Crisis to Suicide: How Many Have to Die Before We Kill the False Religion of Austerity?


If suicide is a measure of a society’s health, the Eurozone is getting sicker by the minute. The rate of people taking their own lives is soaring in Europe at such a clip that the trend has given birth to a new media term: "Suicide by economic crisis." How has it come to pass that people would rather die than be subjected to the pain imposed by global elites?

A Ghastly Epidemic

Before the 2007 global financial meltdown, suicides in European Union countries had fallen sharply among people under age 65. Now, thanks to misguided economic programs and the sheer greed of financiers, that trend has abruptly reversed.

The new wave of suicides tracks closely with rising unemployment. In Ireland, churches offer seminars on themes like "Suicide in Recessionary Times." Ever more draconian austerity measures that strip income and social aid act as a toxin, leaving the population so stricken that for some, dying seems the only relief.

In Greece, taking one’s own life is so deeply stigmatized by the Greek Orthodox Church that bodies are rejected for burial. Not surprisingly, suicide rates in the country have been historically low. Yet in 2011, when the joblessness rate rose from 13.9 percent to 20.9 percent, calls to a major suicide hotline more than doubled, with 5,500 people talking of ending their lives. Hotline workers report a variety of underlying issues cited by callers, but job losses and deep cuts in salary are prominent. Callers who often reveal no previous history of mental illness testify to life changes too devastating to cope with. A Greek Ministry of Health study found that the suicide rate in the first half of 2011 was 40 percent higher than the year before.

Greece now has the most rapidly increasing rate of suicide in Europe. Shocking headlines tell gruesome tales of the bankrupt and the jobless, like Apostolos Polyzonis, a 55-year-old Greek businessman who set his body ablaze outside the bank that refused to see him last September. He was eventually saved by police and shared his desperation:

"I don't feel proud about it, no way, but all these situations made me lose my self-respect and feel like I've been deprived of my rights because being able to pay your taxes is not only an obligation but also a right. People should have the possibility to pay their taxes, to pay their obligations to others, to offer the basic goods to their family so they can feel that they live with self-respect and dignity.”

More recently, the world shuddered at news of retired Greek pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself in central Athens near the Greek Parliament, leaving behind a note stating that the austerity measures that yanked his pension left him facing a life of rummaging through garbage pails and burdening his children.

Squeezed dry by an economic crisis they did not cause, the people of Europe are left without any means to help themselves – and to many, death seems the only alternative.

The Religion of Austerity

Across Europe, the economic philosophy of austerity has created a familiar cycle: Government spending cuts come on the heels of skyrocketing interest hikes on the debts of member countries. This means that money secured from slashes to pensions, education and medical services is funneled into higher interest payments. Meanwhile, disappearing health care and mental health services leave little room for people to rebound from economic shocks. Government officials are viewed as the cynical instruments of debt collectors and bail-out countries like Germany. The death-spiral takes over.

If you pay attention to language, you begin to notice that those who preach austerity – mainly international bankers along with the politicians they have bought and the media who serve them – often use a specifically religious language to justify the pain they are causing. Words like “cleansing,” “virtue” and “sacrifice” are common.

In the pre-modern world, elites deployed the language of austerity to influence religious populations with great success. Suffering was said to purify the soul, and those who renounced earthly abundance were promised rich rewards in the kingdom of heaven. In the Christian tradition, the image of a gaunt and suffering Christ forms the most iconic evocation of austerity. Images of Desert Fathers like Anthony the Great, who cleansed their minds and flesh by rejecting material comfort, became models of righteousness.

French philosopher Michel Foucault has studied the politics and cultural significance of the idea of austerity, noting its cultural evolution from an emphasis on self-regulation to that of eliminating the pleasure in daily life. For many traditional proponents of austerity, suffering is all the better if endured alone, with the penitent removed from the supports of community and family. The cultivation of a “lack of feeling” reduces the counter-forces of empathy and desire that would naturally prevent human beings from agreeing to inflict pain upon themselves.

In today’s global political climate, the religious rhetoric of austerity is transferred to the economic realm. In a parody of older theories of how Protestantism paved the way for capitalism, the mind and body are not purified for God, but for the market. The citizen, stripped of the “excesses” of a living wage and means for providing for basic needs, is cut off from social support and instructed to endure a ritual of suffering. Then, properly cleansed, the sufferer arrives penitent before the Priests of Mammon. These priests offer to compensate the suffering not by a promise of entry into heaven, but through the illusion of economic relief. Meanwhile, they rob populations of the precious assets any chance of future prosperity depends upon.

The suicides of the Eurozone offer the ultimate challenge to the austerity priesthood. Those who die by their own hand are exiling themselves permanently from the Kingdom of Capitalism. They forgo the possibility of the promised economic salvation and break the system’s mandate of earthly suffering and submission. In their extreme act of exile, they refuse to serve an illusion. How many must die before the priests are held accountable for their false religion?

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