By Phoebe Love
Lost Connections is a book which, according to the subtitle, purports to uncover “the real causes of depression — and the unexpected solutions.” The author, Johann Hari, set out to write it because, after 13 years of increased doses of medication, he realized this solution wasn’t working for him, applied his investigative journalist method of inquiry to find out why, and ultimately discovered that they don’t work for the majority of patients, and that the entire premise they are based on is flawed, to put it mildly. He fought that realization tooth and nail, even beginning and finishing another book to avoid having to face what he was finding in the research for this one. I know this not from interviews to promote the book, but from the book itself, which is a first-person account of his depression and his subsequent self-education about the nature of depression, which he transmits to the reader also in story form, including data from several studies. It’s all very engaging, particularly the audiobook, read by Hari.
Part 1, “The Crack in the Old Story” is his investigation of anti-depressants, and, while it is extremely interesting, I’m going to focus here on the second and third parts of the book, which describe disconnection and reconnection, respectively, and which various disgruntled Amazon reviewers describe as “socialistic.” They’re not wrong, although what furrowed their brows made me clap like a seal, of course.
Hari’s diagnosis, after three years of investigation, is that our culture of self-interest, competition, extreme inequality, isolation, obsession with consumption and status, and lack of any power over our work and lives, etc. is the major driver of depression and anxiety in this world. So to cure that we have to change our culture. People need to care about each other and for each other (and not just their immediate families), they need to have meaningful work, hope for the future, and to not be… ground up and spat out by an uncaring machine that seeks to exploit their labor then toss them aside as waste product… kind of thing. Because that’s super depressing. The “solutions” he proposes in the “reconnection” part are more accurately examples of some ways in which some people in some places were able to heal specific forms of disconnection, and with some success.
In other words, he does not have a comprehensive plan for a complete reorientation of our world economy and government along fundamentally different values, and in this, his approach is in line with Nathan Robinson’s Socialism As A Set of Principles, from the March 2018 issue of Current Affairs.
What are these principles? Robinson says they start
“with a feeling of connectedness and compassion for other human beings. ‘We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is,’ as Kurt Vonnegut said. Many socialists begin with that feeling of “solidarity” with people whose lives are needlessly hard and painful, and a sense that we are all in this together.”
Also, “a high degree of personal autonomy and the ability to shape your own destiny.” Also democratic decision-making. He goes on to get more specific, and ends up, like Hari, listing proposals “such as the Universal Basic Income, worker cooperatives, and mandating profit-sharing,” as ideas that are simpatico with the general principle. All three of these fetch up in Lost Connections as well, and not for nothing, but the fundamental similarity is in the importance of connectedness and compassion, which, if taken seriously by the culture and put into practice, would necessarily involve enormous changes. “A socialist world would be very different from our current one.”
Another socialist book that doesn’t mention socialism is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. This book came out two years before Lost Connections and arrives at much the same conclusion. Its entry point is not depression generally, but specifically the malaise (beyond classic PTSD) of the soldier who has come home. According to Tribe, part (though certainly not all) of the difficulty in adjusting to life upon return to not-war, is the… lack of unit cohesion, the lack of a shared purpose in a tightly-knit group. Junger branches off from this observation into an anthropological investigation as to why this might be the case, drawing from his own wartime experiences as a reporter, as well as studies of groups that share this cohesion, usually — at least in the modern age — under extreme circumstances.
His first chapter is a paean to hunter-gatherer societies and their fierce egalitarianism and concern for the welfare of the tribe. These societies are the best indicator of what the first 99% of our history — our existence as a species — must have been, and their way of living together is how we evolved to survive, which means we are fairly hard-wired to thrive in cultures that feature: cooperation and connection, working together for the common good, everyone mattering, everyone contributing; from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs, you might say.
He then spends the rest of the book talking about how “modern society” (he never says “capitalist”) is diametrically opposed to these values, which is devastating to our mental health and happiness.
His main evidence for this lies in how often the things that jolt us into reverting to this way of being, namely war and other disasters and emergencies, are extremely traumatic, yet are also — while still not “worth it” — looked back upon with a kind of longing by the people who experienced them. They suspend the rules of modern (cough-capitalist-cough) society and everyone bands together to help everyone:
“Disasters … create a ‘community of sufferers’ that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat…, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that … is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.”
A survivor of the siege of Sarajevo told him, “I do miss something from the war. But I also believe that the world we are living in — and the peace we have — is very fucked up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.” This woman had, among other things, undergone extensive surgery without anesthesia, and awakened the next morning to find a corpse on top of her, and when asked if people were happier during the war, replied, “We were the happiest.” Her descriptions of the good times elsewhere in the book make that believable; I’m possibly jealous. So it’s understandable that many people who experience this, and then go back to life without it, have a hard time adjusting.
One hopes this is possible outside of wars and earthquakes and floods. It should be if we all want it, right? A particularly moving story in Lost Connections is of a low-income housing project in Germany whose inhabitants were disconnected from (and distrustful of) each other, but who eventually came together to form a tightly-knit tribe by way of an organized protest to keep rents down, and whose solidarity and mutual aid extended far beyond that original purpose. It is the very picture of socialist ideals put into practice, presented in the book as an effective anti-depressant.
I went hunting on the internet to see if anyone else was howling “Soshalizm!” so to speak, and found a few responses from this angle to Lost Connections, but none to Tribe. This I attribute to Tribe’s decision to forego any kind of suggestions for how we fix this problem, although it is unequivocal about the need. From the introduction: “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. This has to end.” But you can, apparently, identify the problem and say it all began with the advent of farming and the accumulation of private property, but if you don’t specifically propose giving people money for nothing, nobody makes the connection. Nobody but me and one other person in a twitter comment somewhere, I think.
The few official socialist responses that I could find to Lost Connections were unified in their praise of its portrayal of the problem, and in their condemnation of Hari for not explicitly advocating the Marxist solution, “probably because he doesn’t want to upset the various liberal celebrity endorsers like Elton John – and, of all people, Hillary Clinton” (Martin Swayne in Socialist Appeal).
Maybe that’s true. The Lost Connections website boasts endorsements by Glenn Greenwald and Tucker Carlson. But I’m not going to look this gift horse in the mouth, or even complain (as a New Zealand article with no byline did) that “One of the unintended outcomes of a UIB (sic) is likely to be downward pressure on wage levels, with the UIB effectively acting as a subsidy for employers.”
At least, not until we are anywhere near getting a UBI. And even then, I am confident that the experimentation approach of Socialism As A Set Of Principles will take care of this; if we institute a UBI to give people freedom from the stress of economic insecurity, and greater bargaining power with employers, and it doesn’t do that, then we will observe, analyze, and correct course, and do it with far more than the “all deliberate speed” at which our government currently moves, when it moves, because another principle, democratic decision-making, would likewise be in effect. But how do we get that? We get that by getting enough people to find it attractive enough — and then figure it out. But note which comes first. And how do we get that? We make books — or youtubes, whatever — that lots of people like, that describe our collective “dead inside” (Tribe) problem with such clarity that we all become angry that our species ever figured out farming. We need enough people to be truly appalled by what we’ve come to, and not just blame it on one political party, or the brown people, but blame it on the system that creates an ever-increasing wealth disparity, whatever you’d like to call that system. Then we can argue about the finer points, which is also fun, but if we’ve actually collected enough people to care, then I hope we’ll be arguing about them as we actually change things.
While I’m here, I’d like to plug another book that is far less popular than Tribe or Lost Connections, but published in the year between them and, I am happy to find, recently released on audiobook (five hours and eleven minutes!) and read by the author: Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics For An Age of Crisis, by George Monbiot.
This book is — unlike the other two — absolutely stuffed with concrete suggestions. Its basic theory is the same, though: Human beings are wired for empathy, far more so than other primates, and we’ve been led astray by a false ideology, which we must repudiate in favor of a “politics of belonging.” You know, sharing.