Emerging from the margins

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In his new book Roddy Slorach describes disability as "a very capitalist condition". He spoke to Socialist Review about myths and movements.

Why did you want to write a book on Marxism and disability?

First, the resurgence of interest in disability politics because of the Tories’ attack on disabled people and their rights and benefits, and the emergence of organisations like Disabled People Against Cuts.

Secondly, I felt we needed something accessible and not written just from a movement point of view. I didn’t want a book that took a “them and us” approach — look, there’s disabled people over there, don’t we feel sorry for them; or the flip side of that — oh, aren’t non-disabled people really horrible to us? I wanted to provide something that addresses the complexities of the subject but not in a specialist academic tone.

There’s been the UN convention on rights for people with disabilities, and lots more legislation coming in around the world on the back of the American and British legislation. So it’s become de rigueur to talk about disability, at least at the top of society. At the bottom of society, however, it’s completely the opposite — there’s massive attacks on disabled people. That’s true in most of the advanced industrial countries.

There’s also a general resurgence in left-wing ideas, a new interest in Marxist ideas. That aspect has come about since I started writing, so the timing of this book is excellent.

What is disability? You make the point that many, many more people are becoming classified as disabled.

You have huge numbers of disabled people now, with the legislation being updated. That includes, for example, people who have dyslexia or some other neurodiversity. They don’t count as disabled in general but they do in an educational context. In Britain there are something like 10 million people who qualify as disabled. The contradiction, however, is that fewer and fewer people identify as being disabled. There are obvious reasons for that — the attacks on benefits and services and the idea that to be seen as weak or vulnerable in any way is to be unemployable.

In terms of what disability is, I’ve got a whole chapter on that; it’s an enormously complex subject. You have to distinguish between impairments, which are limitations in how people’s bodies or minds or senses function, and disability, which is about how people are denied equal access to various roles in society in such a way that their lives are systematically devalued. That is the social model of disability, and that’s my starting point.

The social model of disability developed alongside the disability movement in Britain. It has become hugely influential. It has been so successful that much of the content has been drained from it, so now is a good time to look again at what we really mean by the social model of disability and whether it’s an adequate account. I should emphasise that for me it’s absolutely a foundation stone.

In the book you go right back to pre-history and classical antiquity. Why did you feel it was important to do that?

There is a very widespread assumption that disabled people are necessarily on the margins of society because they are not able to contribute. Going back into history to look at the place of people who had impairments in various societies gives us an insight into whether the place of disabled people is inevitable.

Even among many people who write about disability there is an assumption that the kind of discrimination that we see today has always been around. They usually talk about people getting thrown off the cliffs in Sparta — even Hitler talks about this in Mein Kampf as a justification for his ideas.

It’s very important to interrogate these things properly, because so many people, even those on the left, have taken this narrative for granted.

Do you locate the rise of disability as a systematic oppression in the rise of industrial capitalism?

I try to take a nuanced approach with that question because the evidence is not utterly conclusive. First of all it is to do with the rise of class society in general and secondly the evidence we do have so far — and there’s a lot more than there used to be — indicates that we have to look at the rise of capitalism in order to explain the role of disability in society today.

Capitalism is based on the production and exchange of commodities and everything is priced and valued — including human labour — as a commodity. Disabled people are seen as less profitable. Disability is always about cost.

Capitalism puts a price on everything and smothers individuality, any ability for people to realise their true worth in society. It undermines the idea that everyone has something to contribute to society by pushing the myth that wealth comes from the bosses. The acceptance of that idea shoves disabled people into the margins.

The dominant ideology of capitalism tells us we’re all self-sufficient individuals looking after ourselves, and so the problem with disabled people is that they’re dependent on others. Of course, the reality is that we’re all dependent on other people.

Yes, and this is where it’s important to take a viewpoint that isn’t just about disability activists alone. If you look at the concept of “independent living” — something disabled activists fight for — it tends to be taken as a value-free term, whereas in reality in every part of our lives all of us are entirely inter-dependent.

The food we’re eating here, the table we’re sitting at, the machine you’re using to record this interview — all of it is utterly dependent on the labour of other people. That truth is consistently written out of history and written out of our day to day consciousness. That is part of the reason disabled people’s contribution to society is so undervalued.

Another thing that arises from industrial capitalism is the industrialisation of war. Could you say something about the role of war — firstly of course in creating disabled people, but also in how it has shaped our perceptions of disability?

This is a subject that always makes me really angry, because war veterans have always been used to justify more war, justify more impairment by more people getting blown to bits or getting bits of their body or mind blown up.

You get all these royals and politicians wheeling out disabled veterans to to tell us to put our hands in our pockets to help them, when they are the very same ones who get left to rot when the government says there’s no money to pay for the services they need.

The resources are never enough to deal with the trauma that people have suffered. You always find that a lot of people who are homeless are ex-services because they find themselves coming back to a society they don’t understand. They have been trained to kill other human beings, blow things up and all the rest of it, and they are unable to deal with what they’ve done and what they’ve been subjected to.

Shell-shock, which is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has been through a whole number of political explanations. It became a recognised condition in the Diagnostic Service Manual because of the struggle of Vietnam veterans to have it recognised as a form of mental distress. It was previously denied and treated as a lack of moral fibre or as something to do with cowardice.

You said earlier that disability is always about cost.

Here’s a good illustration of that. James Meredith was the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962. It didn’t cost money for James Meredith to get into university, but it does cost money to get dyslexia tutorials or to install grab rails or ramps, or to make courses accessible to blind people.

So disability is a complex category of oppression and you have to be careful about making lazy comparisons with other forms of oppression.

You talk in the book about the movements of the 1960s, civil rights and so on, and how they inspired some of the language of the disability movements and how to fight.

There are periods in history when disabled people fought for themselves, such as the march of the blind in Britain in 1920, when you first heard the slogan “Justice not charity”. Then you come to the period of the late 1960s onwards, when you start to see the development of the disability movement, but it doesn’t take off properly until the 1970s in the US and the 1980s in Britain.

That was after the other movements had already peaked and started to fall, and that’s partly why it’s sometimes referred to as “the last civil rights movement”.

But it’s also because disabled people as a group are weaker than other groups of the oppressed. There are all sorts of barriers to participating because of how serious and all-pervasive that oppression is. Even getting to a demo in London can be impossible — only around a quarter of tube stations in London have step-free access, for example.

There is also the fact that lots of disabled people do not see themselves as disabled. There is a very subjective element to disability that is different from other forms of oppression.

The disability movement took its inspiration quite directly from the black civil rights movement in the US. One of the most influential writers, Vic Finkelstein, made a direct parallel between his experiences living as a disabled person in South Africa and apartheid.

Activists were clearly casting around for inspiration, but you can’t make a simple comparison between different forms of oppression. However, there are links — in the book I look at the issue of eugenics and how it is tied up with racism, women’s oppression and LGBT history. You often find that things you think are about disability also impinge on other oppressions.

You also talk about that in terms of mental health and women’s oppression.

Yes, I found that really fascinating because I didn’t know how much these things developed in tandem in the Victorian period — the argument that women were “hysterical” or “prone to the vapours” or fainting and so on, and the incarceration of women in asylums.

I talk about the development of the asylums because I think that’s quite a complex issue. It’s not always about locking people up behind closed doors and forgetting about them; it also led to the development of a better understanding of mental distress and of lots of different kinds of impairments that were previously all shoved together.

So although they were a horrible thing that we never want to go back to, at the same time capitalism, because it’s always trying to categorise people in order to work out whether it can make a profit from them, had to develop a better understanding of these conditions.

In the book you’re always very careful to look at the contradictions and complexities of each question.

Disability is so poorly understood. In many respects it is behind the other movements, and I think therefore it’s important to be able to explain the complexity of the issues in order to undermine the idea of “them and us”. That is the approach of some disabled activists, who see non-disabled people as oppressing disabled people.

But many groups of people don’t see themselves as disabled — some people with mental distress; lots of people who are deaf regard themselves as a linguistic minority and not as disabled at all; and war veterans often don’t think of themselves as disabled.

It is important to explore this because it shows how the divide between disabled and non-disabled people is often a very subjective one.

In the book I wanted to get across a very important part of what Marx wrote about oppression more generally. As Marxists we don’t believe that equality is about treating everyone the same; we believe that it’s about liberating people from the constraints and the damage that oppression inflicts on their lives, thereby undermining their humanity.

Marx talks about difference. We want a society in which people are able to live as genuinely rounded individuals — in this society we never get that opportunity. Our humanity is fractured, smashed, damaged, destroyed at all turns, and it is a constant struggle to try to get out of the boxes that we’re shoved into.

How much traction does Marxism have in the disability movement?

The movement often expresses wider political trends in a more concentrated way. So in the 80s and 90s it was identity politics and there was hostility to making links with other struggles and other groups.

Now the movement is very much influenced by the anti-capitalist mood, the notions of common sense autonomism or anarchism, which don’t really have any time for political theory.

My book argues that theory is very important. It is not possible to understand disability if you don’t understand capitalism because of the way in which disability is tied up with the capitalist mode of production, geared towards making profits and not towards meeting the needs of people.

This is why we need more than reforms. We can, of course, win better provision of services and facilities for disabled people under capitalism, but the whole category of “disability” as an oppression won’t disappear while society is still geared towards profit.

I quote Vic Finkelstein where he tries to reverse the picture and describe a society designed for wheelchair users, so that people not in wheelchairs are constantly bumping their heads and not being able to use the toilets, and so on.

It’s really effective, but it reduces things to these false polarities. A better understanding of disability is good for everyone. Lots of changes that would help disabled people would benefit society as a whole. Automatic doors, for instance, are not just useful for wheelchair users; they also help people with pushchairs, pensioners, and so on.

What I try to bring out in the book is that socialists have always had an influence on disability theory. Mike Oliver’s social model of disability is rooted in a Marxist approach, for example.

But I was astounded to discover quite how closely the organised left has been tied up with the fortunes of disabled people.

The first organisation set up by, controlled by and fighting for disabled people was founded in Russia in December 1921 during the period following the Russian Revolution. It was called the All-Russian Co-operative of Disabled People (VIKO). There is virtually nothing written about it beyond the few sentences I refer to in the book.

The same period gave us the work of Lev Vygotsky, a revolutionary educationalist who developed a radical approach to rounded education for disabled children. He didn’t cut them off from others but instead sought to educate all children in inclusive and expansive ways, including through play.

It’s really exciting to have done all this work because it hints at how much more hidden history there is out there to be discovered.

For example, in Islamic societies they had a concept of a “blight”, which is comparable to the term impairment. One blight was having blue eyes; another was having a flat nose. So it really brings home how impairment is as socially conditioned and influenced as disability is.

More and more people who weren’t previously considered disabled now are. That cuts both ways; people can say, “No I’m not!” Or they can say, “Wow, I didn’t realise so many people had similar issues. Aren’t we all the same really?” Not grey and boring the same but essentially the same.

That can help us to unite. Socialism is about human liberation; about championing our individuality against the damage that’s done to us by the system every day.

A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability by Roddy Slorach is published by Bookmarks in December at £12.99.