Friday, December 31, 2010

The neoliberal crisis and human suffering

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

My assessment of 2010 will be different. I emphasize a fact little noted in the analyses: the immense human suffering, the subjective destruction, especially of employees, due to global economic and financial reorganization.

The "great transformation" (Polanyi) has been in operation a long time, placing the economy as the backbone of social life, subordinating policy and ethics. When the economy is in crisis, as is happening now, everything is sacrificed to save it. The whole society is penalized, as in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and even in America, on behalf of the healing of the economy. What should be a means, becomes an end in itself.

Placed in a situation of crisis, the neoliberal system tends to radicalize its logic and exploit the workforce even more. Instead of changing course, it does more of the same, loading a heavy cross onto the backs of workers.

It is about that relatively studied "moral harassment", that is, the persistent and prolonged humiliation of workers to subordinate them, frighten them, and bring them to quit. The suffering is now more widespread and diffuse -- sometimes more and sometimes less -- affecting all the core countries. It is a kind of "malaise of globalization" in a process of humanistic erosion.

It is expressed through a sort of collective depression, destruction of the horizon of hope, loss of the joy of living, a desire to disappear from the map and, in many, the desire to commit suicide. Because of the crisis, companies and their managers have carried competitiveness to extreme limits, providing almost unattainable goals, instilling in workers anxiety, fear and sometimes panic attacks. Everything is required of them: unconditional commitment and full availability, damaging their selfhood and destroying family relationships. In Brazil, it is estimated that about 15 million people suffer from this type of depression, linked to work overload.

The researcher Margarida Barreto, a medical specialist in occupational health, noted in a survey taken of 400 people last year, that nearly a quarter of them had suicidal thoughts because of the excessive demands of the job. And she said: "We must see the attempt to commit suicide as a major condemnation of the working conditions imposed by neoliberalism in recent decades." Bank employees in the financial sector, which is highly speculative and aimed at maximizing profits, are particularly affected. A 2009 investigation by Marcelo Augusto Santos Finazzi, professor at the University of Brasilia, found that between 1996 and 2005, one bank employee committed suicide every 20 days because of the pressure of goals, excessive tasks, and fear of unemployment. The current managers are insensitive to the suffering of their employees.

The World Health Organization estimates that about three thousand people commit suicide every day, many because of abusive work pressure. Le Monde Diplomatique of November of this year reported that one of the reasons for the strikes in October in France was also to protest against the fast pace of work imposed by the factories, which caused nervousness, irritability and anxiety. A phrase from 1968 was heard again: "Metro, work, bed" ("Metro, boulot, dodo"), now updated to "Metro, work, grave." ("Metro, boulot, tombeau"). That is to say, fatal illnesses or suicide as a result of capitalist super-exploitation.

In the analyses being made of the current crisis, it is important to incorporate this perverse fact: the ocean of suffering that is being imposed on the people, especially the poor, in order to save the economic system, controlled by a few strong forces, extremely strong ones, but dehumanized and without mercy. One more reason to overcome it historically, in addition to morally condemning it. The ethical conscience of humankind, well-represented in the various embodiments of the World Social Forum among others, is moving in this direction.

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