This Unbearable Life: Dignity, Death, and US Capitalism

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As a social worker, one learns that dignity is written into the value system of the profession. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) emphasizes the dignity and worth of a person in its Code of Ethics. Yet the challenges of living with dignity continue to increase under the declining conditions of US capitalism. Even worse, the concept of dignity is becoming difficult to define under such a terrain. Life is simply unbearable for the vast majority of working people in the United States and the world at large.

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Individual social workers often feel like an infantile force when it comes to challenging the social relations that make daily life so unbearable. The dominance of the corporate healthcare system as well as a deep neo-liberal ideological focus on the individual has privileged psychotherapy over all other possibilities for social work practice. Questions of political economy such as class, white supremacy, and gender are answered through a lens of individual and political reform rather than transformation. A social work therapist, for example, treats depression either as a disorder afflicting the individual or as a product of the lack of services required to treat the disorder at a community level. Little attention is paid as to whether it is the foundation of society itself that causes individuals and communities to struggle with mental health issues on a mass basis.

Social workers in the United States are supposed to be professionally trained to see individuals and communities in their entire context. However, the realities of US capitalism force social workers to expend energy on the needs of agencies and funding sources. Pharmaceutical giants, insurance corporations, and government policies direct care toward profitable means. Yet at no other time in history has it been clearer that what is profitable for the US capitalist system comes at the expense of the masses. A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that from the years 2005-2015, depression actually increased by 18 percent worldwide. Poverty and unemployment were cited as the primary factors behind the increase.

The United States in particular has seen depression rise in recent years, especially among teens. More people are reporting physical symptoms of depression than in the 1980s. Furthermore, the number of people who report feeling lonely doubled over this time span. Workers and poor people are especially vulnerable. The number of suicides in the US has increased by 24 percent from 1999-2014. In the absence of a connected and dignified existence, many people in the US are choosing death instead.

The increase of social misery and alienation in the US has a systemic cause that cannot be eradicated by treating its symptoms. US capitalism has nothing to offer the vast majority of workers but poverty and unemployment. Poverty and unemployment are built into the system of capitalism, for it is only the exploitation of living labor that can bring such enormous profits to the rich owners of corporate and financial capital. However, capitalism has reached a stage where it can no longer afford to provide even a modicum of social welfare to the exploited classes in the US. A wholesale assault on the working class has followed.

The assault began in the late 1970s, around the time when depression and suicide began to increase dramatically in the United States. Unions were decimated, with less than ten percent of the labor force represented in 2017 as opposed to over thirty percent in the 1960s. Wages have spiraled downward or stagnated and nearly the entire planet’s wealth has been siphoned to the 1 percent. The labor participation rate in the US has reached a historic low at less than two-thirds of the population. Vast numbers of workers are mired in healthcare debt, student loan debt, and increasing housing costs. These conditions have been exacerbated by a bi-partisan campaign to privatize the public sector.

Under capitalism, the conditions of exploitation alienate workers from the fruits of their labor. Workers produce commodities such as automobiles, phones, or financial products that are usurped by the capitalist and sold back to the masses for profit. Thus, workers have little control over their own lives and must sell their labor to the capitalist to survive. To make matters worse, the US government blatantly invests trillions of dollars in war, prison, and police in the face of mass misery. Rather than a war on poverty, the US wages endless war on the impoverished both at home and abroad in order to maintain social peace and expand the profits of the rich.

These conditions are inherent to the capitalist arrangement in the United States. It is becoming increasingly clear that attempting to adjust or live happy lives under this system simply brings more misery. That is what the findings in recent studies on depression and suicide explain. People who are exploited, oppressed, and completely dispossessed of power over the fate of their own lives cannot be expected to simply reform themselves on an individual basis. Such a notion merely reinforces the reactionary, “bootstrap” narrative that plagues American folklore. To paraphrase Malcolm X, the vast majority of people do not experience an American Dream, only a life-long nightmare.

Social workers need to reflect this reality in both theory and practice. A renewed focus on winning material victories for workers and poor people worldwide must be on the immediate agenda. Our clients are workers who need a higher wage, decent housing, affordable education, and in many cases, a job. People of color, especially Black America, face particular challenges with state-sanctioned oppression fueled by white supremacy. The billions of US dollars spent on policing, prisons, and wars are better spent on the needs of the vulnerable. Dignity is out of reach when profits for the few are privileged over the interests of the many.

The time has come to junk the current system. Workers and poor people cannot thrive simply because they cannot survive. Millions of people are living beaten down half-lives with no prospect for improvement. Social workers must join organizations and movements dedicated to building a world based upon need, not profit. Indeed, the very lives of those we serve depends on it.

*(Image credit: Judite B/ flickr).

 

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