How to get out of the Lonely Economy


This week, while reporting on Connie Moreland’s Facebook group, “Free To Good Home,” I was struck by her personal motto.

“Everything we need, we already have it,” she said.

The Facebook group allows members to give and take things (clothes, furniture, toys, trinkets, etc.) at no cost.

The ground rules of the group are radically simple: be kind and courteous, no bullying or hate speech, and no buying and selling. The rules include an ethic that is absolutely necessary in our current consumer society.

“The world is too much with us,” wrote the romantic poet William Wordsworth in the early 1800s, as the industrial revolution intensified in Europe. “By obtaining and spending, we waste our powers; – We don’t see much in nature that is ours.

If this observation was acute then, it goes beyond the clichés in our present day of Apple, Google, Netflix, Amazon and Facebook.

A few hundred years after the start of the industrial revolution, we are now experiencing a digital revolution powered by data. We have not overcome our dependence on fossil fuels, we have just discovered a new non-renewable resource to exploit for profit: ourselves.

Philosopher Shoshana Zuboff describes our current moment of surveillance capitalism, which “claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.

“While some of this data is applied to improving production or service, the rest is reported as proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’ and turned into prediction products that anticipate what you’ll do now, soon, and later, ”writes Zuboff.

It translates into that Nike running shoe ad mysteriously following you around the web. Thinking of traveling? Where? Google already knows this and is more than happy to provide you with the answer its algorithm has already predicted you will come across.

As you travel, you may notice aspects of what New York Times reporter Nelson D. Schwartz calls the economy of the velvet rope. First class flights. Luxury vehicles. Separate VIP sections on the cruise ship.

This is not the “conspicuous consumption” of your great-grandparents, writes Schwartz. What’s new is “how the manipulation of envy and status is used to sell services, a much larger market that includes everything from air travel and cruises to financial advice and entertainment.”

And sometimes it’s not the service being sold that gets the envy – it’s the way those services are delivered, whether it’s a faster check-in queue side-by-side with the slow lane from the airport or to be called by name to board before everyone else. “

Feeling lonely? There is an application for that.

“It’s a sign of our times that today I can order company as easily as a cheeseburger with a few clicks on my phone, which what I call a loneliness economy has emerged to support – and in some cases exploit – those who feel lonely, ”writes economist Noreena Hertz.

“Even before the coronavirus triggered a ‘social recession’ with its toxification of face-to-face contact, three in five American adults saw themselves as lonely,” she writes. “All over the world, people feel lonely, disconnected and alienated. We are in the midst of a global crisis of loneliness. None of us, anywhere, is safe.

Additionally, the key elements of the cord-rope economy that Schwartz describes and the loneliness economy Hertz talks about are mutually reinforcing.

As the world becomes more and more unequal, the lived social infrastructure becomes even more cruel and closed to the poor, pushing us further away and exacerbating our collective loneliness.

For example, Hertz observes elements of “hostile architecture” in cities around the world – from separate entrances in apartment buildings for VIP residents to “metal gates on the sidewalk in front of stores from which spikes emerge. night ”(the latter is supposed to be a deterrent against the homeless, as if human beings without means are akin to pesky bedbugs).

This hostile infrastructure, writes Hertz, “has its roots in the ‘broken windows’ of the 1980s police force, when daily activities such as standing, waiting, sleeping (especially when they are ‘committed’ by people). of color) began to be criminalized as “disorderly”. ‘and’ antisocial ‘.

It should be noted that the 1980s were when the wealth and income divide we live with today took its greatest flight. Right now the wind is behind the rich.

“If our company had $ 2 to share between the richest 0.1% and the poorest 90%, that would give the guy in the private jet $ 1 and the other 900 the other $ 1, or roughly. enough to fill 20 city buses, ”writes historian Matthew Stewart. “In the 1960s, on the other hand, people on buses split $ 4 for every $ 1 among people in heaven.

“Between 0.1% and 90%, there is a set of percentiles that have retained their share of the growing economy,” says Stewart. “It has moved away from the 90 percent, although it is far behind the 0.1 percent. Overall, the 9.9% is the richest segment of the distribution and controls more than half of the country’s personal wealth.

In other words, over time this country has cannibalized its citizens and cannibalization is accelerating every year, more and more people coming out of the middle class as more and more billions come back to less and more. fewer people at the top. And with the increasing layering comes even more brutality which becomes more and more difficult to conceal behind elegant facades.

The irony is that this country and many parts of the world have never been so wealthy. The late philosopher Ivan Illich described this paradox in the 1970s with the term modernized poverty, which “arises when the intensity of market dependence reaches a certain threshold.

“Subjectively, it is the experience of frustrating wealth that occurs in people crippled by their overwhelming dependence on the wealth of industrial productivity,” Illich wrote. “Simply, it deprives those who are affected by it of their freedom and their power to act independently, to live creatively; this confines them to survival by being plugged into market relations.

I believe more and more people are starting to feel what Illich articulated decades ago. This impulse to “check out” our impoverishing reliance on market relationships is what drives Facebook groups like Moreland’s “Free To Good Home”.

And there are other stand-alone community development projects and initiatives that have spilled over into Oak Park and surrounding suburbs – from the Community Refrigerator of Anthony Clark and the Suburban Unity Alliance to the Little Free Library facilities in Oak Park Mutual Aid. .

These projects are radically simple and they are based on meeting people’s physical, social, and emotional needs, rather than their wants or urge to manufacture.

For the most part, they are not means tested. They don’t require anyone to prove their worth as a condition of meeting a basic need (i.e. you don’t have to complete an eligibility application to access the community refrigerator and obtain food. ). This kind of means test only fuels the social stratification that separates us from each other.

Critically, they also occur in the physical world, not exclusively online. As Moreland told me, she has a vision of seeing her group grow beyond Facebook (where it is subject to the platform’s oversight). That’s why she hosted a free flea market in Rehm Park last month. She understands the importance of the old-fashioned face-to-face connection.

These projects are among the most powerful antidotes to the cruelty and brutality that rampant inequality only exacerbates. They breed empathy, fairness, kindness and joy. They are, in Illich’s words, user-friendly.

The next step is to transform this localized friendly energy into something larger, systematic, and sustained. As Illich writes:

“A new user-friendly policy is based on the idea that in a modern society wealth and jobs can only be shared fairly and freely enjoyed when both are constrained by a political process. “

Friendly policy. I like it. Let’s make the practice viral.

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