Like all groups, the disabled’s relationship to society has evolved with the advancement of progression. So, for a Marxist understanding of how disabled people are affected by capitalism we have to first look at how human evolution changed the ways disabled people connect to society.
Disabled people did exist during this time; however, their integration is not completely understood. If an individual was able to live long enough to reproduce, that was simply enough for the genes to continue. It is often assumed that ‘survival of the fittest’ meant disabled people failed to contribute to the early development of society.
Feudal society saw the developments of societal morals and superstitions. For disabled people, this often meant their disability was the result of ‘divine intervention’ i.e. an untouchable had bad Dharma from a previous life, or a disabled child was born to highlight the sin committed by a dishonest wife or husband.
Much like in primitive society, if the individual had a means to look after themselves i.e. helping on a farm, they were able to lead a productive life, which at worst suffered various forms of discrimination, but failed to become as defined as the oppression of women.
As any observant Marxist will deduce, capitalist society is built on the premise; the more you can produce the more valuable you are. This became particularly poignant for disabled people and can still be seen to this day with the various levels of demonisation of disabled people today.
Because of this issue, capitalist society has had a constant to-and-fro with the disabled community. The ‘morality’ capitalist society inherited from Judeo-Christian traditions, there has never be a consensus of how to ‘deal’ with the disabled. If we compare what happened to the millions of Africans stolen as part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Judeo-Christian morality and anthropologists pushed the venomous ideology that slaves were closer to animals than humans; thus you should treat a slave like you would treat your cattle or pets. As disability transcends race, many disabled people were in fact ‘human’ – however, it must be noted disabled slaves were deemed ‘useless slaves’, this meant that even today many people of colour are not viewed as disabled and any problems (especially mental) are viewed a deficiencies of race.
The moral to-and-fro occurred at the evolution of modern medicine, which despite managing to disprove ideas like divine or daemonic influence, reduced disability to medical problems. This viewpoint had a double-edged sword as it ignored societal influence but also helped feed eugenicist ideology.
Eugenics is one of the biggest stains on humanity, which like fascism refuses to die. Eugenics is an ideology that simply supposes that a lot of humanity’s problems are genetic/medical meaning they can be cured either through removing things from the gene pool or simply ‘curing’ the problem. Eugenics was so incredibly influential, that many modern purebred dogs were curated during this era. Regardless of the ‘effectiveness’ of eugenics, what can be noted is how it has been predominantly used as a weapon against ethnic minorities and the disabled. Anthropologists of the 19th Century, asserted that non-Caucasian races had various deficiencies which, they could not be blamed for, but was a result of the ‘natural order’. The deficiencies of the disabled were their impact on hindering profits and production and were therefore less important for society. These ideologies are what pushed the popularity of eugenics towards the end of the 19th Century; the most horrific culmination of this was the Nazi Holocaust, which aimed to eradicate the ‘Useless Eaters’ – the Jews, the Disabled, and the Roma to name just a few.
The modern view tries to revise the popularity of eugenics to just a few fanatics, when in reality eugenics was much more insidious. Figures like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Winston Churchill are specific figures who were vocal supports for the advancement of eugenics. It was even popular enough amongst the left, that The Left Book Review published a book about Eugenics in the early 1930s.
Another modern view tries to suggest eugenics disappeared with Nazism. This also is not the complete truth, however, there has not been a form of eugenics that has had as much momentum as the Nazis. Nearly all capitalist nations have at some point between 1900 and today, have had pro-eugenics or at least soft-eugenics laws and infrastructure. USA, Japan, and Britain as examples all until 1990s had laws which allowed for ‘sterilisation of the mentally inferior’. Alternatively, Iceland through its modern monitoring of pregnancy have almost eradicated Down’s Syndrome from the Artic island. Since, 2010 Britain’s austerity measures could also be classed as a form of soft-eugenics or at least social murder of the disabled considering the incredible impact it has had on the community.
Rights not Charity
Disability activist groups like Disabled People Against the Cuts run under the motto of ‘Rights not Charity’. This motto shows where the fight for disabled people is currently. Unlike the Women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, or LGBT rights movements the disabled rights movement is very young; arguably barely forty years old. This means, the particular enemies are very particular and arguably smaller; where people of colour are now fighting centuries of racist laws and infrastructure, disabled people are fighting to be seen as valuable to society and not a burden or a pitiable circumstance.
This may seem pessimistic, but until major victories are won, we are not in the position of demanding power of everything from the plough to the stars. The battles also differ depending on the nature of disability. Physically disabled individuals are still fighting for simple things like being able to physically access everywhere. Those with learning disabilities are fighting to be allowed to be born, with even many nations with harsh anti-choice laws making exceptions for ‘deformity’ or Down’s Syndrome. Autistic people are fighting against bogus claims or a cure or the suggestion that they are a result of vaccination. d/Deaf individuals are fighting many fights, be it to see their circumstance as a linguistic problem, access to a suitable education in their language, or the ability to work in their language. Visually impaired individuals are also fighting for better access to education as well as access to work which is often denied to them.
Currently, disabled people have the lowest employment rates in capitalist society, with rarely more than 30% gaining full-time employment. Autistic and Neurodivergent demographics suffer incredible 80-95% unemployment rates. The huge levels of unemployment are a result of multiple factors, unsuitable workplaces, untrained staff, and incredible levels of discrimination. This mass unemployment also means many disabled people are at the ‘bottom’ of the working class; it also feeds the stereotype that disabled people are ‘lazy’ or ‘skiving’ or simply ‘draining society’.
The Socialist Response
Nations like the U.S.S.R., China, D.P.R.K., and Cuba all have shown how disabled people can not only contribute to society, but also that their value is in their humanity – not their productive capabilities. Soviet Ukraine was arguably able to boast the largest levels of disabled employment known to man, with a whopping 80% employment rate in the 1970s. This was only possible in a society that aims to meet the needs of its populace while also allowing them to flourish to their highest potential. The Ukrainian writer Nikolai Orlovsky is a great example of this, a figure who wrote one of the most popular and seminal pieces of socialist realism was heavily paralysed after the Civil War.
Many disabled people throughout history recognise the importance of socialism, as socialism sees the humanity in everyone. Notable disabled socialists include Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller, Antonio Gramsci, and Albert Einstein.
As we advance the socialist cause throughout the globe, we must continue to recognise this simple understanding:
Capitalism only sees your profit potential, Socialism only sees your humanity.