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.