Revolt of the Lonely Masses

In Angela Nagle’s exceptionally in depth analysis of the culture wars dating back to 2009, beyond the detailed description of constant reaction, ideological fault lines and literary call-backs, there was perhaps one founding bit of material analysis that lies at the heart of her thesis. Online reactionary politics, in particular it’s resurgence in the past 8 years, would have been impossible without a large, growing cohort of romantically frustrated young men who channeled their political and creative energies into a struggle with either what they saw as a feminized society and/or women more generally.

In her own words:

“On this last point, I think [F. Roger Devlin]’s getting to the central issue driving this kind of reactionary sexual politics, perhaps even the central personal motivation behind the entire turn to the far right among young men. The sexual revolution that started the decline of lifelong marriage has produced great freedom from the shackles of loveless marriage and selfless duty to the family for both men and women…Sexual patterns have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order. Their own anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in this hierarchy is precisely what has produced their hard-line rhetoric about asserting hierarchy in the world politically when it comes to women and non-whites.”[1]

However, I think Nagle, and many others, underestimate the extent of the problem here. She connects this frustration to the prominence of the sexual revolution which liberated women to have more agency in the sexual marketplace. But, this theory runs into a significant problem, the kind of liberation she speaks of existed at least since the late 80’s, when plenty of young men were coming of age. This did not suddenly lead to a popular right wing youth movement, it took another twenty some odd years. The sexual revolution has the benefit of being a distinct cultural event within popular consciousness, which is no wonder why everyone from the participants of the “manosphere” to several factions of the alt-right point to it as the beginning of their problems (whom Nagle took her cue from). Rather, there is strong evidence that the sexual frustration of young men that today fuel the reactionary half of the cultural war is just one symptom of a larger problem that has big implications for the politics of the left: the increasing prevalence of loneliness in society more generally.

Loneliness is indeed approaching the levels of a public health crisis. About twice as many adults report chronic loneliness than 20 years ago[2], it can increase our risk of death by some 30% creating often cited comparisons to the risks of obesity and smoking[3], and it can also be a large factor in suicides, particularly among the youth. Loneliness has also been quite profitably commodified and is the wellspring of multibillion dollar industries of entertainment, pornography, internet dating, ect.[4]

But perhaps the most telling statistic of loneliness is who it effects the most: those younger than 25 and older than 65[5]. A quick survey of the most disruptive political movements in the past ten years shows the outsized importance of those demographics. Occupy Wall Street, the Ron Paul campaign, the Bernie Sanders Campaign, the Alt-Right and now the resurgence of the Socialist movement have all been fueled by those around twenty five and younger. The elderly, while not having quite the same record for radicalism as the youth, were instrumental both in the Tea Party movement, and more recently, Brexit in the UK. At the very least, this correlation seems to indicate that lonely people search for political consciousness that demands change to the status quo.

But what is loneliness exactly? The wealth of literature about the topic (this is sarcasm, in my adventures in my rather well renowned and well stocked local library I found a grand total of 4 books on the subject, whereas “love” got no less than 43 in-depth psychological texts) gives us some ideas. Far from being the state of being physically alone, although that can contribute to the psychological phenomena, loneliness is based primarily on an emotional need for closeness.[6] It is, in many ways, the dark side of love, in that it is both deeply rooted in desire, and that unlike the wide academic and casual discussion of love, we rarely acknowledge it. Psychologists studying the phenomena describe how nearly no one openly admits to being actively lonely, to do so would be to admit what is perceived as a deep social and personal failure. To be lonely, it is thought, is to be either so lacking in social skills that one cannot connect to those around them, or have something fundamentally repulsive about oneself that they repel all other human beings. At the same time, almost all adults report being lonely at least at some point.

To be sure, one of its defining qualities is that it is nearly universally human. As Erich Fromm wrote in his book The Art of Loving, “The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love – is the source of shame. It is at the same time the source of guilt and anxiety.” To Fromm, our awareness of our own self  separated us from the world around us, from those around us, forming the essence of loneliness: a prison only escapable by love. He also makes a point very similar to Nagle’s, even though he was writing in 1956, that nationalism and much reactionary thought are grounded in an abstract form of love, or at the very least desire for love.[7] And love is, after all, just the other side of the coin of loneliness, its mirror image, the negative dip on the oscilloscope.

Why is loneliness increasing? Like most social issues, its causes are too overdetermined to pin down one thing. However, there are some suspects. As inequality grows, so does the social ostracism for failure and the amount of life-consuming energy required to remain in the “middle class.” The further development of consumerism makes ironic distance to the world around us highly fashionable, with the added benefit of making things more bearable in the short term.  Technology that was supposed to bring us closer together only seems to further alienate people from one another. Most social media today have an evolutionary path that can be traced to the BBS forums of the early internet. For the uninitiated, the “BBS” stands for “Bulletin Board System,” and they are often just as impersonal methods of communication as posting a leaflet on an actual bulletin board. Even communities so centered around loneliness as /r9k/ and wizardchan, held together by an endless flow of anonymous confessions, rants, and tips, face fundamental barriers to addressing their own loneliness. Ironically, due to the very anonymous nature that allows them to talk about their loneliness prevents them from crafting lasting one on one relationships that are essential to dealing with loneliness. The problems that occur when one cannot find love in the particular sense is that many people start to search for it in the abstract sense, the kind of sense that Fromm spoke of.

Whether loneliness exists in a purely positive of negative sense, and by extension, whether desire is negative or positive, something of lack or of subsistence, is probably one of the great debates of psychology and philosophy. The truth of the matter is far beyond me, but I will say this, even if it should go without saying: loneliness is a deeply painful, existential, anxious experience, one that is almost universally felt but rarely talked about.

This is not to excuse reactionary politics, in the same way love doesn’t excuse murdering a perceived rival out of jealousy.  The point, however, is that this force now exists in society to a larger extent than perhaps it ever has, and it must be reckoned with. Capitalism and modern technology continue to reproduce this loneliness through further and further atomization and alienation of the individual. One of the famous forms of alienation of industrial workers pointed out by the early Marx was alienation from other workers, however in contemporary neoliberal capitalism, we are encouraged to be friends with our co-workers and bosses. Like neo-liberalism itself, this act of putting on a shiny rainbow veneer doesn’t change the underlying social and material relations. Job turnover for millennials is infamously higher than other generations, with 21% of millennials changing jobs in 2015[8], and most new jobs are not designed to support a family and lead to a career. To many young people, their material conditions demand that they not develop deep meaningful relationships with their coworkers, as they know the relationship will likely be temporary.

What does all this have to do with the Angela Nagle’s insight into a backlash against a perceived feminized society? Well, among the two most lonely populations, the old and the young, the young experience their loneliness in deep connection to their sexuality. This is especially true for young men; women are generally lonelier than men in nearly every demographic besides single men and women, where men vastly outnumber women in reporting loneliness. This statistic also runs counter to a suggested reporting bias: that women are more comfortable and thus more likely to speak about their emotions. Young men are more likely to identify their loneliness with a lack of romantic and sexual relationships, and conversely, when loneliness and alienation increase in society, they are the ones to most see it in gendered and sexual terms[9].

The most easy thing would be to dismiss this, possibly accurately, as the result of pure ideology. To this youth right wing movement the real enemies are the feminist liberals and leftists who facilitated multiculturalism, the sexual revolution, and the broader feminization of their society. In this respect we cannot allow their narrative to define our politics. The enemy of the left, as much as the alt-right would like it, is not lonely young men. We stand with the movement to abolish the present state of things, and that includes the same system of alienation and atomization, the system of capitalism, which drives loneliness on the macro level. We stand for liberation in an absolute sense of human liberation, not just formal or symbolic liberation as the liberals would have.

On August 1st of 2016, Communist philosopher par excellence Slavoj Zizek published an article entitled “The Sexual is Political,” which echoed the old feminist slogan, but criticized the overlying debate on the recently flaring issue of gender segregated bathrooms.  To Zizek, his duty was not to expose the underlying truth in the middle, but rather what fantasy lay at the heart of both extremes: the fantasy of the end of sexual antagonism, either through strict ‘natural’ symbolic hierarchy on the right, or the “happy fluidity” of post-genderism. Zizek explained that the transgender issue was not, as was the traditional line of liberal feminist commentators, an issue of an intrusion into the proper symbolic order of gender by a transgressing individual, but rather that transgenders, especially those individuals that report to be beyond the gender binary, represent the very sexual antagonism that lies at the heart of everyone including cis-heterosexuals. Do not all men occasionally hesitate before entering a segregated restroom, implicitly prompted by the sign on the door to ask “am I really a man?” This is not to trivialize the experience of transgender individuals, but an effort to show that their conflict, rather than being hyper-particular, is the locus of a universal human antagonism which we all have a stake in[10]. Zizek explains his thinking best here:

“Not only is woman not-man and vice versa, but woman is what prevents man from being fully man and vice versa. It is like the difference between the Left and the Right in the political space: their difference is the difference in the very way difference is perceived. The whole political space appears differently structured if we look at it from the Left or from the Right; there is no third “objective” way (for a Leftist, the political divide cuts across the entire social body, while for a Rightist, society is a hierarchic whole disturbed by marginal intruders).”[11]

It is exactly in this way that the young men of the alt-right constructed their politics. Sexual frustration and loneliness in this context are perceived as threats to their very status as men, they recognize societal trends against them and identify this society as feminized. They are transgressive to this society as their identity is built as opposition to it, it is the femininity which both defines them as men and prevents them from being truly men.

The slogan “The Sexual is Political” isn’t a normative one, it is a descriptive one. The sexual is already the political, desire and its emotional daughter twins, love and loneliness, already color the political landscape, defining its peaks and valleys, especially its most “transgressive” moments. Both the current liberal feminist politics and the reactionary politics of the alt-right are incapable of dealing with this issue in full, even though they are currently the only modern politics which explicitly addresses them. The politics of liberation, the politics of socialism, however, must address them lest we cede ground to forces which ideologically enforce either the status quo or the return to an earlier status quo. A status quo which is dangerously unstable, violent, exploitative, and tyrannical.

Here, as always, we are not drunk-eyed utopians. The promise of socialism is not a promise of immediate abolition of alienation, although that would be nice. Instead, it is the promise of struggle. And struggle also happens to be an excellent way of bringing people together.

In this struggle, we fight for the absolute liberation of the masses. Look at the proposed solutions of the reactionaries: the bourgeoisie techno-futurists want to solve this problem with more of the same, new more-interactive forms of entertainment, robotic companions, and more Silicon Valley gimmicks; the hard traditionalists propose a return to forceful patriarchy and social engineering to that end. Both “solutions” contain immense fundamental contradictions. The logic of capital is all too telling, and the history of the loneliness industry with it, their job is to satisfy their customer, but not too much, after all if the customer is too satisfied they will never come back. Planned obsolescence, microtransactions, monthly payment plans, monetization and soullessness marks that future. As with automation more generally, our only hope is to wrest control of this technology and its development into the hands of the people at large.

As for the new traditionalists, Nagle was quick to point out the flaws in their logic. Their base of support simultaneously wants a return to a puritanical patriarchal control over woman, while at the same time keeping all the benefits of the sexual revolution (success with “pornified” woman, the breakdown of sexual taboos, even the culture of loose bisexuality that tends to call imageboards home).  Not to mention, the ramifications of trying to force one half of the population to submit to the other is outrageous no matter which way one looks at it, and would require a level of social engineering and tyranny previously unseen in the modern world.

The reader will probably have guessed by now that I am a fan of Nagle’s work. However, I must voice one very important disagreement. There must indeed be some sort of leftist politics that exists to counter the alt-right, that exists for the lonely of all ages and genders. And that politics is socialism pure and simple.

Only socialism is capable of reversing these trends and doing so without destroying all the good things modernity has brought us, both in terms of technology and sexual freedom. It is only the socialist struggle that can produce a technology that breeds intimacy and community, and an economy that cultivates relationships and solidarity. To those who say capitalist modernity has failed them, we reach out our hand, not to offer a bygone age that created even more failure! But to craft a new modernity, a new future. Our struggles today are real, and if love is our only escape from loneliness, and that love is to mean something in the slightest, then we must fight for that better future, for the hope that this desire can ever be more than a phantom.

 

 

Victor Villanueva is the editor in chief of Spectre Rouge, the former editor in chief of Bunker Magazine, a socialist organizer, an award winning screenwriter, a vulgar materialist and an avid shitposter. You can contact him on twitter, facebook and send him submissions you’d like to see published in Spectre Rouge via email.


[1] Angela Nagle, Kill all Normies (Zero Books, 2017)  97.

[2] http://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic/

[3] http://time.com/3747784/loneliness-mortality/

[4] Ami Rokach, Loneliness Updated (Routledge, 2013) 1.

[5] Christina R. Victor & Keming Yang, Loneliness Updated (Routledge, 2013) 88.

[6] Rokach, A. Theoretical approaches to loneliness: From a univariate to a multidimensional experience. Review of existential psychology and Psychiatry, 1988. 19(2-3) 255-54.

[7] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, (Harper & Row, 1956) 7.

[8] http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/191459/millennials-job-hopping-generation.aspx

[9] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-art-closeness/201601/3-surprising-truths-about-gender-and-loneliness

[10] http://zizek.uk/a-reply-to-my-critics-re-the-sexual-is-political/

[11] http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-sexual-is-political/


 

5 Replies to “Revolt of the Lonely Masses”

  1. “Do not all men occasionally hesitate before entering a segregated restroom, implicitly prompted by the sign on the door to ask “am I really a man?””

    No, I must certainly do not.

Comments are closed.