MANY causes have been sought for increasingly divisive politics: the false promise of neoliberalism and globalisation; resource scarcity; the 24/7 news cycle; soaring displacement, etc. But what if the answer lay in the human condition that these factors have collectively produced?
Writing for the Financial Times, Noreen Hertz argued that loneliness was making the world a “more aggressive, angry place”. That the Western world is increasingly lonely is known. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, one in 20 adults in the UK report feeling lonely often or always. More than three in five Americans across generations also describe themselves as lacking companionship and feeling misunderstood.
Linking pervasive loneliness with political polarisation is not novel. Hertz cites the work of Hannah Arendt, who wrote that for people facing “isolation and lack of normal social relationships… it is through surrendering their individual selves to ideology that [they] rediscover their purpose and self-respect”. In other words, for those spending days alone, staring at screens, being a part of something — even if it’s a far-right or extremist group — is appealing.
I wondered how this argument applies to societies such as ours. Pakistan has many problems but, on the surface, loneliness is unlikely to be among them. The strength of familial and broader kinship networks, rarity of one-person households, and prevalence of the gift economy seem sufficient counterpoints to the loneliness in developed economies. And yet we too struggle with viciously polarised politics and rampant sectarianism. Are we lonelier than we realise?
Alienation can contribute to toxic politics.
A 2018 essay by Natasha Japanwala on loneliness among Karachi’s youth explores the distinct experience of loneliness in our country. She argues that people feel lonely even though they are surrounded by family because they cannot be their authentic selves. As one of her interviewees eloquently put it, “Loneliness is a feeling like you can’t express who you are… I feel a crisis because I just can’t be myself.”
While Pakistanis interact with lots of other people, their social circle is likely to be homogenous: hailing from the same family or kinship group, socioeconomic class, ethnolinguistic background, and thus the same expectations and aspirations. This homogeneity is further enshrined within other restrictive social structures, eg patriarchal or tribal.
If one’s identity or ambitions don’t fit the mould, they are unlikely to be readily welcome elsewhere, producing feelings of detachment and loneliness. And that marginalisation could drive one to seek belonging among any group, even if it is intolerant or hateful.
While compelling, this scenario is not common enough to explain Pakistan’s social fragmentation. Hertz’s argument becomes relevant to Pakistan when she expands the definition of loneliness to include “feeling disconnected from our fellow citizens and political leaders, and detached from our work and our employer”.
For most Pakistanis, work is a compulsion, saddled with high levels of exploitation, and scarce access to labour rights. People rarely love what they do — they do what they have to in order to feed themselves and their