Communism: The real movement to abolish disability

Communism: The real movement to abolish disability

The following article is a tentative attempt to combine communist theory with the insights of disability activists and theorists in order to promote revolutionary approaches to understanding and overcoming the oppression of disabled people.

Communism: The real movement to abolish disability

The dominant ideas of the ruling class are the dominant ideas of the age. As revolutionaries we know this and must constantly be alert to the ways in which they influence and limit our own conception of how things are and where they might go. We are alert to the fact that in our popular culture it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. In the revolutionary milieu we reject -with varying degrees of success- the universality of wage labour, the state, the nuclear family and so on. In the piece I want to focus on an area most revolutionaries never bring into their analysis of political economy: disability. Disability, I will argue, is a feature of present day social relations, that it is specific to capitalism, that it will not go away as long as capitalism persists and finally that communism presents the answer to the problem of disability. In doing so I locate disability firmly in ‘the present state of things’ that Marx argued communists must seek to abolish.

What is disability?

Disability as it is commonly tacitly understood as the category we use to group together people whose bodies or minds are in some way defective. We have a certain conception of how bodies and minds ought to be, and people who deviate too much from that template we call disabled. Disability is usually thought of in terms of what people are not able to do: seeing, concentrating, walking, communicating and so on. Disabled people cannot do some important thing. Their ability to function is impaired.

This conception of disability makes two important assumptions. First, it assumes that there is some ‘natural’ set of characteristics that non-defective people have, deviation from which we can call disability. Second, it assumes that society is, in some universal sense, a place where for a person to be living optimally they must be able to do all the things that the non-disabled reification Template Man (and he is a man) can do and that people who can’t present some sort of problem needing to be, by turns, managed, cared for and ignored. But where do these assumptions come from?

Template Man is an elusive figure. He is usually only visible by inspecting his opposite. By seeing that a deaf person can’t hear and that a person with fatigue needs to sleep 11 hours a night, we know that Template Man can hear and sleeps eight hours a night. But quite why Template Man must be able to hear, we can’t say. These two features of Template Man are fairly universal throughout the capitalist world. But others are much more variable. For example in some parts of the world Template Man finds that meeting new people and moving jobs and houses comes easily to him. We know this because by examining pathologies such as social anxiety disorder, which are in part characterised by not being able to do these things, we know that Template Man can do these things. But in other parts of the world no such pathologies are apparent and Template Man neither has nor does not have these characteristics.

So where is the key to this strange metaphysical entity defined only through deviations from him? Template Man is, of course, the ideal worker as defined by the needs of capital at any given moment and in any given place. Template man is negatively defined precisely because capital has no interest in nature of individual workers, or workers as individuals. Workers must be able to do certain things for certain periods of time. Everything else about them is irrelevant to the needs of capital. Workers must be able to sell their labour according to the needs of a large enough segment of the employing class that they can fulfil their role as commodities on the labour market. Workers must also be able to ‘reproduce’ (feed, rest, clean, relax, etc.) themselves for the cost of the wages they can command and in the time they are not having to sell their ability to work. Workers also need to take part in the purchasing of commodities capitalism uses to reproduce itself, from housing to entertainment to insurance. Bodies and minds which are not well adjusted to the tasks involved in carrying out these functions are disabled. They are at odds with the demands of capital in that place and time. To illustrate using the final example from the paragraph above, social anxiety stands in the way of the sale of labour power in Britain today since capital demands we be able to move around quickly and easily in order to do so and the content of much work in many industries involved interacting in a ‘friendly’ manner with strangers. There are plenty of communities in the world where almost none of the wage labour involves these things, and in these communities there is also no need for the idea of social anxiety disorder, and this is reflected in medical practice. You can't get a social anxiety disorder diagnosis in most of China, for instance (thought this may not last). To give another example, the explosion in Britain of diagnoses of specific learning disorders, such as dyslexia, has gone hand in hand with rising demand for more literate, numerate workers and the increased difficulty workers have reproducing themselves outside of work without these skills.

We should also notice another implication of the fact that Template Man is negatively defined. Being able to do things well, or do things most people can’t, has nothing to do with disability. Disability is about what a person cannot do, not about what they can. The implications of this are quite important, as we will see later when we examine the first half of the dictum ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’.

The failure of reformism

In the reformist notion of disability the problem of disability is a problem of inclusion. The basic category ‘disabled’ is taken as given (or natural), and the task of the reformer is to win changes in the institutions, buildings, etc. that disabled people want to use so that they can start to approach the level of access to things that non-disabled people have. In the technical jargon of the movement ‘reasonable adjustments’ should be made so that a person’s impairment (a characteristic such as chronic illness, autism, down’s syndrome or whatever) does not stop them accessing things as easily as people who do not have impairments. The extent to which they cannot access these things on an equitable basis is the extent to which they are disabled according to this view.

As usual, the revolutionary examining the reformists’ approach has a great deal of sympathy for their goals, but also sees the forces that contradict the aims of the reformists, and which will, at a certain point, overpower them. Our aim is to remove such forces, not fight an interminable battle against them. If, as we have seen, disabled people are people who, as a group, cannot be easily integrated into the logic of capital then there is only so far they can go towards equality before capital starts to push them back.

Of course, the reformist approach will win victories. Indeed, they will often appeal to the smooth functioning of capital in order to do so. For example, in the UK a program called ‘access to work’ has helped disabled people get jobs by funding equipment, building alterations and so on which mean that the labour power of particular disabled people is raised in value so it can compete in the labour market with that of non-disabled people. To give a simple illustration of how this works, there is no point in a company hiring a wheel chair user if their building cannot be accessed by them, and there’s no point splashing out on ramps if a similar worker can be hired instead, but if the state pays for the ramps, then the wheelchair user represents good value to the employer in the labour market. The state wins in this deal too, since through access to work it shifts people off of benefits and into work, and the scheme payed for itself through the tax revenue of the disabled people it got into employment alone. However, when there is a glut of unemployed labour and when the state is cutting benefits for disabled people anyway, the logic of the scheme breaks down since non-disabled people are there to do the jobs without the state expending money, and disabled people are ‘costing’ the state less anyway. Given that those are the conditions we are now living in, access to work is being scrapped.

We should not, of course, deny the important role of disabled people in winning concessions from the state. The dynamic is not simply one of the state managing disabled people so as to maximise profits for bosses. Disabled people, like the working class in general, struggle and win concessions and in doing so alter the operation of capitalism. But when these concessions start to get in the way of the functioning of capital, it becomes extremely difficult to defend them. In times like this, when the conditions of the entire working class are under attack, it should come as no surprise that those sectors of the working class who are least well integrated in capital should be hit the hardest and this includes disabled people.

Finally, it is worth noting that as disabled people win more and more concessions from the state due to their desire to participate in capitalist society on an equal footing, the more dependent they will become on the state, and when, as inevitably will happen, the state rolls back their victories, it will hit them much harder. These contradictions within the disability rights movement must lead us on to look for more radical solutions to the problem.

The abolition of disability

The abolition of disability has been a goal of many social movements and popular fantasies under capitalism. Examples of this abound. Eugenics had its heyday in Nazi Germany, but significantly predates Nazism and is a tendency that is still with us in attempts to make sure no children with down’s syndrome are born by scanning and aborting foetuses, to ‘managing’ the sexual behaviour of people with profound learning difficulties or mental health conditions, to flat out murder dressed up as ‘mercy killing’. Less despicable, but structurally similar, are the techno-fantasies that imagine that with the right medical science, no one need be disabled in the future.

What these approaches have in common is that they do not wish to do away with disability; they wish to do away with disabled people. Since disability is not simply a collection of individuals, but a feature of capitalist social relations, their approaches are doomed to failure regardless of how morally acceptable we do or don’t find them.

If disability is a feature particular to capitalism, and if communism abolishes capitalism, it follows then that communism abolishes disability. But how does it do this? It’s always dangerous to sketch out, even in the broadest terms, possible future societies. However, we may risk a few comments explaining why disability cannot exist under communism. Taking communist society characterised to be characterised by self management of production and life in general, and where the slogan ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ is applied, it is possible to see how disability can be done away with.

It is easy to see how the phrase ‘to each according to their needs’ will abolish an aspect of disability. If we produce for need rather than profit there is no reason why we should not chose to produce buildings, equipment, technologies and so on that are designed on the assumption that physical and psychological variation of all sorts is a normal part of human society and that it is right to take this fully into account when producing thing for people to use.

The phrase ‘from each according to their ability’ less obviously deals with disability, but is in fact more fundamental to understanding why communism abolishes it. As we have seen, disability is defined by people’s inability to do certain things that they are supposed, as good worker, to be able to do. Under capitalism workers are interchangeable. We are only allowed to produce (or, for that matter, consume) in ways designed to maximise profit. In a society where production is self managed and for use, it would be inconceivable to prevent people from contributing to society on the grounds of what they were unable to do, when there was a great number of things that they could do. In societies with less abundance than western capitalism, there simply has not been the surplus to allow people to go without contributing, albeit often in horrifically exploitative ways. Capitalism has created both the necessary surplus and the logic of production to stop disabled people in particular, and the working class in general, from contributing fully or often at all. Communism, through the self management of production according to the principle that people contribute in the ways they are most able to, overcomes capitalism’s exclusionary practice and overcomes the logic of alienation upon which capitalist production is built. The full and equal integration of all people into the reproduction of society, regardless of factors such as impairment, is surely the goal of communism and the foundation of a society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Posted By

RedEd
May 22 2011 03:26

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RedEd
May 22 2011 03:34

Just to add, this article does not deal with a lot of key questions, some of which it assumes to be answered already. For example, the argument that disability is inherently a feature of the proletarian, rather than bourgeois, condition under capitalism is left out. And there are other assumptions and simplifications. Hopefully, I'll write more about disability and capitalism to draw some of this out in the future. And I hope others have some insights into the almost non-existent theoretical field of communist disability studies.

Steven.
May 22 2011 13:03

Got to go out, but I'd like to say quickly that at first reading this looks like a really good article. Disability is something that anarchist/communists don't write enough about, and it really is a huge issue - disabled workers get pretty much the worst treatment out of everyone, and in our lifetimes pretty much all of us will be "disabled" at some point.

I will have a think and try to post more thoughts later

Steven.
Jun 1 2011 17:00

I have now re-read this with a bit more time. In general, I think it is really good still.

Just a couple of things. I'm not sure what you mean after you mentioned dyslexia and the "increased difficulty workers have reproducing themselves outside of work without the skills"

With regard to "reasonable adjustments" I would not say that that is the technical jargon of "the movement" (by movement here I guess I mean the disability rights element of the workers' movement). It is more that "reasonable adjustments" are the things which are required for disabled people by law, and so we can demand these adjustments be made.

I wouldn't say that advocates of disability rights think that this is sufficient, as clearly there are massive variations in what may be deemed "reasonable" or not. And ultimately these come down to affordability for employers.

(On a related note to your point about access to work, the adjustments paid for by access to work for me willno longer be given to anyone as they have been cut)

In terms of your points about eugenics and mercy killing, I'm not sure exactly what you are referring to here. If by "mercy killing" you mean people who are suffering so much they would rather be euthanised then I don't see the problem with it (although of course this raises these issues if people feel pressured into dying so as not to be a financial "burden"). Similarly scanning foetuses for illnesses before birth, or assisting people with contraception/family planning who may not be able to comprehend this themselves I don't think it is fair to call"despicable".

But perhaps I'm misunderstanding you here?

In terms of communism abolishing disability, I agree with this. However, I think it should be pointed out somewhere that people will still suffer with conditions which will impair their ability to live as joyful an existence as possible.

Your point about capital preventing disabled people from contributing to society is a very important one. There is loads of socially useful work which disabled people could perform extremely well. The problem is under capitalism we have to work fast enough to make profit, and a lot of us are not able to do that.

For example, there are 10 million disabled people in the UK. Many are currently unemployable, as it would either cost too much to make adjustments, or they wouldn't be able to work quickly enough. But that is a huge amount of potentially productive capacity for society as a whole, which will be unfettered in a communist society.

RedEd
Feb 14 2012 03:21

Steven, thanks for reminding me to reply to this. I'll give it my best go, but as communist disability theory basically doesn't exist so this is pretty much speculation wink

Steven. wrote:
I have now re-read this with a bit more time. In general, I think it is really good still.

Just a couple of things. I'm not sure what you mean after you mentioned dyslexia and the "increased difficulty workers have reproducing themselves outside of work without the skills"

I guess I meant that it is particularly hard, in modern western capitalism, for people who have trouble with reading and writing (it's much more general than this, as I know from being dyslexic, but hopefully you see the point) to do things like manage their relations to financial institutions, state benefit providers, utility companies and so on. Being, living with and talking to other dyslexics and people with specific learning disabilities it seems clear to me that the bullshit paperwork we do is heavily rigged against us lot. Does that make sense?

Quote:
With regard to "reasonable adjustments" I would not say that that is the technical jargon of "the movement" (by movement here I guess I mean the disability rights element of the workers' movement). It is more that "reasonable adjustments" are the things which are required for disabled people by law, and so we can demand these adjustments be made.

I think it works both ways, but I'm glad you brought up the other side of it, i.e. what the law provides. I guess from my point of view reasonable adjustments are likely to be things society is stubbornly refusing to make (cos I hang out mainly with other politically involved disabled people, and my disabilities are particularly unrecognised by the state) rather than the legal side of things, which I wish I were more involved in helping with but... unemployment and so on.

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I wouldn't say that advocates of disability rights think that this is sufficient, as clearly there are massive variations in what may be deemed "reasonable" or not. And ultimately these come down to affordability for employers.

That's true. I guess I was addressing a specific ideology.

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(On a related note to your point about access to work, the adjustments paid for by access to work for me willno longer be given to anyone as they have been cut)

This is shit. Sorry to hear about it.

Quote:
In terms of your points about eugenics and mercy killing, I'm not sure exactly what you are referring to here. If by "mercy killing" you mean people who are suffering so much they would rather be euthanised then I don't see the problem with it (although of course this raises these issues if people feel pressured into dying so as not to be a financial "burden"). Similarly scanning foetuses for illnesses before birth, or assisting people with contraception/family planning who may not be able to comprehend this themselves I don't think it is fair to call"despicable".

But perhaps I'm misunderstanding you here?

What I was trying to attack was the idea that disabled people are tragic sufferers, and would be better off dead. I don't know what the best way for me to address this idea is, but when people I know have been advised to die by doctors happy to help them on their way for no other reason than using a wheelchair, the assisted death set up really does worry me. Equally, I think the project involved with aborting foetuses who are likely to be disabled is despicable (I really don't use the term lightly) not because the people who do it are bad, but because it reveals how horrific our society's treatment of disabled people is that it is generally considered better to not exist than to have a congenital disability.

Quote:
In terms of communism abolishing disability, I agree with this. However, I think it should be pointed out somewhere that people will still suffer with conditions which will impair their ability to live as joyful an existence as possible.

Totally agree with this. I sometimes joke with other mentally ill friends that 'after the revolution' things will be just as shit, but we'll not have any reason to be so angry about it. Having said that though, the things which trigger my worst mental health tend to be bills, housing insecurity, job refusals, etc. which are pretty much capitalist social features.

Quote:
Your point about capital preventing disabled people from contributing to society is a very important one. There is loads of socially useful work which disabled people could perform extremely well. The problem is under capitalism we have to work fast enough to make profit, and a lot of us are not able to do that.

For example, there are 10 million disabled people in the UK. Many are currently unemployable, as it would either cost too much to make adjustments, or they wouldn't be able to work quickly enough. But that is a huge amount of potentially productive capacity for society as a whole, which will be unfettered in a communist society.

I think what you said there sums up the essence of what I wanted to say In the whole article! Basically it boils down to creating a system where people can live by contributing to and absorbing from society in ways that are meaningful and worthwhile to them. This leaves no room for disability as I understand the term, but plenty of room for things like chronic pain, paranoid delusions, lack of mobility, and so on.

Edit: I ought to add that my mental health is bad enough at the moment that what I've said I've no idea if I agree with, either factually or ideologically (which is a weird position to be in! smile )

jonthom
Feb 14 2012 14:14

Really good article on a subject that could use a lot more attention than it tends to get IMO.

One thing I've noticed when looking into the disability rights movement is the explicit focus on participation - "nothing about us without us" - and a rejection of the idea of being represented or treated as some sort of helpless "cause", whether by politicians, media pundits, charity representatives or various other official spokespeople who, however well-intentioned, often fail to understand (let alone represent) disabled people's needs and who often have different interests.

While not identical, it does seem to me there's something of a parallel with the rejection of representation and mediation emphasised by a lot of anarchists - by union bureaucrats, politicians, self-appointed "community leaders" and so on - in favour of direct participation, collective action and so on. Similarly, the social model of disability - that people aren't (just) disabled by their condition, but by a society which doesn't accomodate their needs - seems to gel quite well with anarchist/communist analyses placing the root of problems as social, rather than individual.

This isn't a subject I'm hugely up on so if I'm completely off-base then apologies, but it seemed somewhat interesting; at the very least I think a lot of anarchists and communists could benefit from looking more at disability issues and the thinking that's come out of that movement over the years, particularly in light of the cutbacks we're currently facing.

RedEd
Feb 19 2012 04:26

Thanks for the kind words Jonthom. I agree with you about the strengths of the disability movement of the issues of representation. Unfortunately, I think the idea of 'nothing about us without us' has sometimes been used by self appointed 'community leaders' or even representatives of charities where almost all the staff aren't disabled, to 'represent' us to power in way even the worst unions would blush at. I think that same dynamic plays out on the lower levels of disability activism. People I know and love and who have great politics in many ways play these representative roles because that is the only way to engage with most institutions without being openly oppositional and getting a mass of people behind you.

On the subject of the social model of disability, to me it seems revolutionary in that it can inspire people both to reject the necessity of all the shit that disables people and, more broadly, all the shit that makes that useful to our particular society. But most of the people who use it are dyed in the wool liberals with no structural analysis as far as I can tell.

BTW, your comments are in no way off base. They are in many ways more insightful than mine and I'm crippy as fuck.

Steven.
Feb 19 2012 10:15

Hey, thanks for responding, I appreciate it.

On "difficulty workers have reproducing themselves outside of work" I now see what you mean, thanks.

In terms of eugenics. You know people who doctors have advised to die because they use a wheelchair?! Is this in the UK? I know that a lot of doctors are complete dicks (I have had some truly terrible ones) but this seems like a whole other level.

(Also, you may have noticed we have made this our "key article" for our disability tag)

RedEd
Feb 28 2012 23:04
Steven. wrote:
In terms of eugenics. You know people who doctors have advised to die because they use a wheelchair?! Is this in the UK? I know that a lot of doctors are complete dicks (I have had some truly terrible ones) but this seems like a whole other level.

Uh huh, in the UK. I mean it's not simply for using a wheelchair, but for having the impairments that the most obvious manifestation of is having limitted mobillty for which they use a wheelchair. One of them also had problems with speech at the time, and is frequently in and out of hospital. She has been asked whether it wouldn't be best to let it end, and her friends have had this subjects raised with them by doctors several times when they came in to visit and support her. She's actually a really happy person. Much more so than me aat least wink I probably do tend to meet the people who get screwed around worst by medical proffesionals, since I spend time with angry disabled people, and they, like me, have often been made angry in part by specific events and gone on to devellop a broader analysis from that. So my anecdotes are probably not representative. But these things do happen at the more extreme end of the dehumanisation and medicalisation of disabled people's lives.