more to so with class background, commonality of experience and (avoidance of) groupthink than with the kind of socio-pathological issues she’s intimating. Perhaps briefly spotting the widening cracks in her thesis, Hertz adds: ‘And whilst correlations does not necessarily mean causation, there is a logic for why this would be so.’
She bypasses the obvious logic that one of the chief factors in the notional ‘loneliness’ of populist-supporting voters is that they are excluded from the dominant conversations of their societies by corrupt media acting as ideological gatekeepers, not merely denying such people a platform but actively working to marginalise and demonise them, utterly betraying the public trust they have assumed by virtue of insinuating themselves in the role of Fourth Estate. A primary symptom of all forms of loneliness is that the victim is first excluded from the conversation, ostracised, ‘sent to Coventry’. Hertz has nothing to say about this but prefers instead to suggest some kind of suspect symbiosis between the insinuated weirdness of Trump supports and the cynicism of their champion.
And yet, in a different context, she has no difficulty taking the point: discussing ‘algorithmic pre-hire assessments’ (digitally-generated job interviews), she observes: [If]f loneliness can also be caused by a feeling of being unfairly treated and disempowered by the state and by politicians, so too can it stem from being treated as such by ‘Big Business’ and the new technologies it employs.’
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her either that another reason followers of ‘populists’ like Trump and Matteo Salvini tend to be isolated from their ‘wider societies’ is because this is an inevitable consequence of being ‘red-pilled’. Once your eyes open to the ways you have been conned all your life, it is not possible to go back to the state of unknowing you’ve awoken from. Such people tend to become alienated not just from their communities and societies, but often from their own families. If they belong to book clubs in the first place, they tend to be less interested in discussing the latest opus from Sally Rooney or J. K. Rowling. Life is too novel and interesting for that.
For Hertz, like 99 per cent of the writers jostling for a place in the public square of our culture, the ‘populist’ position is axiomatically not merely wrong but dangerously so. Maintaining gear, she depicts ‘populists leaders’ like Trump as manipulative cynics who have nothing in common with those they court for votes. Her antagonism and contempt for Trump drip off the page. He is ‘perma-tanned’, his rallies ‘more akin to the theatrics and fandom of the World Wrestling Entertainment event.’ His opponents are always, by implication, genuine politicians doing what genuine politicians do.
In making such a case, she claims, ‘[‘populists’] pose a very serious threat to a cohesive society in which there is respect for the institutions and norms that help bind us, and to a culture of tolerance, understanding and fairness.’ She just cannot understand that there are people who might validly see things otherwise than she does.
For example, Hertz’s attitude to migration, though devoid of argument, is essentially the Guardianista one: those who support unrestricted migration are two-legs-good; those who question in are four-legs-Nazi. Even though she lists from one side of her mouth ‘mass-migration to cities’ as one of the key drivers of modern loneliness, she rejects from the other the legitimacy of questioning such migration, dismissing the alienation arising within the host populations as a result, as ‘far right’, ‘extremist’ ‘intolerant’. She does not consider it relevant that the migrants, usually imposed on long-established communities by a globalist policy of enforced multiculturalism, derive from entirely different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds to the cultures being, in effect, colonised. Is this really no cause for concern?
Nor does it seem to occur to her that, precisely in keeping with her broader thesis, the big problem with mass migration — especially of the now commonplace variety in which no emphasis a all is placed on integration — is that it makes people ‘lonelier’. It diminishes human connectivity in an indigenous community thus affected, because it renders certain traditional modes of communication either problematic or verboten. It sucks the cultural life out of communities — both the culture the migrant has left and the one he enters as a stranger — until both are husks of their former potential, and easy prey to the ‘rootlessness’ Hannah Arendt warned of. ‘Multiculturalism’ surrounds indigenous peoples with outsiders who neither understand nor care about the place they have fetched up in. It subjects people to a process akin to the boiled frog of legend — gradually, osmotically altering the fabric of a culture until its hosts and originators wake up one day and realise they do not recognise where they are. It demands increased and more vigorous policing to iron out the inevitable cultural kinks, and places a lowering premium on freedom when the rights of the interlopers are asserted against those of the natives.
And all this effected by cynical globalists seeking to make the world more profitable for themselves and their Ilk, and using the big lie of ‘racism!’ to silence those who stand to lose, all the while supported by the devil-may-care ‘beautiful nomads’ like Noreena Hertz, who use the mass-migration issue as a cost-free, self-aggrandising T-shirt slogan, who belong everywhere and nowhere, but are sufficiently resourced and mobile to be able to erect high walls around themselves wherever they roam to protect them from the consequences of their own half-baked ideas. Nowhere in the book does Hertz speak critically of globalism, the force in the modern world that sucks the life out of communities and deposits it elsewhere, hundreds or thousands of miles away.
What is called ‘populism’ derives virtually everywhere it is found from a rational response to political realities. In National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin sketch out the reasons for the current global resurgence of nationalism, traditionalism and populism, identifying four fundamental factors driving the populist wave, all neatly beginning with the letter d: distrust (of politicians), destruction (of nations, communities and culture as a result of globalism), deprivation (of the economic and societal context in which native working people might live good, gainful and satisfying lives), and de-alignment (from traditional political loyalties as a result of the other three). Whereas self-styled ‘progressivism’ seeks to leverage the historical grievances of groupings defined by their sex or skin colour, what is called ‘populism’ mobilises the displaced legions of the former working and lower middle-classes of the farming and industrial heartlands, whose lives are slowly being edged from viability by a pincer movement of globalism and the strident claims of the new minorities.
In his 2016 book Men Without Work: America’s invisible Crisis, Nicholas Eberstadt shows that, although unemployment in the US had been falling in what he calls this ‘gilded era, there was simultaneously a ‘flight from work’ by men in their prime. By the time Donald Trump was elected president, the crisis had already advanced to near-terminal levels. Even while manufacturers were finding it difficult to fill vacancies, the number of working men aged between 25 and 54 had fallen to fewer than at the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Approximately one in eight men in their prime had left the workforce altogether, and about one in six were without paid work, a trend that had been visible since the mid-1960s. The graph of this male exodus from the workplace was an almost straight 45-degree upward line, regardless of booms or recessions, indicating that market demand was not the critical factor. Roughly seven million American men had — it seems of their own volition — left behind not just the idea of trading their skills and talents in the marketplace, but in many instances had turned their backs on all forms of commitment and responsibility. The greater part were single men without parental responsibilities with limited education, a majority of them African Americans. Marriage trumped race as an indicator of employment, as did being a recent immigrant. For every man in his prime deemed unemployed, there were three others who were not looking for work. Almost three in five of these men were receiving at least one disability benefit, which Eberstadt observed might not be the factor driving the phenomenon but was certainly financing it. If 1965 work rates had pertained in the US of 2016, Eberstadt maintained, there would have been approximately 10 million more men with paid work than there were. He professed to finding this baffling, in view of the fact that national wealth had, he noted, doubled since the turn of the millennium. He expressed similar incomprehension about the fact that, globalisation and deindustrialization notwithstanding, this precise syndrome had not afflicted other Western societies to anything like the same extent. He called it the ‘silent catastrophe’, ignored by politicians and commentators.
What confronted Donald Trump on ascending to the presidency, then, was an existential rather than an economic crisis, with millions of able-bodied American men wasting away for an average of 2,100 hours a year in front of screens, bingeing on soaps, pornography, sugar and painkillers, no longer feeling that America had a place for their humanity. In accordance with Noreena Hertz’s facile analysis, the problem with these men is that they are too ‘extremist’ or bigoted to ’do’ civic society, religious activity or volunteerism. In truth they are men rendered superfluous by the drifts of a culture that no longer values human agency, labour, natural intelligence, honour, patriotism or steadfastness. This does not entitle them to be called fascists.
The roots of the ‘silent catastrophe’ reached beyond economics. As George Gilder, author of Sexual Suicide and men and Marriage, observed in a review of Men Without Work for National Review, what Eberstadt described was the outcome of a ‘massive plague of affirmative action’. This ‘strange withdrawal of men’, Gilder wrote, ‘merely reflects a massive campaign waged on every American campus, where women now account for some 60 percent of students; in every government department where gender rights enforcers lurk litigiously; in every civil rights crusade twisted into a unisex jamboree; in every judicial process from family court to the Supreme Court; and stretching from every local fire department on into the military, from Abu Graib to Camp Pendleton, from West Point to Annapolis, where women are pushed ahead at every opportunity in defiance of differences in physical prowess and mechanical aptitude. The prevailing idea is that male success is somehow illegitimate, a product of bias and conspiracy, and that in a gender-neutral environment, women would equal men in all elevated or conventionally male roles.’
The ‘invisible catastrophe’ diagnosed by Eberstadt might be called the lost mythology of manhood, which is at the core of the reasons for the Trump revolution. While the men Eberstadt described are not all or even mostly white, the loss as it afflicts white men is more hopeless precisely because they, above other categories, are not a recognised victim group and do not have a cultural right to complain. Hertz could not possible get away with depicting the relationship between any ‘minority’ group in the manner she sought to depict the relationship between the Deplorables and Donald Trump.
There is a reason why such commentators need desperately to remain convinced that the current answering-back to their half-century of ‘liberal’ (mis)rule now noticeably underway in the world is merely the sting of a dying ‘reactionary’ culture, too churlish to applaud the new dispensation of ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’ and ‘pluralism’ being ushered in by the Woke would-be ascendency. Their whole lives have been devoted to the promotion of a spurious programme of ‘progress’ and it is by definition impossible for them to look beyond this, or to imagine that many people of moderate sentiment may have very good and sensible reasons for rejecting it and them. In recent years, sensing that the counter-revolution was closing in and that, unless they could cling to the levers of control and chronicling, it was they who might end up the villains of the age, they have gone to full-on lawlessness — censoring, cancelling, demonising and, finally corrupting democracy to steal a presidential election. Worse: now they have come to believe their own propaganda, it is ‘obvious’ to them that the only explanation for the resistance they encounter is that the dissenters are Nazis.
Within four years he had utterly transformed the situation described by Eberstadt, creating millions of jobs in reshored manufacturing by the simple expedient of placing the needs of Americans before those of foreigners, the greatest downward transfer of wealth in recent American history (albeit now reversed by the Covid ‘project’). Wages increased dramatically, with median household incomes showing a dramatic rise right across the country. During the Trump presidency, workers’ earnings grew by 3.4 percent annually, a rate not seen since the Reagan years, and poverty declined to 11.8 per cent, the lowest recorded since the end of the Clinton administration in 2000. By 2019, unemployment in the US stood at a 50-year low, the lowest since the Lyndon Johnson administration, benefitting Americans right across the demographic spectrum: women, young people, veterans, high school diploma holders, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc.
Trump restored the hopes and spirits of the half of the population that gets up every morning to make and mend America, and they literally loved him on that account. Anyone who watched with an open mind his rallies during the 2020 campaign will have been slain in the spirit by the spectacle of perhaps 50,000 people chanting ‘We love you!’ — something unheard of in the entire history of Western democracy.
While their time still has some residual value, readers of The Lonely Century might save a little of it by reading the author blurb at the back before starting at the front. Here it is declared not only that Ms Hertz has been described, by no less an authority than the Observer, as ‘one of the world’s leading thinkers’, but also that she is a regular speaker at the World economic Forum in Davos. One suspects that what the Observer means by ‘leading thinker’ is someone who agrees on just about everything with the Observer.
Maybe she is one of the world’s leading thinkers. But there isn’t so much evidence of thinking here: just sporadically goodish research, a fair bit of foot-slogging, more than a soupcon of prejudice, and a host of contradictions. If she were to write a book uncontaminated by off-the-peg thinking we might be able to judge. But then she would probably find her invitations from the Party of Davos drying up.
Sometimes, though, it is possible to sense from her sentences that Noreena Hertz really does care about the state of the world, that she is sincere in wanting to bring its people together in their mutual interests. The trouble is that she seems to want to do this solely on her own ideological terms, dismissing and besmirching those whose positions she finds problematic, usually because she has failed to understand. By her antagonism and condescension towards the entire Trump phenomenon, she smears, ever so subtly, those she’s psycho-analysing, and — by far the greater offence for a writer to commit — radically impairs her own book.
There is, for example, an insufficiency of emphasis in her book of the massive cleavage that has loomed ever larger in recent decades within the human species under the heading ‘Wealth’. And this, of course, has grown exponentially in the Time of Covid. It is clear, too, that what is happening now is profoundly related to this division: that the richest percentile seeks, in some ambiguous sense, to ‘dispose’ of the rest of the species as the world moves into the era of total AI. As I noted in a previous essay (‘Après Trump, le deluge’) we appear to have arrived at the moment when begins the final, remorseless looting by the Combine of the resources of the human world, in particular of the benefits of the banks of knowledge and creative skills accumulated by the working human populace, so as to transfer ownership and control of all this to the Combine, thus disinheriting the world’s Able People’s of any claim to a dividend of the fruits of the AI era.
Hertz’s ‘solutions’ to these nightmares are of the warm-fuzzy tendency so beloved of liberal newspapers.
We need, she asserts, to ‘engineer diverse communities’, to reconnect capitalism ‘with care and compassion’, ‘to commit to making kindness and consideration of others our lodestar…’
Her catchcries ring hollow in a world tumbling in the opposite direction. ‘Cohesion, not division’ sounds good, but what does it actually mean? How would it work? Would it work? Recasting ourselves ‘from consumers to citizens’ sounds like something we’ve heard before, but it didn’t work then and won’t work now.
Some of her thinking is interesting, nearly all of it worthy. But it need a bigger frame, some kind of broader philosophical response to the drifts of society, not just culturally and economically but at the heart of the transmission system of the human mechanism. Are we to stand idly by and allow mukbang to become the future of 99.9 per cent of humans — and, if not, what do we put in its place When do we start? Who makes the first move?
I agree with her that globe-trotting, tax-dodging corporations should be called to account — and also those countries where they go to find such succour — but I suspect that anyone attempting to do so would attract similar attacks to Hertz’s assault on Donald Trump.
She proposes regulation to restrain the technologisation of the workplace, ‘to slow down the rate of substitution of humans by robots.’ She doesn’t say whose army she proposes to employ in this endeavour. And nor does her idea of creating a massive therapeautic industry in alleviating loneliness seem like a panacea to either loneliness or its underlying causes
One of the planned outcomes of what the World Bank calls ‘the Covid project’ (completion date, March 2025) is universal basic income, a minimal stipend payable to the discarded hordes of humanity in gratitude for their years of service and bequest of wisdom and skills to the oligarchs who plan to take things from here. This, to say the least, will treat the problem with a temporary and inadequate band-aid that will soon unravel from both ends.
Another former US president, Barack Obama, described the landscape pretty well:
'[A]t some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to AI, then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense.’
It’s a deeper problem than even that — not just a question of wealth generation and distribution, but of what human beings get to do with their time when they have time to kill, when time is not money but rather its absence or scarcity. Unless an initiative of listening and investigation is launched to seek a human rather than an ideological solution, the can of real, deep and unacknowledged inequality will be kicked down the road to infinity.
Just as Noreena Hertz, in her desire to pin the charge of autocracy on Donald Trump, misses the true evidence of incipient totalitarianism under her nose, she misses also the symptoms outlined in Hannah Arendt in the ‘rootlessness’ and ‘superfluousness’ being intentionally engineered in modern societies by precisely those who seek to ensure that visionary figures like Donald Trump remain derided and excoriated. Leaving aside momentarily all the other risks, it must be obvious that the conditions imposed by Covid appear to be optimal for the emergence on a mass scale of the dangerous quantities that Arendt warned us of.
Totalitarianism expands, she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, not for the sake of power or profit but for ideological reasons: to prove the point of its own existence and desire to dictate the meaning of all that is past and the shape of all that is future. To achieve this, it must destroy every last shred of human dignity in order to establish ‘nihilistic banality’. Before this, common sense must be supplanted with a ‘supersense’ into which these objectives are encoded. And, to prove its point, totalitarianism requires to be global.
The ‘uprootedness’ and ‘superfluousness’ that Arendt perceived in modern man arises from, firstly, industrialisation and then its dismantling, the vesting of human dignity and meaning in actions relating to material survival. The breakdown of political and cultural institutions, the collapse of tradition, of the very nucleus of society that is the human family, and latterly the assault of the ostensibly hyper-democratic — but in reality hyper-oligarchic — Internet, have rendered man lonelier than ever before. The human being no longer knows ‘what to do with himself’.
In understanding this, Hertz — in a stopped-clock kind of way — is correct: The thinking of Hannah Arendt provides our most useful guide. Isolated man has lost not just his place in the world of work, but in the world of politics and culture also. He must find another path to reconnecting with his essential dignity, before it is too late. Otherwise, what awaits him is to become the obsolescent serf of an obsolescent master, who will soon grow tired of ‘subsidising’ his idleness. Arendt warns: ‘The manipulators of this system believe in their own superfluousness as much as in that of all others, and the totalitarian murderers are all the more dangerous because they themselves do not care if they are alive or dead, if they ever lived or ever were born. The danger of the corpse factories and holes of oblivion is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continually rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms.’ All these symptoms became visible on the streets and screens of the West in 2020.
If our civilisation can emerge from its current nightmare, we must instantly come to regard the Covid episode as a final wake-up call. For once, the idea of a Commission of Inquiry seems appropriate — to consider not merely the nature of mankind’s future but whether mankind might have any future at all unless we change our ways real fast.
There are all kinds of urgent initiatives needing starting: the construction of a new Fourth Estate to save us from the cesspit of media lying; the restoration or replacement of the limits on governmental overreach; the rebuilding of education systems after decades of infiltration by Cultural Marxism; the mentoring of boys and young men to prepare them for the coming world; and so forth.
Most of all we need to find human beings something positive to do with their lives, some purpose that is not a time-killer. If the corporate titans who control the productive sectors are not going to rejoin the human race, we humans need to start making our own arrangements before they completely lose the run of themselves with our world. The Trump ‘remedy’, even if it is not dismantled by the deranged Democrats in power, must be deemed a band-aid in the teeth of the approaching world.
Hertz is fundamental correct: the problem is one of alienation, isolation, and, yes, loneliness, rather than mere technological displacement. What is driving men (as in ‘males’) into themselves is not the lack of work but the nature of the work, and the workplace, on offer, which simply does not satisfy the male soul. This happened before. In 1908, when Henry Ford launched his automatic production line, based on the methods of Frederick Taylor, pioneer of the ‘one best way’ of mass production, he encountered something he had not expected. In The Legend of Henry Ford, Keith Sward wrote, ‘So great was labor's distaste for the new machine system that, towards the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.’ Why? Because men who had been accustomed to being the masters of their own hands and creativities could not bear the idea of tightening a particular nut on a cylinder head, over and over again.
If I were seeking to address the problem of what Noreeena Hertz calls ‘loneliness’ — and it’s not a bad catch-all definition — I'd have had everything on the table, including the question of a basic income for every citizen, without liability or means-testing or poor law penalties or social credit snooping, and ask the Commission of Inquiry to decide the optimal level of payments, but also look at the other aspects, including all the darker tendencies, which Hertz has set out well. The commission would also be mandated to devise programmes to draw spare labouring and skilled energies — perhaps on a quasi-voluntary basis — into the public realm, so as to carry out necessary public works, and to find ways of valorising such initiatives above even the status of paid employment. The aim would be to restore pride in nations and cities and communities, and the pride of the citizens of these entities in themselves, while at the same time nudging culture into different shapes. Such initiatives might work like a parallel community currency-of-contribution — not necessarily measured in anything resembling money but preferably shifted to the quantification of pride, solidarity, fellow feeling and community spirit.
If it may be assumed that the bellies of mankind will be filled without effort, then we require to shift our attention radically to the heart and mind, to filling these with sustaining fare and ensuring that the present deficit between the technological and ethical capacities of the species is reduced and eventually eliminated. For this gap is surely our greatest collective threat as things stand, promising to eliminate or enslave most of us in short order. This implies realeducation, not LGBT or multicultural propaganda — education that places the development of the human mind, for its own sake, at the epicentre of human concerns.
Society cannot wait for the conscience of big business to show itself. If it’s a question of feminists and gender theorists realising their ‘mistake’ in demonising men and boys, the world ought not to hold its breath. Bill Gates will never become human. We need to tackle the issue at the deepest existential and metaphysical levels, to ask what a society is, what it is for, what its objectives are, what are the duties and responsibilities of those who get to operate within it in ways that generate profits for themselves. If human beings are no longer to gain their status and dignity through paid work, we need to undertake a cultural project of redistributing dignity, so that — for example — 90 per cent of the dignity in the world does not accrue to ‘philanthropists’ like Bill Gates.
The world needs, too, to find a way of enculturating the ‘Easterlin Paradox’, that remarkable discovery of the economist Richard Easterlin in 1974: that, once a population moves beyond he point where basis needs are met, the relationship between wealth and happiness — constant up to that point — begins to diverge. As he put it himself, ‘[T]o go from one to two units of happiness might take ten dollars, but after hitting the point at which our basic needs are met, to go from two to three units of happiness would take one hundred dollars, from three to four would take one thousand, and so on.’ Interestingly, in the context in which we speak, one of the factors enforcing this divergence is the emergence of unhealthy comparisons with how other people are doing, which tend to make everyone unhappier. This, you might say, is a form of loneliness also.
It is a great pity that this book was rushed to market to take facile advantage of the Time of Covid, without a root-and-branch re-evaluation of its content and statement in light of what was emerging. It is an even greater pity that its author suffered so badly from untreated Trump Derangement Syndrome as to sabotage her own book. Above all, it is a pity that Hertz herself had not been a little ‘lonelier’, for if she had learned to distance herself a little from the prejudices of her peer group, and developed the paradoxical qualities of empathy that tend to come with this condition, she might well have written an utterly fabulous book that would stand as a classic document of the present moment of unprecedented uncertainty and danger in the world.