I have been checking out of what I call ‘feel good’ capitalism since I was four or five. Sometimes this has been because of severe allergies and chronic physical ailments. Other times, it has been because of depression or what they call ‘post-traumatic stress’. In any case, I have had many periods of feeling bad which have often put me at direct odds with the shiny, happy culture.
When I was in elementary and junior high school, I had particularly bad problems with allergies and asthma. At times, I would miss up to a month of school because I was so ill that I had to be hospitalized. Even faced with these challenges, I always managed to succeed at being a prized student. I remember that I won the Concours Oratoire with a speech I wrote while in the hospital. I recall it began: "Le sujet de mon discours est l’asthme…". It went on with little attempts at humor like me telling the nurses that I couldn’t rest because my teachers would kill me if I didn’t get my homework done. It concluded with some sappy ending about feeling so grateful for my life when I saw all the dying kids in the hospital.
Back in those days, I always returned ‘on top’. I was a champion; I epitomized the ideal that ‘anybody can make it if they try hard enough’. I was determined to become a ‘success’. They could have made a movie based on my life titled ‘The Pursuit of Wellyness’.
These days I am working on my graduate program in social work (a profession that is characterized by ambivalence, in my view: positioned somewhere in between social liberation and social control). I am also currently semi-checked out from the system once again, as I am now living with a bad bout of illness brought on by respiratory problems and immune dysfunction. My doctor estimates that I will be able to ‘recover’ in six months to a year. I desperately look forward to feeling less ill again, but I am now highly skeptical of the system that I can more fully participate in when I am ‘well’.
While we are often bombarded with stories of disabled persons overcoming their impairments on shows like Oprah and the like. These shows often emphasize that the disabled should not be pre-judged and are capable of participating. In a paper titled ‘Capitalism, Disability, and Ideology’, Michael Oliver argues that disability issues are narrowly framed in terms of ‘normalization’ and often critically overlook the issue of social control.
Whatever the fate of disabled people before the advent of capitalist society and whatever their fate will be in the brave new world of the twenty first century, with its coming we suffered economic and social exclusion. As a consequence of this exclusion disability was produced in a particular form; as an individual problem requiring medical treatment.
Oliver goes on to describe the ways that the institution and community ‘services’ have been used as mechanisms of social control. He makes two very crucial points here. The first of these is that many professionals’ careers are bound up with keeping disabled dependent. The second is as follows:
If human services under capitalism are part of the state apparatus of social control as materialist theory would argue, the reason they employ the middle classes is simple; they are not the groups who pose a threat to capitalism and therefore, they do not need to be controlled, but instead can become agents for the control of others.
I believe that concepts of disability are constructed in ways that justify the economic and social marginalization of individuals with bodily impairments. I would argue that this is similar to the ways in which gender and race are constructed to justify the marginalization and exploitation of women and particular racialized groups. That is, one should be careful not to make the error of linear causality. While people may be discriminated against because they are disabled or women or belong to a certain ‘race’, the concepts of dis/abilty, gender and race are continually being (re-)constructed to justify historical and present social and economic injustices.
The construction of ‘professionals’ is required to construct its counterpart: ‘the clients’.
But while the disabled may suffer the greatest consequences, the issue of disability is of interest not only to all those labeled as ‘disabled’ but also to all those who fall into the other end of the dichotomy: ‘abled’. Indeed, the category ‘abled’ also works as a mechanism of social control. There are all sorts of unspoken norms that the ‘abled’ have to live up to. If you have a bad cold, you must demonstrate a willingness to carry on working in spite of it. If you are suffering from the death of parent, you must even still push on. You must be energetic. You must be happy. You must be confident. You must FEEL GOOD. You must be SHINY and HAPPY. And, You must NEVER RESIST.
This position is well argued in Oliver’s description of the institution:
The reason for the success of the institution was simple… It is repressive in that all those who either cannot or will not conform to the norms and discipline of capitalist society can be removed from it. It is ideological in that it stands as a visible monument for all those who currently conform but may not continue to do so -if you do not behave, the institution awaits you.
Some of us are still faced with the threat of the institution. Others might be faced with the threat of children services or being patrolled by ‘employment’ services. For certain, all who betray themselves as other than ‘abled’ risk social shaming by their ideologically colonized peers.
‘Capitalism, Disablity, and Ideology: A Materialist Critique of the Normalization Principle‘ by Michael J. Oliver