Ernest Doty paints a beautiful piece in Oakland!
History has shown that defaulting countries tend to fall harder but recover faster. So why does Greece’s left-led government not simply get it over with?
Photo: healthcare workers march in Athens, 20/05/2015 (Louisa Gouliamaki).
As the Greek debt drama finally comes to a head these weeks, with the Syriza-led government quietly warning the U.S. Treasury Secretary and the chief of the International Monetary Fund that its cash reserves are now all but empty and that the government will not be paying the Fund if it does not receive an infusion of new cash before early June, a critical question arises: why do the radical leftists not simply get it over with and declare a moratorium on the outstanding debt? Why do they care about their creditors in the first place?
The question may sound trite, but it becomes increasingly perplexing once we place Greece’s never-ending debt crisis in historical perspective. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Greece — along with most Eastern and Southern European countries and practically all of Latin America — responded to its fiscal troubles by forcefully suspending debt payments to foreign bondholders. Economic history is replete with such unilateral moratoriums. In fact, before World War II, default was simply part of the rules of the game.
Take the first wave of sovereign defaults following the independence struggles of the Latin American countries in the 1820s. Between 1822 and 1825, London and Amsterdam-based financiers — blinded by the prospect of easy profits — gobbled up Latin American government bonds like hotcakes. Some European investors were even deceived by a legendary swindler into buying the bonds of the non-existent newly independent nation of Poyais. In those years, financial euphoria (and investor myopia) reigned supreme.
The lenders’ fall was swift and painful. Lured by cheap credit, the young Latin American debtors massively over-borrowed, while the European creditors wildly overextended themselves. After the wars were over, nearly every newly independent government fell into default. As one of the leading historians of the episode noted, “during a quarter of a century most of the borrowing countries maintained an effective moratorium on their external debts, which indicated an appreciable degree of economic autonomy from the great powers of the day.”
It is not difficult to understand why the Latin American governments would have wanted to exert this autonomy to full effect. Economists have found that countries that defaulted in the 1930s, for instance, recovered faster than those that did not. The countries that repaid their debts were forced to carry out contractionary policies (i.e., austerity measures) in order to free up the currency reserves with which to pay their debts. Transferring these scarce resources abroad directly contributed to a deepening of the crisis.
Why, then, would Greece not simply go down the same path today? The country has spent about a half of its history in a formal state of default. It defaulted on its first independence war loans in the 1830s, along with the Latin American countries. It defaulted again in 1843, in 1860 and in 1893. After the latter episode, German bondholders demanded international control over Greek finances — which they obtained with the establishment of the International Committee for Greek Debt Management following the Greco-Turkish war of 1897. Still, Greece managed to default again during the 1930s. None of these defaults occurred under radical governments.
Yet today, even under an anti-austerity government led by the radical left Syriza party, whose ranks contain an array of old-school Marxists, Greece has been scrupulously obedient to the dictates of its foreign creditors, at least when it comes to repaying the debt. This is all the more remarkable because, in a previous election campaign just three years ago, the same party still pledged tounilaterally suspend debt payments and to hold an audit of the national debt with a view to repudiating all illegal and illegitimate obligations. While the Speaker of Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, has since called into life such an audit committee, Prime Minister Tsipras has sworn not to take unilateral action.
So what’s really going on here…? If less radical governments defaulted one after another in previous eras, why does Europe’s most left-wing government in recent memory not simply do the same?
The short answer is that the world has changed in dramatic ways since the mid-1970s. The kind of capitalism we have today is not like the capitalism of yore. It is not like the Keynesian compromise that reigned during the post-war decades and that formed the bedrock of the Bretton Woods regime, when debt crises were practically non-existent. Nor is it like the laissez-faire liberalism of the so-called “first wave of globalization” in the classical gold standard era (1880-1914), when default was still widespread.
Unlike previous eras, today’s capitalism has been thoroughly financialized. This, in turn, has had major consequences not only for the dominance of finance within the overall regime of accumulation; it has also affected the nature of the capitalist state and its relationship to private creditors. To summarize a long and complicated story, we can identify at least three structural changes that have been seminal in shifting the loyalty of governments away from their domestic populations and towards international lenders and domestic elites.
First, the growing concentration of financial markets has rendered peripheral countries increasingly dependent on an ever-smaller subgroup of systemically important and politically influential international banks and institutional investors. Second, a host of international financial institutions have been created, most importantly the IMF and the ECB, which can jump in whenever a debtor is in distress to provide emergency “bailout” loans (under strict policy conditionality) so the debts can be repaid. Third, financialization has contributed to the entrenchment of what David Harvey calls the state-finance nexus, to the point where national governments and economies have become increasingly dependent on central banks and on domestic private banking systems just to survive. As a result, bankers have obtained vast leverage over economic policy, even when they (or their friends) are not in government themselves.
These three changes have been foundational to the generalized move away from widespread default, as was the norm prior to World War II, and towards the incredible track record of debtor compliance that has been established under the neoliberal regime of financialization. Ever since the Mexican debt crisis of 1982 — and the Latin American and Third World debt crises that followed in its wake — governments have generally tried to avoid a suspension of payments at all costs. As Harvey has put it:
“What the Mexico case demonstrated was one key difference between liberalism and neoliberalism: under the former lenders take the losses that arise from bad investment decisions while under the latter the borrowers are forced by state and international powers to take on board the cost of debt repayment no matter what the consequences for the livelihood and well-being of the local population.”
Of course there have been exceptions. Russia defaulted in 1998, although the fallout was limited mostly to domestic creditors and a rogue speculative hedge fund in the US. The Argentine crisis briefly punctuated the aura of neoliberal invincibility in late 2001, but as I have argued in a previous column, a closer look reveals that the country’s default was in fact triggered by deliberate actions on the part of the Wall Street-IMF-Treasury complex. This leaves Ecuador as the only country to have imposed a unilateral default in recent decades — but even Ecuador did not do so in the outright fashion of the 1930s.
By and large, it is therefore safe to say that the overarching rule governing international finance today is that countries will repay even under the harshest of conditions, and will rarely — if ever — default on their external obligations. This has led to a bizarre situation in which Yanis Varoufakis, the fervid Greek finance minister, has pledged to “repay private creditors to the last penny,” even promising to “squeeze blood out of a stone” to repay the IMF. These statements are patently absurd, as it was Varoufakis himself who, prior to taking office, claimed that the debt cannot be paid and argued that Greece should have “stuck the finger” to Germany and defaulted a long time ago.
Still, it should be clear by now that Syriza’s backtracking and Varoufakis’ wavering statements on whether or not the debt can and should be repaid are not the result of some personal disloyalty to the cause, nor of some grand scheme of betrayal playing out between Syriza and its supporters. Instead, what has happened is that the Greek government has run headlong into the structural power of its official creditors, and the party’s leadership does not have the guts to confront it by pursuing a rupture. The power of Greece’s creditors revolves around the fact that the IMF, the ECB and the Eurogroup, which now collectively hold about 80 percent of the country’s debt, are the only ones capable of providing the Syriza-led government with what it so urgently needs: cash.
In the end, all capitalist states stand or fall by the soundness of their finances. What matters to a government in charge of such a state is whether it can pay public sector wages and pensions — and, ultimately, police and the army. What matters, in addition, is that credit keeps circulating through the domestic economy and that cash keeps coming out of ATMs when people withdraw funds from their accounts. If, within this complex system of credit circulation, there is a sudden hiccup or a systemic blockage — if the state can no longer pay its employees, or if the banks are forced to close doors and private businesses can no longer obtain trade credit — the whole system literally grinds to a halt.
The results of such an economic freeze-up, history tells us, are usually not very pretty for those in power. Argentina’s implosion following its record default in December 2001 is a case in point. Similar revolts took place during financial crises in early-modern Europe, like when the wool carders of Florence rose up in the Ciompi revolt of 1378, or when the working classes and bourgeoisie of Paris rose up against Louis XIV during the public debt crisis in 18th-century France. Just a few days ago, a Bank of Greece official ominously warned that a bank closure might have similar consequences in Greece today: “We would see the revolt that this crisis has not yet produced. There would be blood in the streets.”
In the past, defaulting governments were able to avoid such domestic “spillover costs” by defaulting only on foreign lenders. In the process, the burden of adjustment was effectively shifted onto private bondholders in the creditor countries, and scarce resources could be reinvested domestically in order to dampen the social consequences of the crisis and hasten the recovery. But in the complex and highly intertwined financial markets of our day and age, such discrimination between externally and domestically held debt is no longer possible. Default on one becomes default on all.
The result is to make a suspension of payments very costly in the short term. In addition to the oft-repeated “calamity” of being forced out of the Eurozone, the spillover effects of default would extend all the way down into the domestic economy and would ripple out into the social fabric, threatening political stability. No democratically elected government — let alone a leftist one — would like to take responsibility for triggering (let alone putting down) a popular revolt over disappeared pensions and wages.
The flip-side of the story, of course, is that such spillover costs generally turn out to be relatively short-lived, and may therefore end up paying off over time — ifthe government is prepared for the shock and manages to hold onto power, that is. Aided by good external conditions, Argentina’s recovery began after 6 months. Greece’s conditions may be less rosy, but there is nevertheless reason to believe that unilateral default followed by a break with the euro would lead to recovery within months. Obviously, the government would need to have a well thought-out Plan B that would allow it to bridge the difficult transition period.
This is why some of Syriza’s more radical factions are now urging the government to take this gamble and pursue a rupture with the creditors. The party’s moderate and euro-friendly leadership, however, does not appear to be willing to do so. While the divide between the two camps can partly be ascribed to ideological differences within Syriza and the fear of being punished by voters for crashing out of the Eurozone, it should be clear that the predominance of creditor-friendly solutions to international debt crises cannot be ascribed purely to a lack of “political willingness” on the part of government officials. The spillover costs of default structurally limit the room for maneuver of heavily indebted peripheral states, compelling them to repay no matter who is in charge of the government and no matter how radical their ideas may be.
These limiting factors are related to the three structural changes mentioned before. In the case of Greece, the country remains dependent on foreign sources of credit — at least in the short-term — to pay pensions and wages. Since private investors have long since stopped buying Greek debt, the only ones capable of furnishing the Greek government with much-needed cash are the Eurogroup and the IMF. Both are currently withholding promised credit tranches and refusing to extend further loans unless the Syriza government surrenders to the creditors’ dictates by effectively renouncing the anti-austerity and anti-reform platform on which it was elected.
Meanwhile, the Greek state and economy remain dependent on the functioning of the domestic credit system, which is currently kept alive with drip-feed infusions of emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) from the European Central Bank. The ECB sets the ceiling for the total amount of ELA that Greek banks are entitled to, raising this amount only marginally every two weeks. This is clearly a deliberate attempt to starve the Greek economy of liquidity and thereby put pressure on the government to surrender.
Unsurprisingly, in such a context of growing financial insecurity, ordinary Greeks fear that the government may soon impose capital controls to prevent a banking collapse, so they have begun to withdraw their bank deposits in droves: more than 35 billion has been withdrawn since December. If these trends continue, the banks may have to shut their doors within three weeks. The consequences for the Greek economy would be immediate. Without ECB help, the government would be forced to come to the rescue of the banking system with an infusion of liquidity — thus forcing it to print a new currency.
So for all the obvious drama, there is a grave irony in all of this. The structural power of creditors in today’s heavily financialized world economy may have succeeded in preventing the vast majority of borrowing countries from pursuing unilateral default in response to a sovereign crises; but in the case of Greece the extreme stance of the creditors, in their dogged insistence on full repayment and a complete surrender of Syriza’s radicals, is threatening to produce precisely that which it is supposed to prevent: a disorderly unilateral default.
The Eurogroup seems blind to the fact that Tsipras and Varoufakis are probably the creditors’ most reliable allies in Greece today. Both are moderate reformists with widespread popular support who are actually willing to repay, even if they know they cannot. By forcing Syriza’s relatively cooperative leadership into a humiliating cash-for-reforms deal, the creditors may actually end up strengthening the hand of the pro-default radicals inside the government. Alternatively, if they refuse to sign a deal and continue to deprive the Greek government of the emergency credit on which it depends to service its maturing obligations, they may simply make default unstoppable.
This shows that even the most watertight regimes of financial control may end up backfiring into the faces of those who run them — and while there is no way to predict that this will actually happen in Greece, the creditors clearly cannot rest on their laurels just yet. Yes, unilateral default has been largely banished from the global political economy in recent decades. And yes, national governments have long since been shackled to their creditors in an all-encompassing system of hyper-financialized capitalism. But none of this provides any guarantees that Greece’s banking system will survive long enough and its cash reserves will be replenished in time for the government to be able to pay the 1.5 billion euros falling due to the IMF over the course of June.
Standing at the edge of a cliff and confronted with such a deeply entrenched and extremely asymmetric balance of power, we should not be surprised that a young and ill-prepared government like Greece’s is hesitant to jump voluntarily. Still, no one can predict how they will react when they are pushed. Maybe it’s time to give them a little nudge from below?
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @JeromeRoos. This article was written for TeleSUR English.
On Wednesday, five major international banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, America’s largest and third-largest financial institutions, pleaded guilty to felony charges for helping to manipulate global foreign exchange markets, paying a wrist-slap fine of about $1 billion apiece.
The financial impact on JPMorgan and the other banks for pleading guilty to a felony will be effectively zero. As part of the deal, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued waivers exempting the banks from the legal repercussions arising from their status as criminal organizations, giving them continued preferential treatment in issuing debt, as well as the continued right to operate mutual funds.
Despite the claims by Justice Department officials of a criminal conspiracy “on a massive scale,” carried out with “breathtaking flagrancy,” there was no talk of breaking up JPMorgan or any other bank, let alone bringing criminal charges against any of their executives.
The rigging of global foreign exchange rates is only the latest in the string of crimes, frauds and criminal conspiracies for which JPMorgan has been fined by US and international regulators.
* In January 2013, JPMorgan, together with 10 other banks, agreed to pay a combined $8.5 billion to settle charges that they forged documents to foreclose homes more quickly.
* In November 2013, the bank agreed to pay $13 billion to settle charges that it defrauded investors by selling fraudulent mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the housing bubble collapse in 2007 and 2008.
* That same month, JPMorgan paid $4.5 billion to settle charges that it defrauded pension funds and other institutional investors to whom it sold mortgage bonds.
* In December 2013, JPMorgan and eight other banks were fined $2.3 billion for manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), the global benchmark interest rate on which the values of trillions of dollars in securities are based.
* In January 2014, JPMorgan paid $2 billion in fines and penalties to settle charges that it profited from and helped operate Bernard L. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
As a result of the crimes perpetrated by JPMorgan and other banks over the past decade, millions of people have had their homes foreclosed, and millions more have lost their jobs, while countless university endowments, pension plans, and municipalities have been swindled out of billions of dollars.
Based on this partial list of only the latest and largest crimes carried out by JPMorgan, it is no exaggeration to conclude that America’s largest bank is a criminal organization. Why then is it impossible to prosecute, much less jail, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, the mastermind of all of these crimes and conspiracies?
The answer to this question lies in the vast retrogression in social relations that has taken place in America amid the enormous growth of social inequality. Behind the increasingly threadbare outwards trappings of democracy, America has become an aristocratic society, with entrenched legal and social privileges for the ruling elite.
Before the French Revolution of 1789, European society was divided into feudal estates, such as the nobility, the church prelates, and the commoners. The estate into which someone was born was not only an economic category, but affected all aspects of life, from the laws that applied to him, to the types of taxes he paid, even to the kind of clothes he was legally allowed to wear.
The foundations of American democracy, laid in the aftermath of the American Revolution, were set up in opposition to the rigid social hierarchy that dominated contemporary Europe. The American Constitution prohibits the granting and holding of titles of nobility, while the 14th Amendment explicitly guarantees “the equal protection of the laws” to all people.
But could anyone argue that this is the case now? According to the American Bar Association, there are more than three hundred people serving sentences of life without parole for shoplifting in the state of California alone, while countless thousands of men throughout the United States are imprisoned for being too poor to pay child support.
Meanwhile the financial oligarchy and the state officials who defend their interests are effectively immune from prosecution. This tiny elite constitutes not merely a separate economic class, but effectively a separate estate, judged under what are, in effect, a different set of laws. A worker can be thrown in jail for failing to show up for a court date, while bankers who steal billions of dollars get off scot-free.
The American financial aristocracy is an inherently criminal class. Its wealth is based not on production, but on plunder, speculation and the upward redistribution of wealth through the impoverishment of the great majority of the population.
This financial oligarchy controls all the levers of power in contemporary society. The media, courts, politicians and so-called financial regulators are all under the thumb of the Wall Street mafiosos. Far from seeking to restrain Wall Street’s criminality, the government functions to facilitate and cover up for its crimes.
In exchange, politicians are provided with millions of dollars in campaign contributions and “speaking fees,” while top financial regulators are invariably assured high-paying positions on Wall Street after their stints with the government.
Ben Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chairman who funneled trillions of dollars to Wall Street during the 2008 bank bailout, announced this year that he has been hired by two major Wall Street firms, the hedge fund Citadel and the bond trading firm Pimco, each of whom will presumably pay him a seven-figure salary. Bernanke followed in the footsteps of his colleague Timothy Geithner, who became the head of hedge fund Warburg Pincus in November 2013, following his stint as Treasury Secretary.
There is no way to break the power of the criminal cabal that dominates political life in the United States within the framework of the present social order. Holding the Wall Street criminals to account requires a radical reorganization of society. Only then can the criminals who head the major US financial institutions be arrested, tried and convicted of the crimes that they have orchestrated against the populations of the United States and the whole world. Their ill-gotten gains must be seized, and the major Wall Street banks must be put under democratic control by the international working class.
In yet another wrist-slap settlement for bankers involved in criminality on a massive scale, the US government on Wednesday announced that five major banks had pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy and antitrust charges and agreed to pay a combined total of approximately $5 billion in fines.
The payouts, much of them tax deductible, are a fraction of the combined profits of the banks. The amounts have already been set aside by bank CEOs as the cost of doing business in an environment in which banks routinely break the law, secure in the knowledge that there will be no serious consequences.
The banks—JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, UBS, Barclays and RBS—admitted to conspiring to rig global currency exchange rates. They made billions of dollars by illegally manipulating rates affecting countless businesses and individuals around the world. All of the banks were previously implicated in rigging Libor (the London Interbank Offered Rate), the global benchmark used to set short-term interest rates for hundreds of trillions of dollars in loans.
Two of the banks, UBS and Barclays, carried out the foreign exchange fraud in violation of the terms of their non-prosecution agreements with the US government stemming from their involvement in the Libor scandal.
The documents released by the Justice Department in relation to the settlement point to the culture of fraud and criminality on Wall Street. As one Barclays vice president put it, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”
Since the Wall Street crash of 2008, these and other major banks have been cited for crimes ranging from fraudulently selling worthless mortgage securities, to laundering money for Mexican drug lords, facilitating Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and concealing billions in speculative losses. For these crimes they have suffered no serious consequences.
Instead, regulators in the US and internationally have crafted settlements in backroom negotiations with the criminals involving token fines that turn out to be significantly smaller than the nominal figures announced by government officials.
“The criminality occurred on a massive scale,” said FBI Assistant Director Andrew McCabe, announcing the foreign exchange fraud settlement on Wednesday. He explained that traders at multiple banks rigged estimates of global currency exchange rates every day for up to five years.
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke of the conspiracy’s “breathtaking flagrancy, its systemic reach, and its significant impact.” Aitan Goelman, the head of enforcement at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, called the five banks a “cabal.”
These statements, meant to give the appearance of government toughness toward the banks, only underscored the gaping discrepancy between the scale of the crimes and the toothless character of the punishment. Wednesday’s announcement was further confirmation that the US and international financial aristocracy is above the law.
Not a single major bank has been closed down or broken up since the 2008 crash, triggered by reckless and illegal speculative activities. Not a single bank CEO or top official has been prosecuted or jailed for crimes that have led to the impoverishment of countless millions of people.
But a petty crime carried out by a US worker or working-class youth brings down the wrath of a so-called “justice system” that is merciless when it comes to the lower social orders. Tens of thousands of workers and poor people are cast into America’s prison gulag every year for offenses that pale in comparison to the crimes carried out by Wall Street CEOs.
Or they are killed outright by the militarized police who occupy America’s working-class neighborhoods. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed youth, was gunned down last August by a Ferguson, Missouri cop who was tracking him for allegedly stealing a package of cigarillos from a convenience store.
In the deal announced Wednesday, the banks pleaded guilty to felony charges. This is a departure from previous settlements in which the government allowed the banks to avoid any admission of guilt.
But the guilty pleas were part of a scheme worked out between the government and the banks to render the pleas virtually meaningless. The Securities and Exchange Commission issued waivers exempting the banks from the legal repercussions of committing a felony, giving them continued preferential treatment in issuing debt as well as the continued ability to operate mutual funds.
In today’s thoroughly corrupt political environment, totally dominated by corporate money, there is no stigma attached to a bank that effectively admits to being a criminal enterprise. The media pays no attention and the markets could care less. Shares of most of the banks involved in the settlement spiked on Wednesday. UBS and Barclays both rose 3.4 percent. RBS finished the day up by 1.9 percent.
Wednesday’s settlement is further evidence of the reassertion of the aristocratic principle in contemporary capitalist society: there is one set of laws for the vast majority, the working people, and an entirely different legal framework for the financial oligarchs—one that can be summed up with the phrase “Anything goes.”
Their stories are far from unique. Suicide occurs everywhere in the world to people of all age groups, from 15 to 70 years. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that almost one million people commit suicide every year, with 20 times that number attempting it, and the numbers are rising. Methods vary from country to country: in the USA, where firearms litter the streets, 60% of people shoot themselves; in India and other Asian countries, as well as South Africa, taking poison, particularly drinking pesticides, is the most popular choice. In Hong Kong, China and urban Taiwan, WHO records that a new method, “charcoal-burning suicide” has been recorded. Drowning, jumping from a height, slashing wrists and hanging (the most popular form in Britain, the Balkans and Eastern European countries) are some of the other ways desperate human beings decide to end their lives.
Stigma and Under-reporting of Suicides
According to WHO, 1.5% of worldwide deaths were caused by suicide in 2012, making it the third highest cause of death in the World, and this is just those deaths which have been confirmed as suicide. WHO admits that the availability and quality of data is poor, with only 60 Member States providing statistics “that can be used directly to estimate suicide rates.” Many suicides, they say, “are hidden among other causes of death, such as single car, single driver road traffic accidents, un-witnessed drowning’s and other undetermined deaths.” These are just some of the many factors that make accurately assessing the numbers who take their own lives problematic. In countries where social attitudes, or religious dogma, shroud suicide in a stigma of guilt (Sub-Saharan Africa, where suicide is rarely if ever discussed or admitted, for instance), suicide may be hidden and go un-reported; so too in countries where suicide is still regarded as a criminal act: Hungary for example, where attempted suicide carries a prison sentence of five years, or Japan where it is illegal to commit suicide. North Korea, where relatives of a person committing suicide are penalised; Ireland, where self-harm is not generally regarded as a form of attempted suicide; Singapore, where suicide remains illegal and attempted suicide can result in imprisonment; or Russia, where the rate of teenage suicides is three times the world average and where those attempting suicide can be committed to a psychiatric hospital. All of which are pretty strong reasons for hiding suicide attempts and concealing suicide as the cause of death, as well as deterring people from discussing suicidal thoughts.
Whatever the precise number of total deaths by suicide – and all the indications are that it is a good deal higher than WHO says – what is clear is that suicide is a major social issue. The figures of both attempted suicides and committed suicides are increasing; it needs to be openly discussed, the causes understood and more support provided. In the last 45 years, WHO state that suicide rates have increased by 60%, and unless something marvellous happens that drastically changes the environment in which we are living, they predict that by 2020 the rate of death will have doubled – from one suicide every 40 seconds, to someone, somewhere in the world taking his/her life every 20 seconds!
Rates of suicide and gender ratios vary from country to country and region to region, but overwhelmingly men are more at risk than women. WHO found that 75% of global suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries, with 30% of all suicides occurring in China and India where suicide was only de-criminalised in 2014. Eastern European countries, such as Lithuania and the Russian Federation, recorded the highest numbers of suicides, the Eastern Mediterranean Region, Central and South America (Peru, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia) the lowest. And although suicide rates worldwide have traditionally been highest amongst elderly men, young people – that’s 15-29 – year olds, are now the group at the greatest risk in a third of all countries. Suicide, WHO states, is the “leading cause of death in this age group after transport and other accidents and assault for males,” with very little gender difference – “9.5% in males and 8.2% in females.”
Throughout western societies around three times the number of men die by suicide than women, and over 50s are particularly vulnerable. In Britain men account for 80% of all suicide cases (with an average of 13 men a day killing themselves), 40-44 year olds are particularly at risk here. In “low- and middle-income countries”, WHO records, “the male-to-female ratio is much lower [than more developed countries] at 1.5 men to each woman.” Surprisingly, in the USA, where four times the number of men die from suicide than women, according to The Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, women are more likely to attempt it. The statistical gender gap in western societies may in small part be caused, The Samaritans think, by the different suicide methods used by men and women. Leading to the fact that in some cases “the intent cannot be determined (or assumed) as easily [with women] as in methods more common to males.” This may result, they say, “in more under-reporting of suicidal deaths in females.“
The Causes of Suicide
The specific reasons why people commit suicide are many and varied; ‘mental health issues’ is the umbrella term often cited as the cause. According to researchers at Glasgow University 90% of suicide cases suffer from some form of mental illness. It is an ambiguous phrase though, that explains little, and comforts the bereaved less. It would seem obvious that if someone kills themselves, they are not feeling mentally or emotionally ‘intact’, or ‘good’. ‘I struggled for so long’, ‘I couldn’t cope anymore’, ‘life seemed meaningless’, ‘I felt tremendous anxiety’, and so on, are phrases common to many of us, including those people contemplating, attempting or committing suicide. Perhaps understandably depression is usually mentioned as a cause, but this of course does not mean everyone suffering from depression is at risk of suicide!
The WHO makes clear that whilst suicide rates vary enormously from country to country, differences, “influenced by the cultural, social, religious and economic environments in which people live and sometimes want to stop living..…the pressures of life, that cause extreme emotional distress” and sometimes lead to suicide, “are similar everywhere.”
It is these ‘pressures of life’, that need to be properly understood, what they are, where they come from, the impact they have, and how we can change the structure of society to free humanity from them. Why do we have such damaging ‘pressures of life’? We should not be living in a world that produces such detrimental forces. Something in our world society is terribly wrong when a million or so people kill themselves every year, and where suicide is the second highest cause of death amongst under 20 year olds.
I am not a psychologist, but commonsense would suggest that the ‘sense of self’ must be at the heart of the issue, the volatile central cause. If that ‘sense of self’ is positive, if one feels connected to ‘life’, has structure, purpose and self-belief, feels liked, loved even, then suicide would seem unlikely. If, however, the image of self is negative, of a ‘failure’, unable to ‘fit in’, feeling lost, lacking direction and experiencing social and emotional withdrawal, a fragile sense of self and increasing vulnerability are, it would seem, likely.
Then there are the practical problems we all face of earning a living and paying the rent/mortgage; the more subtle issues – pressures of ‘succeeding’ – economically, socially, in a career, and in ‘love’. The inability – real or perceived – to meet these ‘pressures of life’ creating worry and anxiety – perhaps leading to alcohol or substance abuse – which strengthens social isolation, reinforces the image of failure, weakening self-belief/confidence and strengthening self-loathing. And all this in a world where weakness, particularly in men, is frowned upon; where sensitivity, uncertainty and fragility are to be overcome – ‘toughen up’ is the message, spoken directly or indirectly.
We have little understanding of who and what we are, so we create images, cling to ideological constructs that move us further and further away from our true nature. The ideal image of what it means to be a human being, particularly a man, has become increasingly narrow. Men, especially under 40 year olds, must be decisive, strong and ambitious. Any flowery beliefs – philosophical or religious for example – should be eradicated, or at least hidden, certainly not mentioned in public. Any admission of self-doubt and signs of vulnerability should be completely avoided, and a macho, no-nonsense approach to life adopted and expressed.
Broadly speaking this has become the stereotype of what it is to be a man in the 21st century, and conformity to the pattern is insisted on – via education, peer pressure and the corporate media. Women, particularly young women are expected to meet a similarly, if slightly less constricting, formulated ideal. Both are extremely restrictive, unhealthy images that fit into a worldwide system of societal uniformity, built by, and in the interests of, multinationals (who own everything), facilitated by corporate governments (who lack principles), which is sucking the richness, and diversity out of life. Everyone is expected to want the same things, to wear the same clothes, believe the same propaganda, aspire to the same ideals and behave the same. Every country, city, town and village is seen as a marketplace, every person a consumer to be exploited fully, sucked dry and discarded.
Competition and conformity have infiltrated every area of worldwide society, from education to health care. Everything and everyone is seen as a commodity, to be bought at the lowest price and sold at the highest, financial profit is the overwhelming motive that drives and distorts action. Materialistic values promoting individual success, greed and selfishness saturate the world; ‘values’ that divide and separate humanity, leading to social tension, conflict and illness. Ideals, which are not values in any real sense of the word, which have both fashioned the divisive political-economic landscape in which we live (which has failed the masses and poisoned the planet), and been strengthened by it. Together with the economic system of market fundamentalism which so ardently promotes them, these ‘values’ form, I believe, the basic ingredients in the interwoven set of social factors that cause a great deal of the ‘mental health issues’, which lead those most vulnerable members of our society to commit suicide. Men, women and children who simply cannot cope with the ‘pressures of life’ anymore, who feel the collective and individual pain of life acutely, are disposed towards introspection and find the world too noisy, its values too crude, its demands of ‘strength’ not weakness, ‘success’ not failure, ‘confidence’ not doubt, impossible to meet. And why should they have to meet them, why do these ‘pressures of life’ exist at all?
It is time to build an altogether different, healthier model, a new way of living in which true perennial values of goodness, shape the systems that govern the societies in which we live, and not the corrosive, ideologically reductive corporate weapons of ubiquitous living which are sucking the beauty, diversity and joy out of life. Values of compassion, selflessness, cooperation, tolerance and understanding; we need, as Arundhati Roy puts it, “to redefine the meaning of modernity, to redefine the meaning of happiness,” for we have exchanged happiness for pleasure, replaced love with desire, unity with division, cooperation with competition, and have created a divided society, where conflict rages, internationally, regionally, communally and individually.