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The idea of Laboratory of Politics of Loneliness & Solitude

The idea of Laboratory of Politics of Loneliness & Solitude aims to theorise loneliness as a new concept in existential political theory and International Relations. We therefor need to systematically explore political loneliness as a foundational concept and an umbrella term for diverse empirical phenomena usually described as estrangement, social isolation, atomisation, marginalisation, silencing, uprootedness, commodification, silencing, objectification, alienation and so on.

We also need to systematise already existing research on political loneliness and its links to supporting concepts like identity, sovereignty, state, ontological security, subalternity (loneliness in a postcolonial perspective), political power, and ideology.

Who wrote about “the politics of loneliness” before?

In this section we will consider the very brief history of social psychology and political theory research on loneliness, outlining five key authors starting from the XX century.

1. Loneliness and estrangement have become a focus of analysis of a renown German sociologist  Georg Simmel  (1858–1918). In 1908 in relation to his sociology of space Simmel explored the phenomena of human non-belonging to community pointing to the concept of a “stranger”:

"The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays to morrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.

The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation is organized, in the phenomenon of the stranger, in a way which may be most briefly formulated by saying that in the relationship to him, distance means that he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who also is far, is actually near. …The stranger, like the poor and like sundry "inner enemies," is an element of the group itself. His position as a fullfledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it.

Throughout the history of economics the stranger everywhere appears as the trader, or the trader as stranger. As long as economy is essentially selfsufficient, or products are exchanged within a spatially narrow group, it needs no middleman: a trader is only required for products that originate outside the group. Insofar as members do not leave the circle in order to buy these necessities -- in which case they are the "strange" merchants in that outside territory -- the trader must be a stranger, since nobody else has a chance to make a living" (The Sociology of Georg Simmel. 1950). 

2. The ideas of Simmel about “the stranger” were later developed by  Albert Camus . The latter interpreted loneliness as acceptance of responsibility for collective resistance to absurdity of life. Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Karl Jaspers, writing from different ethical perspectives, considered loneliness to be the very essence of being human. For them each human being comes into the world alone, travels through life as a separate person, and ultimately dies alone. However, that doesn’t mean that humans are doomed to a constant and hopeless solitary revolt. For instance, analysing his own philosophical evolution, Albert Camus noted that his novel The Plague "does beyond any possible discussion, represent the transition from an attitude of solitary revolt to the recognition of a community whose struggles must be shared. If there is an evolution from The Stranger to The Plague, it is in the direction of solidarity and participation" (1963. Notebooks 1935–1942).

Camus has made an important connection between human solitude in a situation of facing absurdity of the world: 

"The absurd, in its purest form, attempts to remain dumb. If it finds its voice, it is because it has become complacent or, as we shall see, because it considers itself provisional. This complacency is an excellent indication of the profound ambiguity of the absurdist position. In a certain way, the absurd, which claims to express man in his solitude, really makes him live in front of a mirror. And then the initial anguish runs the risk of turning to comfort. The wound that is scratched with such solicitude ends by giving pleasure" (The Rebel, 1956.).

3. What is “politics of loneliness”?

To the best of my knowledge, the term "politics of loneliness" was coined by social psychologists. For instance, in 2009   Jacqueline Olds  and  Richard Schwartz  (both from Harvard Medical School) described loneliness as the "elephant in the room of American politics", even if the room is a psychiatrist’s office (The Lonely American. Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century. 2009). Olds and Schwartz developed an original description of positive and negative loneliness, which, in my view, overlaps with Georg Simmel’s research on "the stranger." According to Olds and Schwartz, what stands behind the fears and aspirations of American culture is the "myth of an outsider." The positive pole of this myth is a version of the "self-reliant American." The negative pole is "the loser" who desperately wants to fit in but can’t: "When you stand at the positive pole you feel alone. When you stand at the negative pole you feel lonely." At the same time, American loneliness today is deeply stigmatized and often stays hidden from surveys "until you start asking the right questions (and ask them tactfully)". According to the authors, social estrangement makes Americans less empathetic and more polarized against outsiders, which has been clearly evidenced during the twenty-first-century USA presidential campaigns. Watch, for example, here Olds and Schwartz speaking about loneliness on TEDs Talks.

Interestingly, San-Francisco psychologist  Michael Bader  claimed that the rise of isolation in the USA is "making people sick, addicted, and left to fester alone in miseries caused by economic stagnation and anxiety at home and in conflicts abroad" (Progressives Need to Fight America's Deadly Epidemic of Loneliness, 2015). Telling people the truth about the objective causes of the collapse of the American Dream of middle-class mobility and security, states Bader, is no guarantee that people will believe you if you fail to take account of a range of emotional biases and fears that regularly defeat such rational explanations: "The pain of loneliness and the need to belong are two such emotions" (Ibid). In other words, Bader points to what I would call interdependency of our "regimes of loneliness" and "regimes of truth." Recent work on the “politics of loneliness” (Akopov, Sovereignty as ‘organized loneliness’: an existential approach to the sovereigntism of Russian ‘state-civilization’, 2021) refers to forms of politicization of human loneliness, and more specifically existential "loneliness anxiety," for the purposes of building legitimacy for a particular collective identity and preservation of its ontological insecurity. It shows the connection between the ideology of sovereigntism and different forms of what is called “vertically” and “horizontally” organised loneliness.

4. Why “politics of loneliness” is so important today?

One might think that with the rise of modern technologies humans should feel themselves less lonely in today’s world. However, it is rather the opposite: the problem of human loneliness anxiety seems to be only increasing in the future. For example, according to sociologist and philosopher  Zygmunt Bauman , the process of globalization has led to what Bauman calls society of “liquid modernity,” the contemporary state in which solid social structures and institutions seem to have melted away. Leaving in times of "liquid modernity" creates additional conditions for the rise of human loneliness anxiety in the world where human connectivity becomes an illusion:

"There’s a big problem today – the big migration of great masses of people. Suddenly, the whole environment in which you live changes, its character changes; people with different languages, different habits, different ways of life. <…> Suddenly, there are masses of strangers who are very difficult to read, so to speak. They are also living now in a multi-centred world, where one steady, stable binding or hierarchy, or values or preferences does not exist any longer. You are exposed to contradictory views. One side praises, the other condemns. For every thesis, there’s antithesis. The atmosphere is of big loss. Uncertainty, contingent on uncertainty.

<…> Then you come to your online world. You are at rest. Finally you find a shelter from all this havoc, you know, chaos. On the internet, in the online world, unlike the offline world, you can avoid everything which creates your anxiety in the offline world. <…> That’s a very comfortable place But, if you spend so much time in this online world, and come back to the offline world, you are doubly anxious. Living with differences requires strategy and is very often quite frightening. You can escape from the necessity of living with differences face-to-face. But when you return to other human beings, facing them, then you are in trouble because you have forgotten the skills of how to deal with it. So instead of uniting people, on the contrary, it stops you from listening to other voices. It’s simply shuffling away the voice about being alone, and therefore you stop fighting against the sense of loneliness, because you have this illusion that comes from the internet that you are not alone. Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook as you know, has made 50 billion on the stock exchange, on what? On our fear of loneliness. The success of Facebook is very simple. There’s no secret in that. Mark Zuckerberg put his finger on the gold mine. And the gold mine was people’s fear of being abandoned. Facebook is the way in which in spite of being lonely, we are connected. (Attwood, Interview with Zygmunt Bauman. 2018).

Interestingly, the idea of Albert Camus about the need to resist and combat human loneliness has found today an original development within the UK government policies. Since 2016 the so-called Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has investigated ways to reduce loneliness in Britain. Making a commitment to loneliness relief has led UK prime minister to introduce the position of "Minister for Loneliness" (Tracey Crouch, followed by Mims Davies, Baroness Barran, and Stuart Andrew). In 2018, the British government became the first in the world to publish a loneliness reduction strategy, which included commitments for loneliness reduction activity by nine different UK government departments. As of May 2020, the UK government has distributed over £20 million to various initiatives to reduce loneliness, including loneliness charities, local group activities & befriending schemes. You can find the UK Loneliness Annual Report here. Calling Berlin the capital of Loneliness and following the footsteps of United Kingdom, in 2019 Christian Democrats in Germany has introduced their Commissioner for Loneliness as well.

5. What are “vertical” and “masculine” types of politics of loneliness?

What about Russia? As part of existential approach to political ideology, we see research on “sovereigntism as an organized loneliness.” This research defines nationalistic sovereigntism as “vertical” and “masculine” types of politics of loneliness. The "vertical" management of loneliness anxiety is usually carried out through an enactment of statism and strong vertical power hierarchy. By contrast, its "horizontal" equivalent is more associated with non-state lateral transnational networking. Studying cases of Russian foreign discourse and BREXIT in the UK, Sergei Akopov (2021) proposed three discursive models of vertically organised loneliness — historical, psychological, and religious — for the sake of illustrating his theoretical argument, not to claim that such models are either final or all-encompassing. He also looked at the Russian ideological discourse of sovereigntism as a tool for patterning difference and domination through the management of masculine loneliness anxieties in modern Russian society. Here we observe how  states can talk on behalf of their people when state discourse on sovereignty appeals to a nationally or civilizationally defined loneliness anxiety of the people. Moreover, in societies like Russia’s, dominated by the "male gaze" on politics, the exploitation of loneliness anxiety leads to sovereigntism becoming a "masculine organized loneliness". Overall, Akopov claims that modern Russian masculine politics of loneliness can exploit Russian phallocentric positionalities, for example, represented in USSR cinemascape (see special issue of the Visual Anthropology journal and article "When women speak phallocentric positionalities: biopolitics of feminine loneliness in Russian cinemascape" forthcoming in 2023).

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