Alienation and Suicide

We usually only talk about issues when the effect the wealthy. The suicidies of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdian this week has opened discussion of suicide in America. But while when it happens to the rich we take note, its a deeper and more nefarious force among the vast majority of Americans.

Indeed, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released an alarming study that showed suicide rates in the United States are growing at alarming rates across the country. The study states that nearly 45,000 people ended their lives in 2016. What is more frightening about this is that the number of suicides is double the rate of homicides. Think about that for a second. More people in the richest and “most advanced” country in the world killed themselves than those who killed others people two years ago. Again shockingly, suicide is now the 10th-leading cause of death. Nowhere does the alarm bell ring louder than for young people. For those ages 15 to 34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death. Apparently the second most significant threat to young Americans is living in present-day capitalist America.

When one understandably gets shocked by these figures, they want to know why and what to do about it. You’ll hear all manner of explanations, but the one you’ll hear most is the rising of already unprecedented rates of mental illness across the board. However, as the CDC study shows, more than half of all people who committed suicide in a majority of states had or showed no symptoms of a mental health condition when they ended their lives. This alone casts doubt on mental illness alone as a major cause. At the same time, another undeniable factor in this alarming amount of self-harm are firearms. The vast majority of those ending their lives used a gun, and the ubiquitousness of firearms, though not the proximate cause, is not doubt a major explanatory factor.

So if it isn’t firearms alone, or mental illness alone, it is something more than just those two things – it’s alienation and hopelessness. Capitalist crises always cause deaths. Either by suicide, or war, or political violence, recessions are not just part of the “business cycle,” they are killers. Our total inability to understand and deal with this undeniable issue is the underlying problem the fuels these astounding numbers. The 2008 crisis has never really ended, but instead transformed into a prolonged period of economic anxiety and frustration exacerbated by the politics of austerity. Unlike the response to the worst crisis of capitalism in the 20th century – the Great Depression – where political pressure on the leadership forced the enactment of the New Deal, the Great Recession of 2008 was responded to by giving the too-big-to-fail banks and institutions even more capital, on the tax payers dime. Rather than give the wealth created by workers back to them in the form of what we now called “entitlements”, future wealth was handed to, and squandered, by the financial industry writ large.

But the recession came on the heels of a thirty year assault on working people generally. Wages have stagnated while CEO compensation and wealth transfers to the top 1% have risen exponentially and the stock market has never been higher, but that money is not trickling down to the people. So while the prices of commodities rise, the ability to pay for them shrinks – and the “solution” is credit. That solution was paper thin, and the ever increasing profitability of debt manipulation fueled the crisis of 2008 by the financial industry’s complex securitization of mortgages. While economic indicators make it appear that the crisis is behind us, the real crisis – the crisis of alienation – continues unabated. And it is killing us.

Marx, inspired by Hegel, had a complex philosophical notion about what alienation was and where it comes from. He describes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.

This is, in the flowery and sometimes difficult language of the 19th century, exactly what is happening today everywhere one looks. All over this country workers see more and more work, for less and less pay. They see the extremely wealthy, the rock stars, the athletes, the movie stars all showcasing the amazing things that wealth provides, and see themselves forever unable to achieve it. For decades now the phrase “the America Dream is dead” has become a trope. It is a trope because it is true. Social mobility is essentially a myth, the social safety net – porous as it is – is further unraveling. This thrusts so many into the precariat (Uber drivers and temporary workers who have no stable or predictable employment) or into the lumpen-proletariat (those who cannot find stable work and resort to illicit activity or criminal acts). At the same time, the gap between the haves and have-nots grows so while the majority of us sink deeper into economic despair, those with economic privilege move outside of the circles of the regular working class and look down on them from the ivory towers of Wall Street and the Halls of Congress, The Supreme Court, and the White House.

Given this rather obvious fact, not to mention the specific struggle of young people (no opportunities, high costs of schooling and the resulting debt, inability to have families, purchase homes, and gain stable and useful employment, and really live without the threat of poverty all the time) it is no surprise that so many see no way out and decide to end it all. Indeed, even those who may be suffering from mental illness, no doubt will find the economic aspect of our combined struggle an important, if not explanatory, aspect of their mental breakdown. So too is this the case with the rising opioid epidemic.

What all this shows is that people of all ages, but particularly young people – those seen as the future of the world – see no future for themselves. In a society so fraught with alienation and despair, where one can find a gun, or a needle, or a pill with relative ease, is it any surprise really that we see so many of our fellow humans decide that death is preferable to life in late-stage-monopoly-finance-state-capitalism? I don’t think so.

While individuals no doubt pull the trigger, our society – our politics and economics – puts the gun in their hands and gives them the encouragement to go through with it. And more people put a gun to their own head than do to the head of others. One can make all manner of complex economic critiques of capitalist society, but really, it is clear to anyone without their head in the sand, or poised high in the ivory tower, to see the basic truth – capitalism is murdering us.

There is only one solution to this societal murderer – to sentence it to death.

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