Disability Praxis: A Marxist Analysis of Oppression and Liberation

Bob Williams-Findlay's Disability Praxis offers a revolutionary Marxist critique of ableism, analysing the social construction of disability within capitalism and charting a path toward liberation through a transformative disability praxis. Review by Rowan Fortune.

 

For Marxism, pure disinterestedness is not only undesirable, but impossible. Marxism does not see theory as disembodied and dehistoricised, a sorting out of life into lifeless categories. Rather, to paraphrase Marx, theory operates in the real movement which abolishes the present state of things, where ‘real’ means the sensuous working out of contradictory social forces through struggle. Bob Williams-Findlay, a revolutionary disability theorist, offers an interested theory of disability struggles as marxist praxis.

“Marxism does not see theory as disembodied and dehistoricised, a sorting out of life into lifeless categories. Rather…theory operates in the real movement which abolishes the present state of things…”

Front cover of book "Disability Praxis"

Disability Praxis singles out the formation of disabled people’s organisations as both ‘a new collective socio-political identity, but at the same time establish[ing] the grounds for common purpose.’ (40) Williams-Findlay thereby engages, sometimes spars, with other theorists of such organsation, but always stays aware of how the praxis he seeks to understand and advance is more than theory. It is, in Paulo Freire’s terms, ‘reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.’ (10) Understanding and changing the world are interwoven.

As a guide through this subject, four cornerstones of British disability politics are identified. These are, 1. the fundamental principles of disability (i.e. that disability is a social not a personal phenomenon), 2. self-organisation, 3. de-institutionalization and self-directed living, and 4. culture and identity. This provides the blueprint for the first half of the book, itself a foundation for the second half.

These cornerstones are not separate and distinct, but interconnected features of disability politics. Nonetheless, the first is also what Williams-Findlay calls the headstone; it is how the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) first framed disability and ‘paved the way for the development of the radical social interpretation of disability and in due course what was to become the social model of disability.’ (5) Everything should imply everything else, but the complete cornerstones follow most clearly from this insight.

To ground praxis, Williams-Findlay then joins this tradition in rejecting both ‘how disability is viewed as “an individual problem” caused by the nature and degree of an impairment’ but still argues ‘that impairment is in one sense the basis for people with impairments’ social oppression.’ (5) What he rejects is ‘impairment reality’, ‘This term focuses on what is or can be “knowable” about the consequences of a person’s impairment.’ (6) Such a perspective misses or at least obscures the social nature of the relevant oppression, in which people with impairments are transformed into disabled people. There is no pre-ideological basis for this process, rooted as it is in capitalism.

What he sees as unsafe is the notion of ‘impairment effects’ because he believes it is not in most instances possible to isolate the impairment’s influences from material and social contexts at any given time. Instead, he favours talking about ‘impairment reality’ as this alternative term focuses on what is or can be “knowable” about the consequences of a person’s impairment.’ (6) Williams-Findlay believes employing the notion of ‘impairment effects’ risks obscuring the social nature of the relevant oppression, in which people with impairments are transformed into disabled people. There is no pre-ideological basis for this process, rooted as it is in capitalism:

Research shows that the treatment of people with impairments has varied greatly down the ages and within different cultures; however, it was not until the development of the capitalist mode of production that there was a systematic approach to classifying individuals into distinctive groups. (20-1)

This, then, is a specifically marxist analysis, in which disabled people are made dependent and devalued through systems that unite ‘ideological and material conditions that result in power being exercised against them.’ The implications are vast; for example, ‘care’, generally perceived in benign terms, is revealed as ‘often a double-edged sword, it can empower and disempower at the same time.’ (23) The interrogation of the two-sidedness of ‘care’ is central to criticisms not only of the domination of capital over the lives of disabled people, but of much of the labour movement’s conceptual and practical engagement with disability.

“…Williams-Findlay believes employing the notion of ‘impairment effects’ risks obscuring the social nature of the relevant oppression, in which people with impairments are transformed into disabled people.”

But Williams-Findlay is also going further than just a formulaic reading of the social interpretation, he applies it back on itself; evaluating the achievements and failures of past disability praxis. For example, he extends the social interpretation, applying it to the nature of impairment. ‘The absence of a social model of impairment has had,’ he argues, ‘a profound impact upon disability politics, because its absence has provided areas of ambiguity over the relations between impairment realities and encountered social environments.’ (31) Social context cannot be bypassed; it always informs our interpretations of the world.

Because there can be no ‘neutral’ or pregiven understanding of impairment, the ‘failure to address impairment as a social product’, to fully extend the social interpretation, ‘has undermined the development of a radical disability praxis involving theoretical and political consideration.’ (104-5) The ‘impairment reality’ viewpoint allows the naturalisation of disability to be reasserted even in a ‘radical’ politics. In this way, Williams-Findlay’s analysis is both praising and critical of the Disabled People’s Movement, sensitive to the two-sidedness of struggle, its inclination to regress as well as advance.

In this spirit, he wades into one of the most contested debates for radicals: identity. Identity is never one-sided; indeed, the duality of disabled identity is directly acknowledged. For Williams-Findlay this ‘duality stems from the struggle to overthrow the oppressive imposed identity at the same time as forging a collective new one.’ (75) This dynamic, as many others addressed in the book, applies not only to disability praxis, but all struggles of the exploited and oppressed. You cannot seek to change society from outside of society, we are moulded and shaped by the world we wish to abolish.

Williams-Findlay strongly rejects the accusation that the social interpretation compelled the Disabled People’s Movement  to a dead-end of identity-based separatism. Indeed, this criticism is turned on those who make it: ‘Problems arose when the broad objectives of the Disabled People’s Movement became reduced to obtaining civil and human rights as “personal freedoms”, rather than as a collective push for a transformative agenda.’ Thereby the social interpretation, with its focus on the overall transformation of society, remains crucial to understanding disability as political: ‘In Britain, the social interpretation of disability was a unifying, not a separatist agenda’. (53)

This lens is antithetical to a narrow, static notion of identity, which eschews the changing context in which the body is made into a site of struggle. From ‘care’ to ‘impairment’ to ‘identity’, Williams-Findlay is bringing the same methodological understanding to different but related problems, stressing agency in a context that is always enfolded in historical and social processes.

As the second part ‘Towards a New Disability Praxis?’ clarifies, this book is not merely offering a set of sterile criticisms. Williams-Findlay starts by dismantling the false assumptions of existing systems, but primarily to establish the basis for a positive project of change: ‘The current crisis within Social Care in Britain cannot simply be resolved by increased resources or ending privatisation alone; the entire system is oppressive, not fit for purpose, and is in need of a complete transformation.’ (149) That project, embodied for the author in the British group Act 4 Inclusion, draws on co-production (a value driven approach to care that includes everyone involved) with an eco-social awareness:

A community based eco-social system of support and self-directed living would require systems to see older and disabled people’s lifestyles in relation to their homes, existing relationships and neighbourhoods, etc. from an asset perspective, and then to identify the appropriate services and support needed to overcome barriers to living in those familiar or chosen surroundings. (150)

Disability Praxis, then, is both a sober assessment of the current crisis of struggle as well as an appeal for a revitalization of it. ‘Disability politics and culture interact to challenge the status quo. In this sense,’ insists Williams-Findlay, ‘the forging of a political and cultural collective identity is transitional because it becomes a means to an end, with the end being the acceptance of diversity within humanity.’ (85) Such an approach builds on past struggle with a demand that they not be reduced to empty sloganeering or gestures. It seeks to realise the radical insight that disablement, as with all oppressions, is not a ‘Natural’ or inevitable feature of the pre-social world, but the consequence of historical patterns of social organisation and the ideologies that justify them.

“The forging of a political and cultural collective identity is transitional because it becomes a means to an end, with the end being the acceptance of diversity within humanity.”

Towards the beginning, the very concept of ‘normality’ is rightly taken to task: ‘The notion of “normality” only emerged during the nineteenth century and was at first linked to various forms of standardisation; however, within Victorian times, it took on a new “morality” which shifted it onto the ideological terrain where it met favour with social Darwinists and the eugenics movement.’ (27-8) It is in opposition to this daily sensuous reproduction of disability that a new disability praxis can intervene, in unity with all the oppressed and exploited not solely organised around shared experiences, but a shared revolutionary goal of system change.

Acknowledging the intersectional nature of oppressions must go beyond identity recognition and involve dialogue around how we create inclusive spaces. This means making more visible and addressing the diversity of social relations and social restrictions. With no coordinated British Disabled People’s Movement, and an increase in the number of impairment-specific groups springing up, not to mention the generational gaps that now exist since the 1990s, the need to find common ground, as well as acknowledging the diversity of experience, has never been greater. (136)

In the final chapter, ‘From the Ashes: A New Disability Praxis?’, Williams-Findlay acknowledges both the extent of the current challenge for the Disabled People’s Movement and the possibility of various paths forward. ‘As disabled activists,’ he contends, ‘…we need to combine fighting for improvements within existing structures, whilst at the same time seeking ways to transform them beyond the confines of capitalism.’ (173) This tension could result in failure, but if navigated it could lead to a future free of such oppression: ‘Disability praxis does have the potential of rescuing disability-related theory and politics from the ivory towers of academic self-indulgence, returning them back into the communities who are seeking concrete solutions to material questions.’ (165)


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Rowan Fortune is an editor and revolutionary socialist. On their weekly blog, they write on utopian literature and imagination, why grimdark is the dystopian fiction of our time and more. They wrote Writing Nowhere: A Beginner's Guide to Utopia; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the multi-authored System Crash: An activist guide to making revolution.

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