Disability and socialism
I recently attended an event at Bluestockings organized by the Rock Dove Collective, which coordinates a network of radical health practitioners who offer services on the basis of mutual aid. They self-published a scrappy compilation of short pieces by radicals, mostly anarchists, struggling with issues of disability and radical change. For example, one young woman wrote about how her battle with ovarian cancer put her in the position of taking explicit advantage of her class privilege.
At that same event, I got another journal called “Sick: A compilation zine on physical illness”, which explores the experience of being radical and ill. It’s available online. I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in thinking more the connections between illness, disability, and radical politics.
Both of these events caused me to think about the disconnect between many socialist activists and these issues.
Socialists tend to talk and think a lot about work. That makes sense: after all, working for wages is a prime cause of class consciousness. Nothing makes the source of your oppression clearer than when the boss pops in to your cubicle to request that you come in on Saturday, or demands that you stay later washing dishes because you broke that coffee cup.
Feminists introduced the concept of social reproduction, allowing us to understand how the childrearing and the other unpaid labors of day-to-day life are also work and, like wage labor, are a source of exploitation. This was extremely important because it helped explain women’s oppression.
Socialists – even socialist feminists – understandably put a huge amount of emphasis on labor, especially physical labor. There is a lot less theorizing about how capitalism treats disabled bodies - and even less on what roles people in these bodies play in bringing in a socialist world.
What does it mean to be a revolutionary socialist if you need help wiping yourself after you shit?
The lack of good answers to this question – at least the lack of answers in the socialist world I circulate in – is a problem. The implication of our non-answer is that the sick and disabled are non-actors in the project of human liberation. Maybe those crippled bodies would benefit from socialism, but they’ve no role in making it happen.
We should change this. There are a couple of reasons why.
First, a world that’s organized according to the principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” necessarily appreciates that human abilities, including the ability to do mental and physical labor, vary. Some of us will only need our diapers changed for us once, as infants, and some of us will need our diapers changed forever.
Most socialists accept this statement in theory. But it has relevance for day to day life, too. In practice I think it should mean, among other things:
- Joining in struggles for accessibility that allow disabled people to participate fully in society, and bringing these issues to the forefront in movements like those for health care, public transportation, and public education.
- At the same time, we should incorporate access into the planning of every event from the beginning. The role of disabled activists shouldn't be limited to events with wheelchair access or sign language interpretation, and their role in organizing shouldn't be limited to reminding able-bodied activists of these issues.
- On an individual level, making people who are very old or very young feel welcome. Similarly, not dismissing the contributions of older people because they are frail or can’t hear well
- Understanding that sick or chronically ill comrades might not be able to attend every event or go to every meeting that you would expect them to (even if their sickness isn’t visible to you)
- Recognizing that the experience of being sick and disabled -- or caring for those who are -- can be radicalizing (more on this later)
Another reason why socialists should pay attention to this is that various disabled communities have histories of struggle that able bodied revolutionaries could learn from.
For example, the more militant disability rights formations of the 1970s challenged the dominance of charitable organizations and embodied a true “from below” politics, according to the analysis of activist Ravi Malhotra.
(He calls the contrast between these disabled militants and disability advocates the “two souls of disability liberation politics,” paraphrasing the title of Hal Draper’s seminal essay, “The Two Souls of Socialism,” which drew a distinction between grassroots socialism and socialism that is imposed from above.)
Another good example is the Deaf community, whose members – in contrast to those who are hard-of-hearing and function in the world of hearing people-- consider themselves linguistic minorities, not disabled. It would be fairly easy to argue that a Deaf nation exists: there’s certainly a distinct language and several geographical centers (mostly focused on Deaf schools), and a strong separatist current.
Deaf people also have a strong legacy of actively fighting for the preservation of American Sign Language education over mainstreamed (lip reading) education. The movement to install a Deaf president at the helm of Gallaudet University, which emerged victorious as a result of a well-coordinated campus occupation, is the most famous example.
Third, the experience of disability – of being unable to “work productively” – can bring about class consciousness, too. Helen Keller, whose life story has unfortunately been reduced to pabulum in mainstream histories, understood her life trajectory through a lens of class analysis. "I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment," she said. Keller became a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, a suffragist and an anti-racist activist.