Wednesday, October 13, 2021

COVID, Disablement, and the “Return to Normal”

Originally published at Monthly Review (October 2021, vol. 73, no. 5)


by Keith Rosenthal and Ari Parra

It has been one and a half years since the COVID pandemic first took on a widespread national character within the United States. During this span of time, we have witnessed the punctuated cessation of public, social, and economic activity; conflicts and controversies over mask mandates and stay-at-home recommendations; panic over the rationing of everything from the mundane to the serious, toilet paper to hospital beds and ventilators. The virus itself was talked about as a universalizing pathogen that did not discriminate; a threat to each and all of us. Meanwhile, anecdotal and quantitative data began to depict the vastly unequal impact that the pandemic was having on certain demographics of the population—people of color and Black people in particular, Indigenous communities, poor and working-class populations, and especially elderly and disabled people living in nursing homes and congregate long-term care facilities (along with the perhaps less-documented populations of homeless people and disabled people on the verge of entering nursing homes).1

Suddenly, the nation and the world seemed to find itself living in a protracted emergency variant of reality. From “normal” existence, society metamorphosed into a prolonged state of “abnormality.” Virtually all aspects of social and economic life, previously taken for granted, became inaccessible by degrees to vast numbers of the populace. Physical movement, gathering with friends and family, the desire to meet new people and possible intimates, travel, shopping, even going to a bar or restaurant, all became eminently restricted tasks. Daily activities of personal care and hygiene occupied more and more of people’s functional time and mental concern. The basic process of leaving the house required a great deal of pre-planning and preparation. Anxieties escalated around people’s ability to continue engaging in, or go about finding, paid work that would accommodate their restrictions and needs, and whether their employer would offer paid sick leave if they or a dependent became infected. Access to adequate, affordable, and safe health care likewise became a more generalized and potentially fatal concern. In a word, society itself had become disabled—disabled by the coronavirus; disabled by the actions or inactions of various ruling and hegemonic institutions; disabled by the preexisting social, political, and economic conditions of an unequal and individualistic capitalist society.

Through it all, the watchword of virtually all politicians occupying positions of power within the ruling circles of government—regardless of party affiliation or political persuasion—has been the aim of a “return to normal.” This sentiment resonated broadly across a public chafing under the disabling conditions of pandemic existence. The development and widespread distribution of a vaccine seemed to be the single beacon of hope—even as the novel strain of the coronavirus mutated into more robust and resilient variants, potentially requiring booster shots and additional vaccinations.2 It is as if the pandemic purgatory we have been stuck in was a detour off the main road, one wending laterally from the “normal,” desired route. Generalized immunity, then, stands in prospect as an on-ramp back to society’s proper timeline, back to the pre-pandemic vector, back to a “normal” future.

Abnormality Is a Preexisting Condition

For many disabled people in the United States and around the world, however, the abnormal state of things over the last year and a half is not such an estranged discontinuity from the previous state of things. Certainly, just like everyone, pandemic life for disabled people has been exceedingly difficult, painful, oppressive, and deadly. But the “normal” of pre-pandemic life was also exceedingly difficult, painful, oppressive, and deadly. To be disabled in contemporary capitalist society is to live in a permanent state of socially constructed “abnormality.” Illustrator Sam Schäfer, for example, has aptly depicted this phenomenon in a series of graphics on disabled people and the pandemic, published online in early 2021.3

In one of the panels in the comic titled “And Now Here We Are,” Schäfer writes: “We died the same way many of us lived: in hospital, isolated, stuck indoors, financially struggling, isolated.” As the caption explains: “Each point is illustrated with an empty hospital bed, a silhouette sat in a jar, a closed door, a broken sad and very adorable piggy bank with little coins in it, and nothing.” A subsequent panel features the words: “Every day I see people wishing for things to go back to normal. Back to the way things were. Where we were still suffering and dying.” The inscription accompanies a drawing of crutches lying abandoned on a patch of grass beneath a rainbow and sunshine.4

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Jailbreak of Disability

Originally published at Rampant magazine

The abolitionist movement stands to gain key lessons from mass deinstitutionalization, argues Liat Ben-Moshe's latest book.

Decarcerating Disability book cover
Decarcerating Disability book cover

Decarcerating Disability

Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition

By Liat Ben-Moshe

Published by The University of Minnesota Press

A growing number activists have become familiar with the vast and interlocking histories of oppression that are constitutive of present US society—indigenous dispossession, racialized slavery, exploitative capitalism, imperialist plunder. Less often understood or theorized is the phenomenon of mass disablement as an artifice of social oppression.

In fact, a critical analysis thereof is pivotal to making sense of myriad other oppressive American histories, including: eugenics and the enforcement of biosocial hierarchies; the pseudoscience of race inferiorities and intelligence quotients; segregationist and eliminationist regimes of carcerality and sterilization; hyper-exploitative cults of productivity, wealth accumulation, and universal competition; and the constant reproduction of variable layers of the human species rendered into a permanent underclass of paupers, peripherals, and euphemistic “surplus” or “superfluous” populations.1

Theorizing the Disability-Carceral Relationship

One important area that has recently seen inroads in theorizing across various forms of oppression, including that of disability, is the prison abolition movement. Having as their goal the complete elimination, or transcendence, of all existing structures of carceral violence, coercion, and subjugation, prison abolitionists have made recourse to a number of emancipatory frames of analysis—from settler colonialism to racial capitalism to hetero-patriarchy. Paying homage to the ancestral liberation movement against American slavery, from which it draws both literal and figurative analogies, modern abolitionism focuses primarily on the state apparatuses of the prisons and the police: how these latter institutions dialectically emerge from and reproduce existing systems of oppression. Among the names associated with this movement we might include Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Beth Richie, Erica Meiners, Dean Spade, and Mariame Kaba. Many of these figures adhere to a feminist of color or queer feminist of color critical framework, which is also often anticapitalist or socialist.

Of those explicitly theorizing the disability-carceral relationship, Marta Russell and Jean Stewart were among the first. Their article “Disablement, Prison, and Historical Segregation,” originally published in Monthly Review magazine in 2001 (and reproduced in the book I edited, Capitalism and Disability, published by Haymarket Books in 2019), is seminal as an historical materialist analysis. The authors trace the emergence of the “disabled” classification in line with the development of industrial capitalism, how those whose bodies and minds were deemed less profitably productive from the standpoint of competitive wage-labor were effectively marginalized. “American capitalism,” write Russell and Stewart, “in its failure to incorporate disabled people into its social fabric, instead shunts them into prisons and other institutions.”2

Others have engaged in illuminating analyses focused on the connection between Special Education and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline or “school-prison nexus,” such as Subini Annamma along with Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear.3 Presently, however, the scholar doing the most expansive work on the relationship between disability and incarceration is Liat Ben-Moshe. Ben-Moshe has produced two books on the subject within the past ten years: Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (2014), and Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition (2020).4

Disability Incarcerated is an edited collection that surveys the various iterations and sites of historical carcerality vis-à-vis disabled people: asylums, mental hospitals, state institutions, migrant detention centers, prisons, nursing homes, segregated schools and workshops. It is an accessible overview and exploration of the pertinent topics, histories, and theories. Decarcerating Disability, in contrast, is singularly authored by Ben-Moshe; it is an interesting attempt at utilizing the experience of disability incarceration and decarceration—in the form of the lesser-known deinstitutionalization movement of the later twentieth century—in order to impart lessons and considerations of relevance to the present-day abolition movement.

Others have written extensively on the history and political economy of deinstitutionalization as such.5 Ben-Moshe’s Decarcerating Disability is unique in its explicit positioning within the framework of prison studies and the abolitionist movement; it is, in fact, a polemical intervention into living debates. As Ben-Moshe writes in the introduction:
To those who claim that prison abolition and massive decarceration are utopian and could never happen, this book shows that they’ve happened already, although in a different arena, in the form of mass closures of residential institutions and psychiatric hospitals and the deinstitutionalization of those who resided in them.

Understanding how to activate this knowledge can lead to more nuanced actions toward and understandings about reducing reliance on prisons and other carceral enclosures as holders for people who are deemed by society to be dangerous, abnormal, or disturbed.6

Carceral Histories of Disability: AN ABOLITIONIST ANALYSIS

Originally published at Spectre Journal

In 2013, investigative reporting revealed that nearly 150 women incarcerated in the California prison system had been sterilized between 2006 to 2010. The gynecological prison official who oversaw the procedures – and was paid nearly $150,000 by the state per sterilization – defended the payments and the procedures, stating, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.” It is certainly outrageous that interned women were coerced into undergoing sterilization – oftentimes at the precise moment when they were “under sedation and strapped to an operating table.” But such practices are neither rare within the long scope of U.S. history, nor are they even technically prohibited by law in all circumstances.1


Given the disproportionate rates at which people of color and disabled people are over-represented within the U.S. prison population, the above abuses were essentially a case of modern eugenics being carried out against precisely those populations that have been historically targeted – disabled people, people of color, and women in poverty. What this demonstrates is the insidious ways in which the matrix of institutional confinement, disability oppression, and eliminationist social policy has remained a persistent feature of modern capitalist society, even as it has undergone mutations, adaptations, and reconfigurations over past decades and centuries.

Insofar as the ruthlessly competitive accumulation of capital via exploited labor has been the constant guiding imperative of historical capitalism, disabled people have ever represented a troublesome source of non- (or even counter-) profitability to the ruling class. The labor power that disabled people possess – the basic unit of commodity value under capitalism – is deemed an invalid, defective, or otherwise undesirable resource vis-à-vis the productive economy.2As the U.S. federal government defines it, to be disabled is to be “unable to engage in substantial gainful activity”;3 in other words, to be unable to competitively acquire a paying job within the prevailing conditions of capitalist wage-labor.3

In this way, disabled people have historically been cast into that sub-class of people under capitalism who rely on state welfare payments, are marginal to the formal process of capital accumulation, and are considered ‘disposable’ from the standpoint of political economy. In truth, and conceptualized broadly, disabled people occupy a class position that spans the proletariat: the active working class, the reserve army of labor, and the so-called lumpenproletariat.4 Under any conception, however, disabled people under capitalism are, by definition, so many ‘damaged goods’; commodities systematically devalued as a result of inherited or acquired ‘deficits’ in their functioning as components of capital accumulation. Thus, to the capitalist ruling class, disabled people represent an economic ‘problem’ necessitating a political ‘solution.’

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and reaching its peak maturation in the early-to-mid twentieth century, the prevailing ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of disability was the erection of a system of mass institutionalization, sterilization, and social elimination, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled and other marginalized and oppressed peoples in the U.S. This system was codified and executed at the state level, and rendered licit at the federal level.5 Then, as now, a central pillar of the overarching regime of control, separation, and social exclusion of the disabled and other marginalized populations was the carceral institution. This is a complex of controlling and controlled spaces ranging from asylums, hospital wards, state facilities, nursing homes, penal colonies, poorhouses, halfway homes, jails, and prisons. The form has changed over the years, but the function – control, separation, and social exclusion – has remained. At its peak, in the mid-1950s, there were an estimated 550,000 people confined to the nation’s mental asylums and hospitals.6 Today, the number of people with mental illnesses and disabilities confined to the nation’s prisons and jails is estimated to be close to 1.25 million.7

The red thread connecting the erstwhile system of incarceration in institutional asylums and that of the prison system today, is more than abstractly analogous. Both represent forms of segregation, subjugation, and constraint as coercive mechanisms of social policy. Behind the paper-thin pretense of being ‘rehabilitative’, both structures eschew the latter in favor of the social removal and warehousing of putatively deviant, degenerate, or maladjusted populations. Involuntary confinement and loss of autonomy are equally characteristic of the institution and the prison. Through the mid-twentieth century, the majority of people in state mental hospitals were forcibly committed by lunacy commissions, medical professionals, state welfare agencies, or the judiciary.8

Moreover, whether committed on a voluntary or involuntary basis, institutionalized residents had no control over when they would be discharged, what treatments they would receive, or the nature of their living conditions (this remains the case for those committed to psychiatric wards and institutions to this day). In similar fashion to the way that durations of prison sentences are determined by Parole Board bureaucracies, release from the institution was contingent upon the subjective determination of bureaucrats (which determination was likewise influenced by a resident-inmate’s exhibit of “good institutional behavior”).9 In sum, the high degree of continuity between these various carceral systems suggests a shared function across wide-ranging forms.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

BDS the Police

 Originally published at Rampant magazine.

A central strategy of the Palestinian struggle for liberation is rich with potential for abolitionist movements. It’s time to boycott, divest, and sanction the police.

Keith Rosenthal · July 14, 2021

This past spring saw the explosion of protests, demonstrations, and even workers’ strikes in Palestine, the United States, and around the world in response to the latest Israeli assault on the people of Gaza. Three insights emerged from this uprising: 1) the depth and scale of the popular outpouring of solidarity with Palestine demonstrates the extent to which the hegemony of the pro-Israel Zionist discourse was being substantially eroded; 2) the international Palestinian struggle has gained a new degree of political potency, as the uprising arguably played a role in bringing the Israeli assault to an early cessation; and 3) significant ideological headway has been won in terms of popular acceptance of the related notions that Israel is an oppressive apartheid state and that boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) is an efficacious movement strategy.

Over the past year or so, the connections between the struggles for Palestinian liberation in the Middle East and Black liberation in the US have been expansively drawn and highlighted by markedly increased numbers of people. The massive, historic uprising for Black lives that erupted in the wake of the high-profile police lynching of George Floyd in May of 2020 saw protests, rebellions, and riots break out in a sustained fashion across the country. This social struggle not only led directly to significant local reforms in policing across numerous communities, schools, and cities but also played a major role in changing the public discourse around the police and advancing radical demands long touted by social movements. In particular, the slogan “Defund the Police,” raised by certain sectors of the movement as an end in and of itself and by others as a transitional element of an abolitionist program, was elevated to a place within the mainstream lexicon.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the growth and maturation of the struggles for Palestinian and Black liberation, the socialist and broader political left has found itself in a position to reevaluate the prevailing demands and tactics of these struggles, to take stock of the fact that the slogans of the movements have gained increased popular circulation, support, and criticism. For some, the inevitable pushback and revanchism exhibited by the political center of the US ruling class (expressed in both ruling political parties, the Democrats and Republicans), has occasioned a degree of caution, retreat, and conservatism. Kay Gabriel, writing for the Verso Books blog, notes:

Maybe because it is actually a radical demand—that is to say, targets some of the real causes of racial dispossession in the present—the center- and far-right have propagandized against Defund [the police] in increasingly shrill tones. These relentless attacks have caused some queasiness on the left. In April, Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day appeared as a guest on Doug Henwood’s podcast to suggest that Defund’s weak favorability in poll numbers suggests a strategic miscalculation. “I worry about the present standing of [Defund] a little bit,” she said, “because it seems that ‘defund the police’ has come to be conflated with ‘abolish the police’ in the minds of the majority . . . its popularity seems to have tanked. . . . The number one demand coming out of the largest protest movement in American history should be more popular than that.”

Whereas almost exactly one year ago, Day was arguing that “Bernie Sanders should embrace the demand to defund the police,” it now seems that Day is rather embracing Sanders’s conservatism on this score.

It is perhaps not coincidental that certain radical and abolitionist demands that imply a direct assault on the (bourgeois) state, and threaten a diminution thereof, elicit consistent hesitancy from certain left-wing currents and forces. Notwithstanding the inarguably eminent role played by Sanders’s recent electoral campaigns in, at the very least, translating the latent anticapitalist sentiment brewing in the United States into the political mainstream, Sanders opposes the Defund demand and has long included the institution of the police in his list of already existing “socialist institutions” in America. He has likewise publicly distanced himself from the BDS movement and the movement to abolish the state of Israel as a de facto apartheid system.

In contrast, a thoroughly anti-oppression, emancipatory, revolutionary, and, indeed, more effective strategy, would embrace the advantageous paradigm embedded within the Defund and BDS struggles, and, moreover, seek to further develop the manifest connections between the two struggles. In the words of Khury Petersen-Smith, cofounder of Black for Palestine:

The US, which is a colonial-settler state and an imperial power, looks at Israel, which is a colonial-settler state, and, from the start, says, “Okay, well, we’ve got something in common, and we should compare notes. We should help each other out.” And that relationship is extensive. On the one hand, it involves the billions of dollars in terms of military aid that the US gives to Israel. The bombs they’re dropping on Gaza are American bombs. . . .

But it’s not a one-sided relationship. American police departments in the United States train with Israel. . . . It’s not an exaggeration to say that every major police department in this country and a lot of police departments in small cities have relations with the Israeli military . . . and there are Israeli weapons that get deployed on the streets here against Black people rising up against racism. . . .

In so many ways, our oppressions are linked. But our resistances are also linked.

Petersen-Smith goes on to point out that the BDS movement “takes inspiration from other boycott movements throughout history, including the movement to boycott South African apartheid, as well as the boycott movements that were key parts of the Civil Rights Movement here and the Black freedom struggle in this place called the United States.” The struggles for Palestinian liberation and Black liberation have been mutually inspiring and edifying.  For the present, regarding the question of the struggle to defund the police, we should allow ourselves to be guided by the trajectory and radical perseverance of the BDS movement.

In fact, BDS is an entirely apt slogan and strategy to scaffolded the defund the police movement:

  • The police should be boycotted. Police should not be relied upon, solicited, or collaborated with. For instance, they should not be invited to participate in LGBT Pride or other events that will serve to whitewash, pink-wash, or otherwise woke-wash them.
  • The police should be divested from. State and private institutions should be called upon to withdraw financial and budgetary support from the police, and to redistribute that wealth to non-police, non-carceral social programs and services that benefit BIPOC and working-class communities.
  • The police should be sanctioned. Governments should be pressured to hold police accountable for the violence, injustice, and oppressions they wreak. Progressive and nonprofit organizations and institutions, such as labor unions and universities, should suspend membership and collaborative agreements with the police where they exist, and codify nonparticipatory censure of the police where they do not.

To be sure, a BDS movement aimed at the police would be just as protracted and difficult as the BDS movement against Israeli apartheid has been; public support and backlash can be expected to ebb and flow. But the wending nature of the struggle does not make it any less desirable or effective. Indeed, for those of us who view anti-oppression reform as a constitutive and necessary element of revolutionary abolition, a BDS movement aimed at the police is a strategy pregnant with material and ideological potential.


Keith Rosenthal lives in New York City and is the editor of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell from Haymarket Books.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Intersections & Divergences of Disability & Race: From the 504 Sit-In to the Present

The twenty-six-day mass sit-in of April 1977 at the San Francisco headquarters of the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) was a watershed moment in U.S. history.[1] Not only did this struggle over Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 directly lead to the promulgation of the first seminal piece of federal disability anti-discrimination legislation – without which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 would not have been possible – but it also marked the advent of the modern disability justice movement. “Second to the signing of the [504] regulations the way we wanted them to be signed,” stated sit-in leader Kitty Cone on the occasion of the group’s declaration of victory on April 30, 1977, “the most important thing that came out of this is the public birth of a disabled movement.”

People all over the country, not just people shut in convalescence homes, but everyone in this country has learned that disabled people have a tremendous amount of strength, that we are capable of leading a struggle that has won major gains from the government. There’s a great deal of self-confidence, a great deal of pride, that we have given to ourselves and to disabled people all over the country. But we’ve also shown that if you wage a really effective struggle and you don’t give up, you can win a victory. (“Handicapped,” 1977, p. 6)

As one of the central organizers of the near-unprecedented feat of political strategy and collaboration that went into the victory of the struggle, Cone knew well the historic import of their achievement. With 120 disabled activists and supporters occupying the federal building inside, hundreds more regularly rallying in support on the outside, and crucial extensions of practical assistance forthcoming from sundry other social movements – including that of labor unions, LGBT activists, feminist groups, and racial justice organizations – the 504 victory was a paradigm of cross-movement, cross-cultural, and collaborative solidarity in the fight against social oppression. Of particular note in this vein, though reported and theorized to a lesser extent at the time, was the intersectional positioning of Blackness and disability as mutually reinforcing matrices of the struggle (Connelly, 2020; Erkulwater, 2018; Lukin, 2013; Schweik, 2011).

The Pre-History of 504 and the Politics of Solidarity

San Francisco in the 1970s was a seething ferment of radical, emancipatory unrest. Activism against the U.S. war on Vietnam was widespread on the campuses and amongst war veterans; disabled students at Berkeley College were agitating against structural impediments to their equality; gender and sexual liberation groups were challenging ingrained norms and roles; and the mass struggle for Black freedom – personified by the movements associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and others – was upending virtually all pre-existing relations of American society.

This was the crucible that shaped the personages, politics, and characteristics of the 504 movement. Linkages made, lessons learned, and leaderships forged amidst the general social upheaval preceding the 504 sit-in ultimately proved indispensable to its success. Figures like Cone, who through her experience as an organizer with the Socialist Workers Party, had spent many years involved in campaigns against racial segregation and had developed a sense of the utmost importance of building coalitions and networks of solidarity across social struggles (Dash, 2009; Landes, 2000).

Another key figure was Donald Galloway, one of the first Black people to occupy a leading position within the Berkeley Independent Living Center (ILC) movement in the mid-1970s. Galloway had long been pressuring the ILC to take a more active role in the politics of racism and the life of the Black community. Galloway was keenly aware of the fact that disability activism surrounding the ILC had been negligent toward the specific experience of Black disabled people in San Francisco and nearby Oakland. This negligence, Galloway argued, was to the detriment of both the ILC and the Black disabled population who could benefit from the resources, politics, and activist opportunities offered by the former (Erkulwater, 2018; Lukin, 2013; Pelka, 2012, pp. 218-222).

I didn’t see very many black people. I was the first black person that I knew of at the Center, hired on the staff full-time. I was the only black, and I started bringing black people into the center as drivers and attendants, and bringing in professional types.... There was just a handful of us that came in, but we came together and decided that we needed some input into this system....

    We were in a predominantly black community.... The movement was predominantly white. We needed to reach out to the black community in Oakland, get the Black Panthers involved, and any other group that would like to be involved. (Pelka, 2012, p. 220)

Although Galloway ultimately felt frustrated in his attempts to establish overt connections between the disability movement and the local Black population, his efforts were not without significant posterior effect. As Galloway later recalled:

There was a severely disabled man in the Black Panther Party[2] named Brad [Lomax], and Brad was our link to the Black Panthers. We would go and provide him with attendant care and transportation because we had a small transportation system going, a fleet of vans going out to the community. Ed [Roberts, the ILC director] made a decision that he wanted us to get more involved with the Black Panthers and with Oakland. So we would go to some of their meetings and explain our programs. Because Brad, one of their members, had a severe disability, we were quite accepted. (Pelka, 2012, pp. 221-222)

This connection with Bradley Lomax and the Black Panther Party (BPP) would prove to be eminently pivotal in the 504 struggle to come.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Helen Keller's Socialism: Review of 'Her Socialist Smile' | New Politics

Originally published in New Politics Vol. XVIII No. 2, Whole Number 70 (Winter 2021)

Her Socialist Smile
By: John Gianvito
Traveling Light, 2020.

“The seeds of socialism are being scattered far and wide, and the power does not exist in the world which can prevent their germination.”

—Helen Keller

“There is a pertinence and connection between [Helen’s politics and] our current historical moment (even one hundred years later). She has a lot of things to say to us. … She had belief in the power of the young to move us a few steps closer to the kind of world we’d like to live in. So I hope this film speaks to new generations of activists and gives them some nutrition for the good fight.”

—John Gianvito, Q & A with the director, Her Socialist Smile (2020)

A director would normally balk at the prospect of making a movie about an historical subject on whom there is an extreme dearth of extant audio or visual material. In fact, director John Gianvito did precisely that twenty years ago when he first began exploring the possibility of making a movie on the under-appreciated socialist politics of Helen Keller. Gianvito had originally discovered Keller’s radical political history within the writings of the influential “people’s historian,” Howard Zinn, about whom Gianvito would later make an award-winning documentary (Profit Motive and the Whispering Mind, 2007).

Unfortunately for Gianvito, the primary medium by which Keller (who was blind and deaf) communicated her voluminous thoughts was, of course, that of the written rather than aural or visual word. Additionally, much of Keller’s personal archive of photographic and recorded content was destroyed over the years in a series of tragedies (a house fire in 1946 and the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001).

Recently, however, Gianvito decided to revisit the project. The renewed popularity of socialist ideas following the 2008 global crisis of financial capitalism, the rise of the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, the historic campaigns of Bernie Sanders within the Democratic Party primaries, and the meteoric growth of Democratic Socialists of America—all these signs pointed to a revivified relevance of socialism in the United States.

In this light, Gianvito adopted a different conception of the Keller vehicle. The scarcity of primary audio and visual source material was inescapable, Gianvito recognized; but perhaps this was quite metaphorically fitting for a subject who made use of neither the sense of sight nor sound.

The resultant, imaginative oeuvre is the documentary Her Socialist Smile (2020), which recently received a limited run through the 58th New York Film Festival (held entirely online this year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic). The 1 hour, 33 minute movie is an interesting bricolage of white text against a black background; an eclectic selection of thematic music; scenes of nature in states of change and at rest; topical clips from newsreel and other secondary historical sources; professional narration and voice acting performed by Carolyn Forché; and the rare gem offering firsthand recordings and photographs of Keller speaking, writing, working, and playing.

All of this makes the documentary appear as an unlikely combination of worlds. With its text-on-screen format overlaid by musical and narrative accompaniment, one experiences the anachronistic universe of silent film; its interspersed shots of icicles melting in springtime or a slug making a herculean pilgrimage across the face of a boulder strike one as eminently modernist in form.

This latter aspect of the movie may not be quite so eagerly met by those whose primary attraction to the title stems from a desire to learn more about Keller’s socialist thought. There are odd stretches of long minutes in which on-screen bees pollinate flowers and flies buzz around an animal carcass. There is also an odd exception to form when the viewer is presented with the lone instance of political analysis, not by an interviewee discussing Keller’s politics, the various U.S. social movements of which she was a part, or the complexities of disability political theory in Keller’s time and now. Rather, the movie is given over to a four-minute clip of Noam Chomsky speaking at an event in 1989 on the ideological repercussions of the Cold War and the differences between the “opportunistic … Leninism” of the 1917 Bolshevik “coup” in Russia (an event which Keller, incidentally, viewed as a revolutionary beacon of socialist hope to the world) and the “mainstream Marxist movement” represented by the German Social-Democratic Party and the likes of Anton Pannekoek.

However, leaving aside questions of appropriate analyses of the social nature of Russia over the seventy-plus years between workers’ revolution and “the fall of Communism,” the central political content of Her Socialist Smile is both inspiring and edifying. Keller lived during the tumultuous years spanning 1880 to 1968; she identified as a socialist for sixty of those years, and was heavily involved in all of the major socialist and radical movements and organizations in the United States for roughly fifteen of those years, beginning in 1908 when she joined the Socialist Party.

Throughout this period she participated in protests for women’s equality and Black freedom. She organized in solidarity with workers strikes and anti-imperialist initiatives. She toured and gave speeches on behalf of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World. She offered her prestige to movements affiliated with the American Communist Party. She supported the struggle against nuclear weapons and the anti-communism of Cold War McCarthyism. She wrote prolifically on the topic of social revolution, workers’ power, socialist strategy, the injuries of economic inequality, the violence and opposition to democracy of the capitalist class, the oppression of the disabled and the economically marginalized, and the hope of a society reimagined around the principle that “the welfare of each is bound up with the welfare of all.”

Gianvito provides us with a taste of this all—a taste of Keller’s political genius. There are certainly elements of the documentary that are wanting. For instance, Gianvito inexplicably leaves out any discussion of Keller’s association with the anti-colonial movements of the 1940s and 1950s; the concomitant Non-Aligned Movement, whose leading figures, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Josip Tito, drew the keen interest of Keller; or the affection with which Keller regarded Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign for U.S. president. Further, Gianvito’s documentary does not include any analysis of the politics of disability, which were of course integral to Keller’s lifework.

Nonetheless, Her Socialist Smile is a welcome contribution to the contemporary proliferation of socialist-educational materials. If the movie does nothing more than whet the audience’s appetite for more of Keller’s politics, and socialism in general, then it can be considered a great success.

Essential Workers: Class Struggle in the Time of Coronavirus | New Politics

by Keith Rosenthal and Brian Escobar



A newscast on SUR Peru Sunday showed residents of Lima at their windows clapping and thanking the masked sanitation workers loading bags of trash into a garbage truck. The screen read, “Coronavirus: Cleaning in Lima, Anonymous Heroes.” Residents knew whose labor they were counting on to stay safe from the pandemic and knew the risks the workers were taking.

With the coronavirus pandemic now spreading across the United States — and local and national government officials belatedly cobbling together a response — naked truths about contemporary American capitalism have been laid bare.

For one, the existing privatized, patchwork health care system in the United States relying on just-in-time supply chains is incompatible with the needs of a globally integrated, healthy society. It has also become painfully clear that we can no longer endure the lack of a comprehensive public welfare infrastructure in this country (e.g., universal paid sick leave, income assistance, etc.).

Other components of American capitalism that are being exposed are the class divide and the social relations which inform production and distribution. Usually obscured by exaltation of the rich and powerful of society, the shutdown of all “non-essential” services has rendered obvious the essentiality of a particular subgroup of the American population.

In just a short time, the stoppage of American business-as-usual is revealing that the nation fundamentally relies on this indispensable subgroup — or class — of people to carry out the work essential for society’s functioning. This class of people comprises those engaged in labor without which all other social, economic, and political activities would grind to a halt. Indeed, without the labor of these individuals, such emergency measures as social distancing, lockdowns, and widespread self-quarantining would be impossible to maintain.

Who is “Essential”?

The question of who counts as “essential” is proving to be ad hoc, inconsistent and contested. Multiple governmental bodies and private employers are treating different sets of workers as essential. Companies like GameStop instructed employees to tell any official who came to shut them down that they were essential workers (GameStop finally closed stores on March 21). Meanwhile, some Starbucks employees are petitioning the company to stop considering them essential so they can go home with paid leave. The concept also tends to reinforce the devaluation of domestic work, disproportionately done by women, despite it being necessary for society’s continuation.

From a working class standpoint, we can rightly observe that nurses, delivery drivers and grocery store workers are showing the world how essential their work is, whereas advertising execs and app developers can safely stay home without any real cost to ordinary people.

While the ‘frontline’ essential workers who remain on the job do not encompass the entire working class, they nonetheless clearly compose a core part of it. Though disproportionately underrepresented in the political bodies of government, undercompensated in their share of national income and wealth, and underprivileged in their access to the nation’s education, health, and social security resources, these workers — along with the rest of the working class — bear upon their shoulders the entire edifice of American society.

This section of the working class is made up of grocery store workers, food and delivery service workers, package and postal delivery workers, CVS and Walgreens workers, warehouse workers, sanitation workers, workers in the energy and telecom industries, farmworkers, childcare and personal care assistants, and of course emergency and medical service workers. This list is not exhaustive; but it starkly depicts the nature and scale of the labor which American capitalism rests upon, and even more so in times of crises.

Strip away the parasitical class of financial speculators and idle owners of corporate capital, the quasi-aristocratic families with immense dynastic wealth and power, the leisure class who can simply choose not to work and still live comfortably; strip away the pomp, circumstance, and chauvinism of the elites who comprise the ruling class of America, and you have lost nothing that is essential to the basic functioning of society.

Class Matters

What is the significance of pointing this out? First of all, it cuts through the veil of myth-making which has disguised the true nature of the world in which we live. Before the financial collapse of 2008 it was rare to hear a mainstream politician even mention the word “working class.” They spoke only of “saving the middle class” — a mantra which they repeated ad nauseam.

Sundry intellectuals and television news talking heads reinforced this paradigm, opining that even the notion of a working class was a Marxist anachronism in today’s postmodern American society. It was purported that the United States was a post-class technocracy, fluid and flat, and the populace was just one giant middle class sandwiched between two tiny and mildly bothersome populations of the very rich and the very poor. America was the suburbs and young urban professionals; the dishwashers and delivery drivers were a mere imaginary number in the equation.

Coronavirus is rattling the cage. As society “pauses” and relies on essential workers to get us through the crisis, we are forced to ask, for instance, why it is that those engaged in the basic, necessary work of our society are so often the most marginalized, maligned, underpaid, and disempowered?

Now we are beginning to hear grumbles from Wall Street and its political servants in government that the price — and they mean literal monetary price — of the current preventative economic standstill is simply too high. These corporate villains declare that they want all workers – “essential” or not — to return to work, regardless of the danger posed by the virus. They readily admit that ending social distancing will lead to countless unnecessary deaths. To the financial barons of the American stock exchange, a billion dollars in profit lost on the S&P 500 is far more important than a million human lives lost to an unflattened curve.

Essential Power

For now, it is the “essential” working class which remains on the front lines. The upshot, from the standpoint of class struggle, is that these workers now find themselves in a potentially pivotal position. With all of society resting upon their labors, the question is whether they will feel empowered by their newly visible importance and flex their collective muscles.

The alternative is that the humans who compose the ‘essential’ class will simply be ground down and sacrificed by the ruling class. This is being proven by the utter failure of bosses and governments to provide workers with adequate protective equipment, safety protocols, or hazard and sick pay

While the class itself and the labor it performs are indispensable to the functioning of society and to the profits of capitalists, the discrete human laborers, which the working class comprises, are deemed individually dispensable by the ruling class. Provided other human laborers are on the market and willing to take their place, the loss of a single set of hands is of no concern to the corporate owners. The work must go on, they insist, regardless of the cost in human lives. Thus, the only solution is for workers to collectively usurp control over the work itself.

Indeed, the mere threat of a strike or work slowdown on the part of essential workers at this moment could be sufficient to win major concessions from CEOs and governments. Across the country we’re already beginning to see ‘wildcat’ job actions and strikes planned by Amazon, city sanitation, and Instacart workers.

In short, the vulnerabilities of capitalism — both its abject failure to prepare for and contain the coronavirus, and its utter dependence on the labors of a class which it treats as little more than an expendable resource — means that it will be more possible than ever for America’s essential workers to fundamentally change the landscape of American class relations.

Witness the fact that some employers have already strategically offered certain limited concessions to workers, from one-time $300 cash bonuses ($100 for part-timers) to $1 an hour wage increases. Such scant boons, however, amount to a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to the cost of COVID-19 treatment.

Looking Deeper

Ultimately the crisis of the coronavirus, which is a crisis of capitalism from the virus’s origin to its spread, forces us to reflect upon the very way that work is organized throughout society.

Many people have taken to offering moving and heartfelt public commendations for the labor of essential workers amidst the crisis. Such praise is well earned for those who are soldiering on for the benefit of others despite hazardous conditions, like those Peruvian trash collectors. However, we would be remiss to ignore the insidious forms of economic intercourse that belie purely anodyne gestures of gratitude.

Labor in capitalist society is not a function of genuine free choice. Rather, the work people do is heavily determined by wealth, racial, gender, and other inequalities. Most Americans — perhaps apart from the middle and upper classes — don’t end up in the job they want in order to fulfill a dream, but the job they get in order to meet basic financial obligations; or, employers exploit their dreams to persuade them to work for little pay and grueling hours. That is, many workers in essential services industries enter or remain due to their financial vulnerability. It is not feasible for them to abruptly quit or stay home without pay; nor are they flush with access to a variety of different jobs.

Capitalism relies upon a form of coercion in which some humans are sufficiently more desperate than others so as to accept employment in hazardous conditions, for less pay, and with less job security. Especially in the absence of the basic protections afforded by unions, workers in essential sectors are often compelled to work entirely according to the whim and discretion of their employer.

There is a reason why wealthier people tend to avoid taking such essential jobs as sanitation work and grocery delivery. There is a reason why nurses tend to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than hospital executives, and why those who clean the hospitals tend to be disproportionately of a darker complexion than either of the above.

What would it mean to organize the work of society differently? Is it possible to have an equitable, democratically planned, and socially owned structure of work and consumption? The prevailing economic system is one in which the owners of capital hold despotic sway over the productive nodes of the economy. Consequently, they also hold ruling sway over all decisions about work and production: what gets produced, how the work is done, who the work is done by and for, and the manner in which the work is compensated.

When socialists call for a society based on workers’ power, it is in subversion of the above regime. The majority who do the work for society to function should have a ruling share in the decision-making power over the vital political, economic, and social questions of that society. Further, the economic and living conditions of the working class should be secure, elevated, and liberated to a degree that is inversely proportional to how insecure, depressed, and circumscribed they are at present.

Present conditions in the U.S. remain far removed from such a socialist vision. We have a long struggle ahead of us, not only to survive and navigate the immediate pandemic crisis, but also to fight to fundamentally remake society itself.

For the moment, many workers in low-paying and vulnerable jobs are receiving the recognition and respect that they have long deserved. We must never allow that recognition to be lost again and we must fight to turn recognition into power, and power into transformation.

Let us use this opportunity to push for everything that essential workers and all people need to live dignified and healthy lives in the twenty-first century: A twenty-five dollar minimum wage with full benefits; grocery chains converted into co-ops with safety and health protections regulated by the workers; the mass expansion of occupant-run, affordable public housing; transforming the largest banks into a national utility so as to stabilize people’s finances and fund general human needs; nationalization of hospitals, and the implementation of universal social services such as Medicare for All, Public Power, and internet access.

As the subheading of a recent New York Times op-ed asserted, “Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic.” We know humanity can do better than this and that the welfare of each is dependent upon the welfare of all. We should proudly project this vision and use the “essentiality” of our class to win the lasting and necessary changes we deserve.