Friday, March 18, 2016

Roddy Slorach - A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability

As I write this review the British Tory government has announced huge further attacks on welfare provision for disabled people. George Osborne's March 2016 budget will take a further £1.5 billion from Personal Independence Payments, on top of the swingeing cuts already made.

Roddy Slorach's new book, A Very Capitalist Condition, is an extremely important contribution to the Marxist analysis of oppression. It takes up many different subjects but it is accessible, aimed at activists as much as those trying to understand how Marxism can both explain the world and offer a strategy to change it. It also helps to explain the ideologies behind the attacks on the welfare of disabled people.

Slorach locates the oppression of the disabled within the wider context of capitalist society. To do this he shows the way that attitudes to those with impairments or disability's have varied under different historical societies. In some of the most fascinating chapters Slorach demonstrates that the very idea of "disability" is actually a relatively recent invention and could not have been understood by people for most of humanities past.
The earliest human societies - which comprise some 90 per cent of our history... were nomadic hunter-gatherers... These communities depended wholly on "nature's bounty"... All group members had a role. Such societies practised egalitarian sharing and participation: their immediate dependency on nature left them no option... people with impairments were not marginalised or excluded.
Things begin to change with the rise of class society, but in the earliest class societies, Slorach argues, there was no systematic exploitation or oppression:
The ambiguity towards impairment identified in early class societies, therefore can be explained by a need to appease the capriciousness of nature due to a far greater degree of dependence on its favours than appears to be the case under capitalism. The lives of people with impairments were determined by the general conditions of exploitation and oppression that obtained in these (often brutal) societies. But there is no evidence of any specific, systematic discrimination levelled at them.
But this fundamentally changes with the rise of capitalism. Beginning in the late feudal period societies begin to see individual's impairments as part of a deviation from the norm. "Madness", Slorach writes, "begins to feature more prominently in culture" and institutions are founded. All this is part of a growing tendency to see people as individuals whose ability to labour is their key function. This is seen most clearly with the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. In part this is because the nature of labour under capitalism, in particular the birth of huge factories, creates industrial injury on a huge scale. But, as Slorach explains, the key reason is that under capitalism what is important about an individual is their ability to sell their labour power so that the bosses can maximise the surplus value obtained from them.
With capitalism, the extraction of surplus value relies on the commodification of labour power, devaluing the role of impaired people's labour and leading to discrimination against them on the basis of their cost to society.
So for Marxists, societies' attitudes to those with impairments is rooted in the wider nature of production under capitalism. This has many different implications, for instance, at times of "austerity" capitalists can argue that the disabled contribute less, so they deserve less. Ideology of this sort is no doubt behind the British Tories plans to decimate welfare once again.

But its not only at times of cuts and austerity that there is systematic discrimination. Slorach points out that "The unemployment rate of disabled people of working age in the UK has remained at around 50 percent for the last 50 years."

Much of this may not seem new. But Slorach points out that there is another factor which is crucial to this debate, this is the historic struggles of disabled people themselves. These struggles have often been in conjunction with other forces in society, such as the trade union movement, but more often than not they have been struggles that have been led by those with impairments. In one fine chapter, Slorach shows how the fight for rights and work has often come from war veterans. The aftermath of World War One and its "industrialised slaughter" saw millions of men wounded and disabled. Their struggles became part of wider revolutionary movements that challenged the system.

Slorach also examined the way that Vietnam veterans in the US (and also veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) have made their demands part of wider anti-war movements, but also shaped new generations of activists who have struggled to demand new approaches to disability in society.

Of course the response is not equal. A person whose limb is amputated in the developed world will likely receive far better treatment than someone living in Sierra Leone who has be injured by a land mine. But even those former British soldiers who have received highly technological prosthetic limbs find, as Slorach notes that such equipment may not always be forthcoming, "injured service men could leave Headley Court [military rehabilitation centre] with £50,000 worth of equipment. Difficulties come later when they leave the military and the NHS does not have the budget to replace the equipment."

So the struggles of disabled people cannot be separated from wider struggles in society - the fight for proper healthcare funding, or education for everyone. But disabled people have also had to fight wider battles, and it is here that I found Slorach's book excellent. Slorach examines the fight to have disability seen in the context of wider society. In some cases this has been a battle by disabled people for the right to express themselves as they see fit. For instance, until relatively recently I was surprised to learn that sign-language was considered unacceptable and Deaf people were usually forced to try to learn to speak, often through very brutal methods. Because this method failed, "the only remaining option was to stress the sub-normality of deaf people, now seen as childlike or savage, requiring institutionalisation".

Slorach tells the amazing story of the students of a Gallaudet University in the US, a college for those with hearing impairments, who in 1988 held mass occupations when a non-deaf person was appointed president. These struggles sparked a wave of protest, and support from the trade union, movement, which eventually led to a reversal of the University's position.

Even today though, sign language is taught in many schools, it is often not an "indigenous sign language" but rather one that means "Deaf pupils are forced to learn signs 'not for the actions they want to express, but for phonetic English sounds they cannot hear". Such attitudes no doubt contribute to a education system in England were "only 36.6 percent of Deaf children in England hit national GCSE benchmarks compared to 65.3 percent of their hearing classmates".

Thus the struggle for rights continues. In an era of austerity that fight is even sharper, which is why campaigns such as Disabled People Against the Cuts have put themselves at the heart of the British anti-austerity movement, gaining wide support for their fight. But Slorach finishes by arguing that the problem isn't one of disabled people within wider human society, but how capitalism oppresses disabled people as a result of the way it organises society. The real solution, he argues, is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and the forging of a socialist society. As his book shows, disabled people have played central roles in historic revolutionary movements, and for a brief period Russia in the aftermath of 1917 was able to lay out the beginnings of a completely different approach to education which demonstrates how a truly liberated society would transform how individuals were seen. The revolutionary Education Act of 1918 that Roddy Slorach mentions is worth quoting to end this review of an outstanding book:
The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture. This personality however can develop its inclinations in all possible luxury only in a harmonious society of equals. We (i.e. the government) do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron moulds, because the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on an actual solidarity of interests.
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