Israeli economic and social policies are turning a growing number of people into a burden, a surplus cost that can be saved by withdrawing benefits and tightening up welfare criteria. These people are branded as work-shy, cheats and parasites. Against this background, it is clear that even though the National Program for the Prevention of Suicide meets a critical need, it is also emblematic of the government’s cynicism.
By Yossi Loss
(Translated from Hebrew by Orna Meir-Stacey, edited by Amy Asher)
In his first book, published in 1952 in two different editions and under two different titles (Utopia 14 and Player Piano), Kurt Vonnegut describes a reality in which many people are superfluous. In such a world, all human consumption is provided by machines and most humans become useless. The only people whose work is required are engineers and managers, who hold PhDs. In order to somehow employ the rest, they are sent to the army or to repair roads. But actually they are surplus, and if they committed suicide tomorrow morning it would be a patriotic act on their part, as this would unburden the state from seeing to their needs – at least from the point of view of the powerful people controlling it.
Vonnegut referred to the same idea in different ways in subsequent publications. For instance, in the story “2 B R 0 2 B” in the book God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, he describes a planet where there is strict control over the size of the population, as all problems had been resolved and all can live forever and in good health. Therefore, when children are about to be born, which does not happen so often anymore, others must volunteer and commit suicide, in order to maintain the population size. There is a federal office for the purpose of ending life, which uses gas chambers among other methods. In another story, there are so many surplus people that the government encourages its citizens to commit suicide. Suicide centers are placed on busy junctions near fast-food restaurants, where genial stewardesses offer death without pain.
Vonnegut likes to take to the extreme the modern motivations to cure all diseases, improve manufacturing, and in fact solve all problems scientifically and rationally. By doing that he shows that these so-called ultimate achievements defeat the very objective modernity has aspired to: control nature in the service of improving people’s lives. This objective seems worthy – to save lives or at the very least extend them, to be more efficient – but what would happen when this objective is fully achieved? This may be a narrative interpretation of the Dialectics of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung) by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who criticized European modernity by applying the same values of this modernity itself, rather than in the name of tradition, religion, or in the name of other suppressed cultures. Perhaps what protects modern people from this fate is the lack of any real hope for the accomplishment of modern fantasies.
Indeed, the current reality in Israel is quite different from that imagined by Vonnegut a few decades ago as the peak of modernity. But the understanding that the capitalist logic of maximizing efficiency is making an increasing number of people (economically) superfluous is common both to Vonnegut’s stories and to the social reality in Israel today, and not only in Israel. Unlike Vonnegut’s futuristic world, however, it is not that technology has developed to such extremes that workers are not required anymore. Rather, economic emphasis has shifted from real manufacturing and services to financial speculations. For years now, most of the global movement of capital is located in financial transactions rather than in trade in raw materials and products. The government pays meticulous attention to the market’s needs, at the expense of responding to basic human needs. People who are unable to fulfill their basic needs under the current sociopolitical conditions, for whatever reason, are perceived by the government, and its various arms, as surplus. The ‘surplus’ people demand the state look after them, but the state turns a cold and violent shoulder to them, as they contribute nothing to the capital market, the apple of the government’s eye. If any of them decide to take their own life, from the state’s point of view this would be a patriotic act that exempts it from the burden of dealing with their demands and repeated complaints, of coping with their hardships.
Since Moshe Silman’s suicide by immolation, several others who have despaired of the possibility that their situation will improve sometime in the future have committed suicide in this terrible fashion:
This is a partial, limited list. In October 2014 I learned of two more suicides reported here in Haokets by Yael Cohen-Rimmer and Yudit Ilani: two mothers who committed suicide by jumping from a building in two different cities in Israel. These stories attracted no headlines, as the mothers left minor, vulnerable children behind. Such under-coverage is typical of these stories of economic suicide. Silman is the exception to this rule because his act was deliberately planned to coincide with a high-profile demonstration.
Eliezer Fishman, rated 40th in the Forbes’ 100 Richest Israelis List (Hebrew), provided a rational explanation for the appearance of the social-economic protest in July 2013, in Israel’s leading economic website, The Marker (Hebrew): “Today the parents die more slowly, so a problem was created. If grandfathers and grandmothers continued to die aged 65, there would be no problem and there would be no protest.” Fishman could easily be one of Vonnegut’s characters. I don’t think that Fishman (aged 71) would wish his parents to die faster, or that he himself should die in order to solve the problem raised by the protest movement. It would also make no difference, as he has a vast fortune (NIS 2.7 billion). I also don’t think that Fishman is a bad or cynical man. He simply describes reality from his point of view and defines the problematic issue, being all these poor old people on welfare. They are the ones living too long. If that is the problem, and given all the familiar “free market” rationales for why it is unrealistic and disastrous to tax the rich – for example, they will emigrate, even though nobody would doubt their patriotism – we must cut down on benefits, because the poor are layabouts, and prosperity is bound to trickle down. The logical solution is simply to do away with the surplus. It’s unpleasant, but there is no choice. We must be realistic. At the end of the day, that’s the bottom line. Isn’t that so, Fishman?
Many of the people committing suicide owing to economic distress have done so in a way designed to attract attention, perhaps to bring about change through their own death, which they have not managed to achieve in their lifetime. They have set themselves on fire. However, other than the case of Moshe Silman in the summer of 2012, the next self-immolations were reported mainly in alternative media, if at all. Those reaching mainstream media were relegated to the bottom of the last page. After all, many people die every day. This is not news. On the other hand, what Netanyahu said about the Iranian nuclear threat, about ISIS, about Hamas… that is sensational news! As are the ever-refreshing economic insights of the Finance Ministry clerks. For instance, one of the reports about self-immolation was published a full month after the event. Why?
It must be said that this suicide wave did not start with Silman. Already in 2003 there were children who committed suicide (Hebrew) because they felt they were too much of a burden on their parents. This twisted logic apparently trickles down to the children of those poor and desperate surplus people. Ynet’s Avi Cohen wrote on April 8, 2003: “The office of Welfare Minister, Zvulun Orlev, reports that compared to the same period last year, an increase of over 100 suicide cases has been documented since the beginning of the year. 2002 saw a 65 percent increase in suicide cases in Israel, compared to the year before. Many of the suicide cases which have occurred recently are attributed to the difficult economic situation.”
The response of the cruel people in power to these shocking suicide acts was, as a rule, framing the incidents as personal tragedies. However, it is the economic policy driving a growing number of people to despair that is the real tragedy, and it is not at all personal. It is shared by most citizens and is a direct result of deliberate decisions and actions undertaken by government ministers and prime minister, who are rolling their eyes and asking where were the neighbours and where was the family (Hebrew)? And in December 2013 they created the National Program for the Prevention of Suicide within the Ministry of Health, as if this were a health problem, and as if their own policies were not behind so many suicide cases. As if at stake were the personal tragedies – to paraphrase Netanyahu again – of a few mentally disturbed people who refused to accept reality for the cruel manipulation that it was. Given that most surplus people have not committed suicide yet, something must be wrong with the people who have – so the logic goes. Admittedly, suicide is not a mass phenomenon – but what exactly does that prove? Dealing with the prevention of suicide on a personal level is, in fact, ignoring the conditions that promote suicide and refusing to change them.
Clearly not all acts of suicide in Israel and elsewhere are a result of economic hardship, and surely even when money is in short supply, the objective difficulty is exacerbated by unique personal difficulties or human weaknesses. People who suffer from chronic depression or incurable diseases, people traumatized by military service or many other negative life events take their own life without necessarily being poor. Regrettably, I have personally known people who committed, or tried to commit suicide. Lihi Goldberg published here in Haokets a heart-rending article (Hebrew) about the sudden suicide of her father, and in favor of the new Ministry of Health Program. It is possible that such a program would have prevented her father’s suicide, and perhaps it will succeed in preventing the suicides of others and in easing the suffering of their family and friends. But I am not dealing here with the personal reasons of those committing suicide. I am dealing with a phenomenon of suicides by people who driven to despair by neoliberalism. Interestingly enough, this program is not blind to the fact that there are oppressive social structures that drive people to suicide. On the contrary, it explicitly targets Israelis of Ethiopian decent and Russian speakers, who commit suicide in disproportionately high numbers. But its discourse seems to ignore poverty as a key cause for suicides, perhaps much more powerful than the admitted difficulty of legal immigrants to integrate into Israeli society in their first years in the country. In other words, the program acknowledges the social-structural basis of the suicide phenomenon, without acknowledging the socioeconomic policies underlying it. Moreover, for the huge majority of immigrants the first years after immigration are long gone, and if immigrants from Ethiopia and the former USSR continue committing suicide in disproportionate rates, this is not just because of an initial difficulty in integration
A report of the Ministry of Health published in April 2014 (Hebrew) based on suicide data from 1981 to 2011 did not show a regular trend of increase or decrease over the years. However, the real number of suicides and mainly of those attempting suicide is unknown. It is significantly higher than the reported figures. Social embarrassment helps conceal suicide cases. Some statisticians try to factor this in using certain percentages, but these are just assessments. It is possible that in the wake of the 2011 protest and the growing frustration owing to its crushing failure, the last three years saw a significant increase. A clue to that is provided by the 10 percent leap in the number of attempted suicides, from 5,588 in 2011 to 6,159 in 2012. We should still await the full data for the past three years.
The economic suicide phenomenon is not unique to Israel. In Europe, a wave of suicidesfollowed the financial crisis. In Greece, according to government statistics, the rate of men’s suicide rose by more than 24 percent in 2007-2009. For years we have known of the phenomenon of mass suicide by Indian farmers unable to repay debts created not due to their own negligence, but owing to changes in the capital market: no less than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. Like its Israeli counterpart, the Indian government did not build patriotic suicide centers in busy junctions as in Vonnegut’s cynical forecast. However, unlike Israel, it at least tries to atone for its sins (Hebrew) and “grants a compensation of 100,000 rupees to the family of a person who committed suicide, when it was determined that he took his life on agricultural background.” Also, it “initiated a line of steps such as waiver of debts, information and agricultural developmental projects, in order to fight the suicides – which turned into a political issue – but the numbers show that the phenomenon continues.”
According to a study published in September 2012 by epidemiologist Ian Rocket, the number of deaths by road accidents in the U.S. dropped in the years 2000-2009 by 25 percent, but the number of suicide deaths increased by 15 percent. In 2009 more than 37,000 people took their own life and more than half a million people were in danger of suicide. At the time of publication (and possibly also today), suicide was the number-one cause of injury deaths in the U.S. Despite that, the number of reported suicide cases does not represent the real amount, according to Rocket. The real number, in his estimate, is at least 20 percent higher. For instance, the number of poisoning cases increased in the studied years by 128 percent. It is impossible to know for certainty when the poisoning is intentional and when it isn’t. A report published in 2011 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that “suicide rates in the U.S. tend to rise during recessions and fall amid economic booms.”
As long as the reality that produces impossible debts turns working people into prisoners without a prison, the Program for the Prevention of Suicide can only treat the symptoms, not the disease – in fact, only the most extreme symptoms. As long as you do not completely despair and are ready to suffer a life of poverty, humiliation, oppression, and disease, we have nothing to do for you. Once you reach rock bottom, contact us. But this may be too late. The only ones who can contact the Program at such a late stage of despair are, in fact, the family and neighbors. Perhaps this is why Naftali Bennet was complaining about the neighbors and the family. But, who are the neighbors and family members of potential economic suicides? Usually, people in similar distress. We may assume they don’t want their relative or neighbor to commit suicide, but they also understand what the alternative is, and at least to a degree share the sense of being surplus and valueless, helpless and desperate.
It can be maintained that if we do not change the socioeconomic policies that makes people superfluous, establishing a Program for the Prevention of Suicide would remain a noble but ineffective gesture. Government systems turn a growing number of people into a burden, a surplus cost which can be saved by withdrawing benefits and tightening up welfare criteria. These people are branded as work-shy, cheats and parasites. Against this background, it is clear that even though the program meets a critical need, it is also emblematic of the government’s cynicism.
One of the worst feelings people can give to others is that they are disposable and unnecessary. That everyone would be better off if they would simply disappear, as there are no benefits for them anymore. They are not miserable enough, or have not exhausted their earning ability, or not ill enough, or don’t have enough needy children…
Kurt Vonnegut’s “program” of convenient suicide centers near fast food restaurants is only seemingly cynical, but in fact exposes the system’s cynicism. That of a system which turns people to surplus, and then, when they decide to commit suicide, feigns shock. It is only sensible that people who are made to feel superfluous would kill themselves. In fact if they don’t have a strong enough social-familial network, if they don’t have enough mental resources, how will they survive poverty and endless debt? Vonnegut was not always macabre in his criticism of modernity. In God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, he tells of a man who was born rich and, instead of continuing to gain more and more capital through never ending greed, he starts a social experiment whereby the question at stake is how much love one person can give to others. He is a volunteer firefighter and, besides, he sits in a small room, answers the phone when it rings at any hour of the day, and gives financial support to anybody who asks. Simple: they ask and he gives, without determining criteria of eligibility and without checking who is lying. For him this is a question of love. Human love. What does this say about our leaders who push people to suicide?
This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.