Capitalism hurts (as if I wasn’t hurting enough already…)

I wrote this article in 2008 for a radical chronic pain zine – “When Language Runs Dry”. I made some edits in 2015.

My body and I one of those old married couples. We are best friends yet we bicker and struggle with each other every day. We spend all our time together yet sometimes we discover how little we really know about the other. Our relationship used to be built on an understanding that I would call the shots and my body would keep it up, albeit with occasional grumbles. That is, until eight months ago when I had a repetitive strain injury in both my wrists which progressed from acute tendonitis to chronic pain. Now our dynamic is reversed – my body calls pretty much all the shots these days. We’ve been to various “couples counselors” so to speak, but no one can tell me exactly what is going on with my body. Anything requiring even a slight grip or repetitive motions with my hands is difficult. Cooking, riding a bike, writing, computer work, sex, opening jars, lifting my bag, going to the toilet and stroking a friend’s hair are daily challenges. With these radical changes in what I can and can’t do, I’ve found a myriad of ways that I devalue myself and that others devalue me. Thanks capitalism for that extra hurt, as if I wasn’t hurting enough already.

Before exploring the ways that capitalism has insidiously seeped into how I view myself and others, it’s important to acknowledge some of my identities that shape my experiences. I am a mixed class femme queer trans man. I am white, with English and Irish ancestors, and I was born and grown in Australia. I am a writer, performer, producer, activist, project manager, friend, lover, family member, caretaker, and random dancer at traffic lights and subways. I do not claim to understand what it would be like to have a longer term or wider reaching disability, or how the impacts of able-ism would magnify if I weren’t white. This injury has given me a small window of insight into the world of able-ism, how it plays out in my own life, as well as in activist and queer subcultures. This article is based on listening to the insightful and important experiences of people with disabilities, the pondering I’ve done in the quiet moments of despair about my wrists and my participation in the Ann Braden anti-racism training for white activists in San Francisco.

How does capitalism hurt? I am realizing just how deep the capitalist mentality is interwoven into how I think, how I value people, and what I base my identity on. The change in my body’s functionality has triggered a major shift in my self-identity and I have been struggling with feeling worthless. Every day I find myself thinking: “I’m not doing anything”, “I’m not contributing to my community”, and justifying my “un-productive” existence by the fact that I have an injury that prevents me from doing “valuable” things. The only way I have been able to feel okay about myself is by framing this period of my life as “healing time,” and reassuring myself that at some point I’ll be able do “valuable” work again. This has prompted me to start questioning what I consider “valuable” and what I consider “work”.

It is so embedded in my thinking to define only project or organizational activity as “work”. Harsha Walia asserts, “Capitalism not only creates the conditions for the expropriation of labour, but also limits what can even be characterized as labour” [1]. Capitalism considers work as activity done outside the domestic or relationship spheres which results in tangible products and outcomes. Walia points out that “work” is also tied to what you extract from the land. When I consider different ideas about work that center emotional labour and relationships, with this injury I am still doing valuable work and contributing to my community. I am a key emotional support person for several people. I listen to people and workshop their relationships challenges. I link people with each other. I share insights from different contexts like relating Australian and U.S. struggles. I am excellent at drawing out the unique and remarkable aspects of the people I meet and I support others to achieve their goals. I have long chats with friends and random strangers about their lives, hopes and dreams. I tell stories and create theatre that challenges dominant ideas. I give feedback and encouragement on friend’s creative projects. I participate in a collective household. I appreciate calendula flowers almost every day.

It is no coincidence that most of these undervalued roles are considered feminine or female roles: welcome to the white supremacist colonial capitalist patriarchy. Women and femmes are expected to do this work freely and this labour is neither credited as work nor valued. Hence, people who do this emotional work are also devalued. In a time when we are in serious plight on planet earth, it’s not only necessary to start valuing emotional and care work, but in fact centering it. Harsha Walia highlights that care work is necessary to continue life on earth.

So, I don’t want to hold out for the day my wrists get better to start feeling good about myself again. By refusing to acknowledge the worth of my own life right now, I am participating in devaluing the worth and lives of so many other people who do not fit able-bodied capitalist norms. I am contributing to driving the planet further into the abyss we are facing.

In addition to what capitalism encourages us to value and devalue, I’ve also been thinking about how capitalism encourages us to work. Overhauling white supremacist, sexist, capitalist and able-ist systems involves digging deep and changing how we do things. For example, capitalism is obsessed with accelerating profit curves, quick fixes and short-term vision. As activists, when are we uncritically propelling these ways of working? For instance, when are we failing to create deep change by focusing on superficial changes that simply make us look good or get our not-for-profit organizations more funding? Given the urgency of social and environmental issues, it’s understandable that many of us have short term crisis mentalities, rather than working towards strategic bigger visions. But who gets left behind when the focus is on more-faster-have-to-get-it-done-today-or-else? Does a preoccupation with accelerated outcomes lend itself to genuine reflection or simply doing what it takes to make outcomes look good? Some examples of how I see these capitalist mentalities embedded within activist work include:

  • Encouraging a culture of work-a-holism that many people with disabilities are unable to participate in.
  • “But it was the only meeting space we could find”: focus on the easiest logistics such as holding meetings in spaces or at times inaccessible to many people.
  • “This campaign is about stopping mining, not gender equality or Indigenous sovereignty”: breaking down complex social change issues into single issues. The outcome is ironically a failure to understand the root causes of even those “single” issues, such as how colonization and patriarchy are interwoven with environmental destruction.
  • The unattainable standards of “perfection” that get perpetuated within a capitalist society, e.g. pursuit of the “American dream”. Activist and queer communities often apply this exact same mentality to setting new standards of what it means to be “radical” – like that a radical person should never feel jealous, never mess up etc.
  • Fixation on notions of “independence” – that we should be able to care for 100% of our own needs, which is just plain impossible, even for able-bodied people.
  • Tokenizing people with disabilities (or others) by giving only non-decision making roles, inviting last minute participation after visions have been set, and simply having one or two representatives in a group rather than creating ways to genuinely center people with disabilities.
  • Setting goals that assume certain types of physical or mental abilities to achieve them.
  • Valuing and celebrating only “external” outcomes, like stopping a uranium mine, and devaluing “internal” outcomes, like addressing power and privilege within an organization/ collective.
  • Non-profit workers exaggerating results to keep up with funding bodies expectations. Or doing things to look good to our peers, rather than because our actions will create deeper change.
  • Making only superficial changes to make something look good for short-term gain, rather than digging to the root causes.

These ways of working are not only able-ist but also racist, classist and colonial too.

I’m left with a lot more questions and ponderings, rather than answers: how do activist and queer groups change cultures of over-work? How do we pay attention to our bodies and create workspaces that care for our bodies? How do we shift what we value to include feminist and disability positive concepts of work? How do movements place people with disabilities at the center instead of at the margins, particularly those who are also people of color, Indigenous, working class, women, queers, trans and gender variant folks and survivors? How doe we leverage the gifts that come from the participation of people with non-normative bodies and minds? How can we follow the lead of women of color feminism and embrace the intersections of issues and oppressions? How do we balance striving to do our best with giving up capitalist-influenced definitions of “perfection”? And how do we do all of this whilst working within an urgent context?

This is a big list that I could work on for my whole life. Considering I have been struggling with my changed abilities and my sense of myself as a “valuable” person, today I am going to try to value myself just for being me. That doesn’t mean giving up. It means freeing-up all the energy that goes into questioning my worth as a human being – that shit is time-consuming and so draining! It means being able to use that freed-up energy to have a more harmonious relationship with my body and get on with creating change with my communities. And I’m not going to beat myself up if I can’t do that “perfectly”. In fact, I’m going to celebrate imperfection right now by ending this article perfectly incomplete.

[1] : “A truly green economy requires alliances between labour and Indigenous people” by Harsha Walia

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