October 29, 2020 | 12 minutes read

Prolekult’s Camps of Dependence: The eugenics of Covid capitalism, left-wing complacency and disabled self-emancipation

Camps of Dependence is essential viewing, not only for shining a light on how the Tories are getting away with what is effectively a social cull, but also because it lucidly sets out a Marxist account of ableism.

Prolekult’s Camps of Dependence: The eugenics of Covid capitalism, left-wing complacency and disabled self-emancipation

The British bourgeoisie have committed an atrocity. … We charge that the British government has orchestrated a eugenics campaign against the disabled, autistic and elderly, and particularly those in care.

The accusatory opening to Prolekult’s short insurgent docufilm Camps of Dependence is reminiscent of the Scottish Communist John Maclean’s legendary Speech from the Dock during his trial for sedition in 1918: “I am not here as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

Cutting through the deafening silence of mainstream left-wing journalists on the issue, Prolekult has produced a damning exposé of the British government’s assault on the disabled and elderly in the context of the pandemic. The film highlights how over a third of the 45,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths were among care home residents; and that between 2 March and 14 July disabled people – one-fifth population – comprised 59% of the virus’s death toll. This is the lethal result of the decades-long wilful neglect of the health and care sectors, and the callousness of the present Tory administration that has prioritised economic recovery and outsourced emergency care work to volunteers. For the most part Labour glibly went along with this, with Keir Starmer pursuing a controlled “opposition” in the name of the “national interest”, and refusing to criticise any specific elements of government policy. Now, “without outcry or challenge”, a second COVID wave is forming in the country, with new care home outbreaks recorded in September.

Years of cuts to council services, the punitive bedroom tax, fuel poverty and cruel benefit sanctions have all amounted to calculated social murder. The brunt of this has fallen on Britain’s 13 million disabled people. Due to the pre-existing strain on council services, the Coronavirus Bill suspended the 2014 Care Act that put a legal duty on local authorities to meet the needs of the disabled and carers. Those living independently on direct payments were not allocated any personal protective equipment, or the funding to purchase it.

“Do-not-resuscitate” orders (DNRs), in normal conditions intended to alleviate suffering, have also been blanketly applied to old people. Outrageously, initial government advice was to send recovering coronavirus patients, infectious or not, back to care homes to clear space in hospitals.

Prolekult points out that those with neurological and learning disabilities have also been under attack. The lack of clear government guidelines on the use of DNRs has long been an issue, and last year it was revealed that 19 hospital patients who later died had “learning disabilities” or “Down’s syndrome” given as the reason not to resuscitate them between July 2016 and December 2018. Such murderous ableism intensified in the context of the pandemic: on 24 April, learning disability care provider Turning Point raised concerns that it had received an “unprecedented” number of unlawful DNR orders for its patients. One GP surgery in Somerset even sent a letter to an autism support group saying autistic adults should have plans to prevent them being resuscitated if they become critically ill. An open letter signed by over 400 disability charities and campaigners has insisted that treatment “should not be influenced by how our lives are valued by society”.

Camps of Dependence is essential viewing, not only for shining a light on how the Tories are getting away with what is effectively a social cull, but also because it lucidly sets out a Marxist account of ableism. As the narrator explains, “whilst the particular nature of this barbarism is clearly conscious, its roots and workings cannot be explained outside of a broader political understanding of disability and capitalism.” With BreadTube (the left-wing corner of YouTube) currently dominated by wealthy would-be-celebrities who go no further than insipid moralising and appeals to bourgeois electoralism, Prolekult’s sober weaving together of anti-imperialist political economy and Gramscian cultural critique is a welcome breath of fresh air.  

In the 1970s, the prevailing medical model which sees disablement as “natural” was challenged by the social model of disability, based on the writings of Marx – himself a disabled and impoverished immigrant – and especially Engels, whose The Condition of the Working Class in England referred to “Women made unfit for child-bearing, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generations wrecked, afflicted with disease and infirmity, purely to fill the purses of the bourgeoisie.” Camps of Dependence explicitly utilises Marxist disability theory, including Lauren Pass’s concept of “productive time”. With the rise of industrial capitalism and wage labour, “families abandoned their disabled members en masse, unable to afford to support them on the pithy wages granted in exchange for the sale of their labour.” Ableism is thus not just ideological, but is structured into the material base of imperialist capitalism. Excluded from employment, disabled people found themselves trapped in a relation of exclusion and dependency, and were sent to workhouses or asylums.

In recent years, politicians in Britain have openly advocate an “ability”-segregated wage system: in 2017 chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Labour MP Frank Field, recommended the disabled be paid less than minimum wage, and in 2018 welfare chief Iain Duncan Smith suggested bosses should hire disabled people as “they often work longer hours” and forgo holiday “because they love the whole idea of being in work”. Daily Telegraph journalist Jeremy Warner captured the raw logic of capitalism when he wrote that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”. Some insurance providers have indeed been able to raise their costs by as much as 880%. Unsurprisingly, a society that sanctifies wage labour has produced an unthinking ageism: Prolekult sardonically reprimands us with the killer line: “first they came for our nans, and we didn’t give a fuck.”

Social-democratic paternalism and the roots of dependency

The film outlines how “in Britain, the eugenics movement had broad support on both the right and the left of society through the majority 19th and 20th Centuries”; alluding to the complicity of social democracy in economic and social violence against the elderly and disabled.

The modern welfare state has its origins in the heyday of imperialism, and the anxieties of social reformers about the fitness of the white working class. In this context there developed a form of bourgeois “socialism”, drawing support from better-off “respectable” workers, which sought to subsume class antagonisms through appeals to nationalism and evolutionary social progress. Demands for welfare reform came coupled with vitriolic diatribes about the need to eradicate the “degenerate social residuum” steeped in poverty and dis-abled by hard labour.

Member of the Fabian Society (the ideological forerunner of the Labour Party) George Bernard Shaw believed that the disabled had “no business to be alive”, and even suggested the use of a “lethal chamber”. The leader of the first Labour government, Ramsay MacDonald, declared that “the Labour Party [would] never willingly touch a slum population, or one that has shown no signs of intelligent initiative”. Another prominent Fabian, the Labour MP Will Crooks, described the targets of eugenics as “like human vermin” who “crawl about doing absolutely nothing, except polluting and corrupting everything they touch.”

In the 1930s, the “progressive” Scandinavian social democracies introduced laws authorising the compulsory sterilisation of thousands of disabled people. While in interwar Britain the Trades Union Congress successfully opposed eugenic laws, a sustained current of bourgeois paternalism continued to run through the Labour movement. As Camps of Dependence outlines, “Almost all the social programmes set up ‘take care of us’ or put us away in institutions to be ‘cared for’.”

The celebrated father of the British welfare state, William Beveridge, was a zealous eugenicist who argued in 1909 that “those men who through general defects are unable to fill such a whole place in industry, are to be recognised as ‘unemployable’. They must become the acknowledged dependents of the State … but with complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights — including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood.” Beveridge’s paternalism and national productivism was inherited by the post-war reformist Labour government. In the book Capitalism and Disability Marta Russell explains how after WWII the expansion of the welfare state “gave rise to two contradictory trends for disabled people”:

On the one hand, there was increased state provision of social services. On the other hand there was also a greater attempt to regulate the lives of the recipients of these services. This was particularly the case in Britain and other European countries. The Beveridge Report in Britain symbolized this project and it clearly envisaged an ‘ableist’ and patriarchal system in which white male able-bodied workers were the primary breadwinners, married women worked in the home, and disabled people were defined as a medical problem and relegated to the expertise of specialists.

Disabled people had played a substantial role in Britain’s wartime economy – some 500,000 people with impairments were employed in factories. Yet once the war was over, apart from a few jobs protected by the Disabled Persons Employment Act, disabled people were once again cast aside. The 1948 National Assistance Act formally abolished the draconian Poor Law system, but was “very thin on provisions and having put no serious critical thought into what the then-new welfare arrangements for ‘blind, deaf, dumb and crippled persons’ might be about, social administrators simply conveyed the medical model of disability”. The institutions provided were “little more than a better class of workhouse.”

In the 1960s-70s the NHS began closing hospitals for the mentally ill and learning disabled, as well as cutting back the number of geriatric beds, but nothing adequate was established to replace them, with the result that the disabled and elderly were often left isolated in darkened homes, segregated from mainstream society. The seeds of the present crisis of care were then present at the welfare state’s foundation, in its combination of statist paternalism and absolute de-prioritisation of the “non-productive” sections of society.

With the combined onset of economic disintegration and the viral pandemic, Prolekult explains, “dependence was transformed into annihilation.” However, as the film also takes pains to point out, the disabled have never been passive victims of capitalist violence; a fact the film underlines through montage footage of the disability rights movement which took off in the sixties.

Independent living and self-emancipation

Camps of Dependence emphasises that if “bourgeois society portrays disabled people as victims of biological misfortune, incapable of exerting their own historical agency”, this “venomous myth is given a sharp refutation by the observation of disabled peoples’ struggles through history.” Though it is a fact that is usually erased, many leading Communists were themselves disabled, including Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, Frida Kahlo and, as already mentioned, Marx himself.

One of the early examples of disabled peoples’ self-organisation highlighted in Camps of Dependence is the National League of the Blind, formed in 1893, which sometimes cooperated with the Communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (the latter itself contained disabled veterans who had fought in the International Brigades against fascism in Spain). One of the League’s members was Martin Milligan, the blind Communist philosopher who co-founded the Edinburgh People’s Festival.

As the film notes, it was with the advent of the Independent Living Movement in the 1970s that a unified campaign for the liberation of disabled people began to take shape. In Britain, this movement drew on earlier organising efforts by disabled socialists, including the anti-apartheid activist Vic Finkelstein who co-founded the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation. Independent living was concerned with breaking out of what Camps of Dependence calls “social enclosure”. The movement championed the social model of disability, and advocated forms of self-determination whereby disabled people collectively manage their own provision of care.

As Martin Hewitt argues in Welfare and Human Nature, the productivist social-democratic welfare system needs to be replaced by a socialist healthcare model with “an understanding of social justice based on integrating new notions of common basic needs and mutually satisfied needs, needs that are both universal and sensitive to difference.” Such a model would necessarily be based on Marxist-humanist principles of reciprocity, dis-alienation and mutual recognition.

The Prolekult film stresses that the tradition of disabled peoples’ resistance has present-day afterlives, particularly seen with Disabled People Against Cuts leading much resistance against austerity in Britain. The recent advent of the neurodiversity movement is another notable development.

Meanwhile, when it comes to questions of national health and social care, the left-wing mainstream has barely moved on from the paternalist viewpoint of Victorian bourgeois socialism. The radical community-oriented models of healthcare developed in revolutionary socialist, Black feminist and disability movements in Britain in the 1970s-80s have been forgotten. In the 1994 article “The Disability Rights Movement and the Left”, James I. Charlton highlights that, for most leftists, “disability politics has been an afterthought at best. Many leftists would argue that the DRM [Disability Rights Movement] has limited political significance and little relation to the question of political power. This view is not only wrong but arrogant.” Activist circles often give little thought to accessibility requirements in their organising spaces, which also usually reflexively reproduce neurotypical norms of communication, alienating autistic and other neurodivergent comrades. As Charlton insists, “if disability activists and the disability rights movement is to embrace the left, the left must embrace the disability rights movement.” Red Fightback has a disability caucus but we also recognise, as does Prolekult, that the specific disability justice perspective must be integrated into socialist politics as a whole.

Disability at the intersection

Camps of Dependence makes the often-overlooked point that disability justice is bound up with other anti-capitalist struggles, and that disabled people have “often played a considerable role” in broader socialist movements. It highlights the particularly fascinating example of how a revolt by patients and nurses at Monaghan Asylum in February 1919 directly led to the formation of the first workers’ Soviet in colonised Ireland, under the leadership of the socialist Irish Republican Army commander Peadar O’Donnell.

As decaying capitalism slides towards “the midnight of collapse, war and extinction”, all marginalised sections of society are subject to intensifying repression, including the migrants who are being left to drown in the Mediterranean. Eugenics operates as an overarching exclusionary logic within imperialist capitalism, giving scientific credence to pre-existing social oppressions. Historians Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell trace the development of a “Eugenic Atlantic” in the nineteenth century, in which the imperialist ruling classes sought “to fold disability and race into a mutual project of human exclusion”, representing “a shared campaign of biological targeting that addressed deviance as a scourge to be banished from a trans-Atlantic hereditary pool” – or what Prolekult refers to as “racialised industrial eugenics”. Tellingly, long-stay institutions for the “defective” in Victorian Britain, including those created by William Booth’s Salvation Army, were called “colonies”.

In our contemporary context, the open eugenicist sympathies of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings represent an extreme expression of a generalised neoliberal assault on the “undeserving poor” – the disabled, impoverished and workers of colour – that began under Blair’s New Labour. Those living at the intersection of racism and ableism are among the worst impacted, as has been recently highlighted by the Home Office’s attempt to deport autistic 22-year-old Osime Brown to Jamaica.

Camps of Dependence also highlights how ableist segregation manifests as a form of incarceration, arguing that “in ordinary circumstances, the capitalist care home represents a prison for disabled people” which, through the pandemic, “has come to function as a death camp.” Here again there are parallels with the racist detention and border regime facing migrants and asylum seekers under the rubric of the “hostile environment”.

Healthcare and dependency are also issues that to varying degrees affect all sections of the working class. Frontline workers in the pandemic, including medical staff, are disproportionately people of colour, whose own health needs the NHS often fails to cater for. On the world scale, western financial institutions like the IMF have forced oppressed Global South countries to gut their welfare spending, with devastating consequences for the socially vulnerable – for disability justice to be universal, it must be grounded in anti-imperialism.

Trans people too often deal with disablement due to inadequate healthcare provision, and are subjected to hyper-medicalisation and pathologisation, as well as disproportionate policing. They further experience something similar to what some disability activists call “crip time” (the time, energy and emotional strain needed to perform certain tasks in an ableist society, including educating ill-informed doctors). Obviously, all of these intersections require strategic linkages, rather than just simplified analogies.

Prolekult points out that disability carceralism “encompasses not only the care home, but every area of life. Outside of these prisons its principal form is abandonment, alongside the denial of health care.” From this observation we can identify some of the limits of the Independent Living Movement, in its attempts to create enclaves of socialised healthcare within a capitalist sea. As Liat Ben-Moshe explains in Disability Incarcerated, independent living often simply “became a negation, a physical space outside the walls of the institution or mental hospital”, and ended up relying on professionals who reintroduced the medical model. Likewise, Labour’s proposed National Care Act pays lip service to the social model of disability, but doesn’t pledge to end outsourcing, or to provide the resources required for self-determination. For those of us who are disabled or neurodivergent, it is not enough to settle for accommodation within the current capitalist system that is built upon racial-eugenicist logic. As Ben-Moshe argues, what is needed is a revolutionary carceral-abolitionist alternative, entailing:

A conceptual shift from notions of advocating for rights or equality in a system that is oppressive and unjust to begin with (such as increasing employment for people with disabilities in an unjust capitalist marketplace and discussing “community services” only through the discourse of for-profit health care system) to advocating for social change more broadly. Disability justice activists confront the ways various oppressions, such as racism, sexism, capitalism and ableism, intersect to influence the lives of disabled people in the arenas of education, self care, empowerment, housing, work, health, sexuality, and recreation.

The goal is not to replace one form of control, such as a hospital, institution, and prison, with another, such as psychopharmaceuticals, nursing homes, and group homes. The aspiration is to fundamentally change the way we respond to difference or harm, the way normalcy is defined, the ways resources are distributed and accessed, and the ways we respond to each other.

Camps of Dependence concludes by reminding its audience that if we don’t oppose the eugenicist resurgence of decaying capitalism and fight for the socialist alternative, “then history shall not absolve us.”

As a supplement to the docufilm Prolekult have collated a resource pack on Disability and COVID-19 in Britain with printable leaflets and posters, as well as a reading list on radical disability theory, which we encourage readers to check out, utilise and share with friends and comrades.

Prolekult is a Marxist film, writing and culture platform based in Birmingham, England. You can watch Camps of Dependence here.

Works referenced

Ben-Moshe, Liat (ed.), Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Charlton, James I., “The Disability Rights Movement and the Left”, Monthly Review (1994).

Hewitt, Martin, Welfare and Human Nature: The Human Subject in Twentieth-Century Social Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

Mitchell, David and Sharon Snyder, “The Eugenic Atlantic: Race, Disability, and the Making of an International Eugenic Science, 1800–1945”, Disability & Society (2003).

Russell, Marta, Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell (Haymarket Books, 2019).