2. 8. 2023

Socialism Needs Disability Justice

James Graham

Is crossing a picket line acceptable if the crosser is disabled and needs a certain product? What if the striking workers refuse to wear masks, putting the immunocompromised at risk – do we really owe them solidarity?
This kind of debate happens often, especially online, and achieves very little beyond confirming what many on either side already believe. On one hand, socialists and labour activists find “proof” that ableism is a trivial, petty-bourgeois concern not worth their time. On the other hand, disabled people find evidence that we are an object of public ridicule, that our isolation and desperation do not matter to anyone who doesn’t face those experiences themselves. No one wins. What exactly is going on under the surface here? How do these repetitive and unproductive arguments obfuscate the real dynamics of labour, disability, capital, and social oppression?


Legacies of anti-ableist anti-capitalism 

It’s capitalism that created “disability” as we currently understand it. While medical conditions, impairment, and diversity of minds and bodies have always been features of human existence, the denotation of those unable to work as unproductive, and therefore undesirable, emerged alongside capitalist industrialization. The philosopher Friedrich Engels’ text The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, analyzed the brutal deprivation to which the industrial proletariat was subjected, and introduced the concept of “social murder” to the socialist lexicon. Social murder, the mass death that occurs “when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death” (as Engels put it), has become an important concept in contemporary socialist theorizing of disability, welfare, and health.

While there is a significant basis for anti-ableist thought and action in the Marxist canon, to which The Condition of the Working Class in England belongs, it remains the work of a small number of individuals, constrained like any work by the time and place in which it was written and the limited life experience of those theorists. To admit that Marx and Engels didn’t give us all the tools we need to understand disability is not an attack on either author; that just isn’t what they set out to do. What’s more, the social and economic relations of disability have evolved with the rest of society in the centuries since The Condition of the Working Class was written. 

A more robust theoretical understanding of disability as a political and social position emerged in the 20th century, alongside the self-organization of disabled people for liberation. The disability rights movement grew alongside other struggles of the New Left, intersecting with feminist, Black liberation, and gay rights movements. Disability rights organizations used civil disobedience to pressure state actors to enshrine legal protections for disabled people; the 1977 wave of sit-ins across the United States, demanding the enactment and enforcement of federal policy meant to guarantee disabled people’s access to public institutions, is a famous example. Disabled theorists like Mike Oliver introduced the social model of disability, which argues that it is not individual medical conditions but structural ableism – the ableist organization of society itself – that disables us. This upswing in disabled organizing, writing, and other forms of political participation coincided with the mass deinstitutionalization of people who had been incarcerated in asylums and other medical facilities – a movement led by mad and disabled advocates themselves – and the re-introduction of disabled people into the public sphere. 

Those conditions of institutional confinement from which we, to a limited extent, broke free were not exclusive to capitalist democracies. Attempts to build socialist societies in the 20th century have a mixed record on disability, making strides in the area of social care in some instances and in others rivalling the institutional ableism of their liberal-democratic counterparts. In the Soviet Union, while significant advances were made for disabled people in the immediate aftermath of the revolution (such as slowed pace of work, near-unlimited sick days, communal care, and disability pensions), economic isolation and civil war led to a return to privatized production and coercive social relations. Under the conditions of rapid state-led industrialization, disabled people were categorized and valued according to their potential for “productive” labour. Those who were deemed able to work were mandated to do so; particularly post-war, many disabled people were pressed into the workforce despite their disability, while those who were entirely unable to work were institutionalized and hidden from society. “There are no invalids in the USSR,” a Soviet official claimed during the 1980 Olympics, in an attempt to present Soviet society as “healthier” and superior. This materialized practically for disabled people in Soviet states as conditions of oppression, isolation, and institutional violence

These conditions were not unique to the Soviet model; eugenics and institutionalization were dominant ideologies and practices throughout Europe and North America, including in pre-revolutionary Russia. Yet there were distinct features of Soviet ideology that tended towards ableism. Aiming to create a new Soviet man free of sickness and impairment, fetishizing labour and production, that ideology was a conservative mutation of Marxism that did not treat disabled people as citizens with inherent worth. It was the ideology of a Stalinist ruling class whose project of industrialization, rooted in an analysis of the USSR’s material conditions, benefited from upholding ableist work ethics. In the 1950s, a movement for disability rights emerged in the USSR, making demands similar to those advanced by disability rights movements elsewhere.

I bring up these dark histories not to tar the movement for socialism as more dangerous to disabled people than capitalism, which is a machine that produces disablement, death, exploitation, and misery by its very nature. While it’s important to think critically about notions of productivity, disability, and labour, including when they appear as part of anti-capitalist political projects, it is also true that socialism’s obliteration of the profit motive in healthcare and life generally is the only hope for disability justice and liberation. The transformative approaches taken to health and social care by socialists with state power, such as former Chilean president Salvador Allende and former Burkinabé head-of-state Thomas Sankara, show us ways forward. Allende believed material deprivation to be the cause of widespread illness and suffering, and saw meeting people’s material needs as the cure – an approach sometimes described as social medicine. Sankara oversaw a massive immunization campaign, vaccinating more than one million children in a three-week period. This campaign was enormously successful in preventing illness and disablement that had been commonplace. 

Yet it would be a mistake to take these positive historical examples as evidence that the socialist conception of disability is complete. To learn where work still needs to be done, it is important to study our failures. The mistreatment of disabled people and other “unproductive” or “surplus” populations in the USSR is instructive: a state’s formal commitment to Marxist theory does not in itself create disability justice. It is vital for those of us attempting to build a better world to expand our understanding, listen, and be curious, particularly about experiences different from our own. We must make our organizing accessible and prioritize struggles against ableist oppression. It is only by doing so that we can build the movement and world that we need.


Disability justice now!

In contemporary socialist organizing, the typical approach to ableism is to insist that disabled people are workers, and that disability rights are therefore workers’ rights. This is well-intentioned and true in many cases. Disabled people are present in every sector of the working class, we are often hyper-exploited and forced to work jobs others refuse, our interests are inextricably tied to that of our class, and the demands of the labour movement increasingly include disability accommodations. Yet this response also misses the essential point that disability often amounts to an inability to work. The immediate jump to insisting that disabled people are workers reveals a latent discomfort with this reality, and a belief that to be a worker is the only or primary way to be a good, productive member of society. It does not meaningfully answer the question of what should be done with those who cannot work – a question that is becoming increasingly urgent as more of the population becomes disabled as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

We live in an era defined by the erosion of the welfare state and decades of cuts to social services. This neoliberal social order has left disabled people without necessary supports, either forcing us to turn to the private sector and marketized care if we can afford it or abandoning us to isolation and slow death if we can’t. It’s typically disabled people closer to the first category than the second who can gain an online platform, leading to the current predicament where the most audible voices of the disabled “community” are those accessing marketized care and demanding more from private corporations and their workers. Ableism is a distinct form of oppression that causes suffering and hardship regardless of the social class of those who experience it; disabled people, even those from bourgeois or petit-bourgeois economic backgrounds, are denied basic autonomy and made dependent on their families and partners, facilitating trauma and abuse. Real conflicts between vulnerable people’s needs can exist where, for example, untrained, underpaid service workers are tasked with doing the work of social care. But it’s a mistake to focus on these conflicts alone and not situate them within a broader analysis of ableist exploitation.

The systematic oppression and social murder of disabled people are ingrained features of capitalist society. In the zones where most resource extraction and manufacturing occur, the health of entire regions is sacrificed at the altar of capital accumulation. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Grassy Narrows First Nation, corporations have been permitted to poison local water supplies, leaving many of the primarily Black and Indigenous residents with lifelong disabling conditions and little to no support. Imperialist war is a disabling force, with bombs and chemical weapons causing generations of birth defects and other health complications, in countries stripped of their ability to care for their citizens by economic sanctions and the physical destruction of hospitals and other infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled the state-sanctioned purging of entire swaths of the disabled population, through mass death in privatized long-term care, preventable overdose deaths caused by a poisoned drug supply, and the destruction of homeless encampments (whose residents are more likely to be disabled than not), including during record-breaking low temperatures. Disability assistance programs, which have become more and more difficult to access, fail to provide recipients with the income needed to live with dignity in most cities. It is easier in many cases for disabled people to be approved for medically assisted death than to secure a place to live.

The fact of the matter is that disabled people are viewed as disposable, as acceptable collateral damage, by society at large. It would be totally disingenuous to say that this prejudice is alien to the working class. The abandonment and mass death of those deemed surplus has become background noise, such a regular part of modern life that for many it no longer appears to register as real or worthy of concern. This is proven true daily by public indifference towards the deaths and long-term disablement still caused by COVID-19, an attitude that permeates all social classes and political alignments. The frustrations of disabled people, even when we express them in unproductive ways, must be understood within a larger context: we have learned time and again that the only help we can truly count on is from each other. To transform this situation, socialists must go beyond denouncements of liberal disability politics and instead construct our own robust approach to the subject, engaging seriously with the work and activism of disabled people.

It is crucial for socialists not only to further develop our understanding of disability and capitalism as interwoven and co-constituting, but also to act on that understanding. We must come to see the state-sanctioned poverty and death of disabled people not as simply examples of capitalism’s excess, but as systemic violence against the most vulnerable members of our class – which must be resisted. A world that allows disabled people to live with dignity is a better world for us all. As the past few years have demonstrated, the threat of disablement is ever-present, even for those who have never considered this risk or the impact disability would have on their lives. Countless people have emerged from the pandemic with long-term health conditions that we still do not fully understand, and this process has occurred within an already crumbling social care system. The skeletal remains of the post-war welfare state, picked clean by decades of capitalist scavenging, cannot provide human beings with the quality of life we deserve. Even “productive” abled workers, who may not think they are impacted by systemic ableism in the slightest, are kept in line by the awareness that to lose that status would mean a massive loss of income, autonomy, privacy, and freedom. Changing this dynamic would empower labour organizing just as it would emancipate those who cannot labour in any traditional sense.

Frida Kahlo's painting "Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick." The painting depicts the artist in a long, wide-flaring green and white dress, crutches cast off to either side of her, Karl Marx's head above hers, the Marx figure throttling a capitalist-faced eagle. A white bird that might be a dove glides above the earth and the moon in the background.

Frida Kahlo, “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick,” 1954

James Graham (he/they) is a trans communist, abolitionist social worker, and harm reduction researcher living in Tkaronto. Find him at @mulberrythief on Twitter.