Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixty-sixth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional exclusion and personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
The land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and the aim of decolonization.
My guest today is Michelle Ciurria. Michelle is a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, author of An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility, and host blogger of Intersectional Feminist Moral Responsibility. A migrant worker, Michelle is a vegan, animal rights advocate, and proud mom of two cats.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Michelle! You grew up in Toronto and, as I did, you took your Ph.D. from York University in Toronto. Then you did postdocs in St. Louis and Sydney. What inspired you to do graduate work in philosophy and pursue a career in the field?
I don’t quite remember why I was initially interested in philosophy but I think part of the reason was that it equips with you with a vocabulary and way of speaking that command respect in a society that privileges “Standard English” and certain norms of argumentation. This privilege is probably something that allowed me to overlook the inequalities within the university—inequalities that help to explain why Standard English is the preferred dialect, even though it’s no better nor worse than other dialects of English.
After I finished my Ph.D., I wanted to pursue research rather than teaching because I’m socially anxious and I feel more comfortable working “behind the scenes”; so, for that reason, I focused in the beginning on getting postdoc fellowships. Unfortunately, when I decided that I wanted a more stable career, I couldn’t get a full-time job, possibly for reasons related to my social anxiety—postdocs often involve no interview or just a 30-minute Skype chat.
Now I’m working as a visiting scholar and adjunct at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which allows me to work hours similar to the hours of a full-time professor but for a fraction of the salary and no healthcare. It’s similar to my experience as a migrant worker who pays taxes without the right to vote. In other words, taxation without representation. I do enjoy teaching and, fortunately, I’m given a lot of leeway in terms of what I can teach, but I wish that I made more money doing it.
Please describe the research and writing that you have done on moral responsibility. Do you teach any of this work in your current position?
In my book, I defend an intersectional feminist theory of moral responsibility, which I consider to be a departure from the standard approaches in philosophy. The main difference is that, while standard accounts of responsibility generally purport to be independent of any particular ethical framework, mine is explicitly committed to the principles of intersectional feminism. In other words, my view is inherently political, partisan, and aligned with activist aims. I see responsibility practices—blame and praise—as potential tools of emancipation that can be used to dismantle systems of oppression and should be used to do so.
My starting assumption is that our society is a classist, patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, and ableist order, in which, to quote Charles Mills, the “schedules of rights, duties, and government responsibilities” are tilted in favour of the ruling (rich, white, cis, male, nondisabled) class. So, hegemonic responsibility practices also favour the ruling class. Marginalized groups are routinely scapegoated, gaslighted, and infantilized, while the privileged are exonerated, forgiven, and praised for no good reason.
To eliminate these asymmetries of power and respect, I propose that we use blame and praise—which I define as communicative acts—to identify oppressors and take a stand against them, as well as to recognize and stand in solidarity with resisters. Blame and praise shouldn’t, say, respond to a person’s quality of will, or seek an apology from a morally competent person, but should instead shed light on people’s investments in systems of oppression and resistance and oppose or support them in those roles.
This is an important task given that we live in a society full of gaslighting and colonialist propaganda that make it difficult for many people to understand oppression, much less take action against it. James Baldwin once famously said, “I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black.” We don’t always know what makes someone tick, but we can see how they choose to occupy space. I say that people are blameworthy for their contributions to systems of oppression irrespective of the attitudes that they “hold in their hearts.” Murky epistemological questions don’t need to be settled before people are held responsible for their morally reprehensible behaviour.
You maintain that conditions under capitalism make it difficult for you to participate in the economy and in academia in particular. How would you explain this position?
First, let me tell you about my personal situation. I have features of what the Center for Disease Control defines as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), which involves “severe fatigue and sleep problems…, post-exertional malaise…, problems with thinking and concentrating, pain, and dizziness.” My own chronic fatigue is episodic, which means that it’s invisible to many people. Sometimes, I feel fine and, other times, I can’t get out of bed. Sometimes, I feel dizzy, while other times I can go rock climbing. Sometimes, I can’t use my electronics due to light sensitivity, while other times I can work for hours at a time. Sometimes, I can speak fluently and effortlessly, while other times I can barely form a coherent sentence. My chronic fatigue can also trigger my social anxiety and vice versa.
[Description of image below: photo of Michelle, a white woman who has short hair and is wearing a faint smile as she looks directly into the camera lens. Horizontal painted wood planks on the frame of a house fill the background of the shot.]
Consistent with my book, I think that it’s useful to look at chronic fatigue from an intersectional perspective. Harvard Health Publishing (2018) notes that, with respect to CFS, “women are affected about twice as often as men,” and that CFS “appears to be more common in African-Americans and Latinos, and in people in lower socioeconomic groups.” So, groups that are already disproportionally excluded from the labour pool, based on gender and race, are also more susceptible to chronic fatigue, a source of workplace exclusion. I don’t think that this set of circumstances is “accidental” so much as it is a predictable result of the logic of capitalism, a mode of production that hyper-exploits these same social groups.
Let me explain. On a Marxist analysis of disability, ableist oppression is not merely a by-product of capitalism, but rather a precondition of it. In the words of Marta Russell, capitalism “creates (and then oppresses) the so-called disabled body as one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth” (2019: 16). Disability is used as a basis for labour-market exclusion, resulting in high unemployment for disabled people (7.3% compared to 3.5% of nondisabled people; but see my remarks about these figures below). One might think that disability is a liability to the ruling class and therefore something that corporate owners have an interest in eliminating.
But the exact opposite is true: capitalism depends on a stable pool of “unemployables” drawn from the most oppressed groups—disabled people, women, BIPOC—to maximize profits at the top. Marx described the unemployed class as a “surplus population,” which corporations exploit to control the labour supply. A group of perpetually unemployed people is good for business because it produces a “a very realistic fear among workers of becoming disabled” and unemployed, which ensures a strong work ethic in the working class (Russell: 34); it makes wage labour seem less horrible compared to the alternative of marginalization and poverty; it creates a “reserve army of labour” that can be recruited during labour shortages to keep profits up; and it incites competition between artificially segregated groups (e.g., unionized and ununionized workers, workers and welfare recipients), suppressing attempts to mobilize against the ruling class.
Thus, “compulsory unemployment” isn’t a liability or an accident but rather a design feature of capitalism, which allows corporate owners to control production. Universities, for example, can pay professors less when they know there’s a poor, huddled mass of unemployed Ph.D. graduates willing to work for less than minimum wage, and sometimes, no pay at all—some departments now offer unpaid internships!
This claim isn’t just some theoretical abstraction, but rather an observable market principle. The Federal Reserve—a system of banks that sets interests rates—ensures a stable threshold of unemployment by raising interest rates in response to inflation, which in turn depresses economic growth and shrinks the labour market. That is, the Fed’s inflation policy guarantees perpetual unemployment. This is consistent with “mainstream economic policy,” which “assume[s] the need for a reserve army of labor, holding that at least 3 to 6 percent of the population must be unemployed at all times,” as Russell (42) puts it. The 3 to 6 percent “natural unemployment rate” doesn’t even include the under-employed and those who have given up looking for a job, which explains why the “unemployment rate” for disabled people is 7.3%, whereas only 19% of us have a job.
The Fed’s policy also, of course, disproportionally harms disenfranchised groups. For example, as Jared Bernstein and Janelle Jones recently noted, the policy creates “permanent recessionary conditions” for Black people because it ignores racial employment gaps:
The Fed uses its policy tools to meet its “dual mandate”: targeting the lowest unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation, which economists call the ‘natural rate of unemployment.’ Right now, its estimate of that rate is about 4 percent. But because black unemployment is two times the overall rate, targeting 4 percent for the overall economy means targeting 8 percent for blacks.
While the Fed has recently revised its economic policy to allow inflation to run above 2%, it still has not attempted to abolish unemployment or end racial employment norms.
In general, historically disenfranchised groups are excluded from capitalist gains, which has given rise to Marxist critiques within a range of critical theories. Mirroring Russell’s analysis of ableism, Marxist feminists see patriarchal oppression as (partly) produced by capitalism. Zillah R. Eistenstein (1978), for example, says that, while “patriarchy precedes capitalism through the existence of the sexual ordering of society,” the notion of binary sexuality has been incorporated into capitalism to produce a distinct (material) form of oppression for women. Under capitalism, women are “excluded from production and public life” based on ideological beliefs about gender roles (25). Thus, women have less wealth and lower incomes than men, all else being equal. (We can add that non-binary people are excluded as well, because they don’t fit the binary gender model that capitalism relies on to relegate women to the “private sphere”). The construction of “the family and the economy as separate systems” is a result of the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, which Eisenstein calls “patriarchal capitalism.”
Black radical Marxists similarly see racial oppression as partly produced by capitalism. Cedric J. Robinson, for one, traces modern racial categories to European colonialism. He observes that the template for white supremacy was laid out prior to capitalism (“Aristotle, one of the most original aristocratic apologists… provided the template [for racism] in Natural Law” (iv)), but this ancient template was taken up, embellished, and expanded by Enlightenment-era capitalists, who used it to justify a global policy of race-based subjugation. Capitalists used the techniques of slavery, genocide, and imperialism to expand their empires and estates. Robinson calls this race-based system of domination “racial capitalism,” and we can still see it at work today, in disparities like the racial wealth gap, the racial income gap, and mass racial incarceration, all of which have been increasing since before I was born. Needless to say, racial capitalism is alive and well.
I could continue this intersectional analysis, but suffice it to say that disabled people, women, and Black people, amongst other oppression groups, are disproportionally excluded from the capitalist labour force by design. Keeping these groups at the bottom of the pyramid is good for business for those at the top. As an episodically disabled woman and a migrant worker with limited earning potential, I am multiply oppressed under capitalism, and this isn’t due to my choices, or “bad luck,” or a glitch in the market system, but is rather an example of capitalism working as intended. In a capitalist economy, people like me are supposed to be exploited, marginalized, and exhausted.
Within capitalism, the alternative to wage labour is welfare, and welfare is designed to be punitive and marginalizing. Capitalism requires an oppressive social security net to keep workers in subordination, afraid of demanding better working conditions for fear of losing their income and status. Iris Marion Young writes that welfare, “especially in the United States… does not eliminate large-scale suffering and deprivation.” One reason is that welfare doesn’t pay enough. But another reason is that “the provision of welfare itself produces new injustice by depriving those dependent on it of rights and freedoms that others have”; welfare recipients, for instance, “are subject to patronizing, punitive, demeaning, and arbitrary treatment by the policies and people associated with welfare bureaucracies” (Young 1990: 151). People on social assistance are subjected to “invasive and often arbitrary” rules and regulations that deprive them of the civil liberties that working-class people take for granted.
The risk of providing people with adequate social security, from a capitalist standpoint, is that oppressed groups will have the time and energy to demand control over their lives. The George Floyd protests, unsurprisingly, took place when non-essential businesses were ordered to close due to Covid-19, and these protests were, by some accounts, the largest movement in the history of the United States. This suggests that if people had more time off work, they would use that time to protest the capitalist mode of production, including racial capitalism. The George Floyd protests targeted the state’s role in enforcing racial capitalism through classic techniques of police violence and racial incarceration. Racial capitalism operates both through labour relations and the prison-industrial complex, which has become increasingly privatized. As Angela Davis notes, “many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profit” (2003: 5). Corporations have a vested interest in silencing dissent, either through exploitative labour conditions, excessive policing, or institutionalization.
Returning to the topic of chronic fatigue, it’s notable that women and Black people aren’t just highly susceptible to CFS—they’re also more tired. Studies show that women aged 18-44 (i.e., prime working age) are twice as likely as men to feel tired, and Black Americans are more likely than White Americans to have trouble sleeping and to feel tired during the day. Is it any wonder that people who are especially tired, sleepless, and oppressed under capitalism, are also especially susceptible to chronic fatigue? While scientists hope to find a cure for CFS, the differential rates of CFS in different groups can’t be explained by science, as they’re rooted in socioeconomic differences, which are political as opposed to medical. As such, it would be a mistake to hope that scientists will be able to cure CFS, since the prevalence of chronic fatigue in highly oppressed groups is partially due to forms of oppression that also make those groups especially tired, sleepless, and poor. These differences can’t be scientifically eliminated.
The solution to the pain and marginalization associated with chronic fatigue, then, will necessarily involve transformative justice and a shift to a more inclusive society.
Michelle, you have indicated to me that you rarely request accessible arrangements because you have qualms about the “accommodations-granting” system. Your views in this regard draw upon insights of the late disability theorist Marta Russell whose work you’ve cited above. Please explain why you think the current system with respect to “accommodations” in academia is woefully unfair and inadequate.
Yes, thank you. First of all, I’m not at all against asking for accommodations, but I don’t think accommodations should be needed in the first place. I see accommodations as a by-product of the capitalist mode of production, which maximizes corporate profits at the expense of the individual. Human beings get tired, sick, old, disabled, pregnant, etc., but corporations must keep producing a stable output. It’s cheaper to design a one-size-fits-all environment than to build a truly inclusive space that accommodates everyone.
Thus, our world is designed for what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “the bodily template of the idea citizen, the imagined definitive person for whom the built environment is designed” (2015: 135). The ”ideal citizen” is privileged, nondisabled, cisgender, white, and male. Everyone else is expected to assimilate into this built environment, and if they can’t, then they need to ask for “reasonable accommodations.”
Corporations, however, don’t want to cover the “nonstandard costs” of accommodating a disabled body and will therefore create barriers to access—for example, defining “disability” and “reasonable accommodations” so narrowly that many people don’t qualify. In the Capitalist University, disabled students usually must—as you put it in your book, Shelley—“medicalize their circumstances and enter a bureaucratic morass in order to get the social goods that they require, that is, must make more effort (and usually considerably more effort) to get the services and resources that they require than nondisabled people make to get comparable services and resources.”
What’s the alternative to the system of “reasonable accommodations,” which requires testing and special, confidential requests? Building an environment that is fully inclusive and equally accessible to all.
One might argue that universities and colleges are less exclusionary than many workplaces, but higher education is becoming increasingly privatized. As Henry Heller puts it in The Capitalist University, universities and colleges, especially in the U.S., are “increasingly moving away from their ostensible mission of serving the public good to that of becoming as far as possible like private enterprises” (2016: 2). Academic work is being converted into the kind of “profitable labour” that we find in the private sector, with a growing emphasis on patents, licenses, copyrights, quantified evaluations, systematization, and dependency on outside grants that tie the university to business interests and thus capitalist ideology. (This helps to explain why most universities still offer curricula that are bourgeoise and colonialist). Heller asks, “is the model of the university or college, traditionally centered on the humanities and the sciences…, compatible with the movement toward converting the universities into quasi- or fully private business corporations?” (5). The university can’t be both a public good and a business.
Indeed, the university, once a site of civil unrest and social upheaval, is becoming, or has become, the very exemplar of capitalism. Many professors, like me, are “adjuncts,” teaching for less than a living wage with no healthcare or benefits. Students now pay twice as much for a Bachelor’s degree at a public college as they did in the ‘80s, and international students are paying 40% more than they were just 10 years ago. These exploitative practices are examples of “academic capitalism,” a mode of production that exploits and divides academic workers, treats students as a customer base, and understands knowledge as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a public good.
The Capitalist University is not accessible. It excludes and marginalizes people who can’t afford tuition and people who don’t fit the template of the “ideal citizen”—namely, women, BIPOC, disabled people, and other members of oppressed groups. The system of accommodations is just one of many barriers to access within the Capitalist University. All of these barriers need to come down if universities and colleges are to become the inclusive and accessible communities that they claim to be on their websites.
Your view is that to eliminate or overcome ableist, patriarchal, and colonial norms, we must eradicate capitalism. Ableism, patriarchy, racism, and colonialism are, you argue, built-in features of capitalism. How would you explain the necessary and inextricable relation between these systems to someone who thinks that an anti-ableist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and non-colonialist society is achievable within the terms of capitalism?
Because capitalism is essentially a system of oppression that concentrates wealth at the top by exploiting the majority of people, especially members of historically disenfranchised groups, we can’t eliminate oppression without eliminating capitalism.
Marta Russell distinguishes between two forms of activism in a discussion that may help to clarify why we can’t eliminate oppression within a capitalist framework. On the one hand, some people believe that we can end discrimination using civil-rights legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Russell argues that, while rights-based legislation does help to increase autonomy and self-determination for some people, it “implicitly accepts the foundations of free market ideology by framing the debate in terms of the right of disabled people as consumers to receive equal treatment from the marketplace.” The “ability to access the marketplace,” she adds, “is cold comfort to the huge proportion of disabled people living in poverty or near-poverty conditions.” This argument highlights the fact that activism within a capitalist framework will not eliminate the forms of oppression caused by capitalism, such as compulsory unemployment, cultural imperialism, marginalization, and powerlessness.
Russell points out that it would be naïve to expect the ADA, which was enacted in 1990, to eliminate ableist oppression, when the Civil Rights Act, which was enacted in 1964 to ban discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, has not succeeded in its mandate. More than five decades after the introduction of the Civil Rights Act, protected groups have yet to achieve parity with more privileged groups. Woman–identifying, BIPOC, and trans people, for example, still have lower incomes and less wealth than their male-identifying, cisgender, and white counterparts. How can disabled people, the poorest of the poor, hope to succeed where more privileged groups are still being held down by the invisible hand of the market? The shortfalls of rights-based legislation reveal that transformative justice and an end to capitalism are needed.
The abolition of oppression will also require a coalitional movement, since distinct groups are oppressed in distinct ways under capitalism, leading to artificial segregation. While working-class people are all oppressed by exploitative labour conditions, different social groups experience different forms of oppression under capitalism, such as gender-based violence, race-based disempowerment, and ableist marginalization. Thus, different social groups are oppressed in distinct, often non-material ways. But they all have a stake in overturning the capitalist order. Capitalism, however, also segregates distinct groups by confining them to distinct, depoliticizing spaces. For instance, women are disproportionally relegated to the domestic sphere against their will; BIPOC are disproportionally incarcerated; disabled people are disproportionally warehoused in nursing homes, etc.
A coalitional movement will therefore require coalitional de-institutionalization—abolition of patriarchal control, abolition of the prison-industrial complex, of the nursing-home industrial complex, etc.—and coalitional mobilization against capitalism. Capitalism thrives on institutionalization because forcible confinement is a profitable business, and it also silences oppressed people. It’s notable that disabled people are disproportionally policed, incarcerated, forced into nursing home against their will, and subjected to human rights violations while in “state care”.
To end oppression, then, we need a coalitional, anti-capitalist movement. In other words, we need, not just justice, but transformational justice, a re-visioning of the social order. This revision of the social order will require what Garland-Thomson describes as “inclusive world building” in contrast to “eugenic world building,” i.e., the design plan made for the “ideal citizen.” Eugenic world-building constructs a society for the privileged and tries to “eliminate” everyone else through techniques of genocide, assimilation, medicalization, and so on.
Unsurprisingly, capitalism is now driving us toward the ultimate eugenic state: the annihilation of the human species. Capitalism is producing more greenhouse gas than the planet can sustain, leading to global ecological collapse and mass extinction events. Capitalism emerged out of eugenics-based practices like genocide, slavery, and rape, and, if left unchecked, will progress to the logical conclusion of mass extinction and the end of life on Earth. Extinction isn’t a by-product of capitalism but, once again, a design feature. If we don’t question the logic of capitalism, we will continue down the path to the end of the world.
The end of the world is, of course, not a new frontier for Indigenous peoples, who have been forced to live through the end of their worlds due to genocide at the hands of the settler-colonial state and who continue to live under a genocidal regime today. Accordingly, Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard says that “in order for Indigenous peoples to live, capitalism must die,” as capitalism is a form of genocide. This understanding is quickly becoming a reality for all of us, as we face the extinction of the human species under capitalism. The decolonial collective “Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures” (GTDF) describes capitalism as a central feature of “modernity coloniality,” the modern way of life which “cannot exist without expropriation, extraction, exploitation, dispossession, destitution, genocides and ecocides.” Capitalism exploits and expropriates both “human resources” and “natural resources” in order to maximize profits for the rich. Now we are all facing the “end game” of capitalism: the end of the world.
We need to support decolonial initiatives by divesting from the capitalist order and investing in inclusive world-building solutions. We must defund capitalist institutions like prisons, police, and the military, and invest in inclusive infrastructure. Professors have a unique role in this process because we are in a position to teach decolonial studies, which exist at the margins of the academy, in subdisciplines like Indigenous philosophy, critical race theory, critical disability theory, etc. These marginalized discourses are the resources that we should be sharing with our students as the world comes to an end. It would be irresponsible, even absurd, to continue teaching students how to succeed in jobs that contribute to capitalism and thus mass extinction. Luis Prádanos asks, “[I]s it really smart to educate people to technologically and theoretically refine a system that operates by undermining the conditions of possibility for our biophysical survival?” We need to teach students the skills needed to survive, or grieve well, on a dying planet, and these skills do not come from modernity coloniality—they come from the margins.
Michelle, would you like to say something more about any of the topics you discussed during this interview or recommend some books or articles on anything that you’ve discussed?
Yes, I would like to promote two causes in which I’m invested. The first, which I wrote a guest post about on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHHY, is No Fly Climate Sci, a website that allows academics to pledge to fly as little as possible. Although most people are not flying right now due to the pandemic, if a vaccine becomes available, we will need to renew our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. Reducing discretionary air travel is one way to do this.
The second cause that I want to promote is animal-rights activism, which (in the west) entails adopting a plant-based diet. In the U.S., about 99% of chickens, 95% of pigs, and 78% of cows raised for meat come from factory farms. Factory farms are, for lack of a better description, torture chambers for nonhuman animals that you would only find in your worst nightmares. I don’t think words can capture how appalling the treatment of our fellow animals in factory farms is.
With that said, you should do whatever you can to divest from the factory-farming industry. There are affordable alternatives to a mainstream western diet that even adjuncts and migrant workers can afford. One thing that professors in particular can do to promote an inclusive diet is offer vegan food at academic events, since animal rights activists cannot eat meat from a factory farm but anyone can eat a plant-based diet (with dietary limitations like allergies taken into account). Professors can also talk to students about the west’s exploitative relationship with animals, which is a leading cause of climate change as well as increasing rates of pandemics. This may incite students to adopt a less colonial, more humane way of life.
Michelle, thank you very much for this outstanding interview. Your passion and urgent desire for social transformation have been evident throughout the interview.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Michelle Ciurria’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, October 21st at 8 a.m. E.S.T., for the sixty-seventh installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.