Worth-less: The relationship between the ‘labor market’ and suicide

Claire was a single mother in-becoming. Her divorce had been relatively recent in comparison to how long she was married to David. Claire’s two kids were already in and out of college, and so her four-bedroom home in the suburbs of Detroit was all-too-quiet and, lately, all-too-unaffordable. Bills continued to pile up, the drinking continued, and the lows of a diagnosed-yet-untreated Bipolar condition were worsening. A single-income home was already a thing of the past in the early-00s, but not so distant that the dream itself didn’t still haunt.

It was a Thursday in November, winter having already moved in a week or two earlier when Claire made a point to visit as many people as she could. In a time before everyone had cell phones, let alone the idea of a smartphone being a sci-fi notion at best, people would run to a ringing landline phone or play the recorded messages on their answering machine when they first got home.

It would have been easier had Claire called everyone, but she didn’t take the easy way out. Family, friends, acquaintances, anyone local, even old neighbors who worked at the hardware store a few miles down the road all saw Claire before the day’s end. A few more saw her Friday morning, but she was far too distracted to talk.

The effort Claire put into that Thursday didn’t pay anything, and yet no one will forget those visits. It was a clear distinction between the work she did on behalf of life and working to live.

In the first chapter of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, we find the notion of “estranged labor,” where we learn about the worker’s relation to their labor and the products of that labor. Marx highlights a set of economic and social relations—between those who own the means of production (the property, the factory, office, inputs, etc.) and the workers who become commodities themselves. Those of us on the working end of the equation sell our labor power, which is a commodity, and because our labor power is our means of survival (or earning a wage), we become the commodity that owners purchase on the “labor market.” We are the product.

The fundamental truth about labor power and its use in creating things is that any product it makes is the result of mental and physical effort. The problem arises for us workers when that product is no longer our own when it is sold on the market. Essentially, we are both selling our bodies and being told to accept the price of the products we make as representing our own worth, at a deeper level.

The products our bodies create are not ours to keep—that’s a basic law of capitalism. But estranged labor and the use of bodies, as it were, has been a feature of other exploitative systems throughout history: From slavery and colonialism to social reproduction and gendered labor—estranging us from the products of our bodies has not only determined the “value” we offer but, more importantly, it has determined the value we see in ourselves. In short, the value placed on our work has bigger consequences than just determining the price of a wage or a product, and carrying the analysis further, the truth is that we tend to internalize this wage or product price as our self-worth.

Some of Marx’s most important conclusions regarding the human element in labor come from this work, many of which are still relevant today when looking at labor through the lens of mental health. For example, Marx illustrates that, on the market, our labor is forced out of us, not for our own necessity or survival but rather to satisfy needs external to ourselves—i.e. to create products to be sold for companies to earn profit. The market value of these products tends to determine our worth as workers.

Ownership of the products of our labor is held by someone “above” us—the manager, the CEO, the shareholders—and we’re left feeling alienated toward (separated from) other people as well as ourselves. This tends to really work against the possibility of finding “satisfaction” with our work under this system. On top of this, it also turns labor into anti-social behavior. To be sure, labor is social in nature, but it’s this very social element that is attacked through dividing us from one another and keeping our (personal) value in check. Estranged labor not only splits us from one another (through competition, working too many hours), but it reduces how others view us and how we view ourselves.

The point is not that our jobs drive us to kill ourselves, but rather that through most of the jobs we take, we see the devaluation of our personal worth.

Our work-value plummets for all sorts of reasons: not upgrading our skills, not learning new skills, not completing certifications or degrees, dealing with competing companies that pay their workers less, the market of our specific industries becoming less relevant or obsolete, etc.

However, something Marx made clear but still catches us off-guard today is that the more we produce and the more we sell and the more efficient we become, the less our value holds at work. The easy solution, we’re told, is to learn something new, go from “unskilled” to “skilled” (or from “non-essential” to “essential”).

But the truth is that as our value at work decreases, this directly impacts our social and personal value. Being “fired” or becoming “unemployed” hold specific stigmas that are not easily forgotten and are tied more to ideals of “not working hard enough” rather than working too much. We are caught in a cycle that makes no sense to us when we’re laid off or fired for doing what we were supposed to do. It should be pointed out that there’s a reason most mental health surveys and questionnaires ask some form of the following question: Have you had any feelings of worthlessness or that you didn’t offer any value?

It’s not just a matter of earning low or lesser wages, but rather social standards steeped in the ideology of yesterday, one that’s often gendered and sexist: If you don’t have a salaried job, you’re not an adult; if you can’t provide for a family, you’re not a man; if you’re not shopping at Whole Foods, you’re not taking care of yourself. The standard stereotype of the working-class laborer who spends their “free” time drinking and eating too much, being overly lazy, and having not worked hard enough to “live better” is as much a social judgment as a personal one.

Because it’s a social judgment, it’s one that hiring managers and team leads can hold, too. If we are told we aren’t good enough for a job or can’t earn better wages or are denied promotions and raises, how are we to believe that we as people are worth more than the market value of our labor power—more than the paltry wages that are on offer?

Social devaluation is a matter of life and death, and it is no surprise that the highest rates of suicide occur among demographics that experience the most external (state and personal) violence: The trans, Native/Indigenous, and Black communities tend to have the highest rates of suicide as well as being the least valued by the state. Our social structures seem most keen on erasing these communities.

Another major issue we face today is that several industries and the job roles within them require a certain amount of free labor and personal expense—whether through multiple and long interviews, pursuing certifications, internships, or higher education. How are we supposed to feel when we put in this free labor and we still don’t get the job?

How should we react to finding out the career we went to school for hardly pays enough to make good on the student loans we borrowed to get it?

The system is structured so that we are made to individually feel like failures for the results of corporate decisions, debt, shifts in the market, technological change, and the like. This may seem like hyperbole, but it should come as no surprise that as our bills pile up, our anxieties and depression increase as well. Another way to state this would be to say that as our debt goes up, our personal and social value drops.

Claire felt alone, she felt burdened beneath a mountain of growing debt, and she was feeling every bit of the social pressures that come with being a divorced single mom. Although once a union worker, the non-union job promised more and made sense at the time she took it. The precarity of the service industry, which she inevitably had to turn to, wore on her as she was constantly having to relearn her role. Gambling became a fun escape with seemingly good rewards until it got away from her.

At that time of year in the Midwest, 7 p.m. is as dark as the night will get and by that time everyone had heard. Everybody had felt shocked and powerless; the image of Thursday did not match with the imperceptible loss of Friday. For some, it would be explained away by a mixture of a cause of death and the particular situations Claire was going through. However, for many of us, the overarching and total feelings of worthlessness she felt would continue to haunt us as well.

The only difference we will experience is the lack of privilege of viewing it from a distance and instead feeling ourselves go through it. We either ignore the torch Claire dropped while it goes out, or we pick it up and take her history with us through the struggle.

If you or anyone you know is feeling worthless or is in need, there is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or you can text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.