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A Conversation about Marta Russell with Liat Ben-Moshe and Dean Spade


Liat Ben-Moshe is Associate Professor of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition.

Dean Spade (@deanspade) is Professor of Law at the Seattle University School of Law and author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next).

Beatrice Adler-Bolton (@realLandsEnd) is co-host of the podcast Death Panel and co-author of Health Communism: A Surplus Manifesto.

For the final contribution to our symposium on Marta Russell, Beatrice Adler-Bolton interviews Liat Ben-Moshe and Dean Spade about the connections between their work and Russell’s political economic analysis of disability and law. They outline how Russell’s work fits within Critical Disability and Legal Studies and explore what her critiques have to offer current movements for liberation and economic justice.



Marta Russell’s work offered a heterodox critique of disability that pushed for a materialist analysis of disablement that was largely absent from the landscape of American Disability Studies at the time she was writing. In Beyond Ramps, for instance, she offered an important entry point to political economic critique that highlights ableism not as an aberration, but as a key dynamic of capitalism at a time when much of the activism around disability was oriented around political principles of identity and culture. Liat, in your own path breaking book Decarcerating Disability, you write about how you were indebted to Russell for her work connecting disability to incarceration. Can you talk about how you see Russell fitting into the larger framework of scholarship on disability, and discuss what you feel sets her work apart from some of the more well-known or established disability theorists?


Marxist/Materialist work in Disability Studies in the US was far from plentiful when Marta wrote Beyond Ramps (published in 1998). This might be surprising for those who know the field of Disability Studies because in the UK, the architects of the social model of disability were marxists and had a strong materialist analysis (see Mike Oliver’s seminal 1990 book Politics of Disablement). The social model came from the knowledge and organizing embedded in labor and class analysis. In 1975, for instance, the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS)—founded by Paul Hunt and Vic Finkelstein—published The Fundamental Principles of Disability, which stated that the problems faced by imapired people were caused by structural oppression, not by their impairments. (Although it is true that the social model was promoted mostly by white physically disabled men, what is less known in the US about this history is that Vic was influenced and politicized in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where he lived before coming to the UK in the mid-1960s. The anti-segregationist principle that resulted, embedded in UPIAS, is also sometimes forgotten.)

That view, which has come to be known as the social model of disability, claims that disability is not something in people’s bodies or minds, but it is the result of oppression, of the ways society is structured (e.g, segregation in education, institutionalization, no basic income, expert knowledge over disabled people voices and knowledge etc.). What needs to change, therefore, is not people but the socio-economic fabric of society that creates systemic barriers for people. One can see how this framework was connected to the (nascent) Disability Rights Movement.

However, in the US at the time when Beyond Ramps appeared, Disability Studies was focused much more on issues of identity and representations of disability. When the book came out, it was one in a very small pool of works that took capitalism (not just “class differences”) head on. Beyond Ramps delved into eugenics and its contemporary manifestation, the rigidity of normalcy and its political economies. For example, Russell connected what she called “the mechanics of poverty” to eugenic logics: who is considered productive under capitalism, Russell argued, is closely connected to who is considered un/fit; disability not only plays into this hierarchy (of productive/unproductive) but creates it and can therefore radically transform it. In other words, if worth is tied to work (i.e., exploited labor) under capitalism, then those deemed unproductive are the ones who would and should transform what is considered worthy. Capitalism, and especially its medical and nursing homes industry, are forms of eugenics, and what Russell called, perhaps tongue in cheek, “the final profitable solution.” She points to the powerful alchemy in which capitalism, through charities, the nursing home and disability industries, turn so-called unprofitable people into literal gold.

This lacuna in Disability Rights and Disability Studies was especially unfortunate because the reality is and was that many disabled people are in congregate facilities—a situation Russell described and popularized as Handicapitalism (and that I later discuss as the prison-institution industrial complex). Certainly, in terms of disability and carcerality, there was a paucity of real research and written work at the time. In Beyond Ramps, Russell discusses the resistance to the nursing home and institutionalization industry as a direct challenge to reform-based approaches. In her view, the only appropriate response was to shut them down. The whole commodification of disability needed to cease.


On the subject of disability, political economy, and imprisonment, Russell and Jean Stewart (disability rights activist and founder of the Disabled Prisoners’ Justice Fund) wrote a foundational text called “Disablement, Prison and Historical Segregation.” In it, they argued that disablement, imprisonment, and the historic/ongoing institutionalization of disabled and mad people in a variety of facilities, such as nursing homes, were structural components of how the American capitalist state makes itself.

Fifteen years later, you and Stewart co-authored an important extension of that analysis to include the embodied expertise of incarcerated people. In the introduction to that essay, you write, “The [2001] piece powerfully impacted me and many others because it was the first scholarly account (in a popular venue) to connect these three components [disablement, imprisonment, and institutionalization], arguing that they are interlocking and inseparable.” Can you talk about the importance of these two essays, and also about your collaboration with Stewart to update and expand upon her work with Russell?


The article Jean Stewart and Marta wrote expands on her analysis of nursing homes to discuss the connection to other sites of confinement and industries, including prisons, where Jean did a lot of advocacy work at the time. “Disablement, Prison, and Historical Segregation” (published in Monthly Review in 2001) really stands alone for its era and of course provided the ground for what’s to come. It’s certainly one of the pieces that propelled me to delve into this intersection. Without that article, there would be no works like Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada and certainly no analysis connecting the liberation of those confined in disability institutions to those in prisons through an abolitionist lens (as I do in Decarcerating Disability).

I had hoped to meet with Marta—we exchanged some emails—but unfortunately it never came to be. I finally had the chance to meet Jean in 2008 when I was in the Bay Area for the 10th anniversary gathering of the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance. Not many people spoke of this intersection at that gathering (except, I believe, Leroy Moore), although madness and the medical industrial complex were certainly discussed. That initial meeting would lead to us writing “Disablement, Prison and Historical Segregation: 15 years later” (published in Disability Politics in a Global Economy: Essays in Honour of Marta Russell in 2016).

Writing the chapter was such a great honor and a way to make sure Marta and Jean’s important contributions were discussed and contextualized. It also allowed Jean to talk about her thoughts on the piece years later — to update it and cover things things they did not discuss (such as the growth of immigration detention), things she considered an omission (such as racism and police violence), and things that weren’t as prevalent at the time (such as the political economy of Decarceration). At the end, though, that original article that Marta and Jean wrote in 2001 still stands alone in its reach and importance.


I love hearing your reflections, Liat, on Marta Russell’s work, and it helps me understand my own experience of reading her work better, and the sense of relief and excitement I have in reading how clearly she frames disability and resistance in the context of capitalism and poverty.


One of the most important questions that you and Stewart ask in that essay is “Why have laws [e.g., the ADA] failed to move people with disabilities into employment?” And, drawing on Dean Spade’s work, your answer is that the laws have failed to secure employment “because that is not their function. Litigation and rights discourse appeals to the state to remedy social ills of its own creation.” Dean, what was it like to read Marta Russell’s writing for the first time? Can you speak on the arguments in Capitalism and Disability that you felt had the most affinity with your work?


I am feeling the immensity of her contributions to our thinking and our resistance practices as I write this. Perhaps what stands out the most for me is her critique of civil rights laws as a pathway to liberation or any kind of meaningful equality. Reading her on this satisfies a deep longing I have had. Having spent the last 25 years surrounded by the purported common sense that liberation for queer and trans people will come from or should start from or should prioritize civil rights laws, specifically the passage of anti-discrimination laws, hate crime laws, same-sex marriage legalization, and the repeal of bans on queer and trans military service, it is a relief to me to see someone else questioning this logic and exposing its limits and the harms it does. Russell clearly and concisely makes a few key moves when discussing the problems and limits of civil rights law that make my heart sing.

First, in Marxism and Disability, Russell names that “efforts to enact civil and human rights legislation” are a feature of social movements in “liberal capitalist economies.” Such “liberal solutions… must fall short of remedying oppression because liberalism fails to acknowledge the central role of productive activities and labor relations in history…. With respect to the social condition of disablement, the focus is on the struggle of the class of disabled person for the right to enter the labor force.” Russell argues that rather than fighting for the “right” to join the labor force and work for wages in the extractive capitalist economy, we should shape resistance based on the understanding that “disability is a socially created category derived from labor relations.” We should see how a capitalist economy, in order to force people to engage in wage labor and be extracted from, creates classes of stigmatized, disposable persons including by creating ideas of a “standard” worker that exclude people whose bodies and/or minds don’t conform to those norms. She argues that “the passage of disability rights legislation, which is individualistic at base, removes an element of coherence from the political praxis of even the most militant disability rights organization.” These insights expose how civil rights legislation takes for granted the existing economic arrangements, imagining a world in which marginalized and targeted groups become equal by getting a chance to compete with those with dominant or valued bodies/identities for wage jobs that enrich the very few and immiserate most people.

This critique feels so very rare, still, despite half a century of evidence (at least) that civil rights law reforms have utterly failed to stop racism and sexism. In fact, during the time that such reforms have been in place, the material conditions of people of color and women have actually worsened, both as gendered and racialized wealth gaps have worsened and as the US has drastically expanded police, prisons, and border enforcement that target those same populations supposedly protected by civil rights law. In the context of queer and trans liberation, it has been an unquestioned certainty that everyone should pursue civil rights laws—that becoming “equal under the law” should be the first priority; that at the local level queer and trans unpaid grassroots organizers should be trying to pass a local anti-discrimination and/or hate crimes ordinance, and at the state and federal levels the LGBT non-profits should focus their energy on similar legislation and the fights for marriage and military inclusion.

In some ways, the critiques from anti-colonial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist queer and trans people of the hate crime laws and marriage and military inclusion reforms were easier to make than those directed at anti-discrimination law. Not that these critiques ever gained widespread popularity, but some sets of people can be moved to understand why we don’t want to expand the policing and prison system (which will never prevent and is actually part of violence against us), why we don’t want people to have to get married to gain access to health care and immigration status, and why we want to abolish the US military, not join it. But anti-discrimination laws appear more benign, which is why Russel’s critique is so refreshing.

Russell does a brilliant job showing how, if nothing else, we shouldn’t expect the ADA or other civil rights laws to reduce poverty or create well-being for people with disabilities because these legal reforms have failed those who are purportedly already protected by them. In the essay “Backlash and Structural Inequality,” she convincingly argues that what people hoped would come from making racism and sexism ostensibly illegal didn’t happen—women and people of color still get paid less, are segregated into jobs with worse conditions, and live in greater poverty. If we updated Russell’s work, we could add that wealth concentration and inequality have become much worse, and that increased public spending on policing, imprisonment, military and immigration enforcement, combined with relentless cuts to any shreds of poverty alleviation programs the US, has further worsened conditions for women and people of color.


The first time I read Marta Russell’s work that touched on civil rights laws and litigation, I was immediately reminded of your 2017 book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. In the second chapter, Dean, you offer a critique of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that is similar to Russell’s. You argue that “law reform work that merely tinkers with systems to make them look more inclusive while leaving their most violent operations intact” will never liberate us. Instead, these reforms merely provide “opportunit[ies] for harmful systems to claim fairness and equality while continuing to kill us.” Can you talk about what lessons you think Russell’s work offers those currently thinking about (and struggling for) economic justice and liberation?


Her work directs us to stop asking for liberal reforms that rebrand the economic system as fair and inclusive for stigmatized groups, to stop asking for formal declarations that these populations can have “equal opportunity” inside these brutal systems of extraction, and instead to notice how these economic arrangements are operating exactly as designed–to concentrate wealth. Wealth concentration (also known as profit-generation) requires the creation of hyper-exploitable and disposable groups, and surface reforms to that system will not change those central features of its operations. In her words, “liberal policy explanations. . . fail to adequately create the conditions necessary for economic and social justice.” Civil rights laws, she shows, are designed, and sometimes reformed by conservatives, to be hard to use, so that mostly people suing about discrimination can’t win. Further, they individualize problems that are structural. We can’t get rid of racism, ableism, sexism and the like by suing individual bad discriminators one at a time. These systems of meaning and control are baked into racial capitalism, not some bad behavior of a few bad bosses or landlords.

The reason she can make this argument so effectively is that she centers poverty. Most conversations about making people “equal” under law conveniently ignore poverty, because poverty can’t be illegal under capitalism. As soon as people talk about poverty with rigor, civil rights solutions fall apart. Civil rights laws at best promise (though they don’t even deliver this) a chance to “compete” with others for exploitative jobs, and the certainty that some people will be left without such chances to have wealth extracted from them through a wage labor system. A reserve army of the unemployed is required to keep wages low. A stigmatized group of impoverished people, humiliated in punitive welfare programs and/or confined in jail-like homeless shelters, is essential to keep people scared enough to keep going to dangerous, dehumanizing jobs that pay starvation wages. When we talk about disability in the US, we must talk about poverty because ableism produces such extreme poverty.

I think part of my own frustration, since I entered queer and trans liberation work, has been that it has always been clear to me that anti-discrimination laws won’t help poor people, and poor queer and trans people are who I think our movement should be focused on because they are in the most danger. Poor people can’t make a documented case for why they are poor that can show someone specifically excluded them from a job or housing just because of, for example, trans identity. Winning anti-discrimination cases is nearly impossible under any circumstances, but those who don’t work in highly skilled jobs where they can prove greater qualifications than other applicants, who don’t have written evaluations at jobs, who could be excluded from a job or housing for so many reasons (bad credit, criminal record, landlord just liked someone else better because they could relate to a non-poor person more) have no hope of using anti-discrimination laws to remedy the brutal conditions they live under. Russell’s deft weaving of the reality of poverty for people with disabilities makes her critique of civil rights approaches particularly convincing and important.

I’ll also add that reading and writing about Russell’s critiques of civil rights right now, as we face this onslaught of anti-trans laws in the US, was particularly useful. I get so frustrated by people wringing their hands about bad laws being passed, and hoping that good laws will be passed–thinking that trans well-being will be determined by this. No doubt, anti-trans laws will harm some people, especially people already most vulnerable because they are poor, lack health care, are criminalized, don’t have immigration status, and the like, both when they are directly applied and because their passage stirs up anti-trans hatred that people then enact in welfare offices, prisons, foster families, hospitals, group homes and other places where trans people are vulnerable. But in general, if you live in a state with “good” laws or “bad” laws about trans people, you’re probably facing relative horrible conditions either way. The “good” laws aren’t enforced, especially in the places with the worst violence, and brutal discrimination and violence are still common fare for vulnerable trans people at the hands of cops, corrections officers, health professionals, educators, social workers, and in families. The obsession with laws leaves people cheering or hand-wringing, often watching controversies happening in another state, in a way that seems too passive to me.

We know that right now, no matter where you live, there are queer and trans youth sleeping outside tonight, there are queer and trans youth and adults being abused in prisons and jails. We could all get involved right now in mutual aid projects to support vulnerable people in our communities, and that would definitely increase the well-being of queer and trans people. Instead, there is a lot of hoping and praying about laws. As Russell’s work shows, even if the laws all become “good” and they make anti-trans discrimination and violence illegal, or ableist discrimination and violence illegal, it will go on, and probably keep growing as it has been for my entire life. As police and prison and immigration enforcement and military budgets have grown, as wealth has concentrated, and as life has become more and more precarious and shorter for people on the bottom, we have, on paper, more civil rights.