Bringing Marxism to discussions of disability

May 9, 2017

The book A Very Capitalist Condition provides an invaluable Marxist analysis of disability under the capitalist system, writes Keith Rosenthal.

IF FOR no other reason, Roddy Slorach's A Very Capitalist Condition is remarkable for helping bridge the gap between Marxism and disability studies.

Other writers have contributed groundbreaking journal-length articles and individual chapters that have advanced a Marxist analysis of the phenomenon of disability and disability oppression. But Slorach is the first to offer a comprehensive, book-length historical materialist treatment of the history, theory and politics of disability.

Slorach's work leans explicitly on the concepts of alienated and exploited labor under capitalism; the disruptive revolutionizing of the means and mode of production which accompanied the transition from feudalism to capitalism; and the way in which oppression and liberation under capitalism are conditioned by the politics of class struggle, solidarity and revolution.

While much of the specific statistical data and discussion of the historical politics of disability in this book are centered in Britain, where the author lives, there's a fair amount of attention paid to disability in other countries, in particular the U.S.

Protesters take to the streets for disability rights in Ireland
Protesters take to the streets for disability rights in Ireland

Moreover, the most useful aspect of this book isn't the particular data it offers detailing the egregious rates of unemployment, homelessness, violence and abuse that disabled people are subjected to, but the world-historical framework that it provides in order to explain these conditions.

Slorach's book is especially valuable to the reader who may be less familiar with the existing discourse in the field of disability scholarship. His writing style is easily accessible to a general audience, and he takes care to introduce more scholarly concepts and debates in a way that is intelligible and nuanced.

In this vein, Slorach does a good job of explaining how the Marxist approach to disability is different from other prevailing theories on disability oppression. Further, he convincingly demonstrates how this approach advances not just an understanding of disability in the modern world, but how to fight to abolish the conditions that require and reproduce disability oppression.

One popular theory (at least among more radical activists and scholars) that Slorach critically engages with, in particular, is the so-called social model of disability. This theoretical framework was first outlined by a group of disabled socialist activists--the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation, UPIAS--in Britain in the 1970s.

Among other things, the social model pioneered the distinction between impairment and disability, the latter being the socially constructed form of oppression imposed upon those who possess a mental or physical variant of the former.

The main conclusion of the social model is the notion that there is nothing inevitable or "natural" about the exclusion or marginalization of people with impairments from the productive, social and civic processes of human society. Rather, all of these things are the result of unnecessarily unaccommodating structures of society, which consequently act as mechanisms of disablement.

MANY WRITERS within the social model tradition locate the historical transition from feudalism to capitalism as the point of origin for the rise of disability as a distinctly recognized category or "type" of human being separate from the non-disabled "norm."

Beginning with the earliest pre-class hunter-gatherer societies, through to the more recent peasant-based agricultural societies of 13th century feudal Europe, Slorach recounts existing archaeological and historical research that demonstrates the extent to which people with various impairments were more or less integrated into society alongside others of their family, clan or community.

Where accounts of particularly ill treatment directed toward people with impairments exist in these societies, they tend to be neither systematic in their manifestation nor different from the treatment of others of their class, as lower-class peasants.

With the rise of capitalism, however, the nature, pace, duration and geographical location of production--which formed the basis of all other facets of existence--changed dramatically. As all land increasingly became usurped and privatized in the hands of capital, and the center of economic activity moved from the countryside to the town, a mass of landless humans were created who were now expected to secure their means of subsistence primarily via wage labor, on pain of starvation.

The only exceptions to this new prevailing rule were those humans who happened to possess impairments, whether physical or mental, which rendered them ill-adapted to the particular activities and norms associated with factory-based production for wages. This latter class of people was officially categorized under the broad rubric of "unemployable" by reason of disability and cast aside to the caprices of charity, the asylum and the jail-like workhouse--in a word, to pauperism.

Since that time, disabled people have been subjected to a litany of historical abuses, from the everyday, such as fear or contempt from prejudiced strangers or potential employers, to the barbaric, such as the eugenic practices of early 20th century U.S. and Germany under the Nazis (all of which Slorach extensively covers in the course of his book).

The reasons offered as to why disability oppression persists into the modern world, however, are varied.

If it were just a matter of making existing society more accommodating, than legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) should be sufficient to, if not abolish altogether, then at least markedly diminish disability oppression. However, almost 30 years since the passage of ADA, rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness and life expectancy, to name just a few categories, have barely moved, and in some cases have actually worsened.

BY APPLYING the insights of Marxism, however, Slorach clarifies the picture by putting concepts of exploitation, alienation and the class structure of capitalism at the center of his analysis. In other words, it's not just that disability oppression exists because the structures of a given society happen to be unaccommodating to those with impairments; rather, it's that the nature of capitalist production and property relations necessitates the unaccommodating structuring of a given society.

Capitalism is, above all, else devoted to the pursuit of profit. The specific form of this pursuit is the competitive exploitation of wage labor at the hands of those who own the means of production. It doesn't matter whether this work takes place in a factory populated by thousands or by a few individuals in a remote call center.

What matters to the owners of capital is that they can find laborers willing to work as long and hard as possible, for as little pay as possible, relative to their competitors. Moreover, these laborers must submit themselves to a division of labor, a pace of work and a type of work dictated not by their own needs and preferences, but rather by the needs of maximal profitability as determined by "the market" via the personage of their boss.

Within the confines of such a system, it's obvious that those with the most "special needs" (as we often euphemistically refer to those with impairments) would be shunted aside. This is all the more so given that under capitalism, each human is expected to constantly develop, enhance and then sell their skills in a competitive labor market.

Each worker is compelled to view their fellows on this modern version of the auction block as competitors to be beaten, rather than as collaborators in social construction.

The contradiction, however, is that all workers ultimately have an interest in struggling to overthrow such a wretched form of human existence. The alienated, exploitative and injurious nature of work and life under capitalism is oppressive both to those disabled individuals who are marginalized from it, and those "non-disabled" individuals who are trapped within it.

Beyond the theoretical and historical, there are a number of other interesting political topics and "controversies" that Slorach raises in the book.

These include discussions of a potential social model of mental impairment and illness (or "mental distress" as Slorach prefers to call it); the role of psychiatry, mental hospitals and institutions, and the pharmaceutical industry; deafness and sign language; special education; euthanasia and assisted-suicide; and the formation of disability identity-based movements, among others.

Such discussions will hopefully form the basis for much more constructive debate and elaboration within the literature of socialist and radical organizations in the years to come.

WITHOUT A doubt, the interlinked questions of disability, labor and capital promise to persist as key issues as the capitalist world order progresses into the 21st century.

Though the prevailing form of disability may change (the World Health Organization predicts that mental illnesses such as depression will be the leading global cause of disability by the year 2020), disabled people have steadily remained a significant proportion of the overall population (around 20 percent in the U.S.)

Meanwhile, studies show that an even greater number of people experience various forms of impairment and actually meet the official classification of disability, without ever being officially counted in the relevant census data.

In an era of constant attacks on working-class living standards and protracted economic crises, perhaps the most urgent prospect is the ramping up by the capitalist media and politicians of the scapegoating of disabled people as "fakers," "malingerers" or "burdens on state budgets." We can expect this just as assuredly as we can expect the increased scapegoating of immigrants or other victims of capitalism in the near future.

Against the capitalist dystopia we presently face, the need to fight for a wholly different future society is more obvious than ever. As described by Slorach, by way of Marx, such a future socialist society could make a reality of the principle: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need."

As Slorach elaborates:

In seeing impairment as a continuum, instead of as the crude "them" and "us" dichotomy of capitalism, a socialist society would take account of differing ability and levels of skill based on a form of democracy incomparably more extensive than anything experienced under capitalism.

In contrast to the systematic division and competition characteristic of capitalist society, socialism would promote a collective and co-operative culture based on common interest...Such a society would therefore promote genuine individuality, cultivating rounded human growth in place of a one-sided and fragmented development of skills.

Or, to quote the preamble of the 1918 Education Act of the then-revolutionary socialist government of Russia, with which Slorach concludes his book:

The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture. This personality however can develop its inclinations in all possible luxury only in a harmonious society of equals. We do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron molds, because the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of the barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on an actual solidarity of interests.

Further Reading

From the archives