Loneliness and the Rise of Authoritarianism

January 03, 2020 by Taewon Min


Every college student, within and out of UIC, may at times feel lonely, but they are not alone. More and more people, unfortunately, are affected by loneliness. The percentage of American adults feeling lonely has doubled from the 1980s to reach 40% and in the United Kingdom, more than 9 million people are reported to be feeling lonely, prompting its government to appoint a minister for loneliness. Korea is no exception, as 26% of people  consider themselves as frequently or almost always lonely. These results show why some researchers are considering loneliness as an epidemic spreading across the world. Research has shown that loneliness is more lethal than obesity or even smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as it increases the level of stress and inflammation that may lead to heart diseases, diabetes, as well as suicide attempts. 

While people have attributed social media or the increase of one-person households as primary causes of loneliness, Hannah Arendt, a renowned philosopher/political theorist, had diagnosed loneliness as a “disease of our time” almost 60 years ago. Arendt, who considers singularity as the single most important trait of humans, suggests this uniqueness could only be achieved mostly through speech and action in the political realm, where one manifests its particularity to the world. Arendt acknowledges that solitude is crucial for political life, as it offers a temporary separation from the world where one could discuss with one's self conscience as another entity. However, Arendt argues that it is nonetheless imperfect, since humans are social animals that ultimately need others to confirm their uniqueness and synthesize one’s self and consciousness to a single individual.If one fails to connect with others who appreciate that singularity, one becomes lonely.

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Loneliness intensifies when people are isolated, which occurs when the political realm of a society is destroyed. Arendt believes that the public realm is crucial for individuals to enjoy a sense of belonging in a group. Inside, members understand each other as equal and unique beings while collectively sharing a meaningful worldview. However, Arendt argues that modernity, which involves imperialism, industrialization, modern science/technology, and capital exploitation, has deconstructed existing political structures. This leads to isolation and loneliness, as people no longer enjoy the sense of belonging and individuals that could confirm one’s singularity, thereby resulting in despair and disorientation.

What concerns Arendt is that loneliness and isolation create a breeding ground for totalitarianism, which Arendt refers to as ‘organized loneliness’. Totalitarianism, according to Arendt, eliminates the singularity of each individual and makes constituents believe that their existence gains meaning only through associating with certain group identities like the nation state. The ideology of totalitarianism is logical, as it attempts to perfectly explain the world by dismissing reality, experiences, and interdependence of a truer world that exists beyond sensation. Lonely individuals, who have lost others and the world as sources of truth and their self-identity, are attracted to logical totalitarian ideologies, which provide a mere but consistent logic that explains everything and offers “truth.” Thus according to Arendt, totalitarianism relieves individuals from loneliness by giving meaning to life and a sense of belonging, while stripping them of freedom, reason, singleness, and interrelatedness, which are basic human conditions. 

The rise of totalitarianism in recent years seems to be circumstantial evidence of Arendt’s diagnosis. Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, has been referred to as a totalitarian, as he allegedly says things that go beyond truth, dismissing reality and experiences, while supposing a logical ideology that cannot be achieved through traditional media. Leaders of the Leave campaign in the United Kingdom are not dissimilar from Trump, as they also offer a logical explanation to the political and economic conundrums of Britain that dishonor facts and reality. The rising authoritarian regimes across the world have employed similar tactics to acquire political power, validating Arendt’s claim of totalitarianism as ‘organized loneliness’.

While the future looks grim, there may be possible solutions that work on an individual level. Experts suggest joining club activities and nurturing relationships where one can express themselves as solutions to tackle loneliness in universities. Participating in political or social activities would also be beneficial for university students to regain singularity by imprinting their voices to others while simultaneously developing a sense of belonging. Moreover, political activities aiming to re-establish the political realm might be the ultimate solution to the epidemic of our times, since Arendt points at the destruction of the political sphere as a major source of loneliness in the modern world.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.