This post introduces a symposium on Marta Russell and the Political Economy of Disability. Read the rest of the posts here.
One in four Americans are disabled. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—both the disabling effects of Long COVID and delayed or disrupted routine care—this figure is expected to increase in the coming decade. Disability is an important boundary category of the labor market, and our understanding of who “is” and who “is not” disabled has been fundamentally shaped by law, economics, and politics. As such, the modern disability rights movement has been primarily oriented around seeking labor inclusion through the expansion of civil rights statutes. Despite this attention to disability, socio-political categories, and the economy, few disability theorists have approached the study of disability from an explicitly political economic perspective. Marta Russell (1951–2013), the author of several groundbreaking but lesser-known works on disability and capitalism, is one of the rare exceptions. This symposium celebrates her work and encourages the rediscovery of a political economic perspective on disability, which has been resurgent in recent years and has much to add to not just the Law and Political Economy lens, but to all who engage with identity, economy, and the law, offering lessons beyond the bounds of disability into other avenues for struggle.
The Money Model of Disablement
Marta Russell proposes a theory of disability that rejects arguments about culture and identity, instead charging that specific systems and values embedded within capitalism are the primary driver of (and justification for) legal frameworks sanctioning the institutionalization and economic exclusion of disabled people. A key question for Russell was: What do systems of production and wealth accumulation gain from the way in which disability certification frameworks are constructed and public benefits allocated? Centered in an analysis of means-testing, war spending, administrative burdens, and underfunded social safety net supports, Russell’s work showed how a society obsessed with optimization, efficiency, and cost-benefit analysis had created a vast network of laws and institutions that worked together to perpetuate what she called “the money model of disablement,” better known as “the money model.”
Articulating the contours of the money model could be described as the central thesis of much of her work, in which Russell demonstrates, across multiple arenas, how those who are not considered to be profitable under the traditional framework of labor power = economic/political worth still have a crucial role to play in the reproduction of capital. It was not merely, as many of Russell’s contemporaries in disability studies argued, a problem of disabled people needing a seat at the table—but a function of the design of the political economy itself, which was organized to prioritize extraction in systems of care, and which could not be fixed by disabled people winning inclusion in the job market, graduating from “ward of the state” to “taxpayer.” Political power, she argued, was far more complex than something that could be earned by playing along with the system and paying your dues to the institutions that embody and enforce the status quo.
The money model, best articulated in Russell’s 1998 book, Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, posits that disabled people are not, as they are often framed in dominant culture, a “burden to society,” but are actually a valuable resource. As Russell explains: “…persons who do not offer a body which will enhance profitmaking as laborers are used to shore up US capitalism by other means.” Disabled people are a nexus around which the capacity for surplus labor power can be built (often financed in part by federal money)—whole sectors of our economy have sprung forth from the money model, which has normalized the commodification of things, systems, and places that maintain disabled bodies in pursuit of squeezing profit from the money which passes through disabled people towards their survival and care. For example, nursing homes, Russell argued, are not places of rest and comfort, but a strategy for commodifying the “least productive” so that they can both be “made of use to the economic order” and free up the labor supply of those who love and wish to care for them. This system benefits neither the workers nor disabled people, only what Russell called the “owning class.” US disability policy, instead of being oriented around supporting the needs of disabled people, sanctions and facilitates the capitalist capture of nearly all aspects of disablement, impairment, chronic illness, and disability, including the way that “reasonable accommodations” are commodified (as explored by Ruth Colker in her essay for this symposium).
Russell theorized that this commodification ultimately occurs through a legal-political process which facilitated the creation of a vast web of institutions, policies, and medico-legal revenue pathways designed to extract or reclaim surplus profits from disabled people who are not valued by society because they are not workers. As Russell explains in “Capitalism and the Disability Rights Movement”: “Entrepreneurs and rehabilitation specialists have made impaired bodies of use to the economic order…turning the disabled body into a commodity around which social policies get created or rejected according to their market value.” Key to this theory is the idea that disability is a concept around which policies are made and evaluated.
Russell’s money model of disability is based on her study of both the nursing home industry and the charity industrial complex. “The corporate solution to disablement,” she writes, “evolved from the realization that disabled people could be made to serve profit because public financing guaranteed the revenue.” The dynamics and fiscal architecture on which Russell built her money model of disability theory have only continued to expand and accelerate in the decade since her death. She argued that discrimination could be “ameliorated, but not eliminated, by changing attitudes” and that despite long-standing prejudice, disability oppression under capitalism had more to do with “an accountant’s calculation of the present cost of production versus the potential benefits to the future rate of exploitation.” As highlighted in a roundtable discussion for this symposium between Liat Ben-Moshe and Dean Spade, Russell’s critique will be familiar, in both rhetoric and focus, to those committed to abolitionist critiques of the prison industrial complex.
Between Theory and Praxis
Russell was not just a theorist but also was a long-time disability rights activist. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s she was involved in disability advocacy and organizing with ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, and the ACLU. Her efforts focused on policy interventions like assisted suicide laws and SSDI cuts, campaigns that challenged the many stigmatizing portrayals of disabled people sold to the public via the charity industrial complex, and more formal organizing and direct action with ADAPT agitating for home and community-based services as alternatives to nursing homes and other institutions of warehousing. As Nate Holdren argues in his piece for this symposium, Russell’s significant contributions to both disability theory and Marxism were crucially informed by her work in social movements. This connection between theory and praxis is reflected not just in the subject matter of her work, or in her citational practices, but also in the empathy, clarity, and rage with which she argues for the need for the left to begin to engage in a broad refusal of the economic valuation of life.
Russell’s political writing was extensive, covering the topics she organized around as well as more explicit political economic analysis of US policy and critique of the disabling effects of the then-expanding criminal justice system. Russell’s work was also highly critical of the liberal disability rights movement, arguing that disability rights discourse would benefit from embracing leftist thought and political economic analysis. Russell’s approach rejected the court-oriented civil rights strategy that was widely celebrated by liberal disability organizations and activists in the post-ADA era. This strategy, she argued, only sought to tamp down the violence caused by the ways that the state interacted with disabled people; instead, she focused on the political economic, not merely the “cultural” forces, driving systemic oppression of disabled people—an approach on which Jules Gill-Peterson expands in her essay for this symposium.
The lack of exposure that Russell’s small yet incredibly powerful body of work has had cannot be overstated. Her books are hard to find, there is one major printed collection of her essays, and one important book of essays about or incorporating her work. Until Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell was published by Haymarket Books in 2019, no comprehensive volume of her collected writings existed, nor was there broad citation of them within disability studies or law. Three years prior, when legal scholar and her former collaborator Ravi Malhotra edited Disability Politics in a Global Economy, an important anthology dedicated to Marta Russell’s memory, it was one of the first times Russell’s work was broadly celebrated within a purely academic context.
Malhotra explains that Russell’s work was excluded or marginalized because she wholly rejected the dominant strategies of disability civil rights activism: “Where so many…have been distracted by issues of identity and culture, for Marta, class was central.” During and after the fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the disability rights movement has primarily focused on rearticulating the symbolic and political landscape of disability through law—the limitations of this approach are explored in two essays for this symposium by Karen Tani and Ruth Colker. Many of Russell’s positions, like her criticism of the ADA, were centered in her experiences as an activist, in the movement failures she saw first-hand, and in lessons learned from the embodied expertise of living with a disability under the political economy of American capitalism. It is also for this reason that Russell’s scholarship has been largely gatekept out of the dominant conversation around disability.
A Free-Market Civil Rights Law
As constitutional law and civil rights litigation scholar Sam Bagenstos notes in the foreword to Disability Politics in a Global Economy, regardless of having been labeled as overly radical in decades past, Russell’s analysis of the ADA offered a “sharp and bracing” critique that anyone who thinks about disability, civil rights, or law needs to “confront and take seriously.” Commenting on the extraordinary prescience with which Russell predicted the law’s future, Bagenstos explains that Russell argued the ADA was a “free-market civil rights law,” and that rather than relieving the problems of disability exclusion, it would further entrench economic inequality and threaten crucial social welfare benefits.
The ADA, Russell argued, only mandated symbolic gestures of equality at the edges of a deeply unjust political economic system stacked against marginalized people; in so doing, it perpetuated a narrative that the problem of disability rights no longer demanded political attention, simultaneously accepting as given the inequalities and injustices in our economic system. This framing was highly unpopular at the time, as many viewed the ADA as a cherished win, the product of decades of organizing, which deserved to be celebrated. Yet Russell felt that celebrating a policy victory should not preclude that policy from critique. Russell went so far as to argue that the ADA’s marginal benefits and meager reforms were not worth the costs of defusing, diluting, and disincentivizing mobilization and slowing the disability rights movement down to the pace of the courts.
Bagenstos himself has argued that the ADA can be thought of not just as civil rights policy but also as a kind of welfare reform. In his work outlining this connection, Bagenstos writes that the ADA is best interpreted as “aiming to provide a stigmatized group whose members are likely to experience systematic social disadvantage with tools to challenge practices that deny them equal opportunities to participate in the full range of economic, civic, and political affairs of the community.” The problem is that the tools provided by the ADA to accomplish these aims were simply capitalist consumer reforms aimed at economic elites and slight policy tweaks to tone down some of the cruelest aspects of ableist and eugenic institutions. Disability rights activists attempted to build a bipartisan and respectable lobbying effort that avoided stepping on anyone’s toes, while organizing large public displays of dissent to apply pressure to both sides.
Three decades after the passage of the ADA, little has been done to materially improve the lives of its intended beneficiaries. Disabled people tend to be poorer, sicker, and more likely to be incarcerated than the rest of the population, and there is little contained within the ADA to address these disparities. Most buildings are still inaccessible, accessible housing is nearly impossible to find, and disabled people are still less likely to graduate high school or attend college, more likely to be disciplined in school, more likely to be killed by the police, more likely to live in a congregant facility, more likely to be unhoused, and twice as likely to live in poverty than people without a disability. This is the result of policy choices, but it is treated as a fact of nature.
As Russell argued in “Marxism and Disability,” this is no accident: “public policy that equates disablement with poverty means that becoming disabled (a nonworker) translates into a life of financial hardship, whether one has public assistance or not, and generates a very realistic fear in workers for becoming disabled.” The inadequate social safety net is not an oversight or error made by people who, but for their prejudice, should know better, but a highly sophisticated means of controlling the means of production: “If workers were provided with a federal social safety net that adequately protected them through unemployment, sickness, disability, and old age, then business would have less control over the workforce because labor would gain a stronger position….business retains its power over the working class through a fear of destitution that would be weakened if the safety net were to actually become safe.” Russell’s work is key to the future of left political praxis and labor organizing: We must seek solidarity between workers, but also between the working and surplus classes. We must refuse the logics which perpetuate means testing, the economic valuation of life, and which pit workers and surplus against each other to the benefit of the status quo. We have seen these same dynamics consistently emerge, even in temporary policies intended to boost the social safety net during COVID. Evidentiary support for Russell’s critique is all around us.
We have been honored to work in collaboration with Karen Tani on this symposium in which we asked several thinkers engaged in analyzing law and political economy to think with Marta Russell. Thank you to symposium participants Ruth Colker, Jules Gill-Peterson, Nate Holdren, Dean Spade, and Liat Ben-Moshe, as well as to Philip Rocco, Ann Sarnak, James Brandt, and Luke Herrine. We would also like to thank Charlie Markbreiter and Sal Hamerman, who co-facilitate our Death Panel Reading Group for their work on our series covering Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell in 2021, as well as the many members of the Death Panel Discord who participated in those crucial discussions that deeply informed our approach to this project. We hope the essays in this symposium can help to inspire a new generation of legal, disability, labor, and left thinkers to incorporate a political economic analysis of disability into their understanding of political economy, law, and policy.