A Review of Ina Dimitrova’s Disability in the Work Utopia: Images of Productivism
Author: Anton Kolev, Sofia
At the beginning of 2018 parents of children with disabilities, united by the slogan The System is Killing Us, started a series of protests in the Bulgarian capital. A tent city arose in front of the National Assembly building in Sofia. The movement spread across the country. This was an enormous challenge for the government since, at that time, Bulgaria had assumed the presidency of the Council of the EU. The excessive pressure on the ruling elites brought ministerial resignations: of the Minister of Labour and Social Policy first, followed by the Deputy Prime Minister after he made incendiary statements about the protesters. Meanwhile, the protesters had challenged not only the government but also the nationally-representative organizations of the disabled.
Yet despite the anti-systemic slogan, the objectives of the protesters remained, more or less, in the realm of pure reforms. The official demands varied and changed as the movement progressed. The main claim, in the beginning, was that the Vice-President of the National Council for the Integration of People with Disabilities should resign because of the introduction of differentiated benefits that generated division between people with disabilities. However, when negotiating with the government and the unions, at the end of the protest waves, protesters demanded exactly the same–more differentiation and individualization. They also wanted a suspension of subsidies for the nationally representative organizations and investigation of the financial sources of union activities.
It is in these turbulent times in Bulgarian disability politics, that Ina Dimitrova’s Life With Disability in the Work Utopia: Images of Productivism makes a timely intervention. More specifically, she takes stock with the reigning ideology of the protest movement, that of integrating people with disabilities in society through inclusion in the labour market via what she calls “the work utopia”. However, Dimitrova's research puts these local phenomena well into their historical context, exploring the relations between capitalism (classical and neoliberal) and socialism to disability.
In the introduction, the author dissects in detail the organic structure that personifies contemporary neoliberal productivism norms or what she, in consonance with A. Giddens terminology, calls the “productivist ethos”. That is to say: of the contemporary thought frame or the ideology that governs our everyday existence in late capitalism. If the goal of neoliberalism is to roll-back the welfare state, with all of its attributes – full employment, workers' “inalienable” social rights and so forth, and to replace it with a neoliberal state where citizens are made responsible for themselves, then one of the necessary means it uses is the concrete division between those who are productive and, consequently, those who are not. In neoliberalism, we are what we produce. The “cruel promise'', as Dimitrova calls it, of neoliberalism is the well-being of all who serve the economic growth with their productivity. It is cruel because the disabled can never compete on labour markets on equal grounds with the abled, while the rewards of competition increasingly tend to bypass even hardworking able-bodied workers. Moreover, Dimitrova argues that we receive the support and social benefits that we have previously earned, insured and thus deserved, with the exploitation of our productive capacities, with our usefulness. I produce, therefore I exist for state and society. The limits of my existence are the limits of my productivity. Dimitrova claims that this specific ideological discourse governs us efficiently into desiring to be productive and that its consequences are – as she calls it – our “framed identities”. Here labour is understood as the supreme ideal, as joy-, prosperity- and identity-bringer, as man's only need and desire or what Josef Pieper once called total labour. This is exactly the ideological whirlpool in which the 2018 protests have plunged into.
But these identities, these social images, that is to say, these ways in which one appears in front of the Other, strictly within the parameters of one’s productivity, are historically determined. For example, the image of the “parasite”, a word often used in everyday discourse to describe an unproductive individual, can vary in different contexts and is intimately correlated with dominant relations of production. The social “parasite” can belong to marginalized groups, be him Roma or immigrant, he can be temporarily unemployed or a woman on maternity leave, a disabled person and so on. Thus, we should ask ourselves, where do the injured, the infirm, the weak and thus the “unproductive“ in general fall into this production-at-all-cost framework? Which image do they personify? Are they ‘parasites’? Where do their loved ones – those who take care of them and become “unproductive” as well – fall into this diabolic hierarchical matrix of utility? The answer, in harmony with the neoliberal ethos, is that they do not fall in it but are cast overboard. And the only way they can “crawl” back is through paid work. And if they do, their “deserved” place is at its bottom. But how can “our” productive and exploitative society mobilise their latent and potential productive forces? Moreover, how do people with disabilities and their allies formulate the goals of their emancipatory struggle in the context of total labour? The author extensively examines many of the international policies and struggles in this direction, both past and present. Her conclusion is mainly disheartening. The Bulgarian activist movements, she argues, have failed to formulate an anti-systemic demand that is so essential for movements such as UPIAS in the UK and the IL Movement in the United States. A demand that is able to break from the socio-economical determinations of total labour. However, this problematic ethos , this evaluation of human existence according to its capacity to produce, is not an inherent and exclusive domain of capitalist states.
Dimitrova also examines the political approaches to people with disabilities during the ex-Socialist regime in Bulgaria. Her investigation reveals some of the preconditions for today’s prevalence of the productivist ethos already available in the Soviet theoretical postulates. More specifically, they can be seen in Lenin's reformulation of Marx slogan expressed in his Critique of the Gotha Program: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Substituting the last word with "work" in his The State and Revolution, Lenin remained fully committed to the imperative of productivism. The reasons for that are to be found in laggard construction of socialism in the Soviet Union where a world and a civil war had decimated the industrial workforce. To make up for that, the government sped up the country’s development by turning to the "reserve army of labour". In doing so, however, while pretending to subordinate the economy to human well-being, the Soviet state did exactly the opposite. Dimitrova illustrates this by showing how people with disabilities were hierarchically cared for, according to the causes that led to their disability. Thus, disabilities resulting from causes other than work-related accidents or military actions were relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy. Consequently, people born with disabilities were marginalized and do not possess the social privileges enjoyed by others. Reformulating the conditions in which medical expertise can “create” disabled people, the party leaders imposed a patronising and disciplinary policy in opposition to the capitalist one, perceived as “spoiling” its beneficiaries.
After providing a historical overview of the development of the productivist logic for the purposes of teasing out continuities with the neoliberal model, Dimitrova turns to the above-mentioned events of 2018. They enjoy undisputed centrality in the disability activist scene in Bulgaria since the 2018 commotion. Precisely because of this, there is an urgent obligation of a constructive critique aimed at their “selection of strategy”, i.e. their language, discourse and slogans formulation. Dimitrova meticulously peels the ideological assemblage, layer by layer, to reveal their deep attachment to the ethos of productivism. Drawing on interviews, focus groups, individual statements found in social media profiles, public groups and online discussions, the author compellingly maps of the movement’s inherent potential as well as its limitations. Here again, we are witnessing this productivity-at-all-cost discourse, but this time in its interiorized forms woven into the very substance of their struggle. The protesters, exclusively mothers, sharply emphasized the importance of the investment that society made into their children and, therefore, the benefits that it should obtain from people with disabilities. Benefits which would be embodied by the figure of social exchange and most of all – by the payment of taxes. This invokes the idea of “ normal citizenship” understood mainly through the figure of the diligent and tax-paying citizens. Moreover, the mothers talk about their own “payback”, their own reward from the becoming-productive of their child. Their own labour becomes meaningless if and when their children fail to be productive and useful for society. Therefore, the worst possible scenario for their children, according to the protesters, is to be seen as “parasites”; to be reduced to clients of the welfare state, who rely solely on its “mercy”. The total labour imperative is persistent, all-pervading, absolute. The productivist ethos’ most demanding feature crystallizes as the one that makes people with disabilities and their primary carers feel alienated, dis-placed and most of all - placeless. Those who cannot find their place, who are placeless under the productivist sun, are also useless.
There is another aspect of the movement which is of enormous importance, according to Dimitrova. If the socialist hierarchy of disabilities was a worldview imposed from outside or, in other words, exteriorized, here the structural differentiation comes from inside, from the activists themselves. This interiorized fragmentation, which the author calls “disability spectrum” is once more based on the productivism imperative. The different categories of disabled people also involve their carers, insofar as they are the ones who directly benefit from their capability to produce. Their parents are also their defenders. They defend them from all other disabled people - the ostensibly “unproductive” ones. It will come as no surprise that in this war within the movement, the completely unproductive ones are cast as “parasites”. But such a division hierarchically orders suffering itself. “How much does he suffer after being educated and physically healthy, even though he is blind?”, asks one of the mothers. One does not have to be blind to understand that blindness does not let you fit equally into the unfettered market competition narrative. One of the important lessons of Dimitrova’s study is that the productivist logic is incapable of delivering emancipation. Most likely, it will relegate the struggle in the apolitical kingdom of neoliberal, self-help individuality. At its worst, it might lead to more exploitation, to more productivism, embodied in the rising popularity of social entrepreneurship, to which Dimitrova turns in the final part of her study. The case study in focus here is “Ole Male”, a private endeavour of two business ladies and passionate supporters of the mothers’ protests.
In short, “Ole Male” is a Bulgarian social entrepreneurship initiative committed to making "mothers [of children with disabilities] independent" by offering them ways to work from home in their “free time” when they are not caring for their children. The project provides a marketplace for handicrafts of mothers who are full-time carers of their disabled children. Their ambition is “to bring parents together” via market exchange without truly bringing them together, insofar as they remain isolated in their homes in which, in the end, they care for their children. The purported purpose is to create a “ community driven by the ideals of entrepreneurship”. Dimitrova takes “Ole Male” as a paradigmatic embodiment of the productivist ethos. An embodiment of the “cruel promise” of autonomy, well-being and dignity through more and more work. She carefully examines the intrinsic premises of the initiative. We can assume that if the struggle stays within this very framework, “Ole Male” will be only the beginning of the profits generated on the back of these people.
Even though the 2018 protests had many similarities to the social movements of the 1970s in the West, such as the struggles for more social rights, autonomy, dignity, etc., the main difference is that they had individualized the problem. Hence, we have witnessed a resistance that, in its attempt to fight back the system, stiffened it. The Bulgarian activists have missed pointing at the productivist ethos or the fantasy about the "free competition" as the primary cause of their miserable condition. They have neglected the very essence of capitalist production, accumulation, exploitation and subsequent atomization of society, which bring about the accidents that led to the disabilities in the first place - poorly adjusted working spaces, car crashes, wars, interpersonal and intimate partner violence, polluted environment, etc. Consequently, we, the leftists, have also failed to push the movement in more progressive directions. It is this deficit in radical imagination that Dimitrova’s study also attempts to redress. But even though we failed, this should be a lesson for all future movements. Thus, Dimitrova’s main conclusion is that if society is willing and able to incorporate a significant proportion of people with disabilities and their carers in the production process for the sake of dignity and autonomy, precisely the opposite effect will be achieved. It will serve as an excuse for the exclusion and lack of social benefits for the completely incapable ones. The future struggles concerning people with disabilities must transcend the boundaries of total labour and, therefore, of the productivist ethos itself.
Sincere thanks to Jana Tsoneva for the stellar editorial work, as well as to Ina Dimitrova for the great research that I had the pleasure to discuss.
Ina Dimitrova’s Life With Disability in the Work Utopia: Images of Productivism, is published by KOI books with the financial support of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. It will be launched on September 25th in the National Students’ House, Sofia at 6 pm.
Anton Kolev pursues a degree in philosophy at Sofia University and is the founding editor of adopto.net, a Bulgarian-language web portal specializing in literary & film theory and social critique.