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How Capitalism Contributes to Ableism

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Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

I have argued that the category of disability arose with the development of capitalism. This is, however, only half the story. Not only does capitalism give rise to disability oppression, I believe it also perpetuates it. The capitalists have both an economic and ideological interest to exclude workers based on perceived disability. The social model of disability put forward by UPIAS in 1975 is vital for understanding this question.

The capitalist needs the average worker to produce commodities — that is, goods and services to be sold on a market. The capitalist also needs the worker to produce these commodities to be produced in the average amount of socially-necessary labor time. If a worker is too slow and cannot meet these requirements, the capitalist loses time that could be adding more value for himself. If a worker is too slow, they earn less profits for the given capitalist. Thus, there are purely economic reasons for a capitalist system to reject disabled people as workers. These workers cost more and cut into profit.

But there is a contradiction here: although capitalism rejects disabled workers, the system also disables workers. Production takes place at tremendous speeds with little regard for the safety of the workers (unless the class struggle results in temporary gains for the working class). The dynamic of profit-over-people leads to unsafe production processes. Marx’s longtime collaborator. Marx reiterated this inCapital Volume One,” writing, “capital takes no account of the health…  of the worker unless society forces it to do so.” This is an absolutely key point: although capitalism is inherently bad for disabled people, we have the power to remake society. We can force capital to work for our needs, to take our health and safety into account.

The answer to the outcry about physical and mental degradation, the premature death and torture of overwork, exists. Before we can determine what that answer is, however, we must figure out what the answer is not. The oppression of the disabled does not depend on the individual will, good or bad, of any particular capitalists. The objective, systemic laws of capitalist production confront the capitalists as a coercive force external to them. Even the bosses are not in full control of the system: market forces are. It is not about a capitalist being good or bad, it is about the logic of the system.

For instance, capitalism relies on a “reserve army of the unemployed” to maintain competition among workers and prevent them from seeing their common enemy. Unemployment also allows the bosses to drive down the quality of working conditions across the board. Unemployment forces workers to take low wages, unsafe conditions, and so on. If one worker refuses to do so, the poverty conferred by unemployment means that someone else will. Many people who are considered disabled under capitalism are forced to fill the role of a reserve army of labor, but this is not universal.

Under capitalism, the state has also stepped in to manage the exclusion of people with disabilities. The state has used the invented category of disability to determine the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor” when doling out benefits that would discourage workers from making revolution. This ensured the impaired lived uncomfortable lives in workhouses or prisons. Being categorized as disabled conferred poverty status on a member of the working class, and usually on their families as well. Disability care has always been expensive. Then and now, having a disabled child could mean destitution. This would force disabled workers and their families to seek employment in low-wage or unsafe industries, in addition to driving down wages and conditions for the non-disabled sections of the working class. First and foremost, the economics of capitalist production have been and are responsible for disability oppression.

In addition to this, the capitalists also had an ideological reason for perpetuating disability oppression. It discouraged workers from not working, yes, but also engendered in the workers the idea that they had no right to a basic standard of living. Charities that served the poor and disabled were roundly criticized because they did not convey enough of this moral stigma. The widespread belief that poor and disabled people were unworthy of decent lifestyles served to disenchant these populations from making revolution. A revolution was a way for the oppressed to improve their conditions, but the oppressed would never attempt to do this if they did not believe improvement was possible.

As the disabled population grew increasingly under the purview of laws and state institutions, the category of disability itself began to be seen as a problem to be banished from public view. This was done using whatever methods were effective, up to and including institutionalization, sterilization, and euthanasia.

The state’s ideological motivations were not entirely separate from their economic ones. If a person is perceived as being unable to work, then they are unable make a living. To be working class is to be compelled to sell one’s labor in order to survive. Disabled workers were unable to do this. They became either a public charge or a burden on their impoverished families. But the state under capitalism did not and does not often provide disabled workers with adequate care. To do so would be to “waste” resources on someone who could not perform productive labor in return. This is most clearly the case for working class and disabled people, but the stigma around disability has meant that even middle and ruling class disabled people were kept in custodial care or in remedial schooling. The oppression of disabled people has its roots in capitalist relations of production; it eventually “trickled down” to affect the entire society.

While the capitalist economy as such rejected disabled people as unproductive, the state institutions created and reinforced negative social attitudes towards disability. Capitalist society had relegated disabled people to the most negative status of poverty and isolation. These negative attitudes were used to justify disadvantageous social positions, which strengthened the attitudes themselves. Institutions and attitudes were and are in a constant interplay with one another, feeding back into and altering each other. In Marxist terms, they interact dialectically.

The discrimination and oppression of impaired people based on a manufactured category of disability rested on the underlying assumption that being “able-bodied” or “able-minded” was the social norm, the desirable default. Today, this attitude goes by the name “ableism.” It is part and parcel of capitalist society because production for profit at all costs means excluding workers who require individual accommodations. The state and other institutions, such as education and the media, promote ableist ideas by rationalizing our exclusion from the workplace. The stigma, while it originates in the workplace, goes beyond this sphere as well. It encompasses all realms of social existence.

But ableism is not just bad ideas or bad language. It is policies and actions of the state and the capitalist that relegate over 70 percent of disabled people to unemployment in the United States alone. When someone with a disability is employed, they tend to earn far less than any abled person. Inadequate housing, living conditions, and the like also disproportionately affect disabled people. Some disabilities can be noted almost as soon as a child is born, and they are immediately tested for other disabilities as well. Early detection is not the issue in and of itself, however. The problem is that mainstream systems of care generally treat such children as problems to be cured or as expenses to the state. Many of these programs are justified not because we have a moral obligation to help one another, but because they are “cheaper than the alternative” of letting disabled people struggle on their own.

Parents are generally advised to take measures, whether medical or therapeutic, to make their child as “normal” as possible. They face tremendous pressure to pathologize their children instead of working to make their lives as meaningful as possible. Ableist ideas have existed in public and private education for as long as either has existed. In the United States, disabled children were historically, and often still are segregated from their abled counterparts. As a result, abled children may not see their peers with disabilities as part of the same society, and may fail to make even the simplest of accommodations.

Likewise, disabled children themselves are often made to see themselves as apart from the mainstream. This engenders ideas of weakness in them. They grow to believe they are not capable of doing the kinds of things their peers can do. This is a harmful atmosphere for all of us. These ideas about disabled people continue into adulthood, most importantly surfacing in employment. Employers are encouraged to see people with disabilities as problems or expenses, just like parents and educators.

Unemployed disabled people are thus forced to rely on disability stipends and other government programs. Just like other such programs in the United States, the state demands the right to interfere in the most intimate details of a person’s life just to judge them worthy of receiving a small monthly check.

Ableism in the United States promotes the idea that disability is a personal tragedy. As we have seen, nothing could be further from the truth. The personal tragedy narrative is about the idea of “overcoming” disability through rehab or surgery, or else acknowledging their impairment and bravely going on in spite of it. In both cases, we are encouraged to look at disability as simply a set of obstacles that inexplicably arise to thwart us, rather than examining the barriers capitalist society puts in front of us. The individual is not the problem. We must consider the economic and societal factors that promote ableism and oppression. Disability and ableism were created through collective institutions, and can only be overcome through collective struggle.

1. Russell, Marta, and Ravi Malhotra. “Capitalism and disability.” Socialist Register 38.38 (2009).
2. Oliver, Michael J. “Capitalism, disability, and ideology.” Special Educational Needs and Inclusive Education: Systems and contexts 1 (2004): 82.
3. Harn, Harlan. “Advertising the Acceptably Employable Image Disability and Capitalism.” Policy Studies Journal 15.3 (1987): 551-570.
4. Erevelles, Nirmala. “Disability and the Dialectics of Difference.” Disability & Society 11.4 (1996): 519-538.
5. Abberley, Paul. “The concept of oppression and the development of a social theory of disability.” Disability, Handicap & Society 2.1 (1987): 5-19.
6. Roulstone, Alan. “Disabling pasts, enabling futures? How does the changing nature of capitalism impact on the disabled worker and jobseeker?.” Disability & Society 17.6 (2002): 627-642.
7. Barnes, Colin, and Geof Mercer. Exploring disability. Polity, 2010.
8. Galer, Dustin. “Disabled capitalists: Exploring the intersections of disability and identity formation in the world of work.” Disability Studies Quarterly 32.3 (2012).
9. Russell, Marta. “What disability civil rights cannot do: Employment and political economy.” Disability & Society 17.2 (2002): 117-135.
10. Goodley, Dan, Rebecca Lawthom, and Katherine Runswick-Cole. “Dis/ability and austerity: beyond work and slow death.” Disability & Society 29.6 (2014): 980-984.

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Thinkstock photo by DAJ.

Originally published: October 30, 2017
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