How Social Isolation Kills

Sitting down to create a life plan is a time for people, especially young people, to demonstrate their hopes for the future.  For the young the possibilities seem endless so you will hear a good sprinkling of pro-basketball player, astronaut and race car driver during these conversations.  Few would identify the fate of an elderly couple and their son in the Japanese city of Saitama as desirable.  Last week, the emaciated bodies of these three people were found in their apartment.  They had died of starvation and no one had even bothered to check.  Isolated, despondent and starving may not make into the typical life plan, but it is increasingly becoming a real possibility for people in the advanced capitalist economies all over the world.

Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that the bodies of the three victims remained in the apartment one month after they had starved to death.  They were only discovered when the landlord of the apartment complex called the police and went with officers to demand payment of months overdue rent.  Newspaper reports indicate that the family was several months behind on the rent and that electric and gas service to the apartment had already been shut off.  Neighbors reported that the family had asked at least one neighbor for assistance, but was turned away and told to go to the Social Welfare office.

The fact that the landlord was the only person interested in the fate of the family is a stunning, yet increasingly familiar, example of the social isolation many people experience today.  Of course, neither the landlord nor the police were driven by humanistic impulses to check on the family, their visit was motivated purely by money.  The relationship between the family and the landlord was a market relationship – the landlord using his property ownership to extract money from the family who might otherwise face homelessness.  Nothing unusual here.  Most of us are engaged in similar relationships.

What’s new about the situation that led to these deaths by starvation is that these market relations are now often the only human relationships people participate in.  A profound sense of social isolation has been growing inside of capitalist society.  As people are forced to spend more time at work, spaces for social interaction collapse and daily life is reduced to a series of market relations arbitrated by money.  This is particularly true in Japan, where decades of economic decline have undermined social bonds of solidarity by  introducing  casual labor – jobs with no guarantee of future employment, rising homelessness and a generational dislocation that has left the elderly to fend for themselves.

About 4.6 million elderly people now live alone in Japan and the number of people dying at home has increased by 61% between 2003 and 2010, from 1,364 to 2,194, according to the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo.   Although there are a number of civil society initiatives underway to attempt to combat this growing isolation, social conventions such as prohibitions on helping neighbors and unattainable notions of the proper family structure have combined with cuts to welfare state budgets to undermine those efforts.

And socially isolated Japanese will find that they are part of a global trend launched in large part by the world’s largest capitalist economy – the United States.  Since the shift to neoliberal economics in the 1970’s, US residents have been at the cutting edge of trends of social isolation.   Evidence of the extent of this mass alienation came in a 2006 study which reported that one in four of those interviewed had no one with whom they could discuss personal troubles.  And, compared with 1985, nearly 50% more people in 2004 reported that the only person they can confide in was their spouse.  As the left-wing psychoanalyst Harriet Fraad has indicated, with the exception of self-help groups and fundamentalist churches, nearly all voluntary social groups, like bowling leagues, that might offer a sense social solidarity have disappeared.

Much like in Japan, the trends toward social isolation have been re-enforced by sharp reductions in welfare state spending in the US.  Many of these came in the mid-1990s during the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton who pledged to “end welfare as we know it.”  Welfare cuts backed up by a growth in casual labor have resulted in a massive increase in the number of hours spent at work.  More than 80% of males in the US and 60% of female workers spend more than 40 hours a week at work. Compare this with a Scandinavian country such as Norway where about 20% of males and 7% of females work more than 40 hours of week.   Voluntary social groups collapsed as more and more free time was consumed by wage work.  The result is the neoliberal dream, a society of individuals – slaves to their worksites, in terror of their bosses and unable to relate to one another after decades of social isolation.

This is the socio-economic recipe that can allow for people to starve to death inside of two of the richest societies in the history of the world.  We should use this gruesome example to evaluate two other situations.  The first comes from Greece where economic crisis is being translated into savage cuts to wages and social welfare.  If you wonder why popular movements in Greece are resisting this austerity so militantly, think of this family in Saitama starving to death alone in their apartment.  This is precisely the future that the people of Greece are resisting.  And it is how we might evaluate our own life possibilities.  Do we want to live in a society where it is possible to be so socially isolated that you can starve to death and the only person who will care is your landlord and the police?

Consider this as an extended description of why I am a democratic socialist and a prime cultural motivation for the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.  Occupy has created a social space where people can get back to relating with each other based on a common humanity and desire for an ethical society.  And socialism has always held up a mirror to capitalist society and said that there is more than enough food to feed everyone in the world, that people should have time enough to develop themselves fully and that every human life is precious, carrying with it the nearly unlimited possibilities to make our world a better place.   The next great radical movement in US history will be one with a unquenchable desire to reverse the damage done by neoliberal capitalism.  In other words to take on the necessary task of re-connecting humanity.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.