In Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell, Keith Rosenthal compiles 20 essays written by the influential and provocative public intellectual Marta Russell (1951-2013). Russell drew on the theories of Karl Marx to relentlessly expose the ways in which capitalism, and the vast array of social institutions legitimizing capitalism, led to the poverty, segregation, and devaluation of people with disabilities. She wrote clearly, eloquently, and fiercely, demanding human rights and social justice for disabled people, promoting an anti-capitalist agenda, and criticizing all who slashed the safety net. This collection includes essays written for diverse publications and audiences between the years of 1998 and 2005. Rosenthal organizes them in six parts to effectively develop her central arguments regarding the role of capitalism and its devastating effects on disabled people.

Part I The Political Economy of Disability introduces the reader to Russell's application of Marx's theories to disability. In her accessible style, Russell explains that the primary cause of oppression is economics, not ideology or culture. Capitalists seek the accumulation of profits, which compels them to exploit workers and destroy social safety nets. Simultaneously, capitalism ensures that a vast pool of potential workers remain unemployed in order to lower wages and produce a docile workforce. Those deemed by capitalists to be unfit for work – the "surplus"– fall vulnerable to a host of exclusion mechanisms, all guided by the logic of capitalism that devalues non-workers, blames them for their own disposability, and shifts the costs of unemployment and exclusion onto the backs of working-class America who then come to resent the nation's "dependents."

The essays in Part II Civil Rights and Retreats develop Russell's strident critique of civil rights legislation when used as the sole approach to address oppression. Russell states, "anti-discrimination legislation, by failing to acknowledge the contradictions of promoting equal opportunity in class-based (unequal) society, is insufficient to solve the unemployment predicament of disabled persons" (p. 66). Shifting more people into the reserve army of workers only increases the supply of workers and decreases worker power and pay, leading to greater exploitation of workers. Meanwhile, capitalists resist hiring workers who potentially add costs; therefore, few disabled workers gain employment, and those that do fear requesting accommodations and often remain in economic peril. As such, businesses seek to undermine civil rights, and the state – despite putting anti-discrimination legislation in place – ensures pro-business outcomes. The Supreme Court effectively, and mostly unanimously, gutted the ADA as it protected businesses. According to Russell, when people have rights on paper but no power to claim them, rights serve only to perpetuate an illusion of equality.

The essays in Part III Disability Incarcerated use a political economy approach to explain the segregation of people with disabilities in settings as diverse as mental institutions, prisons, and nursing homes. Russell explains that capitalism creates poverty and is both served by and threatened by the poor. Incarceration benefits capitalists in several ways: removing threats from society, creating a pool of institutionalized and highly exploitable workers, and commodifying the disabled body as a source of profit. In a similar vein, Part IV The Social Security Complex examines the role of social security and state "benefits" as superstructure, or, in other words, as systems that ultimately legitimize and facilitate the interests of capitalists. Capitalists deny disabled people employment, but Social Security forces disabled people to declare themselves totally unable to work, thereby excusing capitalists from responsibility. The process of securing benefits devastates people who are forced to hire lawyers, wait years for benefits, and, once on benefits, experience chronic poverty.

Section V Beyond Ramps addresses the breaking of the social contract across several areas of life. The first two essays describe a destructive trifecta of anti-disability policies: tax cuts for the rich, the fiscal prioritization of militarism, and the gutting of America's safety net. These policies, justified by neoliberal ideology, lead to vast wealth for a small segment of the population and devastating precarity for disabled Americans (and for most Americans). Basic needs like affordable and accessible housing are not met. Those in crisis are abandoned. On the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Russell argues, "the tremendous loss of life and ongoing devastation was not at root caused by Hurricane Katrina. It was caused by a corrupt government run by people who saw more profit for themselves and their friends in diverting taxpayer dollars to multibillion-dollar corporate contracts in a senseless and lawless war, and doling tax cuts out to the richest people in this nation, rather than in buttressing the faulty levee system protecting New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain" (p. 135-136).

The final section, Section VI Body Politics: The Missing Link, argues that capitalism positions disabled people as disposable, and, not surprisingly, leads them to their death. At times, death results from direct, brutal force, such as the Nazi extermination programs. At other times, it comes in the form of the "right" to die, as people are supported in choosing death, although denied the basic needs and liberties to make life livable. Either way, the glorification of profit is used to justify, and demand, the death of disabled people.

Together, these essays develop Russell's argument identifying "the oppression of disabled people as an inextricable constituent component of the capitalist mode of production itself" (p. viii). They also present her solutions. Russell fought unabashedly for the right to work and to receive a living wage, a strong safety net, and human rights including health care. She stated, "an economy only works if it works for people; if it delivers health care, a living wage, and a secure livelihood and income for every person" (p. 60).

Every disability studies scholar should be aware of Russell's work and in conversation with it. Contrary to many post-modern and cultural analyses, Russell positions discourse as a result of economic relations, and argues that any fight against ideology is destined to fail unless it acknowledges and dismantles the underlying economic inequalities. Many of the arguments made through these essays are also made in Beyond Ramps; however, these shorter pieces across a range of topics provide unique access to the variety of her work.

In compiling Russell's essays, Rosenthal lets her work speak for itself. As such, he resists the urge to update Russell's work or to write an extensive piece connecting her work to today's politics. This may have been a greater shortcoming if not for Malhotra's (2017) volume in which scholars apply, extend and critique her work. Indeed, her work is deeply relevant today; for example, her arguments resonate in understanding the American response, and lack of response, to COVID-19, including the government's acceptance of the death of thousands of disabled people and utter lack of acknowledgement of the underlying social and economic conditions that heighten vulnerability. Rosenthal also chooses not to delve deeply into the limitations of her work. For example, Russell does not tend to engage with race, feminist or queer theory. Disability justice scholars share Russell's anti-capitalist agenda, but they have shown that ableism rests on the intersections of class, race, gender and sexual oppression (e.g., Berne, 2015; Lewis, 2020; Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018). Other weaknesses of Russell's work could be developed, but readers will not find them discussed in depth in this volume. Rosenthal does provide an appendix of current disability statistics, but it is poorly referenced. He provides a bibliography, but each statistic is not directly connected to a reference nor are the statistics clearly dated.

In conclusion, Russell is best known for Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract (1998). Capitalism and Disability, as well as Ravi Malholtra's (2017) recent collection of essays honoring Russell, contribute to a broader understanding of her scholarship and intellectual impact. They deservedly position Russell as a foundational theorist in disability studies whose theory and politics continue to be critical to understanding the precarious lives, and sadly the deaths, of a group too often deemed disposable within capitalist logics.

References

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2021 Allison C. Carey

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)