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Moral Equality, Marxism, and Outraged Empathy


Nate Holdren (@n_hold) is Associate Professor of Law, Politics, & Society at Drake University.

This post is part of a symposium on Marta Russell and the Political Economy of DisabilityRead the rest of the posts here.


Social movements are, in part, distributed practices of collective intelligence. Movements contain a wealth of knowledge and insights, much of which exists only in unwritten or ephemeral forms—in conversations, slogans, and leaflets, as well as in the dispositions and intuitions of their members. At their best, social movement intellectuals perform a labor of feedback, gathering these insights and synthesizing them in shareable form. Doing so can hasten the movement’s collective learning by allowing it to identify and criticize elements of dominant (and domination-serving) ideology that persist in the movement’s thinking. In addition to being a creative and insightful individual author, Russell admirably fulfilled these tasks of a social movement intellectual, in part by what she said and in part by how she said it.

The ‘how’ matters. Russell wrote in a tone of restrained anger rooted in deep empathy with the fate of disabled people. She tended to highlight real, concrete people treated in her texts, appropriately, as singular subjects who lived in settings where that singularity was simultaneously denied, by the reduction of people to equivalents, and mutilated, often by acts of literal violence. Russell’s tone does real work, viscerally making the point that there can be no balancing of the scales such that the harms inflicted on disabled people are ‘costs’ that are ‘worth it.’ Her words make the reader incapable of accepting the standards of valuation and measurement that reduce human life and suffering to fungible units easily slotted into spreadsheets. Her prose fosters intuitions, sensibilities, and dispositions that operate underneath, prior to, and which animate theoretical argument.

This not to say she doesn’t also offer arguments—her arguments are rich in evidence and logic—but rather to say that her writing isn’t just a vehicle for information capable of being summarized and extracted without a loss: to summarize it is to tell the reader the work has power, but not to enact that power, which requires Russell’s own words. The effect is to deepen readers’ commitment to what the philosopher Tony Smith calls the moral equality principle, “that all persons are equally worthy of concern and respect as ends in themselves” such that no person can be rightfully sacrificed for another. Commitment to that egalitarian principle makes the profoundly anti-egalitarian society to which we are subjected deeply repugnant. The egalitarianism-promoting empathetic outrage of Russell’s prose is an important continuity across Beyond Ramps and her later works, written from 1998-2005 and collected posthumously in Capitalism & Disability.

From Taming to Abolishing Capitalism

At the same time, there are important changes across her works over these years as well, including changes in how Russell understood the nature of our anti-egalitarian society. In Beyond Ramps, Russell called readers’ attention to the economy as a factor producing disablement, but the argument was framed in explicitly Polanyian terms. The force of her point was to say that we need to re-embed the market in society, which is to say, to tame businesses’ need to profit via the social policies of an interventionist state. By Capitalism & Disability, however, Russell had gone further, placing emphasis on capitalism itself. The social and economic changes involved in neoliberalism worsened and ended a great many people’s lives, as her repeated discussions of disabled people driven to suicide by the ways institutions treated them make evident. But in her later work, Russell treated these recent historical trends as arising from fundamental tendencies in capitalism, rather than as arising from neoliberalism specifically. Her solution in these later works, then, expressed not a Polanyian ideal of a somewhat more egalitarian capitalism, but a Marxist aspiration to a vastly better and more egalitarian society, achievable only by ending capitalism through collective action. In this later sensibility, Russell suggested that as urgent as specific mitigating initiatives are—and they are often genuinely life and death, as she well understood—ultimately, we must seek more radical transformation, and bring an end to the kind of society that produces life and death dilemmas in people’s lives with such appalling regularity.

Part of this transition in her work can be seen in her growing insistence that capitalism necessarily disables. This is a crucial insight, one which I hope is developed at much greater length in further inquiry building on Russell’s work. At the same time, Russell tended to frame this point in two ways that I want to qualify. First, Russell credited this insight to a long list of disability scholars and activists. Second, she tended to frame this point as if she were merely pointing out that a Marxist analysis of capitalism is useful for understanding the oppression of disabled people. Both of these framings make a great deal of sense: Russell participated in the robust disability justice, counter-globalization, and anti-war movements of her time and within that context increasingly drew on the Marxist tradition intellectually. That said, Russell implied that she was just taking others’ ideas and pointing out their relevance in a new context. This humility is admirable, to be sure, but it had the result of Russell underestimating the degree to which she was herself making a contribution to Marxism.

This is not simply a matter of apportioning credit where it is due. We are better off if we do not treat Russell’s writing as simply applying the insights of the Marxist tradition to a subject matter under-examined within that tradition. Rather, we should treat her work as pressing the tradition further and asking what it would mean if we sought to make disability a more central category within Marxism. What if, for example, we reread Marx’s Capital as a work that takes explaining the social production of disablement to be one of its overriding purposes? Friedrich Engels’s 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, which Marx would reference for decades as a key contribution, could be reread the same way. One result, or perhaps a starting premise, of such a rereading would be to say that a great many Marxists should think a lot more about disability than we have. Beyond that, I can’t say exactly what the result of such an inquiry would be, but for those of us reading or rereading Russell now, I am confident it would bear fruit.

Understanding Capitalism and the Capitalist State Critically

Having said all of that, I would like to venture some brief and comradely criticisms of Russell’s Marxism, which was too orthodox, too much woven from what Moishe Postone called traditional Marxism. Russell tended to treat capitalism as a matter of capitalists as a whole consciously taking advantage of the working class and disabled people as a whole, with the capitalist state choosing to assist capitalists in doing so. In the past, this version of Marxism has often served Marxists who in various ways thought they could seize control of the state and redirect it for good, primarily through redistributive social policy. While a state more concerned with public well-being can certainly create a society less inhumane than the many nightmarish scenarios that Russell catalogued throughout her career, and which we have not stopped living through in the years since she wrote, any such state characterized by the same fundamental social relations will not alleviate the tendencies to misery which Russell so eloquently denounced.

Russell is right that disablement and the often lethal marginalization of disabled people cannot end prior to the end of capitalism. That is part of why capitalism must be abolished—specifically by ending the requirement that one must possess money in order to have one’s needs met—rather than only tamed (or, in the case of much actually-existing so-called socialism, simply renamed). As such, we must get capitalism right, conceptually. 

Capitalists and the state are not a cohesive team colluding to oppress opposing teams; instead, the basic social architecture of capitalist society makes only undesirable outcomes possible. (For a fuller account of capitalism along these lines I would again recommend Tony Smith’s Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism.) Capital in this perspective is a social process of money becoming more money via the sale of products which, by that sale, become retroactively profitably produced. Under capitalism, society is subordinated to the ongoing processes of capital, such that when accumulation breaks down in any given place, ugly consequences follow, and if the breakdown is sufficiently widespread, a crisis occurs in which many people are harmed. Denizens of capitalist society are thus subjected to imperatives which create problems for everyone in society, though these problems are situationally-specific: the state’s problems are not the boss’s problems are not my problems as an employee, except to the degree that those above try to pass the consequences of their problems down the food chain – shit rolls down hill. This means that the problems Russell catalogued and denounced are more a matter of emergent properties, which result from relative planlessness and chaotic collisions among social actors in the grip of the social imperative to turn money into more money, rather than being due to coherent plans and strategies.

This may seem like pointless hairsplitting, and there are certainly occasions when theoretical nuances don’t matter. For example, the Biden Administration is currently administering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, terrible injuries to many more, and deepening the social marginalization of people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. These harms are visited especially on disabled people. The Administration conducts these policies the way that governments conduct wars, their primary goal being to avoid facing any political fallout for the harms they predictably generate. It’s urgent that we stop this violence, and if people working to do so get some details of Marxist theories of law and the state wrong, we’ll sort that out later. That said, capitalism’s bloodstained history is one of repeated institutional transformation in response to unrest and crisis. Those transformations have often been unanticipated by social movements, such that movements have been left surprised and slow to react. Part of the value of a critical theory of capitalism is to understand those historical patterns so as to attempt to anticipate them, to attempt to prepare for what comes after the immediate, deeply urgent fight over the most recent atrocity.

I will note as a final closing remark that what I called Russell’s attention to human singularity and her commitment to the moral equality principle are important for us in thinking through how to understand and, eventually, end capitalism. Any society which does not permit everyone to live a fully realized individuality falls short of the liberation that all persons deserve. Thus, Russell’s relentless outrage and deep empathy can help guide us in politically navigating the world before us and help inform the processes of theorizing that are just one facet of moving forward collectively.