The Lonely State

Over the summer, we were treated to ‘the biggest neighbourhood celebrations since the Jubilee street parties’. The organisers eagerly ‘inviting people to get together with their neighbours’ and attend a ‘street party or a shared barbecue, a picnic or a bake off’. But this time around we were urged, all too pointedly, to ‘celebrate all that we hold in common’. ‘Inspired’ by the murder of MP Jo Cox, the feel-good factor was notable by its absence; and in its place were some darker assumptions about the divided, nastier society the organisers imagined we have become.

One of the four areas of work undertaken by the recently established Jo Cox Foundation is to address what it describes as the ‘growing crisis of loneliness’. ‘It can affect people of all ages and from all backgrounds – from the bullied school child, to the new mother, to the pensioner who has outlived her friends and immediate family’, we are informed. The Foundation wants to ‘try to get people talking at all levels’ whether it’s ‘chatting to a neighbour, visiting an old friend, or just making time for the people they meet’. And, ironically enough, the Foundation is not on its own with this initiative. Loneliness is all the rage.

Until quite recently, unfashionable charities organised befriending initiatives for older people left behind by family or deceased partners, or house-bound by disability. But today the category of ‘the lonely’ has widened. Whether it’s social media isolating rather than connecting the young, and intensifying a (quite literal) status-envy; or the plight of relatively young singletons living on their own out of choice or lone-parents with only screaming children for company; or even those leaving behind those elderly relatives to immerse themselves in study or work, and consequently experiencing loneliness themselves.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, has generated a number of alarm-filled headlines recently. She was presenting to the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, what one commentator described as the ‘biggest ever review into the problem’. She described not only an increase in loneliness in the U.S., but also concluded from a number of large scale international studies, that social isolation, loneliness and living alone are leading to premature death around the world. Its impact is worse than obesity, she said. Not only does Holt-Lunstad say we have a big disease-like problem. She also claims that if only certain interventions were made, ‘social connectedness’ could flourish and lives could be saved: whether by training kids in social skills at school or getting GPs to screen their patients for signs of loneliness.

It is this diseasing of loneliness – both in the way it is described and the impact on people’s health it supposedly has; and the exaggeration of its extent that is most striking today. It triggers a stress hormone, increasing blood-clotting ‘in anticipation of injury’ raising blood-pressure and clogging up arteries, says one researcher. It can ‘dampen a person’s immune system’, says another. It causes depression, says one campaigner; and cancer, insists another. So, as if being lonely isn’t bad enough, it also has (if we are to believe what we are told) quite literally deadly implications.

According to a Leader in New Scientist, ‘Curing loneliness might just be the most cost effective public health intervention available’. In truth, we can’t ‘cure loneliness’ anymore than we can cure sadness (whatever the pretences of advocates of the happiness agenda). And we shouldn’t try to either. Indeed there is much to recommend the explanation which says social isolation can mean people’s deterioration in health goes unnoticed. It is also the case, despite what campaigners say, that the old and already unwell are still the most likely to experience loneliness. Still, there are a lot of lonely people out there. The question, as Paul McCartney sang, is: ‘Where do they all come from?’

It is not altogether a surprise to discover that loneliness is a big problem today. The progressive decline of social institutions over a period of decades is well known: from the family to the pub, the trade union to the working men’s club. In the absence of those institutions, the individual increasingly stands alone, turned in on themselves, albeit deemed vulnerable and ‘at risk’ and looking to the state or experts for ‘support’ and protection. But there is nothing inevitable about the way being with others has been turned into an ordeal of etiquettes and hazards as is increasingly the case: from gaining consent on campus and avoiding commitment in relationships to anxiously keeping the kids away from strangers.

Feeling lonely is normal. It is not a disease. You can’t teach children how not to be lonely. It is a feature of our interior lives, it is intangible and subjective. And it is not particularly receptive to policy interventions however well meaning. But, while we can’t solve the problem of loneliness as such, we can do something to make our communities feel less isolating and less conducive to feelings of loneliness. The state can play a positive role in sometimes quite literally bringing people closer together – improving transport and communications and making it more affordable for people to get around. But the obsession with congestion charges and cycle paths over building more roads and airports, and with the supposed dangers of surfing the internet over improving dodgy wifi connections; shows how little interest policy-makers have in genuinely bringing people closer together on a scale that would make any real difference.

But it would be better, in other areas, if the state could do a lot less. It could stop the unnecessary checks on volunteers and care workers that can put people off helping others and stoke anxieties about abuse. It could revoke the illiberal powers it has granted local busybodies that so contribute to the inhibiting of public life – from confiscating alcohol to banning skateboarding, from banishing buskers to demonising smokers. For here too, far from fostering a social environment that frees us up and connects us with each other, the political class’s enthusiasm for regulating people’s everyday lives and relationships only helps isolate and alienate us further.

The obsession with loneliness has not just sprung from nowhere. There has been a therapeutic turn in policy-making and in society more broadly; and, post-Brexit, a uncomprehending elite reaction to a society they imagine to be somehow less friendly than it was a year or so ago. Instead of delivering concrete policy interventions to solve discrete social problems we have initiatives that will supposedly make people feel better about themselves, improve their ‘wellbeing’ and encourage some fellow-feeling. The political class projecting their own alienation and dark thoughts about what we’re like onto us, and already consumed by anxieties about their own isolation and disconnectedness, have little interest in building infrastructure or in letting go their grip on people’s everyday lives. The truth is they just can’t leave us alone.

First Published in Huffington Post

PSPOS: Protecting Public Space from the Public

First published in sp!ked

The petty policing of public spaces is inhibiting community life.

A couple of weeks ago, Walthamstow town centre was apparently in the grip of a crisis. For four hours, following reports of a ‘huge riot’ involving 200 young people, this busy part of north-east London came to a standstill as police lined the streets. It wasn’t until later that the police released a statement admitting that ‘there has been no riot’ and that officers were only responding to ‘calls about a fight’, which meant that ‘several police resources [including riot vans] were deployed’. The teenagers ‘were not committing offences but their presence in such numbers would be alarming to members of the public’, the statement concluded. By this time, wobbly video footage of girls fighting (over a boy apparently) on pavements strewn with yanked-out hair extensions were doing the rounds on social media.

You might think this bizarre event was a one-off, that the police wouldn’t usually go into full riot mode because a handful of girls, egged on by their mates, were scrapping in the streets. But you’d be wrong. The powers granted under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 effectively allow local authorities to outlaw any activities they judge to have a ‘detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’. The scope of this law, and the summary justice it allows the authorities to exercise, is unprecedented. It allows the authorities to target particular individuals or entire populations in an area subject to a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). PSPOs usually focus on those deemed an ongoing ‘nuisance’, such as the homeless, who have been targeted by councils that have introduced orders for drinking alcohol in public, busking without prior approval or for simply sleeping rough. But now anything, from skateboarding to walking your dog, could be enough to leave you facing an on-the-spot fine of £100.

There is something perverse about protecting public spaces from the public – and therefore the public from each other. It deprives public space of its content and the public of spaces in which to meet. Our over-anxious, mistrustful culture has encouraged an accumulation of petty restrictions and protections, from PSPOs to vetting anybody who comes near a so-called vulnerable person. Local authorities claim to speak on behalf of citizens, but in reality they have little to no relationship with ordinary people, with the exception of those they deem vulnerable, a nuisance, or both.

When Hackney Council targeted the homeless for sleeping rough in hipster-hotspot Broadway Market, homeless charity Crisis attacked the council for demonising the homeless because ‘they may have suffered a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or domestic abuse’. Homeless Link also described rough sleepers as ‘extremely vulnerable’. After much criticism, the council backed down. But were campaigners right to be so emotive? In the debate about PSPOs, both sides play the vulnerability card. But this only serves to reinforce a state-endorsed fear of ourselves and each other – depriving us all of the opportunity to interact freely.

Some campaigners reserve particular criticism for ‘privately owned public spaces’ (POPS) – those shiny new additions to our neighbourhoods that have prompted the launch of some PSPOs. But these developments are often welcomed by residents for what they bring to otherwise run-down areas. The privatisation we should really be concerned about is that which isolates people from each other and inhibits community life.

Nothing great about the welfare state

In The Welfare of Nations, the decade-later follow-up to his The Welfare State We’re In, James Bartholomew – former leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – takes us on a tour of the world’s welfare states.

It’s fair to say he isn’t a fan. He argues that the welfare state undermines old values and ‘crowds out’ both our inner resourcefulness and our sense of duty to one another – including our own families. Instead of aspiring to be self-reliant, the welfare state makes us self-absorbed. People aren’t encouraged to exercise responsibility anymore; instead, they are handed a plethora of ‘rights’. Welfare states ‘have diminished our civilisation’, Bartholomew concludes.

The welfare state has always been a problematic entity, from its modern beginnings in the nineteenth century with Bismarck’s cynical ‘state socialism’– built as much to placate the increasingly politically active masses as to attend to their welfare – to the vast systems maintaining millions of economically inactive citizens across the world today. The welfare state, as its advocates contend, always promises a better society, with higher levels of equality, but, as Bartholomew counters, it also tends to foster unemployment, ‘broken families’ and social isolation.

Some versions of the welfare state are better than others. Wealthy Switzerland has a low unemployment rate despite generous social insurance-based benefits. But, at the same time, the Swiss state imposes tough conditions: there’s no minimum wage and workers can be fired on the spot. Sweden’s benefit system is generous, too, but if you can’t afford the rent on a property, you have to move out.

In the UK, matters are equally complex. For instance, shared-ownership schemes, ‘affordable housing’ and planning regulations contribute to distinctly unaffordable house prices. Indeed, housing costs have risen from 10 per cent of average UK household income in 1947 to over 25 per cent. For the poorest sections of society, it is worse still. This is despite the fact that the state subsidises dysfunctional, workless households on bleak public housing estates.

And what of state education? Nearly one-in-five children in OECD countries is functionally illiterate. The best performing advanced countries have autonomous schools, ‘high stakes’ exams, quality teachers and a culture of discipline and hard work. Compare that to the US, where you can’t get rid of bad unionised teachers in the state schools.

Bartholomew convincingly argues that state schools’ ‘shameful’ inadequacy, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, breeds inequality. He fears that the success of the free- and charter-school movement is at risk, too, from ‘creeping government control’. Bartholomew is upfront about his own old-fashioned conservative views. He’s a kind of evidence-based Peter Hitchens, using ‘bundles of academic studies’ to show what he suspected of the welfare state all along. The care of ‘strangers’, he argues, is bad for children and aged parents alike, and damages the social fabric. Over half of Swedish children are born to unmarried mothers, whereas the family in Italy, he says approvingly, is ‘the main source of welfare’, with charity-run ‘family houses’ (no flats or benefits) for single mothers. At a time when Conservatives aren’t really very conservative, it takes Bartholomew to ask important questions about social change.

Again, southern Europe offers a useful contrast to the situation in northern Europe. Over half of single people aged 65 or over in Italy, Portugal and Spain live with their children. Just three per cent of single Danes do. Should individual autonomy trump the burden of caring for children and family members? What role should the state play? UK social workers are office-based, writes Bartholomew, and contracted care workers follow ‘rules rather than doing things from an impulse of loving care’.

By 2050 over a third of the European population will be aged over 60. Even though the age at which people are eligible for pensions is increasing, state pensions can’t be sustained, says Bartholomew. In Poland, Greece and Italy, pensions account for more than a quarter of public spending. The UK spends nine per cent of its national income on healthcare, the US an insurance-fuelled 18 per cent, and Singapore just five per cent (though Singapore has to put twice that into ‘personal’ health-savings accounts). ‘Wealth leads to better healthcare’, says Bartholomew, but the monopolistic UK system, despite the NHS’s officially cherished status, is one of the worst of the advanced countries for health outcomes, including, for example, cancer-survival rates. ‘Obamacare’ notwithstanding, millions of uninsured Americans – neither poor enough for Medicaid nor old enough for Medicare – struggle to pay for healthcare.

Democracies, says Bartholomew, are susceptible to the fantasy that welfare states can solve our problems without consequence or cost. This is despite US public spending increasing from seven per cent of GDP in 1900 to 41 per cent of GDP in 2011. In 2012, France revealed that public spending accounted for 57 per cent of its GDP.

But it’s Bartholomew’s critique of the wider welfare culture, rather than his carps at benefits systems, which provides an important corrective to what can be a narrow and mean-spirited discussion. He also offers practical solutions: let’s increase housing supply but abolish public housing; let’s have a system of ‘co-payment’ for healthcare between state and individual; let’s allow schools and hospitals to compete in markets; and let’s give individuals the opportunity to save and insure themselves to pay for social-care needs and pensions (albeit through Singapore-style compulsory bank accounts).

So what do we do with the welfare state? As Bartholomew puts it, the welfare state, rather than capitalism or communism, was ‘the ultimate victor of the turmoil of the twentieth century’. But Bartholomew makes clear that this is a hollow victory with many millions left idle and communities undermined. So yes, let’s cut the welfare state down to size and stop infantilising its dependants. But we also need to get more ambitious than Bartholomew allows. He thinks it’s too late to get our freedoms back and argues for a minimal ‘welfare’ state only. But why stop there? If the architects of the welfare state have anything to teach us, it is to be bolder in our visions.

First published in sp!ked