Disability and the Financial Crisis in Latin America: An Interview With Eduardo Joly

Eduardo Joly is a sociologist, wheelchair user, and President of Fundación Rumbos, a nongovernmental organization in Argentina that focuses on accessibility from a human-rights perspective. He is a founding member of the Disability Rights Network in Argentina and Visiting Professor and Researcher, Postgraduate Program on Disability, at the University of Buenos Aires Law School. He is also a former NACLA staff member, from the late 1960s to early 1970s.

February 10, 2009

Eduardo Joly is a sociologist, wheelchair user, and President of Fundación Rumbos, a nongovernmental organization in Argentina that focuses on accessibility from a human-rights perspective. He is a founding member of the Disability Rights Network in Argentina and Visiting Professor and Researcher, Postgraduate Program on Disability, at the University of Buenos Aires Law School. He is also a former NACLA staff member, from the late 1960s to early 1970s. Previously published in Spanish in the October 2008 Southern Cone edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, his article “Disability and Employment: Entitled to be Exploited?” will appear in the March/April issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.

How did you get involved with NACLA and what was it like in the early days of your involvement?

At the time I was a student at Johns Hopkins University and quite involved in the student movement there, which mostly focused on the war in Vietnam. However, as a Latin American, I was deeply concerned about US interventions in the region, most recently marked by the Marine invasion of the Dominican Republic just a few years earlier. And I felt that the student movement had to move beyond just focusing on the war and address the nature of US imperialism. I had known of NACLA from its very inception and came across it again thanks to its breakthrough Research Methodology Guide on how to do power structure research. So, I called them up, arranged for a meeting in NYC, and rode a Greyhound bus into town to meet Fred Goff. Through him, I also met Mike Locker. I was thoroughly grilled on my politics, my background, my interest in NACLA, and I passed the test. As there was no money, I started by supporting myself teaching Spanish to Park Avenue ladies who wished to accompany their husbands on business trips through South America.

NACLA was intense. We worked out of a small apartment on the Upper West Side, full of file cabinets, typewriters, and tons of newspapers and Congressional Records to clip every day, read, and file. And there was a Newsletter to put out. Lengthy meetings on what would be published, who would write what, by when, who would copy edit, do the layout, and get it printed. Lots of energy. Strong commitment. And the phone that never stopped ringing, with requests from student groups throughout the country for information, for guidance on how to do power structure research on their campuses. And meetings with movement leaders to discuss strategy and how our own research could provide input and guidance to developing those strategies. Long hours, sometimes little sleep, and basic staples to get by on. A sense of urgency, and a sense that we were making history. To paraphrase C. Wright Mills: our own biographies unfolding, intent on changing the course of history. What a challenge for people in their late teens and early-to-late twenties!

Let’s discuss your formulation of the link between disability and the working class, or, as you theorize, the way the disabled are left out of working-class struggles because they are so deeply excluded from employment itself. What is your thesis on this issue?

The systematic exclusion and expulsion of the disabled from the workforce under capitalism is predicated on the notion that the disabled are incapable of performing productive labor, that is, surplus labor, which is at the root of capitalist profits. This idea has been “sold” to workers themselves, so that they accept chronic unemployment subsequent to occupational injuries and illnesses. And it has also been “sold” to the disabled, who wonder in despair with ideas such as “with so much unemployment, who will ever bother hiring me?” This ideological imposition becomes central to the exclusion of disability from the agenda of working class struggles, and also to the lack of organized efforts by the disabled to demand jobs. And this lack of organization is reinforced by the dominant ideology that presents disability as a problem that cuts across classes and that, at best, should be approached from a humanitarian and individualistic human-rights perspective. Becoming class conscious and struggling from one’s class interests becomes a feat under these circumstances.

In this regard, the title I gave to my article “Disability and employment: Entitled to be exploited?” [forthcoming, NACLA Report] acquires its true meaning. The paradox is that under capitalism, you either exploit (if you are a “privileged” member of the ruling class) or are exploited (most everyone else). There is, however, a sector of the exploited condemned to chronic unemployment, a sector whose size and characteristics respond to cycles of production, economic expansion and retraction. According to Marx, this surplus population grows with the technical development of conditions of production, which, on the one hand, expels labor power, replacing it with ever more advanced machinery, and, on the other, occupies this labor force for longer periods of time. The existence of a sector of the working class condemned to unemployment due to the excessive labor imposed on another allows capitalists to enrich themselves. This surplus population assumes different modes, and workers belong to it when unemployed or when employed part-time. However, there is one sector so marginal from the active exercise of labor that its members wind up under the worst living conditions, and it can be broken down into three groups: those capable of working (their numbers increase during crises and decrease when business reactivate); the orphans and children of the poor (candidates for the reserve army of labor and enrolled as active workers at times of great activity); and finally “the demoralized and ragged, and those unable to work,” including, as Marx writes, “the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery, of mines, chemical works, etc., the mutilated, the sickly, the widows, etc.”

What are the particular contours of the struggles surrounding disability in Argentina? What are the legal protections afforded to the disabled in Argentina and what is the gulf between laws and practice? And how did the financial crisis at the beginning of this decade in Argentina particularly affect the disabled?

By and large, the struggles of the disabled in Argentina have focused mostly on getting civil-rights legislation passed and then enforced. In this regard, these struggles have been guided by the ideology of affording the disabled access to equal opportunities. The presumption has been that the disabled can prove to themselves and to others that they can compete academically and job-wise on the open market, as long as given the chance to do so and if certain conditions that level the playing field are met: for example, accessible transportation and sanitary facilities for those with physical limitations; accessible information and means of communication for those with limitations in their hearing or sight or with cognitive limitations; quality education, and so on. What this thinking has ignored, however, is that jobs are made available only to those capable of generating the most profits for their employers. And unless the disabled can demonstrate that ability, they are discarded.

Understanding this prerequisite is key to understanding why civil-rights legislation in favor of the disabled is systematically ignored by business and government alike. No amount of legislation per se will change the order of things. Recently, the United Nations approved an international convention on the rights of the disabled. And many countries, Argentina included, have ratified it. This convention formally affords protections that in some cases go beyond current legislation. But unless the disabled use it politically in their everyday struggles, and focus on what has proven to be the most difficult right to enforce, that of gainful employment, it will remain in the sphere of promises unkept.

So, those of us who have come to understand this logic have also come to recognize that our struggles are intimately tied to those of workers in general who fight to hold onto jobs in periods of economic contraction or recession; those who fight to secure healthy and injury-free working conditions so that they can continue to earn their living until their natural retirement ages arrives; those who fight for decent wages to live on; those who demand jobs so that they can earn their living and not depend on different forms of charity to survive. Paradoxically, the disabled must fight “for the right to be exploited”, for the right to be considered bona fide members of the working class, so that in the long run this struggle may lead to its exact opposite: to “the right to no longer be exploited,” achievable only within the context of a struggle for socialism.

In this regard, the crisis in Argentina, in the early days of this decade, forced many in the disability-rights movement to embrace this agenda. REDI—Red por los Derechos de las Personas con Discapacidad—had until then been at the forefront of lobbying for civil-rights legislation and demanding that existing legislation be enforced. The steadfast resistance to get job-quota legislation passed made it patently clear that all other manifestations of discrimination were rooted in the systematic exclusion from productive labor, that our lot was not significantly different from that of the unemployed in general, and that it made absolute sense to link our struggles to those of the unemployed, as we, the disabled, suffered that same fate. So, REDI activists joined the picket lines of the unemployed, participated in working class meetings where political platforms and strategies were being discussed, and in so doing brought to the various organizations of the unemployed an awareness that struggling for the rights of the disabled was akin to struggling for their own rights. This task became easier in a context of widespread unemployment and consequent impoverishment that was affecting not only the traditional working class but also increasingly larger sectors of the middle class.

How do you see the struggles surrounding disability in terms of Latin America’s so-called “pink tide”? Is disability framed as a class issue in other countries in Latin America?

So far, disability is not predominantly framed as a class issue throughout Latin America. I would even venture to say that a class perspective is not common at all anywhere in the world, not even in Argentina. When I say that REDI has moved in the direction of embracing such a perspective, this is not to say that this is the prevalent view among other organizations or among the disabled in general. The ideology that disability is a classless concern still prevails. And this ideology is nurtured by charitable institutions, by governments, and by those who still think of disability mainly from a medical point of view, that is, as something that can be or should be cured in the body of the disabled. However, the impact of today’s structural crisis of capitalism opens an opportunity for framing disability as a class issue and for mobilizing the disabled as an integral part of the working-class struggles that this crisis beckons.

It will be up to the disabled to impose their political platforms on the agenda of the more progressive or left-leaning governments in the region. And I believe that their success in doing so will be closely related to their ability to do so in the context of broader struggles in which they become involved. But this task will demand overcoming an ingrained ghetto mentality and practice. Our experience reveals that this is not easily done, but possible, and certainly necessary. It is a matter of recognizing that many of the problems besetting the disabled are essentially the same as those experienced by all other unemployed and impoverished sectors, be they indigenous, rural, or urban. The organizational links may or may not be in place today, but the opportunity for establishing them is on the agenda.

As you point out, the economic crisis the world is facing at the moment offers a unique opportunity for deep change if we—the left—seize it. What sort of programmatic demands do you think the left should formulate that can avoid the trap of trying to benefit the disabled as separate from workers in general?

Rather than try to concoct demands that would be beneficial to the disabled, as if they were an entirely separate entity, the left should recognize that in a sense the current crisis of capitalism is disabling millions of workers, by forcing them into the industrial reserve army. And I am using the term “industrial” in a very broad sense to refer to any and all sectors of the economy, not just manufacturing. The millions who are finding themselves jobless, discarded, and thus not directly exploited on the job are facing what those who have been historically excluded from holding jobs face. The demands concerning jobs and job conditions should be the same for all. Bearing in mind that, so far, disabled workers are the last to be hired and the first to be fired, the struggle for jobs necessarily will have to include respecting job quotas and preventing employers from firing workers who become disabled while on the job. We should also not forget that, to work, many disabled need specific on-the-job adjustments and accessible transportation to get to jobs. The right to hold a job and earn a living is a shared need. And that’s where the focus should be—understanding that capitalism rather than offering a solution has actually proven that it has none. And the struggle for jobs should be within the framework of a struggle for control over the economic and political decisions that affect people’s everyday lives, on and off the job. And here is where the agenda for socialism enters.

Interview conducted via e-mail in November and December 2008 by Stuart Schrader a doctoral student in Sociology at the City University of New York. An unabridged version of this interview can be found here.

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