Capitalism and the attacks on disability rights


Recent attacks on the country’s disabled population by the coalition government have produced indignation and consternation amongst groups from the centre of the political spectrum to the revolutionary left. And for no shortage of good reasons. Changes to the Disability Living Allowance and the cuts to social and health services by the coalition government are having an appalling effect on the lives of disabled people across the country. While we should build the widest possible coalition of resistance to these attacks, anticapitalists also have a special argument to make about the imperatives of the profit motive in the capitalist system that lie behind this offensive on vulnerable people.

It’s capitalism stupid
Within a profit orientated system of production people who cannot work, or cannot work as fast, must be paid for somehow. Once this was done within the home, by friends and family, but with the extension of popular suffrage and the growing combativity of organised labour, workers won through struggle the principle that society as a whole would be responsible for the care of the sick and disabled. The power of labour won the principle that there would be a safety net for the poor, however minimal it proved to be. But this ultimately led to a neo-liberal backlash, infamously initiated in Britain by the Thatcher government, who wanted to return to a much more “Victorian” philosophy, that the state should not “interfere” in the natural order of things, and promoted instead the myth of individual responsibility.

The post-war consensus has been under attack for the last 30 years by politicians, supported by big business, who saw social welfare, particularly social security “hand outs”, as a drain on their capital towards “unproductive” sectors. Neo-liberal political parties consequently have increasingly tried to push the cost of social care for the old and disabled back onto individuals and their families. The coalition’s attacks on welfare should be understood as part of this process. Conservatives are pursuing this with discernible vigour; showing how they still hold to the same old Victorian philosophy.

Provision of social services is, therefore, inextricably linked to global political economy and the balance of class forces (the issue of “who should pay” to run the services on which we depend – labour or capital?). It is on this on this point that the radical left can make its strongest set of claims: to popularise an anticapitalist message that connects struggles against all injustice to a fight to get rid of the whole system. Bias towards disabilities is not based on an unfounded, bigoted bias, but is a feature of the subtle ways in which capitalism disguises exploitation and extends the “winners and losers” logic of the market into our lives. Although it is deeply irrational to blame social security claimants for our lot it is sadly an all too common viewpoint that needs to be answered with class solidarity: blame the bosses not the poor.

Building an anticapitalist movement
The left can play to its strength, and while we should not think twice about forming alliances with anyone who is prepared to help us fight against the coalition governments austerity program, we should never let this stop us from attacking capitalism as a system. We must always be pushing the boundaries of the liberal consensus and using the issue of disabilities to highlight the problems inherent within the capitalist mode of production.

For example, we must show how there is an inherent contradiction between the interest of many disabled people who want workplaces to be made more accessible, and the business’s interest which is to increase profit. Indeed it is no coincidence that companies will often oppose legislation which helps disabled people. The problem is not just a few bad apples but it is systemic;  it derives from the fierce profit maximising logic of the capitalist marketplace.

We must not be afraid to be visionary, and instead of just defending the inadequate systems of the past, we must have a compelling vision of an alternative society. It is only by having an idea, perhaps even a slightly utopian idea, of the society we would like to be living in that we can see the current injustices for what they are: not some natural eventuality, but the product of a specific set of historical, economic and political factors.

Unless we look at the issues affecting disabled people from a philosophy built on the Marxist slogan “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, we consign ourselves to specific acts of resistance, without the vision needed for meaningful social change. Once we have this vision in place, we can also be pragmatic and come up with transitional and achievable policies and ideas that will improve the lives of disabled people. For it is only by clearly setting out what we want and how we will achieve it, in all its facets, that we will be able to win people over to our side.


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