“A person’s suicide is entirely determined by circumstances.” ― Mao Zedong
Suicide is not the act of an individual. Despite what the term implies and what the dominant culture would have you believe, no person truly “kills” themselves. Instead, it is a social act. The destruction of the individual begins on a collective level, a systemic level. A person is pushed, prodded, and thrown about by their environment until they can see no reconciliation except through death. The individual act of suicide is merely a reflection of wider social problems. To solve the problem of suicide, it is necessary to take up the cause of transforming the society that breeds it.
Biological or Social?
A common thread running through much of the discourse about suicide is the idea that some people are just predisposed to suicidal behavior. They are “mentally ill,” and it is only “natural” for them to be lead to suicide. It is the fault of their genetics, their birth, and the only thing we can hope to do is help them cope with their fate. This falls under the fraudulent biological essentialism I have written about previously. Just like the examples given there, it is an attempt to absolve society of its responsibility, to clear the records of our dominating oppressive systems. This claim of “inherent” illness does not stand up to even the slightest research.
It should first be noted that over half (54%) of people who commit suicide do not have a known mental health condition or history of mental illness. If suicide is really caused by a “natural” mental illness, then this should not be the case. More importantly, it should be noted that different populations and groups experience suicide at different rates. Men are much more likely to kill themselves than womyn are. Rates vary by race/ethnicity. They vary by country. They vary by gender identity. Is it really the genetics of each group, or could it be the massively different social relations and material conditions that each group finds themselves?
While common sense casts doubt on the former, the case of transgender individuals proves that it is the latter. Extensive research has consistently shown that the higher rates of suicide among transgender people can be attributed almost entirely to their social relations. In fact, when allowed to transition, these elevated levels drop drastically. Their social relations changed, the way the culture and people around them behave changed, and their risk for suicide dropped as a result. This is absolutely solid proof of concept.
To truly bring to light the social nature of suicide, it must be noted that suicide rates fluctuate all the time. They change much more rapidly than our collective gene pool. Since 1999, the suicide rate in the U$ has gone up by 30%. It is physically impossible for that to be explained away with biology. The appeal to “nature” can not explain the variance across different populations/time periods and utterly fails at the task of explaining the transgender experience. The only thing left with a basis in reality, the only thing with definitive evidence and explanatory power, is that of social relations. Only a view of society as a whole and its effects on the individual can explain rapid changes in the rate of suicide. Only this view is supported by the transgender experience. We must look at suicide as an individual response to social, material, and systemic problems.
What Social Issues?
“The classification of the various causes of suicide would be the classification of the very defects of our society.” ― Jacques Peuchet
It has been established that suicide is spurred on by society and not biology, but what aspects of society? To diagnose the problems which cause suicide, we need merely to look at who is killing themselves and what the individual considers their reason for committing the act. A picture of the culture we live in begins to form rather rapidly, and several strong patterns emerge.
According to the CDC, 16% of suicides in the U$ are caused by job/financial problems. 4% are caused by a loss of housing. This is clearly the result of an economic system which does not provide these things to those living under it. If jobs were guaranteed to anyone fit and willing to work, if housing was guaranteed as the basic human right it is, then these would not be issues. But capitalism needs you to feel unstable in your job. It needs a large reserve of unemployed people to pull from. If it isn’t profitable, they aren’t going to sell you a house. If it scares you to be homeless, then you better keep doing exactly what you’re told! Unemployment is built into capitalism. Homelessness is an inevitable part of the system.
Additionally, physical health problems contributed to 22% of suicides in that same study. Mental health conditions contributed to 46%. This problem presents itself clearly. We need better and more accessible healthcare for both physical and mental conditions. What is preventing that? Again, capitalism. It has been consistently shown that having a small elite manage national healthcare systems for profit is not only ineffective but actually harmful to the public. Even the bourgeois cheerleaders of capitalism are forced to admit this! Capitalism can not help but mismanage the healthcare system! The investors and businessmen have their hands so full of money that they fumble away the lives of people who could have been saved. Again, this is a problem inherent to our current economic system.
Further, 9% of suicides in the U$ are caused by criminal legal issues. This is a problem obviously exacerbated by the prison-industrial complex, a system in which prisons are run for profit to benefit thousands of private companies. This leads to massive efforts to lock people up, even if there is no need to do so. This system leads to practices like jailing the mentally ill, imprisoning innocent people for indefinite periods of time, and literal slavery. Faced with the threat of being put in these horrifying conditions, many people can not cope with the stress and choose to take their own lives. If the prison system was not run for profit, if it wasn’t geared towards locking up as many people as possible, then the number of suicides related to criminal legal issues would plummet.
The problems listed above are all chronic to capitalism, built in and always present. Things do not stay the same though. Sometimes, they get much worse.
Some have pointed out that suicide, oftentimes, is triggered by a sudden drop in economic or social class. When you lose your relative status or privilege, the shock can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, sudden drops in well-being are regular occurrences in capitalism. There is no capitalism without periodic economic crisis. And study after study has shown that suicide rates rise in the presence of these crises. This is information that modern experts have acknowledged as fact.
“I have been learning, as a nation, we have seen increases and decreases over time in suicide. Increases mostly seem to correlate with economic downturns.” ― CDC principal deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat, 2018
This isn’t even new information. People have been observing this effect since the early stages of capitalism, during and just after the industrial revolution.
“The annual number of suicides, which is, as it were, normal and recurrent among us, must be regarded as a symptom of the faulty organisation of our society; for at times when industry is at a standstill and in crisis, in periods of dear food and hard winters, this symptom is always more conspicuous and assumes an epidemic character.” ― Jacques Peuchet, written based on data and experiences gathered as an officer and archive manager for French police in the early 1800’s
The mechanism becomes easy to follow. Economic crises increase cases of suicide. Economic crises are a built in part of capitalism. Therefore, periodic and massive increases in suicide are a part of capitalism. There is no capitalism without a suicide epidemic.
I mentioned earlier the differences in suicide rates among people with different gender identities. Patriarchy, as it exists, reinforces heterosexual gender conformity. This leads to a sense of alienation and dysphoria among LGBT+ people. Their gender and sexual identity are in conflict with the society around them, and this contradiction leads to a lot of public, private, and internalized oppression. As a result, they have higher rates of suicide.
Minority identities are not the only ones to suffer though, and there are huge differences between the experience of womyn and men. Womyn are much more likely to fantasize about and attempt suicide than men are. However, despite womyn having 3 times the rate for attempts, men are about 3 times more likely to actually kill themselves than womyn are. An analysis of patriarchy reveals the reasons for these discrepancies.
In regards to the higher rate of attempts by womyn, it should be noted that womyn in general are more likely to suffer from stress and anxiety. Patriarchy insures this in many ways. Womyn are much more likely to be the victims of sexual violence, workplace discrimination, and domestic abuse. They are trained to be self-sacrificing and uncomfortable at all times, to live in a constant state of physical and mental stress. As a result, they often feel a form of hopelessness and isolation that men never have to experience. This leads to increased attempts to free themselves of that suffering, to exercise the only control they still feel they have. However, in these attempts, the social conditioning is still present. Womyn often choose less violent methods when attempting suicide. They have been taught to preserve their bodies, to value their physical appearance as a major source of their worth. As a result, they often do not want to harm their outward appearance too much, particularly their face. Womyn also tend to have more consideration for those left behind. They do not want to be a burden to those who happen to find their body, a bother to clean up after. Methods such as overdosing, poisoning, hanging, and slitting of the wrists are favored (often times doing these things in places like the bathroom, where it will be easiest to clean up). Due to choosing more prolonged and less violent methods for suicide, it is a lot more likely that someone or something will interrupt the attempt. As a result, womyn are often times saved from their demise before it is too late.
Men do not have these same reservations. They do not value their physical appearance as much, and they have not been trained their entire lives to think of others before themselves. What they have been taught is to express aggression openly and violently. They have been taught that failure on any level is something to be mocked. They have been taught to be impulsive and headstrong. As a result, when it comes time to choose their method, men are much more likely to reach for a firearm than womyn are. Years of being trained to express frustration physically and explosively can find no more pure a representation than that of suicide by gunshot. In this way, men choose the fastest, most effective, and violent way available to them. Even though they attempt suicide less, the way they attempt it is much more complete. Patriarchy has conditioned both men and womyn to experience suicidal thoughts at different rates, but it has also mutated the ways in which each group sets out towards the task of self-annihilation. It grips them to the grave.
“In the positions which I held in the police administration, suicides were part of my responsibility; I wished to learn whether among the causes motivating them there were any whose effect could be obviated. I undertook extensive work on the subject. I found that any attempts short of a total reform of the present order of society would be in vain.” ― Jacques Peuchet, as quoted by Karl Marx, the last sentence being written by Marx himself
If suicide is a natural product of the systems guiding our society, then it stands to reason that there is no escape from it within these systems. The only solution is a complete, revolutionary, restructuring of society itself. The only true fight against the epidemic of suicide is a fight against capitalism, patriarchy, and all other systems that enable it. The solution is socialism and cultural revolution. Anything short of that is masturbatory and will ultimately fail to address the real roots of our problem.
We face real, existential threats from our society. If we want to survive and find peace in this life or any other, we must fight the very society that birthed us. We must transform our environment until it is habitable. It is the task of every person who wishes to revolutionize the mental health of the individual to revolutionize the social and material conditions that shape them.
“All of us, the potential victims, must be on our guard before this dangerous thing that could inflict a fatal blow on us. We should protest loudly, warn the other human beings who are not yet dead, and condemn the countless evils of our society.” ― Mao Zedong
Peuchet: On Suicide, by Karl Marx (link to read)
Miss Chao’s Suicide, by Mao Zedong (link to read)
The following books are recommended, although I have not read them myself.
Marx on Suicide, by Karl Marx, Eric Plaut, Kevin Anderson, & Gabrielle Edgcomb (link to buy)
Capitalist Realism, by Mark Fisher (link to buy)
“Mental Health, Addiction, and Capitalist Realism with Mad Blender,” from The Vegan Vanguard podcast (link to listen)