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The political economy of disability

Part one: Disability and socialism roundtable, Socialism 2022

In this first article of two on disability justice and socialism, from a roundtable held at Socialism 2022, Keith Rosenthal explains how the category of disability and oppression based on ability are rooted in the capitalist economic system.

Human global society today is in an increasingly precarious, injurious, and repressive state: economic inequality, social stratification, health disparity, climatic injustice, police and governmental violence, and both hot and cold conflicts and wars between rival nation-states. For disabled people in the U.S., the basic conditions of existence have stagnated or worsened over the past several decades.

Disabled people in the U.S. today experience a poverty rate of approximately 30 percent; comprise 40 percent of the total homeless population; have an active labor market participation rate of less than 20 percent, despite self-reporting a preference to do so at a rate well over 60 percent. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people remain today living in institutional or carceral environments, such as nursing homes or prisons, where conditions tend towards the cruel or barbaric.

Having been through two years of a viral pandemic, we have seen that COVID fatality rates were at their disproportionate highest precisely within the nation’s prison and nursing home systems.

Meanwhile, millionaire owners of private for-profit nursing homes have been largely immunized from prosecution or accountability for COVID casualties thanks to their ruling class partners within the political sphere. And a mere handful of individuals, with unprecedented amounts of wealth numbering in the billions of dollars, have made out like bandits over the course of the pandemic, literally profiting off a system designed to exploit and capitalize on mass suffering and privation.

Thus, when we ask the question, what is disability, we are not really providing a full answer if we only talk about physiology, biology, or even identity reduced to a cataloging of manifest limitations or functional deficits. In fact, disability – or, to put it perhaps more accurately, disablement – is a dialectical phenomenon arising from existing political, economic, and social relations in society.

Moreover, the question of disability is really a question of disability oppression.

If for no other reason, this observation is born out simply by the fact that a person with a given impairment or morphological variation will find themselves either more or less marginalized or accommodated to varying degrees according to the type of society in which they live. That is, disability is inextricably embedded in and intelligible through the broader socioeconomic context.

Capitalism and the origins of disability

Coming from radical, socialist, and Marxist traditions, a number of disability scholars and activists have argued that the modern phenomenon of disability historically emerged from, and alongside, the advent of capitalist market, labor, and commodity relations. 1 While variations in human bodies, minds, and behaviors – up to and including those traits which might be termed ‘impairments’ – have always been an indelible and essential aspect of the human species, disability as we have come to understand it in the modern era is neither eternal nor transhistorical.

The notion that a group of people – with a vast array of completely different traits, capacities, morphologies, and phenotypes – could be lumped together and labeled according to their relative lack of generalized “ability,” in the abstract, is in fact endemic to the particular period of more recent human history signaled by the emergence and dominance of the capitalist mode.

  1. The generally socialized character of economic production and distribution, which had prevailed throughout most of human history, had to be disrupted and sundered. The indigenous networks and tribal villages of pre-class society, as well as the communal peasant lands and agrarian harvests of feudal and tributary society, were by degrees atomized, usurped, capitalized, and ultimately revolutionized or abolished.
  1. This trend led to the vast dispossession and alienation of masses of peoples from lands and resources. The broad mass of the populace, divorced from the means of procuring a subsistence according to the conditions prevailing hitherto, now found themselves compelled to earn a living by selling their individual capacity to perform labor in an increasingly mechanized, fast-pace, arduous, and frankly exploitative mode of production. The emergence of the mass commodities market and the emergence of the so-called “labor market” go hand in hand, mutually predicated upon the other. The reduction of essential human value to the relative worth or price that their labor power can fetch on the market.

The dialectics of capitalism and disability

“Industrial capitalism,” wrote the late disability scholar and activist Marta Russell,

created both a class of proletarians and a class of disabled who did not conform to the standard worker body and whose labor power was effectively ignored. A market-driven society meant that disabled persons perceived to be of less use to the competitive profit cycle were excluded from work. As a result, disabled persons came to be regarded as a social problem, and the justification emerged for segregating individuals with impairments from mainstream life and into a variety of institutions including workhouses, asylums, prisons, colonies, and special schools.2

Russell’s insight here aptly captures what is in effect the dual character of disability as both an economic and a social phenomenon. On the one hand, disability is a primary, autonomic function of the operation of the capitalist system of production, exchange, and accumulation of wealth. In other words, the process whereby workers with various impairments are rendered less valuable – or of no value at all – to the economy is, within the context of capitalist imperatives, an intrinsic phenomenon.

This process was predicated upon a series of radical changes in the form and function of human society.

On the other hand, disability also takes on a social character or function within present society, which is expressed at the cultural, interpersonal, and political level. Thus, in capitalism, there are two forms of disability:

The first form of disability is manifest in the relative disadvantage experienced by disabled people within the capitalist marketplace, both as would-be producers and consumers. There is no political law at play other than the crass calculation of profitability that compels an employer, an insurer, or a school to reject or otherwise begrudge the presence of a disabled person.

The second form of disablement is that which is codified, ideated, and promulgated at the level of reflective consciousness. Systems of eugenics, stigmatization, scapegoating, and bigotry, with which the U.S. has historically been rife, represent the social reification of the elemental economic devaluation or inferiorization imposed by capitalism upon disabled people.

Questions for socialists

So what, then, do socialists or Marxists have to say about the struggle against disability oppression; what should socialists say about it? What are the questions that socialists should be asking about disability?

To begin with, we should obviously support and advocate for all reforms or partial measures that can in any way break down the systematic marginalization, impoverishment, and oppression of disabled people. These include

  • accessible infrastructures
  • expansion of social security disability payments
  • disability accommodations and leave policies at workplaces and schools
  • increased mandates for the employment and enrollment of disabled people
  • expansive social welfare programs in the delivery of health care, housing, nutrition, personal assistance, and family needs.

Demands around the police and prisons are also imminently relevant to disabled people in a way that many do not often recognize. Disabled people comprise a disproportionate number of those injured or murdered by police – as many as 50 percent.3 Disabled people comprise a disproportionate number of those incarcerated – women with psychological impairments representing one of the fastest growing demographics of the prison population.

Beyond education and activism around these issues, however, it is also critical for socialists to recognize and elucidate the fact that disability oppression is ultimately a question of property and labor relations.

That is, disablement is at base a product, not of the structures of society – physical or social, or the structures of capitalism, but rather the prevailing mode of society itself, of capitalism itself.

Put differently, the conditions that reproduce the division of society into separate classes, and in particular, reproduce that class of people whose lives are wholly determined by the commodified value that their labor power can purchase on the capitalist market, are the same conditions that reproduce a subclass of people whose very existence is diminished and devalued according to the relatively diminished and devalued worth of their labor power as measured by the logic of commodified market competition.

Insofar as the value of commodity labor power under capitalism is both a creation and a measure of the rate of exploitation obtaining in the market – that is, the rate at which capitalists can competitively extract surplus value from the productive labors of the working class – then the simple realities of human physiology, let alone the complex realities of biopolitics, mean that there will always be and must necessarily be a constant proportion of the working class whose commodified labor power manifests as a “disability,” with the attendant forms of oppression concomitant thereto.

In other words, if every single person who today is categorized as ‘disabled’ were to suddenly disappear, taking with them every single form of what is today categorized as an impairment, then tomorrow entirely new categories of disabled people and impairments would be necessarily created by the operation of the capitalist mode.

This is not to say that disability is not a real and specific thing experienced as a particular form of oppression by people with a particular set of characteristics. Rather, it is to say that the characteristics of disability are simultaneously fixed and fluid. Disability is fixed moment to moment – both in its causes and experienced effects – according to the prevailing character of the social relations of production and exploitation; but it is fluid in an historical sense, in that it is the category of disability that is inextricable to world-historic capitalism, rather than the particular forms.

This is why the struggle against disability oppression should be seen as innately allied with all other struggles born of – and against – capitalist oppression. Specifically, disablement is a form of oppression arising from the system of exploitation of labor, and therefore the historical struggle of the working class against exploitation and the class system is also implicitly a potential site of struggle for the emancipation of disabled people.

Again, to quote Marta Russell: “Capitalism is a system that forces nondisabled persons into the labor market but also just as forcefully coerces many disabled persons out. Oppression occurs in either case.”4

About 50 people, many in wheelchairs, gather around a young person speaking. Media cameras are trained on the speaker in this black-and-white image of the historic 1977 HEW 504 sit-in.
April 11th, 1977 marked the 7th day of a sit in at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco. 150 protesters occupied the space for 26 days, demanding enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which would define people with disabilities as a class with protected rights. Photo from Judy Heumann via Twitter.

Disabled people and the working class

The framing of this dialectic by Marta Russell raises a question about how to understand the social position of disabled people in class terms. Specifically, what is the relationship between disabled people and the working class, as such?

Some argue that disability pertains to those who have been pushed outside of the active labor force; a sort of under-class or even lumpen-proletariat. Others have described disabled people as occupying a sort of liminal space within the class relations. This view tends to place disabled people among the so-called “reserve army of labor” or “surplus population,” in which disabled people are defined primarily by their precarity, intermittency, and unstable integration into the labor market. 5

On the other hand, there are those socialists and activists who tend to be more exclusively focused on the labor movement, for whom disability only figures into their politics insofar as it arises as an issue pertaining directly to workers employed in the active productive economy. 6

My view is that we should hold an expansive conception of disability, which understands it both in terms of class location, but also more generally as a phenomenon less immediately relevant to the positions of the classes than to the processes intrinsic to the relations of the classes. In other words, centering the analysis of disability on the processes of labor commodification, exploitation of labor, market competition, and class division.

In this way, we can understand disability as something that might simultaneously affect those within the active labor force, those in the reserve army of labor, or those outside of the labor force completely, either in a position above or below that of the labor force proper.

Ultimately, however, what we can plainly say is that capitalism is a system that is, at base, injurious to both disabled people and nondisabled people.

The capitalist economy organizes production and the labor process around the maximization of appropriated profit, not around the maximization of human wellbeing and happiness. It is an economy in which human ‘resources’ are expected to adapt themselves to the conditions of labor as defined by the boss or the market, rather than the conditions of labor and the material resources of society being adapted to the needs of multifarious humanity.

Capitalism is a system in which our value as individuals is determined by the price we can fetch on the labor market – a market which is not only fickle and insecure, but ignores all other aspects of humanity from which we could possibly derive self-worth and value in our lives.

Finally, it is a system which commodifies and reproduces an artificial sameness – an abstract, alienated, and average human producer-citizen that sets the standard against which we are all measured. It compels us to see any perceived deviation below or away from this standard as something to be ashamed of, shunned, feared, or reviled.

It compels our fellow humans, who we are in constant competition with over all the various means of existence and success, to see such deviations among us as mere vulnerabilities, the absence of which confers competitive advantage in life and to see disabilities as stigmata to be pitied, a quietist reminder that “things could always be worse.”

In sum, our vision as socialists should be a society organized around a set of relations, and therefore principles, precisely inverse to those of capitalism. To paraphrase Karl Marx, it is a society animated by the imperative: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

Featured Image Credit: Disabled and Here project, photo taken by Chona Kasinger; modified by Tempest.

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Keith Rosenthal View All

Keith Rosenthal is the editor of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell. He is a graduate student in Disability Studies and History and a member of the Tempest Collective.