The Neuro Pride Ireland festival 2022 took place in August and Eoghan Neville of Independent Left prepared a webinar on capitalism and disability for Neuro Pride Ireland, based on his reading of Roddy Slorach’s A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability. He spoke to Conor Kostick about the book and disability rights.
Conor: What do you think is the main value of the book?
Eoghan: This book acts as an introduction to socialism, to anti-capitalist thought, to all kinds of left-wing discussion. When you’re introducing someone to socialism, more experienced left-wingers will have a list of books that they say, “Oh. These should be your introduction.” This book should absolutely be there among them because I think if you can understand disability under capitalism, you can understand why the system doesn’t work for anyone.
If you take a particular issue – in this case disability – you can really begin to understand how capitalism fails us. This book really goes into a lot of details about disability under capitalism, and how this contrasts with disability before capitalism and why it has to be addressed with the social model. The book helps you connect the dots and say, “Well, if capitalism doesn’t work for this group, it doesn’t work for this other group, and it actually doesn’t even work for non-disabled white people.” You know? The stereotypical privileged people. Capitalism only works for the very people at the top, the very top.
Conor: Capitalism constantly seeks to divide the working class; it is a system that promotes racism, and sexism, and so on. Would you think there is a difference, though, to how capitalism treats people with disability? Despite discrimination, big business still wants women in the workforce and still wants black people in the workforce. But with disability, maybe the governments and companies don’t want the cost of providing equality of access to the workforce?
Eoghan: On the one hand, I think capitalism doesn’t want disabled people. No one would say it, of course, but they want to cure us. They want to make us normal. That’s what capitalism wants to do ideally, which is what it was doing in the late 1800s and the early 1900s with the eugenics movements. That’s what eugenics was: either curing or exterminating. There is a very important chapter in the book – Chapter Seven – about eugenics and Nazi Germany, that is well worth reading to understand the point about eugenics and Nazism when it comes to disabled people. But note that it is very distressing, a very hard read. I actually had to put the book down myself halfway through the chapter because of how just shocking it was, the details.
A trigger warning about that is key, but the main point of the history is that eugenics was just so normalized. A lot of people took Darwin’s theory of evolution and twisted it into eugenics. They said, “This is where evolution is. This is what nature is, and this is where we should arrive at,” and from that view, disability is kind of like a glitch, like when your computer stops working. It’s not meant to be, so we have to either fix this or delete it like you would delete broken files on a computer or something.
There were famous people at the time who had those views, such as George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. There was an American scientist in the early 1900s who was doing openly eugenics experiments. Charles B. Davenport was getting praised in all the newspapers being described as, “This great humanitarian.” And they openly talked about him doing eugenics.
The only reason that eugenics fell out of favor is because of Nazi Germany, but now it’s kind of coming back. There’s more than a tinge of it around. It’s like with how capitalism kind of reinvented itself into neo-liberalism. There’s almost a kind of reinvention of the crude eugenics of the past into what I’d call neo-liberal eugenics. It’s like they’re trying to put a bow and tie on it or something and trying to make it look nice.
Conor: Is this just the far-right – the sort of Trumps, and Le Pens – or is there a kind of mainstream return to isolating and pushing aside people with disability?
Eoghan: It definitely is the far-right because obviously they are the successors to the Nazis, but you have elections in various countries where a center-right government will need the support of the far-right to make up the numbers electorally, so then they have the usual thing of, “Oh. We have to make concessions,” and that’s where it can appear.
Often, disability is one of the first areas that’s targeted by any kind of government because if you go after disabled people, there’s not so much of an uproar. They kind of think, “Well, this is something we can concede to the far-right and not get much backlash on.” Social welfare benefits for disabled people are often the first to be cut by an incoming government. That’s the playbook of going after disability. Again, it’s in a new way. It’s in a neo-liberal way.
Conor: What I see is less of an overt eugenics position but discrimination around the question of resources. A lot of organizations like universities, hospitals, and so on have on paper really good policies. We want to be inclusive. We want to be diverse. We want everybody to have an access to education, health, and so on. They would like that, they say, but then when it comes to what does that actually mean, that’s when I see all the obstacles pile up really fast.
Just 24% of visually impaired people in Ireland have employment and when you go to find out why, it’s not that anyone says aloud, “Well, it’s just not worth investing in you. It’s a waste of money,” although I think ultimately that’s the logic, but no one that I meet expresses it that way.
What they say is, “Well, we can’t give you that magnifier. No. I’m sorry. We don’t have the resources or the staff to install it.”
Eoghan: I’m talking about the more political sphere when I’m talking about eugenics, but in terms of wider society like, say, access to education or something, Ireland very much has the charity model. Again, this is capitalism trying to reinvent itself moving away from the medical model, shutting down the ‘insane asylums’, and moving towards a charity model, so now you have the care homes. I mean, they have the approach in the name. They call them care homes.
Another example would be with respect to refugees. You’re not putting them in ‘refugee centres’. No. No, no. These are ‘community hubs’ or whatever term is acceptable by the charity model. The message is that these are resources we generously provide for you. You should consider it a privilege to be given this. You should be thankful you’re getting this. Rather than it being a right. It’s like as if accommodations that allow for equal access or independent living are a luxury. This is a luxury good. We can’t really give you this. That’s what I think it comes down to.
Conor: The book covers the rise of disability rights of people with disabilities organization despite the difficulties and challenging the system, so do you want to say a bit about that?
Eoghan: The main change it covers is the rise of the social model of disability, that was movement in England in the 80s with Mike Oliver and Vic Finkelstein. On a side note, Finkelstein is an interesting character because he was actually arrested for being involved in the anti-Apartheid movements in South Africa and then went to England. Basically, he was kicked out of South Africa. The book covers a great example in the US of a battle over a university who were trying to select members for a board and when it came to having someone with knowledge of disability they picked someone who had studied the subject rather than someone equally qualified who had a disability. Just because you’ve studied disability doesn’t prevent you having a negative view of disability or disabled people.
Anyway, a campaign sprang up that occupied the university until someone with a disability got the position. The book covers a lot of direct action like this, and that feeds into the social model of disability in a sense because the social model is created by disabled people. It’s a radical model made by socialists, by the people on the far-left.
Conor: Could you just give us a very quick recap on what the main points of the social model of disability are?
Eoghan: The main point is that disabled people should be able to live independently: so no care facilities; no medical model; none of that; not being ‘cared for’. Obviously, you have to have supports, like having a personal assistant. That’s what groups like the Independent Living Movement in Ireland are pushing for, so you’re able to live, work, and contribute to your community in whatever area you want. You can get an education, get a job, volunteer, do as you want. It’s very much focused on a disabled person-led approach.
We are the ones who are choosing. Living independently is us employing the personal assistant. So it’s not a case of that person coming in and saying, “I’m going to do this or that for you”. We are saying, “I need help with this. Can you assist? Grand.”
Also, that point about direct action such as occupying buildings to actually get rights for disabled people is part of the idea. It contrasts with a centrist government-funded disabled persons’ organization that has people in it who are not disabled. These just making a few gestures and shake their fist but without forcing change on the government. You need actual, radical change and the radical approach to it as.
Conor: Presumably there are allies for disability campaigners, perhaps in trade unions? Are there any case studies of where good alliances ran successful campaigns?
Eoghan: In relation to Ireland, I think a good link that you could get is between disabled people and travellers because these are the most oppressed communities in Ireland, and there have been recently people, disabled travellers, who have spoken about linking the two in together.
In terms of specifically here and now, those are two communities that could link in together, but I think in terms of history the movements that have been led by disabled people are a recent enough thing, like from the 80s, and 90s. It comes back to a kind of intersectionality because there will be people in other campaigning communities who have disabilities.
In America, you’d have people in the Native tribes that are also disabled, so they will have the dual understanding of why both communities are oppressed, and they can act as the link between the communities.
Other than this intersectionality though, I can’t really think of any kind of proper, big mass movement where you’ve had a proper coming together. The book does look at the Soviet Union and their disability movement before Stalin came to power. It is really interesting because it really goes into depth about how there were proper discussions, actual empowerment of disabled people and disabled academics and serious studies and research to understand various impairments and disabilities. But that really comes to an end when Stalin comes to power.
Conor: That is interesting because it’s not well known, that history. When you look at modern post-Communist countries, they seem to be particularly bad, in fact, for people with a disability. They seem to have a model that institutionalizes people with disabilities rather than hold out the prospect of them being able to play an equal part in society.
Eoghan: It’s kind of ironic. When Khrushchev comes to power and he’s trying to distance himself from all the failings of Stalin, he’s like: “We can’t do this anymore. We can’t do that anymore,” but he didn’t think about disability. He probably just went, “Oh, no. That’s grand. That’s fine. Disability doesn’t matter. We don’t need to distance ourselves from Stalin on that. That wasn’t too bad.”
Conor: Returning to today, you mentioned them earlier but the Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) campaign seems to have a lot of energy and a lot of potential to be able to win progress for people with disabilities. Do you know something about that campaign and where it’s at?
Eoghan: This has been going on since 2018. They’re trying to get a motion passed in the Dáil that basically calls for the independent living structure to be the model of disability: so to have a personal assistant service, to have that fully funded; to allow for the social model of disability basically.
I think it’s gone back and forth through the Dáil. It gets passed, but it then just gets hung up. Recently they did have a good win at least with the all the councils of Ireland, with the exception of Dublin City Council, passing the Independent Living motion unanimously.
Of course passing the motion is purely symbolic act, but it is one that says, “We’re calling on the government to bring in a model of independent living for disabled people.”
Conor: Well, it’s valuable that the groundwork is being laid. You can’t win equality without winning the argument and being clear on what you need, so that’s really important work, but in terms of then going the next step of actually trying to get some funding for the implementation of this, how do things stand? What’s the plan for the next step of the campaign?
Eoghan: Well, the funny thing is that we already have the personal assistant service. We’ve had it since the early 1990s, but it’s still in a trial phase. It is very hard to access, unless you have a good amount of money on yourself and can go through all the bureaucracy because there are a lot of hoops.
The structure is there in a sense, but obviously the funding isn’t and that’s the sticking point. The government saves 15 to 20 billion euro a year from carers. So they don’t have any incentive to replace family carers with paid assistants.
Conor: How does the book conclude?
Eoghan: They wrap it up with a rallying cry that if you are going to bring about change, disabled people are going to have a campaign for this themselves. It’s a simple point, but it’s often missed. The movement needs to be disabled-led. As simple as that. The book lays it out very clearly.
Conor: Whilst we want to win as much as we can at the moment and make as much progress as we can, is there ever going to be equality for people with disabilities under capitalism?
Eoghan: No. Simple answer. It is an obvious answer, but there’ll never be equality for disabled people under capitalism because there’ll be never equality for anyone under capitalism. It’s as simple as that, and what it all comes back to is linking the struggle of disabled people with the struggle of any other group, any other group throughout history, like women, like people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community. They cannot get equality under capitalism, and we cannot.
Conor: Is there anything else that my questions haven’t given you a chance to talk about that you wanted to talk address?
Eoghan: A very interesting point is made in the book about disability and war veterans. People who go off, fight war, and get a particular injury and end up in a wheelchair or losing a leg, lose an arm, they’re venerated. They’re lifted up on a pedestal and seen as good. This is what the Nazis did, actually. It’s quite ironic. For the Nazis, who were all about eugenics, put disabled people on a pedestal, and they were there with Hitler.
Disabled people have been divided in that regard, and especially with the mainstream media now. It’s a weird thing because disabled war veterans generally speaking are quite well looked after and generally there is an expectation that they be given and afforded anything they need, and as soon as there’s discrimination against a war veteran like, say, someone with a guide dog or a support animal is kicked out of a building there’s uproar in the media. National media is covering it. Everyone is going on social media and saying, “This is disgraceful. How dare they do this? This is shocking,” but if a non-war veteran disabled person was to be discriminated against, nothing.
The war veterans themselves may not want to be used in this way. But their disability is seen as a mark of honor whereas other people’s disability is portrayed as a shame. It is a bad thing. It is a scar. You should hide that.
Conor: On the question of shame, is Neuro Pride a new development? Can you say something about that?
Eoghan: Neuro Pride Ireland were founded last year. They held a festival last year, and they’ve done one this year, and now they’re doing kind of meetups as in public meetups in person which is for neurodivergent people, various impairments. Autism especially I think. Well, obviously all neurodivergencies, but I think a particular focus on autism because I think that’s the one that’s really stigmatized in the media.
At the moment, they’re trying to organize to end Applied Behaviour Analysis, ABA, which is a negative kind treatment plan often used by non-autistic ‘experts’ who are trying to cure autism or make the impairment lesser. If you look at kind of the people who founded the modern kind of medical model of autism, how to approach it, they have a eugenics mindset.
Neuro Pride has a community-led, bottom-up approach. They’re very much going down the route of being an NGO, which is grand. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, you can still work with that because they genuinely want to change things, and also they’re community-led which is a radical thing in and of itself, but there’s loads of people in that movement who are radical, who are anti-capitalist.
When I joined that group, I started talking about the book and everyone was genuinely interested. It’s actually really great to be in that community.