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.
In the escalating wave of anti-trans legislation and administrative violence sweeping the United States over the past several years, the credo on the left has often been that political violence against trans people is mere pretense: a right wing culture war meant to distract from issues more properly political-economic, or a cynical ploy to motivate a conservative voting base. This superficial reading is as naïve as it is dismissive of trans people’s material circumstances. What we need, instead, is a materialist critique that identifies state transphobia as dedicated to the broader neoliberal goal of dismantling public goods and modes of care in the name of cost reduction.
The concept of reasonable accommodations at the heart of the ADA severely undercuts the efficacy of the law. Employers, public entities, and private businesses are allowed to ignore the inaccessible nature of their programs or activities until an individual with a disability seeks (or begs) for access. This reactive, individualized model does little to prevent mass-produced inaccessibility.
In her earlier work, Marta Russell called readers attention to the economy as a factor producing disablement and argued that we needed to re-embed the market in society, to tame businesses’ need to profit via the social policies of an interventionist state. By the end of her career, however, Russell had gone further, focusing on capitalism itself. Her solution 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.
The late Marta Russell is not a well-known figure among legal scholars and practitioners. She should be. Running throughout her writings is a powerful thesis: in many respects, law works to enable profit-seeking, and disability, as a concept, is crucial to that work.
The modern disability rights movement has been primarily oriented around seeking labor inclusion through the expansion of civil rights statutes. Despite this, few disability theorists have approached the study of disability from an explicitly political economic perspective. Marta Russell, 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 the political economy of disability.