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Social Reproduction Theory and Disability

Overcoming the Reified Form of Labor Powers

February 19, 2024

The Problem of “Disability” for Social Reproduction Theory

Social reproduction theory (SRT) attempts to tie Marxist analysis of the expansion of value to the social relations through which labor powers at the basis of that expansion of value are themselves produced and continuously reproduced. What then might those committed to SRT as a mode of concretizing Marxism be able to say regarding “disability”? After all, if SRT is focused on the reproduction of labor powers, and the disabled are often marginalized and altogether excluded from freely developing and then actualizing their labor powers, there might seem to be a real problem for theory.1Rosa Patterson was the first to help me recognize the danger of a social theory that naively values “powers” and “capacities” drawn from the existing, ableist social framework. For my first and insufficiently coordinated approach to the issue see A. Jaffe “Social Reproduction Theory and the Form of Labor Power,” CLC Web 22:2 (2020) Behind this worry are three critical thoughts regarding the very idea of “labor powers” which can pose problems for some versions of SRT.

The first critical worry regards the “labor” side of the term “labor power.” If “labor” powers refers only to those powers that enable one to labor, and labor more specifically under conditions imposed by capital, then any theory premised on such labor powers, including SRT, would be deeply misguided. It would not only leave out those who, for any number of reasons, are excluded from such activity, but these exclusions would in fact be constitutive. By this, I mean that this kind of exclusion wouldn’t be a theoretical gap that could simply be filled in with further research or reflection. Insofar as such a theory only reflected on actualized labor powers, it would thereby not be able to think all other kinds of practical activity.

In trying to grasp capital, such a theory wouldn’t have the resources to point beyond it. The theory would not be able to draw into view all the activities not valued from the narrow standpoint of capital. Crucially, it would not be able to think and integrate the activities of those who find it difficult to or simply cannot access labor markets in capitalist societies. It could not see all the activities that are different from those that labor, at least in some sense, for capital. It would, for that reason, have a truly narrow view of “labor.”

Here the connection to “disability” is obvious. Quite a few have noted how the division and selection of powers driven into labor markets, and the ability to effectively compete within such markets, are significant determinants of what counts as an “ability” and what, on the other side of it, as a “disability”. As Marta Russell has argued, for example, what counts as “able” here and now, though far from absolutely determinant, is in large part determined by what is exploitable as labor power.2Marta Russell, “Disablement, Oppression, and the Political Economy,” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 12:2 (2001): 87–95, and with Ravi Malhotra. “Capitalism and Disability.” Socialist Register 2002, edited by L. Panitch and C. Leys, Merlin Press, 2001, pp. 211-228. See also, the overview provided by “Marxism and Disability” in Capitalism and Disability, edited by Keith Rosenthal (Haymarket: 2019).

Things are never that cut and dry, and the case should not be overstated. To be clear, many people who do not work are not disabled. There are infants and retired pensioners, for instance.3See, for instance, Serap Saritas Oran’s discussion in “Pensions and Social Reproduction” in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya (Pluto Press: 2017) pp. 148-170. And just as clearly, many disabled people do indeed compete in and secure wages through labor markets. I do not mean to dismiss such cases as outliers or as exceptions that prove the rule. It would be wrong to think that capital imposes such a “rule” in anything like a simple manner.

But it would be just as wrong to minimize capital’s force on this score. Capital’s divisions of labor through its demand for surplus-value significantly selects for some work while, through a socially determined notion of disability marginalizes and devalues other possible work and ways of working.

The second critical thought then regards the other half of the term: not “labor,” but “power.” What does “power” mean in the context of thinking about labor powers? For social reproduction theory the “power” of “labor power” is determined socially. And just as obviously, our socially determined and affirmed powers range widely over the extraordinary diversity of actually living and breathing people. For this possibly banal reason, SRT really must avoid any kind of flattening out in its social determination of our “powers.”

The fact that specific capacities are tremendously diverse is where critical thought can come in. It comes in precisely here because capital does flatten out our capacities. It does so, following the first worry, by valuing them primarily insofar as the powers are actualizable in a way that is favorable for surplus-value extraction via exploitation.

Though capital develops through a division of labor that realizes so many concretely different kinds of work, capital also homogenizes our capacities’ qualitative differences by reducing them to a common measure: what can be bought for the cost of a wage.4Keith Rosenthal describes capitalism as “a system which commodifies and reproduces an artificial sameness – an abstract, alienated, and average human producer-citizen that sets the standard against which we are all measured.” See The homogenization appropriate to thinking capital’s production of the “average human producer-citizen” is entirely compatible with the concretely different kinds of labor that competing capitals evolve through progressive divisions of labor. See Howard Botwinick’s Persistent Inequalities: Wage Differentials Under Capitalist Competition, (Haymarket: 2018). The wage, in turn, is an expression of the money-form of capital and straightforwardly covers the costs necessary to exploit and reproduce powers as commodities. Wages can themselves be only quantitatively different.

It would be helpful to think that this homogenization renders abstract not only concretely different types of labor,5For a fine account of how labor itself is rendered abstract, see Norbert Trenkle, “Value and Crisis: Basic Questions (1998)” Mediations (Fall-Spring 2013-14) 27:1-2 but, from the standpoint of the requirement to sell them, the powers at their basis which are subject to this commodification. Marxists often think and criticize the specific social shape or “form” of this commodified abstraction.6See for instance Christopher Arthur “The Inner Totality of Capitalism” 2016 Historical Materialism 14:3, pp. 85–111. Though Arthur holds that capital constitutes “labour-power as the subject of a peculiar commodity-form, the wage,” he goes on to argue that “Marx fudges the issue,” because “labour-power is not produced by capital; it is an external condition of capitalist production.” p. 90, p. 90, p. 92. It does not seem to me that Arthur’s conclusion, that labor power is an external condition of capitalist production, follows from the fact that labor power is not produced by capital in the same way as other commodities are. Labor power is at least partially an internal condition of capitalist production, and is likewise at least partially produced by it. This is perhaps why Arthur ends up calling “labour the ‘internal other’ of capital,” p. 107. The alternative to this partial or “internal other” view, namely, a view committed to the true independence of labor power would be so extreme as to violate the conceptions of inner totality and syllogism that Arthur himself works through in his triadic discussion of ground rent, wage labor, and capital. Diane Elson describes how the dominance of the capitalist form of value extends beyond the direct production of value into the processes that condition it and its reproduction, while Amy De’Ath suggests extending this insight into social-reproduction theorizing of feminization and racialization.7Diane Elson, “The Value Theory of Labor” in Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism, edited by Diane Elson.  (Verso: 2015) pp. 115-180, p. 165, and Amy De’Ath, “Gender and Social Reproduction” in Thes Sage Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory, edited by B. Best et al, (Sage: 2018) pp. 1543-44.

In addition to zooming in on the form-determining violence that shapes specifically gendered and racialized labor powers, as De’Ath recommends, we can zoom out as well. Doing so would allow SRT to discuss the form-determining violence that shapes labor powers as useful, that is, as exploitable commodities in and of themselves. For our purposes, Guido Starosta and Gastón Caligaris have claimed, that “human labor-power is not a use-value by its own material nature,” but that, “it becomes form-determined as such when subsumed by capital as the active condition for its valorization,” and “all the determinations of the commodity-form are present in the production of labor-power.”8Starosta, G., & Caligaris, G. (2016). “The Commodity Nature of Labor-Power” Science & Society (July 2016) 80:3, pp. 319–345, p. 329, and p. 332 respectively. Italics added.

Despite naturally inhering in what Marx called an individual’s living personality, capacities are produced through social relations dominated by the commodity form.

SRT can conceptualize the “powers” of “labor power,” and the powers through which its capacities are produced and reproduced, as subject to pressures of a version of the commodity form. Through this form, labor power, that peculiar commodity at the basis of capital, is rendered abstract in its own peculiar way.

Since labor powers are potentials to labor rather than any specific, actual laboring activity, it might seem odd to suggest that they can be rendered abstract. After all, as unactualized powers, labor powers await their concretion such that, prior to any actualization, it might seem that powers could be neither concrete nor abstract. Yet the lack of any specific actuality should not prevent us from thinking labor powers’ abstract form-determination.

Despite naturally inhering in what Marx called an individual’s living personality, capacities are produced through social relations dominated by the commodity form, and they are continuously reproduced by relying on the money-form, that is, via a wage. Insofar as they are made to be, and then regularly reproduced as bought and sold commodities, labor powers are very much like other commodities, and while not entirely subsumed, they are nonetheless subject to the force of capital’s form-determination.

The dangers of this kind of form-determination of “labor power” for “disability” can be unpacked and clarified. As Roddy Slorach has argued, “Disability continues to be rooted in the way the capitalist mode of production subordinates concrete labour (and the concrete labourer) to abstract, interchangeable and homogeneous labour.”9Roddy Slorach, “Marxism and Disability,” International Socialism 2 : 129, Winter 2011, and A Very Capitalist Condition (Bookmarks: 2016). The set of capitalist social relations are responsible for imposing the abstract, homogenized form of power that often shapes what counts as an ability and what, on the other side of it, as a disability. Capacities tend to count as labor “powers” only if they are, by this homogenous reduction, potentially fit for exploitation.

Powers are pressured and molded by the abstract form imposed by capital’s over-arching demand for valorization, and those whose powers are less easily produced and continuously reproduced in easily exploitable ways, or in ways that favorably contribute to such a process, often end up represented through the category of disability. People holding these powers are often, cruelly, considered “defective commodities.”10I am grateful to Keith Rosenthal for suggesting this quite apt way of framing the issue. When this abstract form of labor power makes access to and effective competition in labor markets more difficult for some, it is quite literally disempowering, even disabling.

The third critical thought combines the first two: the constitutively narrow view of labor, and the homogenizing commodification of powers that renders capacities abstract. When the narrow view of labor, and the homogenizing, abstract social determination of power are combined, the “labor powers” which form the basis of SRT look like they include only those that seamlessly reproduce the violent, constraining, and disempowering nature of capitalism.11Without explicitly developing an account of the form-determination of labor powers, in A Very Capitalist Condition (Bookmarks: 2016), Roddy Slorach shows how disability is tied to the general nature of labor in capitalism. An account of this general nature of labour can be deepened by thinking the form it is coerced into taking and which, in turn, such labor helps shape. Michael J. Oliver pointed in this direction when holding that “political economy… suggests that all phenomena (including social categories) are produced by the economic and social forces of capitalism itself. The forms in which they are produced are ultimately dependent upon their relationship to the economy (Marx 1913). Hence, the category disability is produced in the particular form it appears by these very economic and social forces.” See “Capitalism, Disability, and Ideology: A Materialist Critique of the Normalization Principle,” in Flynn, Robert J. and Raymond A. Lemay, A Quarter-Century of Normalization and Social Role Valorization: Evolution and Impact. 1999. It would then seem as if SRT is limited to having a dangerously ahistorical and disabling view of the labor powers at the very roots of its theory.

Though without reference to “disability,” Kristin Munro and Pedro M. Rey-Araújo12Kirstin Munro, “’Social Reproduction Theory’: Social Reproduction, and Household Production” Science and Society (October 2019) 83:4, pp.451-468, esp. pp. 452-455, and Pedro M. Rey-Araújo “Social reproduction theory and the capitalist ‘form’ of social reproduction” New Political Economy (online first: 30 Oct 2023), esp. sections two and three. have made this kind of argument by suggesting that some version of SRT forgets that, when put into motion, labor powers reproduce capitalism at least as much as themselves, or life more broadly. If the narrow view of labor, the abstract, homogenized powers fit for exploitation at the basis of that labor, and the violent reproduction of capital setting the two on their path are all SRT draws on, then this blinkered vision of a capitalist present certainly deserves strong criticism, and not just from Marxists likes of Munro and Gimenez, but from radical theorists of “disability” across the board.

This third critical thought poses a damning problem because some versions of SRT are at risk of reifying the disabling power of capital by naturalizing the form through which powers are socially produced and reproduced. When labor powers are seen from the standpoint of capital, disability then appears on the other side of this view as if it is labor power’s natural, trans-historical other.13For a view describing “disability” as reified see David Matthews, “Disability and Welfare under Monopoly Capitalism,” Monthly Review Jan. 1., 2021, This social arrangement produces a kind of epistemology, or at least a shared common sense regarding what is an ability and what is not. Disability then appears natural instead of what it actually is, which is to say, historically produced in ways that, at least broadly, can serve as an index of what is profitable for capital.

In other words, in our capitalist social formations, the questions of what is an ability and what is a disability rests on some deeper account of the commodified form labor powers themselves have been historically constrained to take. If an account of this form is to avoid being reified, it must be tied to the division of labor and the changing social history of production. Put simply, “disability” is reified because the notion of “labor powers” determining its boundaries is itself reified, and this is so not just due to some idealist or theoretical error. Rather, this reification flows from the very nature of the homogenizing exploitation essential to capital’s valorization.

From this perspective, the issue of disability forces a reckoning of SRT’s relation to its ground in “labor powers.” A reified form of labor powers operates in what can be thought of as a jointly ableist and exploitable manner. If this ableist-exploitable form of labor powers is not thrown into question by a theory that tries to think and resist capital, then the commodified labor power at the root of capital remains reified not just in our practical reality, but in the way we try to think through and, ultimately, point beyond the violence of this reality. Labor power would remain fated to ceaselessly appear as if it is a natural category: a trans-historical given not subject to the flux and flow of different regimes of capital, and certainly not subject to anything like radical, revolutionary transformation on the basis of entirely different regimes of production.

The key insight to take from Marx’s de-reifying approach to labor powers is that the form of their commodification, the form they are constrained to take in capitalism, is the culmination of a long, long history of social production.

This appearance is not only false, but politically dangerous, and truly disabling. From so-called primitive accumulation to so many contemporary versions of neoliberalism, the form that labor powers have been subject to has its own history.14See, for instance, B.J. Gleeson who argues: “under the impress of commodity relations, sites of production were themselves evolving (in fact, convulsively by the late 18th century), and were recreating as social spaces which were compelled by the logic of competition to seek the most productive forms of labour-power,” in “Disability Studies: A Historical Materialist View” Disability and Society (1997) 12:2, pp. 179-202. For a general discussion of the welfare state’s role in the reproduction of labor power see Ian Gough, The Political Economy of the Welfare State (London: The MacMillan Press, 1979) pp. 44 ff, and for a more specifically feminist account see Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s Family Welfare and the State (Common Notions, 2021). I am grateful to Luke Beesley for pointing me towards the former. Capital’s evolving determination of that form is subject to its own internal combustion through its self-generated insuperable tensions.

Beyond its capital-induced history, the current ableist-exploitable form can and must be thrown into question, and entirely transcended by a revolutionary project. But again, to stress the essential point: any theory of the social reproduction of “labor” “powers” needs to be capacious enough to internally support the most radical Left versions of disability theory if it can, first of all, have within its sights capital’s determination and reification of the form of those powers, and then second, point beyond this reification towards some truly liberatory solutions.


SRT beyond Fetishism, or How Marxists Should Take “Disability” Seriously

Many versions of SRT are grounded in different forms of concrete labor, which themselves flow from different kinds of embodied powers. In its normative developments, SRT then often aims for the freedom of the latter beyond how they work and are reproduced for capital.

Despite that being the case, in too many of its theoretical elaborations, SRT’s silence about the problems posed by “disability” render the very ground of its theorizing in “labor powers” dangerously unstable. Even when theorists of SRT make attempts to focus on “concrete labor” and, with an expansive notion of freer “labor powers,” push back against the dominating social relations that shape and constrain ability itself, too many versions of SRT avoid thinking about the ableist-exploitable form of labor powers which is engendered by and which, in turn, dominates these labor powers.

This ableist-exploitable form of labor powers can be thought, in a Hegelian vein, as having three moments. The first moment would be comprised of all the socially affirmed labor powers that, by and large through effective competition in labor markets, some get to actualize. These are the powers that shape the ability/disability divide on the side of ability.

The second moment would be comprised of all the non-socially affirmed and marginalized powers with which others are endowed. These remain under- or unactualized. Both the activity of the former and now, crucially, the inactivity of the latter are necessary to think the articulation of the ableist-exploitable form. The two moments, though opposed, mutually determine each other.

The third moment is then the violent domination of this articulated form on the ongoing production and reproduction of an asymmetrically divided field of powers. This third moment, in other words, describes the movement of the whole. This whole is truly intelligible only when, as I have suggested, “disability” is understood in relation to “ability” and when this relation itself is understood as continuously socially reproduced in a way that gives the form an evolving history.

Insisting that the historical direction of the form’s movement is pushed, not by something external, but by both of its first two moments make a de-reified the history of disability possible. Even further, in taking disability seriously from a Marxist perspective, this manner of de-reification would prevent any theoretical fetishization of the form.

How then might SRT shore up a potentially unstable ground by taking “disability” seriously in this three-fold way? Here we can turn to Marx himself, in particular his definition of “labor power” in Capital volume one, and then his more historical and political discussion of labor powers in his scathing Critique of the Gotha Program.

In Capital Marx is very careful to differentiate labor, or the activity of setting capacities into motion, from the capacities themselves, which must lie at the basis of any such activity. Both are imbricated in peculiar social relations, including legal and property relations, through which labor powers are bought, sold, produced, and reproduced as commodities. When Marx describes individuals as doubly free, that is, free from all means of production, and free to sell their powers to work, he means to highlight the violent social relations that give “freedom” this peculiar shape. It is a freedom imposed through capitalist legal and property relations, and which constrains potentials to being formed as commodified labor powers.

Marx articulated a much broader view of freedom over and against this view of doubly “free” labor powers. He saw labor powers as capacities the exercise of which produces a use-value of any description.15Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, translated by Ben Fowkes,, vol. 1 (Penguin: 1976) p. 270. The capacities themselves can be physical or mental but are always socially imbricated, and individually embodied. In capitalist societies these broad capacities are narrowed by the specific need to take the shape of an exploitable commodity, and to constantly reproduce themselves in this commodified form. Against any reifying view, Marx is emphatic:

One thing, however, is clear: nature does not produce on the one hand owners of money or commodities, and on the other hand men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no basis in natural history, nor does it have a social basis common to all periods of human history. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older formations of social production.16Ibid p. 273.

The key insight to take from Marx’s de-reifying approach to labor powers is that the form of their commodification, the form they are constrained to take in capitalism, is the culmination of a long, long history of social production.

By placing the otherwise invisible nature of “disability” at the very center of the form-determination of labor powers as homogenized commodities, SRT can move beyond reifying and fetishizing the ableist-exploitable form of these powers, and recognize the extraordinarily deep social violence of capital.

Even if they have been and indeed could be otherwise, when dominated by social relations through which wealth appears as commodities, labor powers are constrained in their production and reproduction to the ableist-exploitable form that determines them, too, as commodities. Under such conditions Marx, quoting Sismondi, reminds us that “the capacity of labour… is nothing unless it is sold,”17Ibid p. 277. which is a capital-specific determination of the broader truth that “labour-power becomes a reality only by being expressed; it is activated only through labour.”18Ibid p. 274. While capacities are pressured to fit into the mold of what is easily exploitable if they are to be actualized, unactualized capacities are constrained to a vast field of irreality continuously at risk of extinction because it is harder or entirely impossible for them to be sold.

In following Marx’s analysis and thinking the social and historical reproduction of labor powers under capital, SRT can see that, by not being actualized, some powers are socially diminished and denied. At the limit, some powers are denied their “reality”, and in being reduced to “nothing”, they cannot be reproduced. In this way SRT can think the first and the second moment as simultaneous and co-constituting. The actualization of some labor powers as well as the non-actualization of others produces and reproduces the specifically ableist-exploitable social form of their commodification.

This form guides the production and reproduction of a foreshortened field of labor powers because, at the very same time, it produces and reproduces a great difficulty, and at the extreme an absolute inability, to develop and actualize potentials in other ways. In other words, by following Marx here we can see that thinking the social reproduction of labor powers requires thinking how their commodified form is engendered by, set in motion through, and exercises its force upon their further actualizations as well as, crucially, their further marginalization and inactivity.

It is tremendously important to stress that even the extinction of marginalized powers plays its part in the evolving history of the ableist-exploitable form. It sets the limit of that which, through disability, cannot be reproduced given the existing social organization of production. If above the hidden abode of production there hangs the sign “no admittance except on business,” in the enveloping and reified realm of labor powers’ reproduction the sign reads, “no exit except without business.” Those who cannot busy themselves in some manner with reproducing their capacities are excluded. But even the extinction of this “exit” contributes to the shape and confines of the abode. It defines the violent social order through which the form of labor powers appropriate to capital evolves in its limited and narrowly bordered ways.

When relying on Marx in thinking that unactualized powers are “nothing” in this reified realm, and that, nonetheless, in being “nothing” these unactualized powers contribute for precisely this reason to capital’s reification, SRT has the resources to take “disability” very seriously. By placing the otherwise invisible nature of “disability” at the very center of the form-determination of labor powers as homogenized commodities, SRT can move beyond reifying and fetishizing the ableist-exploitable form of these powers, and recognize the extraordinarily deep social violence of capital. It can thereby have a critical relation to the potentials it wants to value beyond the determination permitted by the existing form.

Adopting this approach to the current form of labor powers is necessary for any appropriate attempt to think through and point towards a more liberated field of potentials. And this, in turn, is crucial to thinking through the social basis of a new version of our powers’ “freedom,” one that, worthy of the name, would move beyond the ironic double-freedom Marx quite rightly used to think them under conditions of capital.

With this more solid theoretical grounding drawn from Capital, SRT could then draw on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program.19In a letter to Bracke accompanying his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx promises to send the French edition of Capital, likely indicating that latter indeed provides a fine theoretical basis for the former. See p. 48 of Critique of the Gotha Program, translated by Kevin Anderson and Karel Ludenhoff (PM Press: 2023). Doing so would help develop a liberatory political response to the socially reproduced violence of the ableist-exploitable social form through which capital determines labor powers here and now.

At the very start of his Critique, Marx insisted that a “socialist program,” cannot “pass over in silence the circumstances that alone give…meaning” to how human labor power is a source of wealth.20Ibid p. 51. He then immediately turned to developing a historical view of these circumstances and criticizing views that conceive of labor as resting on trans-historical and super-natural powers. What counts as useful labor here and now hangs on the existing social organization of production.

When Marx criticized Lassalle for holding that “useful labor is possible only in society and through society,” he criticized a too-generic and a-historical view of social reproduction that “has at all times been made use of by the champions of the prevailing state of society at a given time.” At the very least, “such hollow phrases can be twisted and turned as desired.”21Ibid p. 52, and p. 53. That labor is social should be taken as a given; for Marx the key question is how specific social relations violently contort our capacities themselves.

This revolutionary commitment can be achieved only by the continuous transformation of the social basis that gives all labor powers meaning and shape.

In then suggesting that in the transition from the social relations appropriate to capitalism to those appropriate to communism it would not be possible to immediately transcend abstract determinations of labor power, Marx is simply following through on his commitment to thinking labor powers as forming and flowing from their changing social basis. After all, if our powers must be understood in light of the circumstances of their production, the capacities constrained to appear as labor powers given capitalist social grounds, cannot be valued as a basis of real freedom. Only communist social grounds can aim for the “all-around development of the individual” and “all the springs of cooperative wealth.”22Ibid p. 59. Of course, these dual goals cannot be achieved until the specifically capitalist ground is cleared and richer soil that can truly nourish our capacities is prepared.

To get there Marx insisted on overcoming the “subordination of the individual to the division of labor.”23Ibid. It is not that in communism individuals would be prohibited from developing or concentrating their powers in specific ways. Rather, individuals doing so would not be subordinated, that is, dominated by a social organization of production that compels such specialization by increasingly dividing concrete labor in attempts to maximize the rate at which capital exploits underlying, homogenized labor powers. Communist individuals would focus their capacities, to the extent desired: not due to the compulsions of competing on a labor market, but as free expressions of their own need for development.

Lassalle’s demand that the “undiminished proceeds of labor” be returned to the laborers was the main object of Marx’s criticism in the Critique of the Gotha Program precisely because it did nothing to change the social basis that would permit capacities to develop in this richer, freer direction.24Ibid pp. 54 ff. In leaving capital’s division of labor as a subordinating force intact, Lassalle’s program would have done nothing to challenge the reified form that selects for some, marginalizes others, and generally guides labor powers’ disabling social reproduction.

Accepting capital’s subordination of individuals to its evolving division of labor, and then directly returning the proceeds of labor to workers would straightforwardly reproduce a violent, labor-power homogenizing social order. Such a program would provide none of the resources necessary to practically challenge the homogenizing commodification of our powers and worse, take not a single step towards generating the much-needed new social basis for their articulation.

This is why, against Lassalle, Marx insisted that communism requires the social and historical generation of a new determination of our powers through an entirely different social basis. Marx deducted “that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs” from Lassalle’s “undiminished proceeds,” and thought that, “this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops.”25Ibid p. 56. When instead of being allocated via the purchase of exploitable labor power, social wealth is devoted to the common satisfaction of needs, it begins to transform needs themselves into being simultaneously individual and social.

Though Marx points in particular to education and health care, his point can be made more generally. A more socialized form of mental and physical capacities is made possible “in proportion as the new society develops,” and, against Lassalle, Marx suggested that fighting for these arrangements are important parts of any socialist program.26As Peter Hudis reminds us in the introduction to a new translation of the Critique of the Gotha Program, for Marx, the mental constraint of fetishism “begins to dissolve only when we encounter ‘other forms of production’ “Introduction”, Ibid p. 8. In what follows Hudis provides an excellent account of Marx’s commitment to concrete labor, and the political dangers of failing to abolish, that is, transcend all “alienated forms of labor and everyday life,” p. 11. Emphasizing concrete labor, as for instance, Rebecca Carson does in Immanent Externalities: The Reproduction of Life in Capital (Brill: 2023), p. 104, is justified only when it is coupled with a commitment to abolishing the existing forms molding such concreteness.

In this way, it is not just that Marx reserves a portion of social wealth for “those unable to work” and for “poor relief.”27Ibid p. 56. Instead, the logic of Marx’s account pushes him to fight for a social-historical development of labor powers far beyond the division of labor which, through competitive markets selects for some, excludes others, and which thereby creates the need for poor relief in the first place.

This revolutionary commitment can be achieved only by the continuous transformation of the social basis that gives all labor powers meaning and shape. In other words, in his Critique Marx is committed to transcending individuals’ subordination to the ableist-exploitable form of labor powers appropriate to capitalism, and to achieving a social order in which the production and continuous reproduction of capacities are simultaneously individually and socially valued in their own right.

If we previously had the inscription “no admittance except on business,” in the midst of a larger environment bearing the title “no exit except without business,” the communist determination of labor powers finally moves beyond the strictures essential to this homogenized commodification. The jointly individual and social, many-sided development of capacities would be a goal in its own right. Social wealth would be allocated for its satisfaction in common. And this is why the sign above a communist society can read “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”28Ibid p. 59.

Marx’s vision of harmonious and more truly free social reproduction can be achieved only by transcending the way capital reduces capacities to their status of commodified labor powers by way of its ableist-exploitable form. But this alone isn’t quite enough. Beyond overcoming capital’s subordination, no subordination of any kind ought to be tolerated. For Marx, communism is the social organization of production that makes society’s prime value the free, and many-sided social reproduction of our capacities themselves.29Hudis, “Introduction”, Ibid p. 17. Laying the stress on the freedom of our powers is crucial, as failing to do so confuses Marx’s political commitments. Hudis rightly and sharply criticizes Michael Lebowitz on this score, see pp. 33 ff. 

Even though the term “disability” appears nowhere in Marx’s Critique, the text’s political commitments nonetheless rest on a notion of abilities implicit in Marx’s thinking about labor powers. This in turn provides a fine communist foil and radical political horizon above and beyond the homogenized, reified, and too-often fetishized ableist-exploitable form that flows from and subordinates labor powers today. By stressing the common satisfaction of needs, a newly social form of wealth, and in particular the development of individuals’ powers in and towards a new social organization of production, Marx provides a political response aiming to reshape the entire social basis and thereby future development of our capacities.

Taken together, Capital’s analysis of doubly free labor powers’ form-determination, and the Critique of the Gotha Program’s orientation of our powers towards the real freedom of communism, provides SRT with the resources to think through and point beyond the ableist-exploitable form labor powers are currently constrained to take. When SRT thinks the social and historical determination of this form through both the actualization of powers and their sidelining through disability, it has the resources to move beyond the worries explored at the start. When integrating disability in this way, SRT can think the production and reproduction of labor powers as acquiring a concreteness worthy of being truly valued only under a radically different social organization of production.

When the concreteness of labor flowing from powers dominated by capital is recognized as simultaneously abstract and disabling, SRT can move away from either drawing on the labor of some, or any set of labor powers on this side of capital as if they were legitimate normative resources. In doing so, SRT can not only sharpen its criticism of capital, but better support its communist aspirations.



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