The recent trend and obsession over Squid Game, a Netflix original series featuring contestants who are in debt and play a series of deadly child games to win monetary prizes, has led some viewers to revisit the idea of how capitalism can affect peoples’ entire lives. For a stringent minority of people in the United States, capitalism affects them in a way where they have the privilege to attain various luxuries and some of the best living conditions, but this is not the case for the majority. An overwhelming amount of the majority in this position are historically marginalized people, who have since this country’s beginning seemed to have been disadvantaged by this economic system. Therefore, U.S. capitalism systemic profits off of and disadvantages historically marginalized identities such as people of lower socioeconomic status, people of color, and people with disabilities.
Capitalism was pervaded into the United States during its origins, and its developments have led to generations of oppression and discrimination towards people of color, lower class people, and disabled people. Capitalism is defined by the Oxford Languages Dictionary as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit rather than by the state”. It is a system the United States still follows today except to an even greater degree. Capitalist rhetoric has made it so that people stereotype marginalized people as people with individual problems instead of blaming the system itself. In David Braddock and Susan Parish’s chapter “An Institutional History of Disability”, they note how disabled people among other groups of people have always historically been discriminated against in the United States, “In the American colonies, and later in the United States, persons with impairments were often perceived to menace the economic well-being of the community.” (13). This early rhetoric has maintained since this time period, and has only grown since the industrialization period. You can see how these beliefs have affected groups of people today through the results of their poverty rate compared to White able-bodied people. Both Indigenous and Black people were at the highest poverty rate in 2020 (25.4% and 20.8% respectively) compared to any other racial minority and also compared to White people (10.1%), and in 2019 people with disabilities were at 25.9% poverty rate compared to the 11.4% poverty rate of people without disabilities (Poverty USA; Elflein). In 2002, authors Ravi Malhotra and Marta Russell in their article “Capitalism and Disability” stated that “In the US, 79 percent of working-age disabled adults say they would prefer to work, yet in 2000 only 30.5 percent of those with a work disability between ages sixteen and sixty-four were in the labor force and only 27.6 percent were employed” (2). Malhotra and Russell, through this quote, provoke us to think about how this may not be an individual issue as capitalist stereotypes may try to persuade, but rather a systemic one as proposed in this paper.
Intersectionality, a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, can be used to see how disability and other marginalized identities’ experiences become “compounded” when added to other factors that implicate a person’s economic situation. For example, in The Right to Maim by author Jasbir Puar, they assert “”Hands up, don’t shoot!” is not a catchy slogan that emerges from or announces able-bodied populations. Rather, this common Black Lives Matter chant is a revolutionary call for redressing the debilitating logics of racial capitalism.” (xxiii). This quote encapsulates a challenge the Black Lives Matter movement arranged against police brutality which formed out of a historic use to protect private businesses, stop unions, and continually oppress Black people. However, it also captures an argument of the perspective of the way in which capitalism immobilizes minority groups such as Black people. It gives an intersectional scope of this systemic harm. Additionally, in another article “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”, author Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes several facets of understanding feminism with an approach towards disability. Garland-Thomson describes both how one may view being a woman as disabling within a sexist society, but also describes other more intersectional consequences of capitalism, “Images of disabled fashion models are both complicit and critical of the beauty system that oppresses all women” (271). Likewise, authors Mitchell and Snyder in the introduction of “The Biopolitics of Disability” add to this argument by stating that the market and the consumers it makes out of citizens of this nation are what keep capitalism running, “Along with normalizations of racialized, sexualized, and gendered modes of being, neoliberal marketplaces produce modern formations of disability as an increasingly malleable form of deviance tamed for the good of the nation as a potential participant in the inflows and outflows of globalization.” (17). Ultimately, all intersectional identities experience compounding forms of oppression because capitalism can consume all that it wants out of each marginalized identity and in other cases it can immobilize massive groups of people. In this way, it is producing a great disadvantage to marginalized people by targeting the multiple identities they may have.
Institutions such as nursing homes and jails make money off of disabled people who “need their help” mostly justified through the medical model of disability. The medical model, coined by psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, explains how disabilities are a disadvantage to individuals and therefore must be pathologized in order to treat or cure them. Malhotra and Russell state, “disability is a socially created category derived from labor relations, a product of the exploitative economic structure of capitalist society: one which creates (and then oppresses) the so-called disabled body as one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth.” (2). Putting people into these institutions limits their agency and freedom in life, but it also limits their class mobility. Braddock and Parish recognize this issue and claim “developed nations also must confront…the continuing segregation of millions of persons with disabilities in nursing homes, institutions, and other segregated settings throughout the world” (53). A fact sheet by the Americans with Disabilities Act Participation Action Research Consortium (ADA-PARC) shows the amount of working age people with disabilities state by state that live in nursing homes, with the highest amount being 19,069 in Illinois to the lowest being 343 in Alaska. According to Frédéric Michas on Statista, the majority of nursing homes have been for-profit for the last decade, there has been a sharp increase over the years in for-profit jails, prisons, and detention centers where hundreds of thousands incarcerated and detained have disabilities, and other historic institutions like psychiatric hospitals which have also been mostly for-profit (Gotsch 9; Sarrett; Kim; Michas). These institutions have not only profited off of people’s disabilities, but have also ignored their disabilities, taken away their human rights, and have harmed them to various degrees. As author Douglas Baynton in their book Defectives in the Land notes, “Eugenic institutionalization, sterilization, marriage laws, even euthanasia were portrayed as benefiting not only the larger society but the affected individuals and their families.” (6). This adds on to how the discriminatory rhetoric discussed earlier realizes itself into harmful beliefs and actions through our society systemically.
U.S. capitalism also maintains a rigid power structure that enforces immobilizations of marginalized groups. For example, Puar theorizes that:
Debilitation as a normal consequence of laboring, as an “expected impairment”; is not a flattening of disability; rather, this framing exposes the violence of what constitutes “a normal consequence.” The category of disability is instrumentalized by state discourses of inclusion not only to obscure forms of debility but also to actually produce debility a sustain its proliferation (xvi).
However, in our current day it is not within America itself that we see most of the debilitation through work, but rather in other countries where workers are exploited through international work trade agreements. Michael Davidson’s article “Universal Design: The Work of Disability in An Age of Globalization” supports this argument by stating “The increased presence of depression among female maquiladora workers along the Mexico/U.S. border or cancers among agricultural workers in the California Central Valley must be linked to labor and migration in export processing zones following the passage of NAFTA.” (119). Not only is it a “normal consequence” for people to become debilitated by work, but most inside and outside the U.S. are not supported if anything debilitates them outside of work. In 2019 David U. Himmelstein et al. published a study on how medical bills and illness-related work loss were two of the biggest contributors to bankruptcy for people with disabilities (432). There is also a risk of completely losing a job when someone becomes disabled, and this is also a listed argument in Malhotra and Russell’s article, “Industrial capitalism thus created not only a class of proletarians but also a new class of “disabled” who did not conform to the standard worker’s body and whose labor-power was effectively erased” (3). Persons with disabilities are in such low economic stance because they have been excluded from the work force for generations and/or exploited for low labor wages. This has only furthered their inability to gain better class mobility, get any sense of independence, or better living conditions within this system.
Sometimes, it is easy to get lost and feel so small against issues as big as the systemic oppression of American capitalism. It is hard to think of its effects on our communities, and how we can move forward when something is so ingrained in our day-to-day life. There is no immediate solution, and any activist could tell you that. However, there is a greater hope and sense of clarity when one can join with their community and fight against their daily oppressors together rather than fighting each other.
Baynton, Douglas C. Introduction. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago, Ill: U of Chicago, 2016. 1-10. Print.
Braddock, David & Parish, Susan. “An Institutional History of Disability.” Disability at the Dawn of the 21st Century and the State of the States. Ed. David Braddock. Washington D.C.: American Association on Mental Retardation. 2002, 11-54 . Print.
Davidson, Michael. “Universal Design: The Work of Disability in an Age of Globalization.” The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 117-130.
Elflein, John. “Poverty Rate Among People With and Without Disabilities in the U.S. from 2008 to 2019.” Statista. Ströer Media. 19 Mar. 2021. Web. 23 Nov. 2021
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” NWSA Journal. 14. 3 (2002): 257-271. Print.
Gotsch, Kara & Basti, Vinay. “Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration U.S. Growth in Private Prisons.” The Sentencing Project Research and Advocacy for Reform. Web.
Himmelstein, David U et al. “Medical Bankruptcy: Still Common Despite the Affordable Care Act.” American journal of public health vol. 109,3 (2019): 431-433. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304901
Hwang Dong-hyuk. Squid Game. Netflix, 2021, www.netflix.com.
Kim, Sarah. “The Forgotten: Disabled and Detained at the Border.” Forbes. 28 Jun. 2019. Web.
Malhotra, Ravi & Russell, Marta. “Capitalism and Disability.” Socialist Register. 38. (2002): 1- 11. Print.
Michas, Frédéric. “Distribution of Nursing Homes in the United States From 2003 to 2019, by Ownership Type.” Statista. 23 Mar. 2021. Web.
Michas, Frédéric. “Number of Psychiatric Hospitals in the U.S. in 2019, by Operation Type.” Statista. 20 Oct. 2020. Web
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Introduction. The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2015. 1-32. Print.
“Percent of Working-Age People with Disabilities Still Living in Nursing Homes.” Americans with Disabilities Act Participation Action Research Consortium. Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, Jul. 2020. Web. 23 Nov. 2021.
Puar, Jasbir K. “Preface: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” Preface. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke UP, 2017. x-xxiv. Print.
Sarrett, Jennifer. “US Prisons Hold More Than 550,000 People With Intellectual Disabilities – They Face Exploitation, Harsh Treatment.” The Conversation. 7 May. 2021. Web. “The Population of Poverty USA.” Poverty USA. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2021.