Austerity, capitalism, and suicide statistics (so, trigger warning)
First off: if you’re finding things hard generally, feel depressed (link to an excellent blog explaining this is “something that is deeper than sadness. It’s stronger and stranger than any sadness you can imagine”) or find this piece brings up pain, negative thoughts, or mental health issues, please take a look at:
Counselling for Social Change: “Affordable counselling for all. Support for carers, campaigners and activists”
You might also want to consider talking to your GP (who should be able to point you to local, affordable counseling of some kind), or the Samaritans. In my experience the latter two, while far from perfect, were ultimately helpful. I have no real experience of the former three organisations, but have read worthwhile things on their websites and they look like the beginnings of a network we desperately need.
Why is such a network necessary? In short, because
UNDER CAPITALISM IT IS EASIER TO GET A LAMB BIRYANI AND THREE TPYES OF DIP TO COME TO YOUR HOUSE THAN A MENTAL HEALTH WORKER— smelly kant (@sadkant)
At greater length, and as the substance of this article: because capitalism and its current favoured euphemistic policy imposition ‘austerity’ leads to misery and death on a grand scale. And we can do better:
The Body Economic is a book a David Stuckler, MPH, PhD (a Senior Research Leader at Oxford University and Honorary Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and Sanjay Basu, MD, PhD. While I haven’t read the book (yet, I intend to), I have read extensive reviews. These often describe the central message of the book as being roughly as the article linked in the previous sentence does:
"cutbacks have already had a devastating effect across Europe and North America. Pointing to soaring suicide rates, rising HIV infections and even a malaria outbreak, researchers argue that governments’ austerity drives are costing lives”
This is basically common sense. If you:
1. take away the bare minimum safety nets people have (from benefits to access to health and social care free at the point of need),
2. accuse those dependent on such safety nets of being responsible for societies ills (‘scroungers’; the ‘unaffordable’ welfare state, etc),
3. insist people behave only in accordance with your weird capitalist-religious Protestant-work-ethic-related moralistic view of acceptable lifestyles,
4. make survival dependent on well-paid employment in an economic system that relies on low-wage employment and high unemployment to ensure people don’t get too uppity about the low-wages,
5. force people to work for no wages in order to continue to access the diminishing provision of a shrinking social safety net, including when they are already suffering mental health issues (fuck Asda) so that corporations can increase profits and the unemployed don’t have time to get uppity,
6. rain down batons, tasers, dogs or even the simple indignity of a few hours ‘containment’ or a night (or longer) in the cells, for those who get uppity, and
7. frequently give those you can’t (and probably never thought you would) convict a few months of anxiety waiting for court dates
Who would have guessed? - the effect on health and mental health in particular isn’t great.
Recently, there’s newspapers have begun to hint that some particular statistical evidence regarding all this in the UK is emerging (there’s already too much anecdotal evidence: 1, 2, 3,). That the BBC feel it is necessary to refer to this as a ‘mystery rise’ is just the latest example of the lengths regime broadcasters will go to to defend established power (and/or what happens when media organisations are chaired by people who have previously engineered election victories for a party of the incumbent government).
Then came this report: "Death rates reports scrapped - puzzling Labour because the latest figures revealed a worrying spike". Puzzling Labour because they don’t understand statistics and want to do some half-arsed electioneering, more like, because:
Public Health England will continue to publish mortality rates in its weekly and annual flu reports, which also record deaths from all other causes and use internationally recognised methodologies to record death rates, a PHE spokesman said
Nevertheless, the idea that the government is going to cease to collect and/or publish data on causes of death has got into the heads of a few people who have raised it with me on twitter or in person.
Now, I’m probably not the person who should trawl through Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports*, but someone needs to. ONS data on cause of deaths for England and Wales are available to everyone with access to a half-decent computer and an internet connection. Unfortunately, you’ll need a little perseverance / statistical training to do much with the data, however.
In ONS lexicography, codes X60-X84 refer to death due to “intentional self harm”. You can read more on the particular variations if you so desire here (direct link to pdf document).
What have I learned from exploring this data for a half-hour?
That in 2012 the total number of people reported as dying because of intentional self-harm was 2,921 Males and 750 Females (the ONS put you in one of those two categories when you’re dead, whether you like it or not, it seems). Of those, 348 were aged 24 or under, 269 were aged 75 and over.
The total figure is 3,671, which compares with a figure of 3,633 in 2011. Horrible as an additional 38 deaths are (and I’m sure each of those 38 people was as innately valuable as any of the rest of us) I don’t think that increase would be statistically significant - especially if you were to calculate the relative suicide rate (per person in the population, I mean) as opposed to the absolute number of suicides. This is not to say that the data from 2010 and further back would not reveal a recent increase (I will look and update this blog when I can), nor that the data for 2013 could not display a significant increase.
It is worth adding that the BBC report linked above notes that “About 10,000 people die a week normally, but last year’s figures were about 5% higher than average”, in other words, 500 additional deaths per week. The number of suicides, or deaths by intentional self-harm, is too high - virtually any number for those under 75 is too high**, in my estimation. My point here, however, is that suicide rates would have to have increased very dramatically, for 500 additional deaths per week to be explained by suicide alone, or in large part. That’s 26,000 people a year, and would reflect a seven-fold increase. This is plausible given the April benefit cuts, and the fact they come on the back of at least three years of similar cuts and at least five of declining real wages for the vast majority, but I suspect there are other causes.
My suspicion, as someone who has focused on campaigning around the NHS, and energy justice (from fuel poverty to fossil fuel divestment via the transition movement and forms of direct action at one time based around camping) in recent years, is that the ‘mystery rise’, ‘worrying spike’ (or ‘terrifying reality’, in my view) has been caused by high fuel prices, a long cold winter, low interest rates on savings, a low state-pension and large numbers of people with no access to additional pensions, and cuts to the health and social care budget. The population is rising, and need for healthcare is rising - keeping a budget flat (or rising fractions of percentage points for PR purposes) is the definition of vicious in this context. Please don’t listen to that “NHS budget ‘ringfenced’” nonsense, because the social care budget has been axed and the NHS has to pick up the tab.
NHS cuts and privatisation are restricing the forms of treatment available to people for free at the point of need (see this further detail) are increasing waiting times, and are playing with your lives inside, and on the way to, the hospital. And we’re paying when it goes wrong: once again, the privatisation of profit and the socialisation of losses. Workfare and prison labour are making ‘the labour market’ a farce - we are heading back toward a feudal/slave economic system fast. The difference being this one is/will be structured around the needs/abilities of state-capitalism, rather than those of aristocrats and racist merchants.
An obvious reaction would be to ask why the political class is allowing this to happen?
Why is there no outrage blaring out across broadsheets?
Why is the commentariat focused on abusive tweets rather than the results of abusive policies and rhetoric spouted by members of all three parties and ministers of the current and past government?
There are three answers in my view:
1) They are, a bit. But only in so much as the information can be turned to their advantage, be it with regard to electoral or careerist hopes
2) They are unaware, and don’t care sufficiently when presented with the information - these people are deeply cynical, having been hardened by decades of bad news and/or demands to ‘toe the party/editorial line’, and they are often far removed from the realities of everyday life as lived by most people
3) This is the really nasty one, but increasingly the one I believe: there is a policy of acquiescense to involuntary euthanasia.
There is a "eugenics movement Britain wants to forget". And there is capitalism: an economic system that does not see human beings, but merely monetary values. Capitalism is a system that requires labour input, and treats it is functionally similar to the other inputs to production of raw materials and capital (‘dead labour’ - stuff produced by labour in the past, from raw materials).
Think of the results of production based on the profit motive on the sources for raw materials (the environment) if you need a visual metaphor. Or at Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of workers and their environments (which capture the dignity people keep despite, not because of, their work). Think of the way in which the threat of unemployment has been used for decades to discipline those in work and act as a downward pressure on wages.
Then think of what happens when paying (un)employment benefits*** (social security) becomes ‘too expensive’ in a country with ‘no money left’ (both convenient myths, of course).
Given the advances of automation and the inability of people on social security to partake in significant consumption such as might be necessary in to keep capitalist businesses going, I am beginning to feel that the solution is to allow a reduction in the number of people to occur. In the past, a war provided this function - as well as the Keynesian stimulus to productive capacity, and the destruction of existing capital necessary for a new boom to emerge. A further war is far from impossible (all it takes is a tiny Franz Ferdinand-esque mistake/escalation, and Syria brought us perilously close to global conflagration this year), but the interconnectedness of the global economy, and the reliance of capitalists everywhere upon this perhaps makes it unlikely.
Thus, instead, capitalism trundles on, and the race between its first and second contradictions continues:
I used to think the second contradiction - that capitalism would exhaust or otherwise despoil the productive base upon which it feeds, i.e. the environment - to the point where it could no longer function - was winning the race.
Now it seems to first contradiction - that economic and social exploitation will trend to become too high and lead to economic crisis of over-production or social crises of realisation is closing in as we reach the final straight.
What should we do? Why, the same thing we try to do every night, pinky, try to take over the world - and make it one with a social system of mutual aid and solidarity and no economic system beyond helping each other. How do we move towards such as world? By acting in the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity, using all the tools at our disposal (I mean, the internet, but not exclusively the internet, here), and teaching other people how to do the same. And if a certain kind of person (women, the working class, people of colour, people with disabilities, or whatever) isn’t present at your meetings - go to them, don’t wring your hands. In fact, go to them anyway. Some people complain that there is a lack of vision regarding utopias/tactics, but in my view it really is this simple. Further details is helpful, but not necessary for action.
By way of example: I was personally involved in organising a meeting with my local anti-cuts group recently. For me, one of the motivations was to let people know there are people out there who want to support them, and to offer a space where people could talk about what is happening. It is important such talk leads at some point to action, but for me, the priority at the moment is to enable people to complain, and direct the hatred and anger provoked by current policy to those responsible - hopefully this can help prevent it being turned inwards.****
What won’t help is Labour Shadows, and this truly is what current opposition ministers are, backtracking over speeches they haven’t yet made in an effort to court UKIP voters, hang onto their core vote, and not alienate their corporate donors all at once (because they are incapable of comprehending or acting on the obvious nature of capitalism and ‘the labour market’ to exploit all workers (all humans, all life, all it touches…), regardless of whether they are ‘British’ or ‘immigrant’. In other words: fuck Chris Bryant MP.
Finally, again: if you’re finding things hard generally, or found this piece brought up pain, negative thoughts, or mental health issues, please take a look at Counselling for Social Change: “Affordable counselling for all. Support for carers, campaigners and activists”, Activist Trauma Support, the Icarus Project (“navigating the space between brilliance and madness”). You might also want to consider talking to your GP (who should be able to point you to local, affordable counselling of some kind), or the Samaritans. In my experience the latter two, while far from perfect, were ultimately helpful. I have no real experience of the former organisations, but have read worthwhile things on their websites and they look the beginnings of a network we desperately need.
p.s Here are so pieces you might find interesting on mental (ill)health, all via Michael Richmond (follow on twitter):
* Dear Journalists, please do some basic investigative work so that the rest of us can get on with other priorities. I understand it’s hard, but if they won’t let you, join or form a union or collective organisation of workers in some form and fight - including using strikes - for better pay, and terms and conditions. Good terms and conditions should include the right and paid time not to have to print press releases verbatim, and to employ new staff rather than up management salaries. Or become a blogger and get a following before old-media gives up the ghost, which is what will happen if you carry on being so useless.
** I can believe that for some people suicide is a freely taken and informed choice, and reflects a belief that personal quality of life is so poor that no life at all would be preferable. However, in an ideal - or even a half-decent - society, rather than this shitty one, I believe the numbers of all but the very elderly who made such a choice would be very small. Certainly far smaller then current numbers.
*** 9/10 Housing Benefit claimants are in employment, but earn too little to make the extortionate rents charges, and 64% of UK families (or half the total population) receive some form of social security. Everyone should be entitled to a roof over their heads for free as far as I’m concerned.
**** I do not believe banging on about a ‘General Strike’ that may never come (or, for that matter, a ‘new workers’ party of the left’) is helpful for people who haven’t been in a union, let alone on strike, in some time. To be clear: I would support participation in such a strike, if it does materialise, and am happy for existing political organisations to lobby for one as part of their activities, but they need to be careful about when and to whom they make this message their sole demand.