Tom Denning writes on the social meaning of suicide
Some years ago when the streets were filled with red flags, I saw two comrades die at home clutching a common gas tube. Few of us cried then, and each of us knew that they were crying for themselves, for the irreducible substance of our imaginary fears, for all the questions the political struggle left unresolved . . . Nobody thinks of waving red flags round these silent deaths. Why? Because we can’t attribute any ideal meaning to them? Because we can’t abstract from the complex and confused personal reasons which caused these deaths? 
– Lea Melandri, 1977
Can we not? After all, as Erwin Stengel put it,
Suicide appears to be the most personal action an individual can take, yet social relationships play an important part in its causation and it has a profound social impact. While it seems to aim solely at destroying the self, it is also an act of aggression against others. The study of suicide illustrates that human action, however personal, is also interaction with other people, and that the individual cannot be understood in isolation from his social matrix.
So can we say that suicide under capitalism cannot be understood in isolation from capitalism itself? Do its particular forms of appearance tell us something about the system as a whole? What features of capitalism are productive of suicide? How do capitalists themselves explain the suicides in their factories, barracks, and bedrooms?
First, some recent examples of capitalist suicide.
Suicide in May 2011
9th May. Monica Jervis speaks at a rally outside the Euston offices of ATOS Origin, a company hired by the UK government to reassess claimants of incapacity benefit. “I’m here because by brother is dead. He may have looked like a healthy 36 year old boy. But he wasn’t. He had severe depression. They said he had to go back to work. And he hanged himself. That’s why I’m here.” The purpose of the mass reassessment is to pitch thousands back into work, or on to cheaper benefits, and the means are crude: often little more than a cursory twenty minute interview, and a number of those threatened with the loss of the little security they have, taken their life. On 31st May, a number of mental-health experts signed an open letter, stating that “IB reassessment is causing huge amounts of distress, and tragically there have already been cases where people have taken their own life following problems with changes to their benefits.” This echoes the experience of East London GP Jonathon Tomlinson, writing in the last issue of The Commune. The previous month, a new policy for dealing with suicide threats had been circulated to job centre staff.
26th May. It is reported that “more US soldiers and veterans have died from suicide than from combat wounds over the past two years”. Senator Patty Murray, who is leading an investigation into the trend, described it as “incomprehensible”.
28th May. Workers at a Foxconn factory erect nets beneath high windows: the latest in a series of suicide prevention measures, which have also included compulsory “no suicide” pledges, and a 20 per cent pay rise. So far this year, at least ten workers have killed themselves, and twice that number have attempted to do so unsuccessfully. Last year, there were at least ten suicides and two attempts across the whole year: it looks as though the frequency is increasing. Just over a month earlier, an employee of France Telecom set himself alight in the car park outside the company’s Bordeaux offices. As The Guardian reports, there have been a wave of suicides at the company over the last three years, associated with a wave of redundancies and restructuring which has followed privatisation.
At least 23 of its employees killed themselves last year, and there were more than 30 reported suicides in 2008 and 2009, as well as many more attempts. . . . A month earlier, a 52-year-old employee killed himself in Marseille, leaving a note blaming “overwork” and “management by terror”. He wrote: “I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom. That’s the only reason.”
Suicide as a global phenomenon
Even leaving aside such headline-grabbing stories it is clear that suicide is a major global phenomenon. Referring to data from 2002 collected by the World Health Organisation, a UN report tells us:
Globally, suicide accounts for the majority of intentionally caused deaths (873,000), while armed conﬂicts (559,000) and interpersonal violence (172,000) claim considerably fewer lives.
Although the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo might have tipped the balance in the years since, it’s not clear, even then, that they would have been deadly enough to do so. According to the WHO’s suicide prevention programme:
Every year, almost one million people die from suicide; a “global” mortality rate of 16 per 100,000, or one death every 40 seconds. In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 years in some countries, and the second leading cause of death in the 10-24 years age group; these figures do not include suicide attempts which are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicide.
They estimate that by 2020, the figure will have hit 1.5 million. Whilst those who do kill themselves tend to be men, those who make attempts are more likely to be women. (Common explanations for this are that men are more likely to use more violent methods, while women are more likely to make a suicide attempt to communicate distress.) Those who attempt suicide “more often belong to the social categories associated with social destabilisation and poverty”. (One particularly shocking statistic is that more than 17,000 farmers kill themselves in India every year; testimony to the precarity of agrarian work in the modern third-world.) Those who kill themselves are far more likely than average to have mental disorders, alcohol or substance abuse problems, and be unemployed. They are likely to be relatively young, and experience relative social isolation: i.e. have fewer high quality relationships with others.
But, what does suicide mean? What does it mean to those who carry it out? Why have suicide rates increased so rapidly? What explains demographic and international variations in rates of suicide and attempted suicide? What connects particular social experiences, such as those discussed above, to the phenomenon of suicide? What can the answers to these questions tell us about the society we live in?
Suicide in comparative perspective: some problems for analysis
To answer these questions is harder than we might expect. One obvious answer might be that suicide tends to be more common in more unequal, threatening, or stressful environments. However, the authors of a study into the effects of income inequality on the frequency of a variety of health and social phenomena comment as follows.
The only social problem we have encountered which tends to be more common in more equal countries (but not significantly among more equal states in the USA) is, perhaps surprisingly, suicide. . . . in some countries suicide is not more common lower down the social scale. In Britain a well-defined social gradient has only emerged in recent decades. 
France has a relatively high suicide rate (nearly double that of the UK), although it is relatively egalitarian, jobs are relatively secure, and workers, on average, spend 8 per cent less time at work a year than the EU average. Japan is another country which is relatively egalitarian (although work is typically more intensive), but which displays a high suicide rate. Terms and conditions at both Foxconn and France Telecom are generally reported to be somewhat better than those at other employers, in China‘s industrial zones and in Europe respectively. Indeed, given the size of the companies’ workforces, suicide rates are not far above the national average in each case. Suicide is reportedly less common in occupied Palestine than it is in the affluent, stable societies of North West Europe. Suicide has become less common in both the USA and UK since the introduction of the neo-liberal regime in the 1980s (although in the US it is now higher than its 1950 level, something not true of the UK). As the author of the aforementioned study records, “in a paper on health in Harlem in New York [a particularly poor and rough neighbourhood], suicide was the only cause of death which was less common than in the rest of the USA.” This said, poor mental health, itself an important contributor to suicide, does tend to correlate fairly reliably with inequality.
Durkheim on suicide
How can we understand such counter-intuitive tendencies? In Suicide (1897), Emile Durkheim set out to analyse the social determinants of suicide at the end of the 19th Century, in a context marked by the maturity of the industrial revolution across much of Europe. It was widely held that suicide was a response to the increasing uncertainty and difficulty of life, together with the breakdown of traditional relationships, institutions, and values. But Durkheim faced a number of surprising statistical enigmas. Why were suicides nearly ten times more common in France than in Germany? Why were officers so much more likely to kill themselves than ordinary troops, and both so much more suicide-prone than civilians? Why did suicides increase just before the fall of Rome and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but decrease during the Europe-wide revolution of 1848? Why did their frequency increase during sharp economic collapse, and fall with rapid recovery – yet not fall as prosperity gradually increased over decades, or appear lower in wealthier countries?
Durkheim proposed four different modes of suicide, organised around two axes. The first of these axes, integration, measures the extent to which individuals are involved in society, and identify their interests with it. Egoistic suicide is a product of insufficient integration: loneliness, the lack of family, separation from one’s society. It explains the suicide of soldiers, whose immediate social environment is extremely integrated – but this environment, the barracks, is itself isolated from the rest of society. More obviously, it explains the suicide of the lonely, and the lower rate of suicide during the 1848 revolutions (which threw people together in common cause), and within larger families.
Altruistic suicide is to kill oneself for the perceived greater good of the social whole. For example, those elderly people who do not wish to be a burden to their relatives, or symbolic suicide on the grave of a chieftain. Altruistic suicide probably is not common in the industrialised world, although it has been suggested that some of the Foxconn suicides may have been prompted by the large payouts which used to be made to the families of those who had killed themselves, apparently in order to discourage relatives from complaining too loudly to the media.
The second axis, regulation, measures how far society is able to set limits on personal needs and wants. Anomic suicide describes suicides which result from a decline in such regulation, an upset in the ‘social equilibrium’. Anomie was the prism through which Durkheim tried to explain the tumultuous social dislocation caused by the periodic boom and bust of the 19th Century economy. In his view, industrial capitalism had unleashed almost unlimited wants, freeing them from old limits of morality and status. “One’s present existence seems valueless by comparison with the dreams of fevered imagination,” he wrote. This gap between the new ambitions, and most individuals’ ability to realise them opened wide, and still wider during recession. The declining empires of Rome and Constantinople also provided fertile ground for anomic suicide, as does – by some accounts – the present crisis. Paul Street relates a conversation with a psychiatric nurse at a major hospital in the US.
She reports an epidemic of distraught people coming and brought into her facility’s emergency room in the wake of mental breakdowns and, often, suicide attempts. She’s seen more of this in recent months than in any previous time in her career.
I asked the obvious question: “is it the economy?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Layoffs. Foreclosures. Bankruptcies. Evictions. Loss of health insurance since that goes out with the job. Divorces resulting from all of the above. They blame themselves.”
Fatalistic suicide is the least well developed category: it occurs when regulation is too strong, when individuals find their conditions unbearable, yet are unable enact an alternative, so strong is the hold (physical or ideological) of their environment. Durkheim gives the example of slaves who are unable to escape from their owners. Perhaps we can think, also, of suicides among prisoners or the recently released, particularly those serving extremely long sentences.
Durkheim helps us understand the contradictory meaning of suicide, which appears as an expression of countervailing tendencies within capitalism: too much or too little individualism, too much self-denial, or too much desire. Durkheim’s approach helps us understand suicide, in its egoistic or anomic aspects, not as a response to conditions which are unbearable in some absolute sense, or even static inequality. Rather, suicide is an expression of social disintegration and tumult, rapid change and precariousness, the constant doing and undoing of everything that is characteristic of capitalism, and which has intensified globally over the past 60 years. Changes in suicide rates are related to boom and bust, but not in a simple way: many other factors, some of which are suggested by Durkheim’s framework (other forms of integration and regulation, such as strong family or civil society), intervene. For example, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s prompted increased suicide in some affected countries, but not others (those which were less economically affected). Finnish researchers, looking at the period 1985 – 1995 found tendencies related in the opposite way to boom and bust than those documented by Durkheim. Nonetheless, the broad outlines of the analysis are well confirmed in a number of studies.
The capitalists, however, have their own explanations.
The public ideology of suicide
The cases mentioned at the beginning of this article have several things in common. One is that the authorities in each case resolutely refused to acknowledge a connection between specific socio-economic trends (benefits reassessments, war, restructuring). The UK Department of Work and Pensions says that its suicide-threat guidelines are “not related to any recent policy changes”. As Time reports, in connection with military suicides, “When accounting publicly for the trend, Army commanders tend to avoid acknowledging that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may be a cause.” France Telecom is “adamant that its restructuring must continue”, although “the company was ordered to put in place measures to monitor and counsel staff thought to be suicidal, and at one point froze 500 employee transfers that were part of restructuring plans.” Foxconn is keen to emphasise that – as well as anti-suicide nets – it also provides swimming pools and chess clubs.
The odd counterpart to this is the professed personal distress felt by those in charge. Terry Gou, CEO of Foxconn, for example, has “had trouble sleeping because he feared the phone would ring with news of another death”. In 2009, a France Telecom executive resigned over suicides at the company. The Senator quoted above is no doubt sincerely horrified by the military suicides.
The absurdity is, however, that while some remedial measures (such as counselling or nets) may reduce the rate of suicide in the contexts in question, the senior figures in question do not even consider halting the specific programmes which so obviously tend to produce suicide. Consider reports on Foxxconn, for example:
Hundreds of people work in the workshops but they are not allowed to talk to each other. If you talk, you get a black mark in your record and you get shouted at by your manager. You can also be fined.
The machines keep moving and the staff have to keep up. The workers need practice to become really efficient, and with a heavy churn of new staff, they cannot adapt. In the past three months, the factory has been losing 50,000 staff a month because workers are burning out. The engineers and the training staff have had to man the production line. Because Foxconn has had a large number of big orders, the workers are reduced to repeating exactly the same hand movement for months on end.
We are not allowed to talk while we are working. In any case, it is too noisy to have a conversation.
Foxconn says it is at its wits’ end as to how to tackle the problem, and has even drafted in a Buddhist monk to try to purge its factories of evil spirits.
Contemporary capitalists find it easier to believe in ghosts than the possibility that work should be made less intensive or atomised. When Senator Murray says that soldiers’ suicides are “incomprehensible”, she can’t literally mean that she doesn’t comprehend, particularly since her other comments show that she understands at least some of the associations between military life and psychological distress. What she means is that the reasons which she comprehends on the level of analysis cannot be acknowledged on the level of politics. Bosses and politicians may be prepared to contemplate safety nets (physical and metaphorical). But cut off the engines of accumulation, imperial war, or the reduction of social security payments, which drive the machine? No chance.
Instead of a conclusion
Our interest in the phenomenon of suicide is not simply a function of the number of people who kill themselves: fewer people do so globally every year than those who lose their lives in road traffic accidents (1.2 million). Yet, suicide appears as an expression of an accumulation of pressures which are experienced by most people in one quantity or another; combined with the absence of alternative coping mechanisms – most importantly, good relationships with others and an obvious meaning or purpose to life. Consequently, our interest in the phenomenon should be as much about what it tells us of those who don’t kill themselves, as those who do. In this respect, it is interesting to observe that
suicide is often inversely related to homicide. There seems to be something in the psychological cliché that anger sometimes goes in and sometimes goes out: do you blame yourself or others for things that go wrong? [Earlier] we noted the rise in the tendency to blame the outside world – defensive narcissism – and the contrasts between the US and Japan [i.e. people in Japan tend to blame themselves for misfortunes]. 
As Stengel, quoted at the beginning of this article, says, suicide “is also an act of aggression against others”. Capitalism makes some people so upset and lonely that they contemplate killing themselves, and others: even if none attempted, or even if none succeeded, it would still be a tragedy. The Telegraph’s correspondent reporting on Foxconn, in search of a framework to understand what has happened, is driven to restate, in brief, Marx’s theory of alienation.
Marx identified four types of alienation that arose from the capitalist system, including workers feeling inhuman because they were cogs in a machine, because the work they do is reduced to a commercial commodity that is traded on a market, because they have little to do with the design and production of the product, and because their work is repetitive, trivial and meaningless, offering little if any intrinsic satisfaction . . .
However, for Marx, alienation is not only something about work. It is that workers also have little to do with the design of the whole society, and it there is not only a lack of purpose in work, but in life as a whole. It is not just work, but all of society, the society we create, which appears as a power outside and against human life. Suicide is only one product of this phenomenon. For us, to understand suicide politically is not so difficult: we can see the relation between capitalism’s dynamism and its inhumanity all the more sharply during a crisis. But capitalists cannot understand suicide. To understand it fully would be to understand themselves, and their role in the world: and that they cannot do.
Suicide is a far greater cause of death than war, although it occupies far fewer headlines. It is the most intense expression of a silent and more brutal war, of each against ourselves. Still, nobody thinks of waving red flags around these silent deaths. Yet we can abstract from the complex and confused personal reasons which bring them about; and understand something of their meaning. What can we say about suicide and capitalism that doesn’t crassly subsume each individual tragedy to an abstract political programme, but still provides some sort of analysis, and some sort of hope? I don’t want to add any too-easy last words. We can’t let it be like this for ever.
 Dear Comrades: readers’ letters to Lotta Continua (1980: 131-132) Pluto Press
 Suicide & attempted suicide, published by Pelican, page with publication date on missing from my copy, page 12.
 Writer’s notes.
 p93 of The Inequality Predicament, Report on the World Social Situation 2005, UN. The UN study references the WHO’s 2004 World Health Report, the data from which can be found here http://www.who.int/whr/2004/annex/topic/annex2.xls – see bottom right of the table.
 I am not commenting on the accuracy of these explanations, but obviously even if they are accurate, they are results of the contemporary social construction of gender, not something indigenous to either biological sex.
 Nadia Taysir Dabbagh (2005) Suicide in Palestine, 8 (quotation is from a general survey of suicide trends globally, not specific to Palestine)
 Wilkinson and Pickett (2009), The Spirit Level: 175
 Wilkinson and Pickett (2009), The Spirit Level: 67. It is worth pointing out that Japan, a relatively egalitarian country, has a relatively high suicide rate, but very good reported mental health. One possible explanation for this is that data-collection is distorted by the extreme unwillingness of many Japanese people to admit to any kind of mental distress, even in private interviews. Another possible explanation is simply that Japanese cultural norms articulate the connection between mental disorder and suicide very differently from those in operation elsewhere.
 Wilkinson and Pickett (2009), The Spirit Level: 175
3 thoughts on “making a killing: suicide under capitalism”
Hi, just to note that I have updated the text of the article very slightly, and uploaded a version here with complete footnotes and links to references.
Marx on Suicide
Yeah, you can read the main piece by Marx in that here:
– or is the full thing longer? I didn’t think it was that great… did you take anything in particular from it Chris?
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