Covid, crisis, history: why we need a political economy of disability

The Covid-19 economic crisis is a disability crisis.

This is not to say that it is a crisis in which disability has been prevalent and will become more so—although, given the incidence of long-term health conditions among those who have been infected by the virus, this may well be true.

It is also not to say that it is a crisis felt only, or even particularly keenly by the disability community—though such claims are lent some credence when considering the loud eugenic rhetoric of various world leaders, paired with the brutal impact of cases within segregated institutions for disabled people, such as schools, care facilities and housing complexes.

What it means is that this pandemic, and the near universal inability to properly contain and manage its spread, are a function of the particular material form that disability takes under capitalism.

We must understand disability, itself a category historically located within capitalism before we can understand the pandemic. To avert another such global catastrophe in the future, we must confront the structures within which this most recent catastrophe is comprised.


Disability before disability

To say that we should understand disability materially may seem a trivially true statement in light of the usual understanding of disability as any impairment located within the body, and identifiable by sufficiently advanced medicine. It is from this basis, perhaps, that the assertion that disability is a category that exists only contemporaneously to capitalism may induce confusion. To describe disability in terms of its physical characteristics would however deny the true reality of disability as a historical relation, in favour of the static category that obscures it.

To paraphrase Engels’ criticism of the metaphysician, it would be to say ‘a [disability] either exists or does not exist; a [disability] cannot at the same time be itself and something else.’

Prior to the industrial revolution in Europe, and even now in cultures operating outside of capitalist modes of production, impairments were, and still are, treated very differently. Even today, outside of the advanced capitalist economies, most languages and cultures have no word or way of referencing disabled people as a generalisable group, referring instead to specific impairments. People with impairments in such societies are often well-integrated, and beneficiaries of the practices of care that have been documented throughout various historical periods and across transitions between productive modes.

Archaeological evidence from Kenya dating back as far as 1.5 million years ago has demonstrated that, amongst the earliest human-like species, practices of care must have existed to support people with disabilities greatly hindering independent living to survive into relatively old age. This has been corroborated by the fossil record across time and place: say, from Iraq 45 thousand years ago, or North America 7,500 year ago, or Vietnam 4000 years ago. Communal care practices have continued, or have re-emerged with social reformation and decolonialisation, through to the present day. Sujatha Fernandes has written for instance on the socialised forms of care that have emerged in Venezuelan barrios over the last few decades.


Disability emerges

As social relations began to reconfigure during the transition to capitalism, however, the spaces in which these practices took place ceased to exist. Whether in the form of the British commons or more loosely defined social units configured around communal subsistence labour elsewhere, communities were completely upended. This occurred through the privatisation of land, through the economically coerced migration of small communities to densely packed urban cities, through the changed relationship of the peasant worker to time—having little control of what time could be used to look after themselves, let alone other community members.

The people who attempted to adapt to, and engage with, industrialised work, had to reckon with the realities of accumulation. Workers found themselves stripped of any capacity to provide for themselves beyond selling their labour power for a wage. Yet, the value of a wage, labour power’s exchange value, bears no relation to the use value, or the value actually produced by the worker’s labour power. The capitalist’s profit lies in difference between the value a worker produces, and the wage that same worker is paid. To increase the profit rate, all that can be done is to increase the intensity of the work, by increasing the amount of time worked proportional to the wage, or to increase the relative productivity of that work—either through technological advancement, or by simply making employees work faster. Whether or not the person was willing to adapt to the new social configuration was irrelevant. They were cast out, left without the means to subsist, either forced to starve, or contained within newly constructed institutions and asylums. Primitive accumulation, the great secret at the heart of the first volume of Marx’s capital, redefined and reworked the bodies of those unable to meet the demands of the new productive mode. In a very literal sense, primitive accumulation disabled people.

If there can be said to be a characteristic that defines the disabled person under capitalism, therefore, it is one of their relation to others, and to the production process, rather than anything internal to the disabled person themselves. Disability cannot exist separate from the social relations in which it is enmeshed.


The social model of disability

It should be noted that a changed relationship between broad civil society and the group considered to be ‘impaired’ has been explored by an array of scholarship far broader than just the Marxian. One of the progenitors of postmodernism, Michel Foucault, developed a similar argument in his foundational work on the history of madness and the birth of the asylum.

That said, the Social Model’s particular historicisation of disability and its positioning as part of the transition between feudal and capitalist social relations is decidedly Marxist. It has its roots in grassroots disability organisations particularly, the defiantly Marxist Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation in the United Kingdom between the 1960s and 1980s. It entered the academic lexicon as the ‘social model of disability’ in the work of disabled British activist Michael Oliver, a staunch socialist, and more recently has been the focus of the historical work of Roddy Slorach.

The analysis has endured attack from many, including disability scholars like Tom Shakespeare, who was himself once in favour of the social model, but has since rejected it due to the theory’s perceived ignorance of the diversity of both experiences and embodied manifestations of disability. In rejecting a material, historical explanation of disability’s emergence however, critics becomes unable to appreciate the ways in which disability today is itself a product of history. The rich forest that is the historical relationship between social relations and disability community is mistaken for the particulars of a small number of trees from the last few decades.


Understanding the Covid-19 economic crisis

The economic historian Adam Tooze has described the economic crisis which accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic as the ‘first comprehensive crisis of the age of the Anthropocene.’ In such a crisis, humanity is forced to reckon with the damage wrecked by capitalism’s violent attempts to separate civil society from the natural environment from which it emerged and upon which it remains precariously dependent. Tooze relates this to Ulrich Beck’s sociological analysis of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster’s aftermath, drawing a parallel between the confusion and fear surrounding the invisible threat of radioactive fallout and the same social currents surrounding a microscopic virus. The dangers of both were marred by confusion and conflicting reports, and treated with wildly varying degrees of seriousness across ideological lines and geographic space.

Tooze’s argument is reminiscent of the theories of sociologist Karl Polanyi, particularly what he calls the double movement. Polanyi used the term to describe what he saw as social revolt against commodification—things that are not themselves commodities, such as land, labour and money, are treated as if they were and subjected to the forces of the market. If we are to accept Tooze’s argument, where is that tension emerging? For the GFC, and the social turmoil that surrounded it, the commodification and ownership of land is an obvious answer. For the Covid crisis, the answer is disability.


Disability: the primary contradiction of 2020

Taken at its face, such a statement may seem absurd. What is crucial here, however, is to understand disability as a process rather than a static category. Those who hold to the social model of disability routinely avoid so-called person-first language, person with disability, preferring instead to say disabled person. Disability becomes a verb, as social relations work to very literally disable particular groups of people.

Human labour is commodified at ever increasing levels and labour is characterised by widespread wage stagnation and increasingly precarious work arrangements. We are witnessing the original configuration of work itself coming into sharp contradiction with its historical backdrop. Marx and Engels wrote of a Europe haunted by the spectre of Communism, a destablising social force that had emerged out of the contradictions that capitalism created. We are currently witnessing the base foundation of capitalist production, the wage relation, stalked by reanimated monsters.

The Australian economy, along with most advanced capitalist economies, have seen a significant drop in labour productivity over previous decades. Whilst the unproductive economy has been able to largely switch to a working from home model, productive labour has been significantly disrupted. Logistics networks of all scopes have been impacted dramatically, from transporting goods across locked-down borders, to the gig economies of food and service delivery. The latest Sydney lockdown, almost four months long, affected industries that contribute significantly to productivity—like construction—as mandates around masks and social distancing mediated how work was completed, and how quickly it could be tackled. Any outbreak meant potential exposure of workers to the virus, a lockdown and deep clean of the worksite, and days of no work. Job Keeper, designed to protect the incomes of workers during lockdowns, was routinely raided by company executives desperate to make up for lost profits. Disability, which had emerged out of the wage relation to serve the pursuit of greater profits, now threatens the very surplus values it was supposed to increase.


What now?

Marx’s great contribution was in demonstrating the way in which history progresses according to the material relations that structure society. In this essay I hope to contribute to this task, not in an attempt to replace or usurp, but to extend.

To say that disability is the primary contradiction of the Covid-19 crisis is not to make a claim about the primacy of the struggle of disabled people. Rather, it is a recognition of one of the many ways in which capitalism is buckling under the weight of its amassed contradictions.

Disability is a relation, and consequently it is not something that can exist in a vacuum. Amy Fairchild’s call for a political economy of disability was made in the context of an argument around the ways in which United States immigration laws meant that whether or not a customs officer would render a prospective immigrant disabled, and refuse them entry, had far more to do with race, and by extension their perceived role in production, than it necessarily did with an individual’s particular impairments. She tells the story of a twenty-year-old Irish clerical worker, missing part of his leg, who was refused entry to America in 1926 by virtue of his disability precluding his ability to engage in productive labour, despite his background in office settings, simply because his Irish heritage had relegated him to a less prestigious class of travel, whilst similarly impaired passengers in second and first class had no trouble.

Today, the various social fault lines along which disability is traced are, if anything, starker. Migrants are overwhelmingly represented within the gig economy, especially ride sharing and food delivery apps. Last year, the government went so far as to fly people from Vanuatu through the otherwise closed borders only to be placed into positions of hyper-exploitation picking fruit for farmers deprived of their usual backpackers. The traditional structures and practices of care employed by Aboriginal peoples across Australia are now being derailed by the national and state governments, as it abandons any attempt to contain the pandemic and allows the virus to run rampant across the country. This is especially damaging, given that incidence of disabilities in these communities is roughly one in two, compared to one in five in the general population.

And yet, this is what is necessitated by capitalism. It is not merely about exposing vulnerable groups to a deadly virus, nor that more people shall become disabled given the long-term effects observed already in those who have caught it. The many contradictions inherent in capitalism are intrinsic to the mode of production. The disabling forces of capitalism will continue to work—whether or not we are in lockdown, and no matter how many ramps are installed, tactile tiles laid down or colourblind modes implemented. This will continue until capitalism has been completely torn asunder.

It is just as well that monsters are notoriously good at breaking things.


Lithograph of St Marylebone Workhouse in 1867, Wikimedia Commons

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Margot Beavon-Collin is a Political Economy and History student at the University of Sydney, where she has been a Disability Office Bearer since 2019. She is a current member of the WWDA Youth Advisory Group and PWDA’s Pandemic Project, as well as a candidate member of the Australian Communist Party. She has also been involved with the Disabled and Neurodivergent Workers’ Alliance and the Disability Justice Network. She has spoken at the Emerging Writers’ Festival and the National Young Writers’ Festival, and her work has been published in Militant Monthly and Honi Soit.

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  1. Nicely and succinctly put. Re the pandemic then, ‘letting it rip’ by opening up to all dangers to learn to live with the virus is more about relearning how to live with a capitalism derailed by its own disability of not being able to fully exploit its usual labour base, disabled people included, vaccines thus politicised to exploit the aims and deception of capital. Nice work if you can get it? Not now and never was, Amen.

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