At the end of his piece honoring Marta Russell in 2014, colleague and disability studies scholar Ravi Malhotra called on advocates of socialism from below to revisit her work in disability studies that otherwise is too often ignored on the left. In my review of Keith Rosenthal's edited collection of Russell's work, Capitalism & Disability, I want to do something similar and put forward Russell's advocacy of socialism from below to be taken up by disability studies scholars.

Marta Russell was one of the most influential disability justice activists and anti-capitalist thinkers of the 1990s and 2000s in the US. As Rosenthal notes in his editor's preface, Russell wasn't the first to conduct analyses of disability's relationship to capitalism, but she applied explicitly Marxist terms of analysis in the unique "scope and depth" of her approach (viii). The collection exemplifies this aspect of her work, covering topics from the right-to-die movement and analyses of the ADA to the War in Iraq and the history of eugenics in Nazi Germany. Readers do not need a background in Marxist theory to understand Russell's theoretical approach. Rosenthal is careful to include, even repetitively so, Russell's expertly laid out definitions of Marxist analysis along with her varied applications. Russell's repeated explanation of concepts like the "reserve army of the unemployed" and "labor theory of value" at the start of many of her pieces in the collection mean that readers have multiple ways and examples to understand Russell's intellectual framework. For readers, repetition means that chapters and sections could be assigned separately from the whole book whether for a disability studies class or a leftist reading group. For both readerships, each section works to define Russell's terms of analysis and apply them from large-scale discussions of disability civil rights to hyper-focused discussions of a single company's ableist discrimination practices or a set of Supreme Court decisions about the ADA.

The sections and chapters of this collection do not flow chronologically through Russell's activist-writing career, but are organized thematically into six sections. The first section works through the importance of Marxism in disability studies and the necessity of understanding the political economy of disability under capitalism – recalling the original Marxist framing of the social model of disability theorized by scholars like Mike Oliver. The second section, "Civil Rights and Retreats", includes one of Russell's more famous, empirical pieces: "What Disability Rights Cannot Do" and gives ample space to one of Russell's more often misunderstood positions towards the incremental progress symbolized by the ADA and anti-discrimination law in general (64). Though the sections are not chronological, Russell's position on the ADA and its judicial failings cut more deeply when read after the first section's discussion of the structural necessity of disability unemployment under capitalism – a testament to Rosenthal's editorial construction.

"Disability Incarcerated", the third section, and "The Social Security Complex", the fourth, are both shorter sections with as few as two chapters each. However, they do further demonstrate the breadth of Russell's writing, especially in her detailed account of the political and legal character of nursing homes as a project of commodification (100). Russell carefully attends both to the abuses suffered by disabled residents and to care workers' poverty in a rare showing of how solidarity can be crafted between working and non-working people. She points out how for-profit care exploits workers and commodifies disabled people's bodies within the same institution, demonstrating the coalitional possibility of socialist disability activism. Her adjacent discussion of social security's conflicts with disabled people working part-time or sporadically is ripe for reconsideration and extension amidst today's unregulated and unprotected gig-economy.

The last two sections, "Beyond Ramps" and "Body Politics: The Missing Link" examine topics as varied as the war economy of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 to an in-depth discussion of the economic character of Nazi eugenics projects and Social Darwinist politics. The latter example, collected from Russell's 1998 book, demonstrates her skillful historical research, expressed in the same candor as the short activist pieces placed in adjacent chapters. There is a way in which this edited collection is a time capsule – reminding us of the austerity measures of congress in the late 1990s, the supreme court's consistent, corporatist record in decisions against ADA plaintiffs, and the Bush administration's efforts to privatize social security while allowing untold suffering during Hurricane Katrina and instigating military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, even in arguing for the applicability of this text to activist and educational contexts today, it is also true that Russell's economic critique is limited in its imagination of disability when it exceeds US borders. Her analysis of US imperialism amidst the anti-war movement in 2003 in chapters 13 and 14 appeal to the economic contradictions of funding the occupation of Iraq while cutting social services for disabled people in the US. This argumentative tactic among some left activists painfully resonates for Arabs like myself and those who identify with victims of US imperialism around the world. We are used to hearing about the cost of war in terms of the excesses of military spending: the cost of tomahawk missiles in dollars ("one million each" as Russell notes) rather than the killed and maimed victims of those bombs (121).

Analyzing and arguing against US military spending is itself a form of anti-imperialism – Russell's discussion is in the context of her arrest at an anti-war protest, after all. Yet, critiques of the ways austerity for the poor and disabled is justified by imperialism must be paired with analysis of the violence of imperialism itself from the perspective of those who directly suffer its effects. US imperialism must not be taken simply as a warrant to discuss poverty in the US; doing so fails to imagine global solidarity for disabled people in the US with victims of imperialism (who are often themselves disabled by war). This issue isn't limited to Russell's work – one anti-war group she identifies with argues, "the Bush administration's agenda promises to 'to rob us of the self-determination for which we have fought for so long'" (122). Notably, Rosenthal includes statistics on the numbers of those disabled in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of US military action in his ending notes of the book. Even in centering a Marxist perspective on disability in our field, we must extend Russell's work and make connections to Marxist thought in the Global South and the theories of disablement that attend to imperialism in historical and contemporary terms. Scholars like Liat Ben-Moshe and Nirmala Erevelles have already taken the lead in doing this work, as made clear in their contributions to Ravi Malhotra's 2016 collection of essays published in honor of Russell, Disability Politics in a Global Economy.

What could be considered as a sibling publication to Disability & Capitalism, Malhotra's collection is prefaced with the words of Samuel Bagenstos, legal scholar and self-identified "liberal (not left-wing) civil rights lawyer" (xii). There, Bagenstos speaks to the importance of Russell's politics all while critiquing approaches to disability justice outside of a civil rights framework. In his collection, Rosenthal rightly critiques this position as it evokes the common framing of leftist thought: that some critiques are fair, but only insofar as they fit tidily into the existing social, legal, and economic structure. Russell's call to uproot political economies that fundamentally devalue disabled people is, in Bagenstos' framing, support for welfare reform and the argument that "advancements in disability equality depend on a commitment to public investment" (xii).

In contrast, Rosenthal's explicit commitment to socialist activism in Capitalism & Disability frames Russell's work with a light touch, insisting upon its applicability with as little editorial adjustment as possible. For an academic readership, the lack of citations for some chapters may be off-putting, especially in contrast to the specificity with which Russell makes her claims. She often draws on anecdotal and personal evidence, at once tempering any critique of a lack of academic rigor with the sobering detail of personal stories of disabled people who have suffered under dehumanizing economic conditions. Rosenthal structures the book with an editorial acknowledgement of Russell's scope of writerly venues. Selections from her book, Beyond Ramps, and journals like Disability & Society appear alongside shorter and more accessible pieces in the collection – namely those published in leftist publications like Z Commentaries and Ragged Edge Online. This point is more a matter of distinct venue than any shift in Russell's writing style. Though there is a discernible difference in which pieces use citations, for instance, Russell's writing style is unchanged "whether it appeared in a more esoteric academic journal or in an anarchist webzine" as Rosenthal puts it (x). We ought to locate ourselves as readers within many of these audiences, not just the academic ones. Readers committed to disability justice within the academy or without can and should engage with her as a thinker and activist, and including a breadth of topics and writerly venues is a credit to the collection.

Marta Russell's writing emerges from a key moment at the turn of the 21st century where the ADA's faults were made plainly visible by Supreme Court decisions parallel to broader government actions to cut social services while justifying imperialism abroad. Russell's analysis is just as necessary now as it was then. Her writing is evocative and precise in naming and historicizing the ways in which capitalism and its attendant structures of legal liberalism and neoliberal governance has continued to alienate, exploit, and kill disabled people. I find this edited collection to be a powerful introductory text for scholars and activists alike to discuss anti-capitalist approaches to disability in a US context. The necessity for anti-capitalist action is even more pressing today than in Russell's context twenty years ago – a point made clear by the fact that Rosenthal, in including updated statistics for the rates of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment of disabled Americans at the end of the collection, notes how little these rates have changed since Russell wrote on them (x). Similarly, the elements of the federal government that seek to privatize and cut support to disabled and impoverished Americans have remained the same or worsened in recent years. Since Bush, the office of president – including democrat and republican office-holders – has continually sought to cut social security to varying degrees, as Russell feared. The current structure of our political economy must change, even while many of us are unsure what change will look like. Scholars like Bagenstos lament what political gains might be lost in Russell's approach to disability politics. As Russell herself puts it, however, moving beyond ramps doesn't mean abandoning the work that's come before. Radical change, "beyond simply accepting one's environment as permanent and then adapting to it, is to move into a realm where one seeks to transform the inequalities" (169). Disability studies scholars would do well to incorporate her work across the field; despite our varied interdisciplinary approaches to disability, we all work under a shared, capitalist political economy.

Works Cited

  • Bagenstos, Samuel R. "Foreword: Thoughts on responding to the Left Critique of Disability Rights Law," in Disability Politics in a Global Economy: Essays in Honour of Marta Russell, ed. Ravi Malhotra, New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • Malhotra, Ravi. "Honoring Marta Russell (1951-2013)." Against the Current, 2014, https://againstthecurrent.org/atc169/p4113/.
Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2021 Yanar Hashlamon

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)