Over 400 protesters gathered outside of the Grand Yesha Ballroom in South Philadelphia. The crowd jostled for position and demanded to be let into a planned community meeting. Police stood nearby monitoring. Pushing and shoving broke out, parents of young kids backed away. The event, which wasn’t supposed to go like this, promised childcare and food for those attending.
The protestors chanted “Save the Meadows!” and heckled security. One yelled out, “He makes $11 an hour,” referring to the guard at the door. “He can’t stop us from going in!”
The fervor suggested a righteous cause. Yet the crowd was not there to protest police brutality, a mass shooting, school funding cuts, water rate hikes or some other such social insult.
They roared against the building of a dozen soccer and baseball fields in a local park.
During the pandemic the parks department reopened a long neglected golf course at FDR Park for people to enjoy as a respite from pandemic lockdowns. The overgrown fairway was affectionately dubbed “The Meadows” by the (mostly) work-from-home professionals who regularly walked their dogs, had picnics, and hiked the space.
As pandemic restrictions were lifted the city was proud to finally resume long awaited redevelopment plans. The park plan promised high quality playing fields in a neighborhood where thousands of amateur athletes crowd onto dusty, grassless, and rocky turfs to play their weekly games. Youth sports clubs are often forced to shuttle their players forty-five minutes away to find suitable fields. The new athletic complex would be an answer to their prayers. But the new fields would have to be built on part of The Meadows.
A self-consciously progressive movement sprang up demanding to save the neglected course from the new fields. All sorts of rumors were spread about the project (at one point FIFA was said to be paying the city to pave over the space for the 2026 World Cup). For months progressives groups, including the local DSA chapter, a leftwing state senator, and a progressive state house representative, spoke out about the grave danger the new fields posed to the environment, public health, and even physical safety.
Confusing their preference for hiking and desire for solitude with some kind of social commitment, defenders of The Meadows mounted a full-scale campaign. Cardboard pickets demanded: “Hands off FDR Park!”, evoking the image of bulldozers paving over a rainforest.
The spectacle was confounding. The actual plan doesn’t involve razing the park. In addition to the new athletic fields, the planners intend to restore over thirty acres of wetlands, add dozens of new nature trails, and ensure the park’s ecosystem is maintained for the next generation. There will be plenty of space for athletes and nature-lovers alike in the redeveloped park.
The opponents of the plan don’t care. Their problem is deeper, visceral, and even metaphysical. As one sympathetic local commenter lamented, the attraction to The Meadows is precisely that it is unkempt and not planned for human enjoyment nor engineered for social use: “It is land engaged in self-directed creation […] the land is not an object, but a subject, not an it, but a thou.”
This is a surprisingly antisocial position for many progressives, even self-proclaimed socialists, to hold. After all, public parks are meant to be enjoyed by people. And there are few more socially constructive activities than amateur sport.
As incompatible as their attitude may be with the spirit of public sociability, the protestors’ opposition to the park’s redevelopment—and their preference for pastoral reclusivity—is no fluke. Nor is it an attitude confined to a few ballpark hating cranks. An antisocial mood has swept across the country, and is especially evident on the political Left.
This prevailing antisocial attitude is dangerous. It risks reproducing, or even accelerating, all sorts of social dysfunction. From loneliness to sexlessness, from drug abuse to murder, many on the Left find themselves excusing or ignoring the steady rise of collective antisocial behavior. Some progressives have unwittingly advocated the institutionalization of loneliness through the extreme extension of pandemic policies, and others increasingly view antisocial behavior in public life as in some way virtuous. Still more choose to ignore the worst effects of social alienation—mass drug abuse and murder. This kind of abandonment of the Social Question will only help to harden public demoralization, making the prospects for political renewal especially dim.
Lockdown, Liberalism, and Loneliness
The roots of the antisocial attitude run deep. They find their origin in all the structural features of our society that are ambivalent or antagonistic toward our greater social impulses: the creep of market logic into even the most private parts of our lives, the drive to privatize everything that was once public, and, of course, the tendency for work-life to devour the rest of life. Since at least the middle of the last century we’ve witnessed the decline of participation in team sports, voluntary associations, labor unions, social clubs, political organizations, and charitable causes. The march toward social isolation has been a long one.
Yet with the pandemic, the implosion of social life has become particularly acute. Today, Americans are more alone, and more lonely, than ever before. According to one recent study, one in five American men report not having any close friends. Half of the country said they lost touch with friends through the pandemic. And up to one third report regular loneliness. The social landscape is seemingly bleaker now than ever.
Of course, there was a logic to social distancing, school closures, and work-from-home orders: if we could slow the spread of the disease, medical science could provide a cure before too much damage was done. With the benefit of hindsight, however, there’s now plenty of evidence to show that isolationism as a first response was neither the only nor the best way to “flatten the curve.” Worse, adopting a one-size-fits all lockdown policy came with massive social costs: the sharp increase in murder, drug abuse, and depression, the equal and opposite decrease in literacy among students, friendships, and sex.
Another path was available to us, like that taken by some of the social democratic governments abroad. Sweden, whose total excess death rate was among the lowest in Europe, avoided stay-at-home orders and permanent masking. Health experts there (with the benefit of nearly a century of social democratic insight) recognized that the battle against the pandemic would be a marathon not a sprint. They sought solutions to accommodate social life instead of interrupting it. Schools remained open, and Swedish children were among the few to survive the pandemic with no significant learning loss.
Anglophone policymakers can be forgiven for their initial response, but what are we to make of those who wish to continue with social isolation today? In the United States calls to get back to normal maskless life were seldom from the Left. Last year, despite the fact that 79% of all parents of schoolchildren preferred in-person schooling, many American progressives aggressively resisted reopening schools long after the rest of the developed world. Here the antisocial attitude prevailed, and the results were disastrous. Prolonged school closures only compounded students’ learning regressions: not only did kids need to catch up on their academics, but they now have to relearn basic social skills.
As vaccination rates soared and case counts dwindled, there was a palpable progressive hesitancy to re-open society. In fact, the notion that white-collar workers can and should work-from-home forever was embraced. Before the pandemic around 5% of office work was conducted from home; today around 30% is homebound, and in Manhattan fully half of office workers forgo the office. The remote work revolution represents something like a permanent form of professional-class lockdown. For these workers the precious few social aspects of office life have been effectively abolished. Some adults will surely regress socially in ways similar to school children. Corporations that embraced the shift have functionally offloaded overhead costs onto their workforce, who maintain their home offices at their own expense. Meanwhile, as a result, city centers have struggled to rebuild their pre-pandemic vibrancy.
If the cubicle was a social nightmare for the office, the Zoom World Order is a social disaster.
As restaurants and bars slowly reopened after their pandemic hiatus, a curious feature became apparent: solo dining had increased, and social drinking had receded. Solo diners now represent the largest share of US restaurant goers. Dining alone was once lamented as a uniquely dystopian feature of the American rat race. “Sadder than destitution, sadder than a beggar is the man who eats alone in public” bemoaned Jean Baudrillard in 1986. Today, taking yourself out to eat is en vogue. The New York Times advises its readers on “How to Eat Alone (And Like It)”, while the even more liberal Guardian extols “the joy of eating alone.” The demand for solo dining is now great enough that restaurants have begun reorganizing their traditional seating arrangements to accommodate more tables for one.
Taken together, a large chunk—by some estimates up to a third—of our urban population now works from home and dines alone on a regular basis. And these soloists are not part of some ascetic movement—that would imply a commitment to contemplative solitude. Though they are always by themselves, they are almost never alone. Always scrolling, clicking, tweeting, emailing, texting, TikToking, etc. Even the possibility of self-reflection—the one socially virtuous aspect of lonesomeness—has been foreclosed by the permanent presence of social media.
As the nuance of interpersonal interaction is replaced by the flat viciousness of social media, people lose their sense of social decorum and even their sense of self. Consider the difference between making an off-color joke at the bar, or on a date, and then doing the same on Twitter. Those who report chronic social media use are not only more lonely, they are also more aggressive, more hateful, and ruder—in other words they lack all the characteristics needed to cure loneliness.
This lonely and rude crowd is also a politically progressive rabble: on every social media platform (except Pinterest), progressives greatly outnumber conservatives. And they are also less likely to see social media as a net negative for society: 83% see social media as a positive tool for social movements. Few seem to register the danger that social media has wrought on their social lives.
All that time spent alone, and online, has made us less trustful of others, dismissive, and pessimistic. Opinion surveys show that Americans now have less optimism about their future generation’s prospects than we did in the shadow of the Great Recession. Worse, young people are also much more suspicious of others—some 60% of people aged 18-29 think “most people can’t be trusted”; 71% of this same group thinks “most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance.” The institutionalization of loneliness and the calcification of a public pessimism can only succeed in further social demoralization and the continued erosion of even the most elemental social bonds.
The Abolition of the Family and the Sexual Awokening
By any measure, the family as a social institution, is in trouble. Once considered the atomic level of society, families are approaching a nuclear fission moment.
Stagnant wages, insecurity in the job market, rising housing costs, and other structural factors have combined to cripple family life in advanced (and not-so-advanced) economies. Parents are having fewer kids, households are shrinking, marriages are less likely to survive, and childcare is increasingly out of reach for those struggling to keep things together. Family life, formerly a taken-for-granted social fact, is increasingly becoming a luxury.
In 1970 the marriage rate in the United States was 85.9%, but by 2019 that rate has cratered to an all time low of 33.2%. And where before the class divide in marriage was small, today it is large and growing: among the lowest quintile of income, only 38% of adults are currently married, compared to 80% of those in the highest quintile. The Haves are enjoying long stable marriages, while the Have-nots have no such luck. And “assortative mating”, the tendency to marry a partner with similar educational credentials, helps ensure that this will remain the case. The divorce gap is no less class determined. The United States is now the world leader in single parent households at 23%—more than three times the rate of the rest of the world.
All of this should be cause for concern. And most of it could be remedied by massive public investments in social infrastructure that ease the burdens of childrearing, combined with an economic program that resolves the financial instability that is so often the catalyst for separation among working-class couples. After all, it is clear that society-wide economic inequality is one cause for our familial woes.
Many on the Left, however, do not see the crisis of family life as a social problem at all. Instead, the collapse of families is rendered as a solution. As marriages crumble, children disappear, and the elderly are shuffled away into holding-pens, we are enjoined to “abolish the family.”
Karl Marx once lamented the “practical absence of family among proletarians”, and Karl Kautsky was at pains to disabuse people of the notion that Social Democrats were opposed to family life. “No socialist has the remotest idea of abolishing the family,” he wrote. Yet, today, they do. Sophie Lewis’s 2022 “manifesto for care and liberation” argues that a decrease in family life, represents an increase in social freedom. A recent Dissent article alludes to family life as “irrevocably impoverished.” Dismissals of the family as an institution are commonplace in some progressive circles. Here again the antisocial attitude, working hand in glove with existing market trends, will only serve to make matters worse.
Consider that a distinctly “progressive” pessimism is helping to accelerate the family crisis. According to Morgan Stanley: “[The] movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.” That’s striking, but so-called “anti-natalists” see the collapse of birth rates as a welcome advance. Given the carbon footprint of every new kid, some say it would be better if we all took a break—and others even argue that we should just go extinct. Even the Left’s favorite congressperson mused about whether it was “okay” to have children. On the internet it is not uncommon to read sneering contempt for “breeders” who burden the world with their “crotch-spawn.”
The collapse of families represents a genuine social crisis—with the potential to result in global economic catastrophe. Yet, instead of confronting that crisis, many on the Left shrink from the problem. They accommodate themselves to the collapse of the family by recasting the trend toward familial dissolution as both a voluntary choice and a moral virtue. They, perhaps unwittingly, find themselves cheering for a lonelier, more alienated planet.
The increasing difficulties faced by families cannot be scolded away. We will not solve the long-term crisis of rapidly aging populations without a policy that makes having children less economically burdensome on parents. Nor is it conceivable that the family as the primary social unit for raising children will be surpassed by some higher form of collective care. Families, as they currently exist, are suffering. Their survival requires policies designed to support their growth and stability.
As family life dissolves so too does its antecedent ingredient: sex.
Young people are reporting fewer sexual encounters and much greater sexual anxiety. “Asexuality” is curiously celebrated as a new frontier of sexual (?) identification. The paper of record is begging Americans to “Have More Sex, Please!”, 26% of whom haven’t in the past 12 months—the highest percentage in 30 years. Around the world, similar reports abound.
All this despite, or probably because of, the fact that the official cultural mood is more libertine (and libertarian) than ever before. OnlyFans influencers are millionaire public figures. Sex workers are running for Congress. An endless scroll of pornography is virtually free on demand, available on the same device used to send emails. The sale of sex to more niche markets has become naturalized and ubiquitous.
Most of these developments are treated with bland ambivalence or admired as cultural progress, even as real sex between voluntary romantic partners has decreased. At exactly the time when it has become impolite to criticize even the most bizarre sexual fetishes in public—no kinkshaming!—we find that people have become Victorian prudes in private.
You could forgive perennial political campaigner and former sex-worker congressional candidate, Alexandra Hunt, for being confused by the paradox.
In 2022 she was praised for her calls to destigmatize sex work. She spoke about sex workers in heroic terms. Her candidacy was seen as a testament to how tolerant young people had become toward questions of sexual enterprise. She sold campaign sweatshirts that said “Elect Hoes.” They sold out instantly.
Later that same year, she lamented the fact that so many people stopped having sex and clumsily tried to call attention to the problem. For that, she was roundly criticized, condemned, and mocked.
Hunt wasn’t wrong to notice the problem. Society’s apparent sexual atrophy demonstrates yet more social dysfunction. It’s a phenomenon that should be taken seriously, but Hunt’s solutions don’t instill much confidence.
For Hunt a “right to sex” implies the right to buy sex. Yet the extreme commodification and digitization of sex seems to be what got us here in the first place. The deluge of sexual marketing has made us recoil from the act itself. The ubiquity of pornography and sex for sale has not resulted in a social reverence for sex but its opposite. The market has cheapened sex. It has deflated its value. And it has decoupled sex from social life almost entirely.
To find a sexual partner today, young people sign up for a service where they judge potential mates on a spectrum of superficial criteria, organized by an algorithm, and decided by the swipe of a finger. Given the gender imbalances of these services (only 23% of Tinder users are women), heterosexual men are often left without a match. Upon failing (a mathematical certainty for most), these men simply turn to OnlyFans and pay for what they couldn’t secure on voluntary terms. It’s hard to imagine a more anti-romantic system. And no one seems particularly happy with it. 56% of Americans have a negative attitude toward dating apps. And among women—the winners in the so-called “sexual marketplace” (how romantic!)—59% express disapproval.
The digital world increasingly looks like a Pasolini film about postwar Italy: where scores of jobless men roam a crumbling urban landscape searching for a wife and family, finding only desperation, isolation, and sex for sale. No wonder so many Italians were attracted to a Communist Party that promised jobs, vocation, and, not coincidentally, the end of prostitution.
Drugs, Deaths, and Defunding the Poor
We Americans have no credible mass party promising to deliver us from our social misery. Though we do have the individual respite of drugs.
Overdoses have reached record heights and the rise of drug abuse has been sharp. In the year 2000 about 17,000 Americans died of overdoses related to illegal drugs. In the 20 years since, we’ve seen a 500% increase in drug overdoses, and the increase has been especially steep in the years since the pandemic. The United States witnessed a 51% increase in overdose deaths between 2019 and 2021. In 2022, over a 100,000 people died from drug overdoses. To put that in perspective, it would be as if the entire city of South Bend, Indiana vanished in one year.
The turn toward drugs is evidence enough of a strong collective antisocial impulse but aiding in that turn has been the so-called progressive attitude toward drug liberalization. Drug use, as one “responsible” heroin-using professor advises us, is “liberating.” Writing in the New York Times, Dr. Carl Hart claims that Americans have been guilty of “overstating the harmful effects of drugs.” That might come as a shock to anyone who has walked around the Kensington section of Philadelphia. There, thousands of debilitated addicts live in squalor and stupor. Ambivalence toward their plight exemplifies the antisocial attitude: in the name of personal freedom we must tolerate, even celebrate, social suicide.
Hart’s views are extreme, but many on the Left now believe drug legalization and de-stigmatization are optimal policies. By this notion we should strive to reduce the negative attitudes about drugs but leave the addict to make her own decisions. And so, in New York City, ads for safe-injection sites stress that users be “empowered”—as if the problem with addiction is that society isn’t accepting enough of this alternative lifestyle.
Addiction was once believed to be a social disease, like illiteracy or bigotry. Socialists, and all forward thinking forces, saw it as their duty to stamp out the virus. No less an authority than Lenin decried the abuse of drugs and alcohol in his time, and Viennese social democrats made it a policy to rid their republic of chronic intoxication. Today’s antisocial socialists, by contrast, seek a policy which accommodates addiction, instead of attempting to destroy it.
Addiction treatment is expensive, costing upwards of $27,000 per addict per year for in-patient services. By comparison, supervised safe injection sites, which take no position on addiction treatment, are relatively cheap. But a social policy that prioritizes an ambivalence toward addiction is not a social policy at all. It gives priority to the personal choices of the addict, above the needs of their children, partners, parents, and the broader social world. Such a policy can only succeed in reproducing a grotesque individualism where unfettered consumer liberty includes the right to social and even physical death.
The drug crisis will be an expensive problem to solve. But solving it first requires a commitment to eliminating addiction and recognizing drug abuse as a social failure. Short of such a commitment, efforts at reform will fall short.
Perhaps nowhere has the Left failed more spectacularly in its duty to advance a progressive social program than in its response to the shocking increases in violent crime. We have ignored all rational responses to what is among the most antisocial behavior any society must endure: murder on an industrial scale.
Over the past three years we’ve seen a tsunami of gun violence. From 2019 to 2020 homicides rose by 30%—the single largest increase on record. In 2020 alone more people were murdered in the United States than American service members were wounded in the twenty years of the War in Afghanistan. Baltimore and St. Louis boasted murder rates that rivaled favelas in Brazil and cartel war zones in Mexico.
For bigots the violence in the slums is easily explained: “those people” are animals. But animals don’t know poverty. Dolphins do not have ghettos. It is the fact of humanity in inhuman conditions that produces murderers.
For some on the Left, however, there was no need to address the violence crisis at all. The crime wave was simply denied. In 2021 Larry Krasner, the progressive District Attorney for Philadelphia, stated flatly: “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence.” The sharp rise of murder was not seen as a cry for help from a population devastated by deindustrialization; a population trapped with no future. Instead, the social tourists of the progressive Left—a mostly middle-class set living adjacent to monstrous poverty—denied the crime wave knocking on their door, and instead, they demanded the most un-middle-class thing they could think of: “defund the police.”
This is no solution. In fact, lack of police funding is a major factor in the wave of violence—both among civilians and between the police and those they patrol. Police departments all over the country are suffering a labor shortage despite their workloads increasing. In Philadelphia, a city that has witnessed a dramatic increase in murder—around a 60% surge since 2019—the department is operating with some 1,200 fewer officers than needed. This labor shortage is made all the more acute when you realize that American police departments are already too small relative to the level of violent crime in the country: according to Adaner Usmani and Christopher Lewis, the United States has “one-ninth the number of police officers, per homicide, than does the median developed country.”
Lack of funding has also forced departments to drop policing standards in order to expand recruitment. Under the guise of “cutting red tape,” departments around the country have lowered the bar for admittance and, not surprisingly, attracted recruits that lack experience and training. All five of the Memphis officers who brutally beat Tyre Nichols to death were just such recruits.
In other words, Defunders have reimagined the present outcome of a crisis as a future solution to that crisis. The police state they imagine they are fighting is a mirage—in reality policing, alongside every other public good, is underdeveloped and underfunded.
Police brutality is outrageous, but no policeman’s baton could brutalize nearly as many as poverty itself. There is no regime in history that has so consistently remade human behavior in its own mold than the authoritarianism of want. It is among the most brutal and violent injustices. And those who suffer it often become as brutal and violent as the condition itself. To make light of violent crime, to downplay its severity, to insist upon its triviality, is to deny the problem of poverty and the depth of social decay in our society.
To say to the poor who live in fear, amid the daily rising death toll of friends and family, that the bare minimum of protection afforded to them by the publicly funded police should be defunded, just like their schools and hospitals were, is perverse. Real solutions will be much harder to come by—outside the cities restricting gun sales is no easy political sell, and urban Americans are perhaps equally suspicious of appeals to fully-fund and reform policing. These policies in tandem could go a long way to saving lives. Still, the only way to really fix the social unraveling in our cities is through the pursuit of the abolition of poverty—not the police.
The Asocial Question
I’ve covered a wide range of issues, some of which might seem hardly related. Yet each of the problems I’ve tried to cover—from loneliness, to the collapse of families and sex; from the drug epidemic to the homicide wave—stem from the contemporary crisis of sociality: a fundamentally antisocial arrangement arrayed in America’s starkly unequal cities that prizes privatism and pessimism, and discourages social solidarity. Political appeals forged in this environment seem hardly capable of meeting the challenge, and in some cases, would make the situation worse. In fact, many of the demands and much of the advocacy newly greeted as “progressive” falls in accord with existing social and market trends: atomization, isolation, the advancement of consumer choice over collective norms, and of course continued, punishing austerity. In other words, much of what is greeted as liberatory today may actually be a fetter on social progress.
Instead of confronting the crisis of loneliness, we reach for the cheap escape of digital dependence, and the result is more lonesomeness. Instead of confronting the collapse of families and sex, we reach for extreme libertinism and expanded consumer choice on the “sexual marketplace”, and the result is more isolation. Instead of confronting the deep social causes of drug abuse, and what makes so many people so quick to kill others and themselves, we reach for liberalization of drug laws, the lax enforcement of other laws, and we pound on the police as a scapegoat—in much the same way conservatives once pounded on public school teachers.
When giving this essay as a talk, I was asked whether the concerns I raise here effectively amounted to a conservative critique. It might seem like a fair question. But if I were to tell a room full of Republicans that we need massive public investments in America’s urban core—billions for drug rehabilitation, billions more for public works; that we need to confront and limit the power and reach of social media; that we need to offer all families free universal child care; that we need to expand the public sector, reindustrialize the rust-belt, and rebuild our social infrastructure—they would laugh me out of the room. Conservatives cannot fathom attacking the immense wealth of the very rich in order to set society on the right track. They shrink from the State, fearing overreach, but they are never concerned about the overreach of the market. They are terrified that any attack on the privilege of the elite will inevitably result in the further revolutionizing of cultural relations, yet seem unconcerned that without a full-throated attack on poverty and inequality social relations will continue to unravel. They denounce all new cultural fads but recoil from a thoroughgoing attack on the social system that necessitates cultural faddism. Conservatives have doused our social bonds with the solvent of market fundamentalism, and now they stand shocked to learn that those bonds have dissolved. It seems to me that the conservatives and the antisocial socialists find themselves on opposite sides of the culture war, but ultimately allied in their commitment to constantly revolutionizing all “fixed fast frozen relations.”
Our task is not a conservative one. But in order for reform to succeed, reformers must have a steadfast allegiance to social solidarity. We should be partisans of sociability, ever striving to make the world a more socially conducive place.
We live in a time of immense inequality and mass poverty. Political instability and permanent economic insecurity. An ever-shrinking public sphere and an ever-weakening democracy. Ours is a time of social misery. Confronting the profound social alienation that has set in as a result, at all levels of society, will require an equally profound level of investment on the part of the federal government. Wringing that investment out of a stubborn and stupid Congress will require a political vision capable of restoring our collective faith in The Commons and in each other.
Ultimately, it requires resurrecting the Social Question: if our society is good enough to make so many fabulously rich, then shouldn’t it be rich enough to facilitate social life?
Dustin “Dino” Guastella is Director of Operations for Teamsters Local 623, and a research associate for the Center for Working Class Politics.