Monday, May 01, 2006

Capitalism's fault

Since today is both international workers day and blog for disability rights day, I thought I would write about the links between capitalism and disability.

I'm starting with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Extreme Makeover Home edition seems like a funny television show to me. I can't even watch ads for normal Extreme Makeover (I close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and sing until the awful goes away), but my sister got me vaguely interested in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and now I watch it whenever I'm home on Monday nights.

It's the only American television show that I've ever seen that acknowledges that poverty exists, and how much it sucks. Rather than blaming people from their plight it shows that we could solve these problems (if only we had enough sponsors).

For those of you who don't know each week Extreme Makeover: Home Edition starts with a family in a terrible situation. Most of the time these situations are the fault of capitalism, insurance not paying out on a destroyed house, contractors taking the money and running, people having to quit their job to look after sick relatives and so on. I've long had a belief that you could tell any woman's life as a feminist story. I'm starting to think that's wider.

So the first stage is identifying the problem (which always has something to do with the family's house), and then the second stage is throwing resources at it. Usually pretty unlimited resources (the third part is showing the family their house, which is always the best bit).

In particular many of the shows are about children with disabilities. Children who couldn't live in their parents house. The two I've watched involved a young girl who was allergic to the sun, and a young boy whose bones were incredibly brittle.

The amount they were able to improve these kids lives was amazing (and made damn fine television if you like that sort of thing, and I do). The girl who was allergic to the sun had barely been able to leave her bedroom; they redid the entire house, and created a giant sun-shade so that she could go outside (then they built a whole lot of solar panels so that her parents wouldn't have huge electricity bills, it's that sort of show). The little boy had to walk on his knees, so just carpetting the floors made a difference, as did a rail, that made it easier for him to walk.

Now the 'specialness' of these kids were relentlessly pounded into us, they're loving and giving and creative and wonderful, and that's why they deserve to have the house fixed up. I think it's part of the twisted logic Amanda talked about:

In other words, it’s an elaborate justification for the divine right of kings. You can tell who is most deserving by who is most rewarded and you reward the most deserving who you identify by the fact that they are the most rewarded. Simple, circular logic that has the side benefit of making it easy not to think about the state of the world much at all.
Every Extreme Makeover: Home Edition family must be extra super duper deserving, and then all the show is doing is righting the natural order of things, it's not an idictment on capitalism at all.

But what it makes me think is this: we could do this for everyone.

There's no reason houses can't be made to fit everyone, and not just people whose bodies work in a reasonably standard way. There's no reason why basic modifications that make people's life easier should be a luxury, only available for those who are rich enough to afford it. Technology which makes physical impairment less disabling should and could be available to everyone.

I know not everyone will react to this show the way I do, but I like to think that some other people watching won't just cry with happiness when the family get everything they've ever needed, they'll also get angry.

I've got one other comment to make about disability, houses, and capitalism. A friend of the family is engaged in a long-term project to study how much shittily made houses damage people's health. The answer is, of course, quite a bit.

Let's not forget that capitalism causes these problems, as well as refusing to solve them.


  1. Of course the state sponsored houses of the Communist GDR were perfect examples of disabled friendly architecture?

    Yes this is an issue that deserves some kind of spotlight. By trying to blame it on Capitalism you create a non sequiter which alienates those able to do anything about it.

  2. "But what it makes me think is this: we could do this for everyone."

    Who is "we"??????

    I certainly can't afford to fix everyone's house. Is "we" the government? If so, how will they pay for it... through taxes paid by capitalists. Or are you suggesting that all of the world's governments nationalize all of the world's industries so that the revenues made by those industries would be used to pay to fix everyone's houses? Without a robust economy, that would be impossible. In purely socialist or communist nations where all industry was/is nationalized, the living conditions of the disabled have been deplorable. Some disabled persons were actually exterminated by communist governments so that those governments would not have to utilize resources for people with special needs.

    Do your research before you make such outlandish arguments that are clearly without merit.

  3. Let's not forget that capitalism causes these problems, as well as refusing to solve them.

    This would be typically collectivist thinking. 'Capitalism' does not cause the (carefully chosen and unrepresentative set of) problems you claim. People do.

    It would appear to me that what you would really like is more altruism, people being nice to each other and pulling together. Which I agree is a good thing. Capitalism certainly does not exclude altruism, and it does have the wonderful property of highlighting where people are being voluntarily shitty to each other.

    I am guessing that you would proscribe some kind of govt solution (since people clearly can't be left to their own devices to help each other right?) which consists of some people being even more shitty to many more people, but with a false veneer of moral superiority. Your means to 'make' people be nicer to each other are force, theft and opression, the very antithesis of what makes the world better and what you would claim to be achieving.

    So tell me, if you are so anti-capitalism, why are you watching a programme that is produced by capitalists for the sole purpose of making money, which cynically uses emotional manipulation and exploits people in hardship like sideshow freaks to increase audience sizes to the benefit of capitalist advertisers? Or is it ok because, in this case, the results happen to suit your agenda?

  4. I really want to see the episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in which they did up the house for the kid with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bones, or OI). Unfortunately I don't get the channel the show is carried on in the UK.

    From what I've heard, the show was actually about making good TV that most people without thinking about OI would be made to think "Oh, that's a good idea." But, in reality would make no improvements to his life.

    I heard they padded the floor and the edges of furniture. Once upon a time there was a theory that dictated that whenever a child with OI was born, they should be put on a pillow and not touched, played with, or encouraged to move. Aside from obviously being a psychologically and developmentally damaging tactic, it also does nothing to make bones stronger. Immobility doesn't protect bones. In fact it makes them weaker, and you'll just get Osteoporosis on top of OI that much earlier in life.

    One of the things about OI is that breaks don't happen rationally. You can fall on a hard floor and not break a thing if you land right. But you can land on a padded surface and break half the bones in your body if you land wrongly. So, padding the floor, you're not reducing the risk of breaks at all. OK.

    But, I understand he walked using a walker, right? We're notoriously unsteady on our feet because our joints are incredibly floppy and give way a lot. Walking on a soft surface is much harder than walking on a hard surface. Thus, walking on a padded floor he's *more* likely to fall over, and the padding doesn't reduce the risk of breaks in the slightest.

    Thus - what was shiny TV to viewers actually made his life more dangerous.

    I agree with you that globally more tax money needs to be spent on accessible housing. But, the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition way of "accessing" isn't neccessarily the right way to go about it.

  5. For the Ayn Rad fanatics: I have very little time for Eastern bloc style communism, so it's not a very effective refutation of my argument.

    You may be able to guess from teh title of this blog that I'm not very fond of capitalism. I don't think it's a very good way of organising our society. Therefore telling me that my proposals will never be fixable, under capitalism, just tell me what I already know.

    Dean make fun of me all you like over on your blog. But please don't waste my time commenting here.

    gekko: from memory (and it's a little hazy), I don't think he had those modifications.

    The main one I remember was a rail to make him more steady.

    The carpet was because he walked on his knees rather than his feet (I don't remember a walker).

    They could absolutely have been the wrong modifications as well though. I'm sorry I don't remember. I would have appreciated

  6. In the ones that I have seen where the children have specific illnesses they usually contact groups of similar people to see what they can do to help.

    The one that impressed me most was a boy who had some sort of Autism. I can't remember exactly what. However, they brought in a group to deal with all his specific stimulation requirements. The result was fantastic, from what I could tell. And I have a propensity to trust experts.

    I think that we could criticise this programme for days if we wanted, but the thing that I like most about it is the simple joy that everyone gets from it. Watching men unashamedly cry on tv because their children have their own space, or because their child has a better chance of survival are things that I find interesting and inspiring.

    My partner and I often discuss what could happen if that money was used for different things. We both agree that it could probably be better spent. But the shows that reward people who work for a community (firemen, policemen, volunteers, foster families, etc) are the ones I have hope for. I see the action and imagine that someone who sees the show is inspired to do something like blog about it, or do something else about it.

    I love the show, I love the reactions. I love the disbelief, I even love the reactions of the people who create the house, the community that shows up, all the little rituals of the show.

    I often think about doing this for everyone. And it's really cool to read your blog, even if The Army Of Know Alls showed up.

  7. Dean said: "Who is "we"??????"

    Er, "we" is "society", mate. This may be difficult to grasp, but many of us consider "society" to be the total set of people in our country, not a dichotomy of "the taxpayer" and "the government." I certainly can't afford to fix everyone's house either - but the total set of people in my country can. It's not that difficult a concept. It doesn't even require a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, although Maia probably wouldn't agree.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Sorry, there was a typo in the last post. Here is the corrected text.

    Dear Psycho Milt,

    If it is that easy for the collective "we" to fix the problems of society, then stop talking about it and do it.



  10. For anyone wondering about the possibility of this type of thing under capitalism read this:

    Makes an interesting challenge to the thinking that it is CAPITALISM that is at fault - rather than the removal of responsibility through taxation and income redistribution.

    Certainly not a perfect argument
    (I critique a little here:
    ) but worth reading to challenge the inbuilt assumptions about philanthropy supporting the community under capitalist systems.

  11. I said the concept is easy to grasp, Dean - I don't think anyone's under the impression actually achieving it would be easy.

  12. Well then psychomilt, all of your talking about it is Much Ado About Nothing. Empty rhetoric without action is well... empty rhetoric. Talking about hunger doesn't feed anyone. Talking about peace doesn't end wars. Talking about getting "society" together to fix up houses for disabled people doesn't get them fixed. What does work you ask? It appears that capitalism seems to have worked for a few families that were the beneficiaries of the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition gifts. It goes like this... Show gets sponsors, sponsors pay money, money goes to make profits AND do good deeds, people watch show, people buy sponsor's products. Everyone in the process gets some benefit. How is that "bad"???

    If you would like to continue this debate, we can do so on my blog, since I have been asked nicely (and will honor that request) not to continue freely expressing my opinions on this page.

  13. Sort of reminds me of the old "Queen for a Day" (probably not as egregiously exploitive, but in concept, maybe)

    Yeah; it is interesting how worked up people get at the very *idea* that "hey, everyone could live well and happily, maybe, if only we decided that was a goal we could and would aim for." The specter of Stalinism is one thing; but also I think people are very very attached to the notion of "not enough to go around." Because if there *were* enough to go around, how would you know you were special?

  14. Dear Maia:

    ALL forms of communism/socialism/Marxism/whateverism lead to Eastern Bloc (nowadays Third World) Communism. End of story.

    A wise man once said that "Power corrupts, but absolute power corrputs absolutely." A socialist state places absolute power in the hands of the government with no controls or checks "by the people, for the people." Was it Lenin who said "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need?" Sorry, but I don't read up on socialist nutjobs. It goes something like that. It pretty much states the communist/socialist opinion that we should reward and support sloth and laziness by means of social programs while punishing the successful by means of taxes and wealth redistribution. By reading this blog, I've come to the conclusion that you are of the same mindset.

    I know you'd like it much more if someone like me were shipped off to the gulag for my opinions, but considering that you're not an American and you (thank the Good Lord) have no control over my government and country, that's not going to happen.

    Remember, Communism only killed 100 million people! Let's give it another chance!

  15. Jesus! The simplistic binaries postulated by the various passing capitalists are compelling aren't they?

    Capitalism or Stalinism. There is no other option. Hell if we abolish capitalism we'll all have to move to Eastern Europe.

    Seriously though, your post raises a lot of interestign questions which merit thought and hopefully action.

    There is little question that the distribution of resources under capitalism tends to favour small minorities at the expense of majorities. One can conceive of a society which might distribute resources more fairly, but who is to say that the disabled will neccesarily benefit?

    Presumably you envision some kind of thoroughgoing democracy in a post-capitalist society. One would hope that such a society would treat the disable more equitably, but surely is disablism is not countered first there is a risk that while the majority of the population have their lives improved the disabled continue to be downtrodden?

    I don't think any of this is inevitable, but I wonder if you have any thoughts...?

  16. D kid,

    I have lots of thoughts but I'm not supposed to es\xpress them freely on this site.



  17. the how seems to be a classic case of capitalism in action. Possibly including misallocation of resources (from a socialist perspective).

    as for capitalism I dont think capitalism could be "the cause" of the problem because the problem pre-dates capitalism.

    having said that democratic capitalism may well stand in the way of solutions such as Fascism and ideal communism.

    Im not sure if we could consider anarchy a solution - we gave that a go for many milenium and it was rather worse than capitalism (or for that matter basically any of the other solutions).