Following on in our series of articles on mental health and capitalism, Sean Baillie looks at male suicide, currently the leading cause of death in men under 50 in the UK. Alienation, drugs and toxic masculinity are cited as key factors in this epidemic – what role should trade unions be playing to combat this? The following piece is not graphic, but it does deal in sensitive content matter...
As has been established in various Conter articles in recent weeks, mental health is an inherently political issue. As author Mark Fisher argued, capitalism “denies any possibility of social causation” for serious mental health issues though it's well established our political system plays a huge role. And so, when we look at how trade unions can turn the tide against male suicide, we should certainly consider how the right has weaponised this issue to exploit struggling young men.
In total, 75% of the 728 people who killed themselves in Scotland in 2016 were men. Many able writers, doctors and academics have written extensively on the causes, but as socialists we should be asking what we can do collectively to turn the tide? And what role should our trade unions play?
Modern right wing movements, and some of the prominent intellectuals at their forefront, seek to lay the blame at the door of feminism, PC culture and “cultural Marxism”. They acknowledge the feelings of disempowerment and alienation but balk at any mention of toxic masculinity. On social media, such phrases are debated and fought over and obsessed over in a war-like environment. It's tempting to launch into a diatribe about cultural hegemony and reference Marx's theory of alienation, but it's pertinent here to consider the circumstances that have led us to this point.
Modern curators of the right are savvy in the way they attempt to manipulate and link facts. For example, they argue mass de-industrialisation and globalisation goes hand with “socially liberal” advancements and campaigns for greater equality between different races and genders. A link is drawn between these battles and male mental health, but the impact that sweeping economic changes have had on working class men within a capitalism system is never fully debated on any decent public platform.
When you throw in Scotland's high levels of recreational drug use, you have the conditions for a perfect storm. Drink and drugs are inevitably used to relieve and escape some of the stresses and traumas faced by people in working class communities in everyday life. Moves might have been made to mitigate the effects – take the minimum alcohol pricing policy being implemented in Scotland for example – but what has been done to enforce any kind of cultural change?
A great number of us could share anecdotes and spin a yarn about showing up to work still inebriated or feeling the effects of a heavy night before. I have many friends who speak about how the pace they work at is tracked and monitored throughout the day to measure productivity. These same workplaces will rigorously punish and spot check workers, even banning them from work sites if they're found to have traces of drink or drugs in their system.
Arguments for such measures are rightly ones relating to health and safety, but what duty of care is shown by an employer when their working conditions have forced an employee to blow off steam in their downtime? Is it right that this just leads them to being punished and losing their job the next day, amplifying any problems they may be facing?
Unemployment, poverty, debt, alienation and a sense of lost hope drives hundreds of men to kill themselves each year and so it's vital to consider whether their work and living conditions could save lives. It's clear that young men are the most likely to commit suicide, the most likely to develop drug and alcohol addictions, and the most likely to be drawn in by the far right. When these conditions contribute to the twisting of young men's ideologies it's little surprise far right groups like the EDL (below) are the predators. Combating racism and sexism requires an understanding of this.
But also importantly – who is in the best position to deliver better conditions in the first place? Trade unions might have their own problem – anyone who's been to a conference will testify that sexism and even racism is rife with the ranks of many unions – but membership of a union offers members a real opportunity.
A good union will provide a sense of collective power, education, security, hope and belonging. We don't need to be in employment to feel a part of this – projects like Unity Community and Living Rent tenants union are models of neighbourhood organisation free from explicit party politics. Engaging people and building up their capacity to act (without asking for a vote) goes a long way to building trust on both a personal and political level. It provides a platform for everyone who feels abandoned and ignored to not only have their voice heard but to experience the power of collective victories, smashing many of the conditions that lead us to suicide or hateful resentment.
The trust a union membership can bring is a building block when it comes to changing society in the long run. It's also the necessary element in allowing people to break down the challenges they see in their lives. It offers the opportunity to see others in a new light, as equals in the same fight, and should open our eyes to the fact we need to defend each other rather than attack.
And it has to come from the unions – especially when party politicians have disengaged and disempowered so many. Trade Unions have access to people in their workplaces and provide the opportunity for people to directly defend and better themselves. They don't request that people hand away their power with a vote at the ballot box every few years. A Union instils the belief and power that everyone has the power to change the world around them.
And if we are to save lives and fight back against male suicide and the poisons that contribute to it, we must always reflect on the importance of empowerment. Unions should support and education; they should be the body that incubates workers when societal pressures overwhelm. This isn't a wet blanket argument in defence of existing unions but a rallying call to go out and change them. If we want to crush the suicide rates and prevent the continued rise in conditions that fuel the far right, we need strong unions people can be involved in.