Hannah Arendt said the fertile ground for fascism was loneliness. A bunch of atomized people, as separate and lonely as grains of sand, turned into a sandstorm by a demagogue who gives them meaning, belonging, a purpose, all the things bourgeoise values lack. Eleanor Rigby was, in short, a closet fascist.
Today people are lonely as shit. I grew up in America (and Canada) and the main reason I left was loneliness. As a teenager I lived in my family’s basement, I had a mini-apartment down there, I could smoke weed into the air filter, I had a car, I had a job, I had everything I was supposed to have and I was sad.
I’d come back from holidays in Sri Lanka—poor but rich in family—and I still remember looking down those basement stairs. I felt so lonely I could cry. That feeling of just grey persisted for weeks, at which point it just became part of the paste of life. I felt like snow after people had driven over it for days. A bunch of snowflakes once, now just undifferentiated sludge.
I went to a therapist because I was depressed, I went to a dermatologist because my skin was literally turning white, I worked shitty jobs to make money, to buy clothes that were never cool enough, and weed that made me catatonic with fright. We’d buy obscene amounts of cheap alcohol and do any drug we could find. Thank God I left the suburbs before opiates hit. That would have fucked me up for life.
I’m not saying my experience is your experience. The popular kids certainly seemed to be doing it right. I’m just saying that it was an atmosphere of loneliness. We had to have cars to exist, we were literally atomized in capsules of steel. Nobody asked you to stay over for dinner, you had to be invited. As a teenager I was my college application, trying to get accepted into what—for rich, legacy kids—was just a right. My coming-of-age ritual was getting into college, and this was ultimately a consumer choice.
Depression, lack of meaning, loneliness, these were all ultimately consumer problems. Nobody came over with food if you were depressed, you were supposed to sort that shit out on your own time (and dime). Going anywhere required gas, getting inside required buying something, just moving and existing required money all the time. Community itself was commodified.
I contrast this to, say, India, where we just visited family. We were there for a week and I never touched money once. Every meal, every drink, every need was provided for by family. I needed some medicine for my aunt and they wouldn’t even let me pay for that.
On the way out my wife said thank you, and they just said ‘why?’ Our languages barely have words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ because they’re unnecessary. There are no transactions between individuals that requiring pleasing and thanking. This is just family. The community is life.
As a teenager I could feel that whenever I went back—even though I had wealth well beyond my cousins, and a global freedom to move that they were denied. I didn’t know what that feeling was, but I just knew that when I flew back into winter I cried.
When I hit another wave of depression at the end of college I just left. I flew to Sri Lanka, lay on my parents cement floors for a year until I felt better, went out a bit, joined a community, and 15 years later I feel fine. The country’s on fucking fire, as it regularly is, but as much as it burns, we’re somehow in it together. We’re constantly dying, but it’s worth it. We’re alive.
Today people want meaning. They need meaning. As we get atomized into consumers, contained into cars, emptying our homes, filling up shopping carts; it creates a desperate longing, a search for meaning that simply cannot be bought. Is that meaning liberal democracy, the idea that you can choose everything, any personal freedom along with any product? No. That’s even more frustrating. So many choices, so many ways to get it wrong.
Neoliberalism is the further atomization of the community into consumers, democracy into voting, just a bunch of lonely people reduced to numbers, worshiping a vacant Capitalist God, invisible hand and invisible heart. This should be fertile ground for communism, ie community ownership, but instead you get fascism saying you have have it all.
Out of the rubble of atomized consumers, out of people without families, demagogues pick out races, offering individuals a larger family, which welcomes them with open arms. And of course this family must be defended with open-carry.
Arendt talks about how people will actually make their material conditions worse for this sense of meaning. Because life is nothing without meaning, even if it kills you in the end.
And so we end up with Eleanor Rigby, watching Fox News or Hiru TV, shorn of cultural tradition and community, wearing a wig of race and nationality, anything to connect her to someone again, even if it means killing the neighbor. As the song goes,
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?
All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong? As the Bible says, “what does it profit a person to gain the world, and lose their own soul? We have lost our souls, which are connections to each other, and we got unimaginable profit in return. But the prophets weren’t wrong. People can sense this in their daily lives, that something is terribly fucked up, and demagogues—as demented as their solutions are—are at least talking about the problem.
And so while liberals and neoliberals churn out more bullshit, this is just the fertile ground for fascism. It could also be fertile ground for socialism or communism, but that fucks with Capital’s money, and must be violently resisted. So fascism is where people end up. The conventional analysis is that this comes from evil and manipulation, but Arendt is more sympathetic (and I think accurate). Fascism (or totalitarianism) comes from loneliness. People rubbing together like itchy grains of sand, eventually whipped into violent purpose and meaning, like a sandstorm.
How Totalitarianism Is A Total Nightmare (via Hannah Arendt)