Disability, resistance and revolution

Issue: 151

Rob Murthwaite

A review of Roddy Slorach, A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (Bookmarks, 2015), £12.99

The number of disabled people has grown from around 10 percent of the world population in the 1970s to 15 percent, 1 billion people, today. The World Health Organisation predicts that this figure will continue to grow as the world’s population ages and chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, respiratory disease and stress related illness increase. Severe physical injury in warfare and road traffic accidents as well as industrial injury, malnutrition and insanitary living conditions also remain major causes of serious impairment. Around the world disabled people are among the most marginalised—suffering poorer health outcomes, lower levels of educational achievement and higher levels of unemployment and poverty than non-disabled people.

From the onset of the latest financial crisis disabled people have been in the forefront of the government’s austerity measures. In 2010 Britain’s disabled population of around 11 million were labelled as benefits scroungers by much of the media as the coalition government launched its attack on the welfare state. Subsequently disability benefits have been slashed with devastating effects for thousands of disabled people. But in response a new and vibrant movement of disabled people, led by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), has developed. The recent U-turn made by Tory chancellor George Osborne over further cuts to disability benefits is an indication of their effectiveness.

Attacks on disabled people and the response from disabled people’s movements such as DPAC in Britain are likely to become an increasingly important aspect of the struggles to come. Therefore questions about the political nature of disability, the social position of disabled people now and in the past, and the struggle for equality of disabled people will be important in the development of both the anti-austerity movement and the struggle for socialism. A Very Capitalist Condition is a major contribution to the discussion of these questions.

The book has a very broad scope with chapters on the theory of disability as well as its history. There are fascinating chapters on the social model of mental health, the international history of disability movements, the history and politics of hearing impairment and sign language and also a chapter dealing with controversial issues such as the right to die and inclusive education.

There is a considerable existing body of writing in the field of disability and some of the key ideas are outlined in the early chapters of the book. In particular Chapter 3 deals with the “Social Model and Its Critics”. The social model was initially outlined by a group of disabled activists (the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation, UPIAS) in the early 1970s and developed by writers such as Mike Oliver in The Politics of Disablement. The social model theory holds that the disadvantage suffered by disabled people in society stems not from our physical, sensory and/or mental impairments but from a society which takes no account and makes no provision for these impairments. The social model identifies disability as the result of the oppression of people with impairments. The chapter also includes a brief section on the biopsychosocial model of disability, which sees disability as resulting from a complex interaction of social, biological and psychological factors. This model is the foundation of the hated work capability assessment notoriously used by the private sector company Atos to kick thousands of disabled people off incapacity benefits. As a model of illness the biopsychosocial model is progressive; its use to underpin the assessments is a distortion for political ends and is a cause of much anger among disabled activists so merits more attention than it receives here.

The historical scope of the book is impressive with fascinating accounts of the position of disabled people in prehistoric, classical and feudal as well as capitalist society. The author draws on recent archaeological evidence in support of his argument that in the earliest hunter-gatherer societies people with both congenital and acquired severe physical impairments survived into relative old age and must therefore have been provided for and cared for even in the most difficult times. The history of disabled people is approached from a materialist perspective and so discusses the changing position of disabled people throughout history in the context of the development of modes of production. This is particularly important in the discussion of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The book describes how the shift from agricultural production based on the peasant family to industrial production based on large-scale factories marginalised and increasingly excluded those with physical and mental ­impairments from the workforce.

Writers such as Vic Finkelstein and Mike Oliver have previously identified the shift from feudalism to capitalism as key to the systematic exclusion of disabled people. But for Finkelstein and Oliver it is the inaccessibility of the factory, etc that is the problem, a problem that could be reformed away. For Roddy on the other hand the oppression of disabled people arises from a more fundamental aspect of capitalism: its exploitative relations of production. The capitalist’s profits depend upon the fact that a worker will produce more value than it costs in wages to employ them; profit arises from the surplus which is retained by the capitalist. Every capitalist will therefore avoid hiring people with impairments as this may involve more expense in making adjustments to the production process and might produce less of a surplus and therefore reduce profit. Thus the book’s contention that disability discrimination arises from the exploitative relationship between labour and capital that is fundamental to the current system leads to the conclusion that it can only be abolished through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a society based on social ownership of the means of production.

Chapter 13 explores capitalism and disability today and includes sections discussing disability and work in late capitalism, the relationship between exploitation and oppression and the problematic question of disability identity. On the latter the author writes:

The point, however, remains that their more fragmented experiences of oppression means disabled people are less likely to identify with each other than other groups of the oppressed. The social model’s assumption that disabled people can find common cause first and foremost with other disabled people is therefore problematic (p256).

The idea that the oppression of disabled people is somehow fundamentally different from oppression based on race or gender runs throughout this section without a convincing argument being made in support of this contention. The fact that disabled people are divided by class is not unique to disabled people; neither is the fact that, for the vast majority of time, disabled people experience their oppression as individuals or that they may not openly identify as disabled. The confident assertion of sexual and racial identity is something that has emerged through the solidarity of struggle rather than being somehow inherent in these characteristics.

The final chapter of the book, “From Rights to Revolution”, takes up the argument put by some leading writers on disability that a socialist revolution would inevitably fail to free disabled people from oppression. Here the book convincingly argues that, in a society where production is based on human need rather than profit, people with impairments will be fully and equally included in all aspects of life including economic life.

A Very Capitalist Condition is a timely and useful contribution to the discussion of the politics and history of disability; it is essential reading for everyone engaged in the struggle for a better world.

Rob Murthwaite is a long-standing disability activist, socialist and trade unionist.