Extract and Abandon?: Surplus value and surplus populations in Health Communism

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant’s Health Communism (2022) is a remarkable intervention into (recently dormant) debates on the relationship between disablement, capitalism, and social control. Marshalling a conceptual toolkit from diverse post-Marxist and post-structuralist sources, Adler-Bolton and Vierkant argue not only that the struggle against disablism is a deepening and broadening of class struggle (as per Northern European and Japanese Marxist traditions), but that disablement itself is grounds for the revolutionary subject – with disputes over the nature of health and its rights to services capitalism’s ‘vulnerability’ and ‘only fear’ (pp. 11; 212).

This presentation approaches two core concepts in Adler-Bolton and Vierkant’s work with close corollaries in Marxist analysis and disabled people’s social movements – ‘surplus’ (the ‘marking’ of functionally different populations as superfluous to capital) and ‘extractive abandonment’ (subjection to service quasi-markets to make otherwise unproductive subjects profitable). While enriching descriptive accounts of disabled people’s position following state retreats from welfare, I argue, neither conceptual innovation provides the explanatory capacity or strategic insight of their movement predecessors – relative surplus populations (Marx, UPIAS), and forms of exploitation unique to the ‘disability industry’ (Paul Hunt, Ken Davis) respectively.

By binarizing the ‘surplus’ category with that of (value) productive work, and predicating it on an abstract global relationship between health and capital, I argue the framework of Health Communism obscures social relations irreducible to health (employment, education, etc) in disability oppression, and the specific national, regional, and class dynamics in which disablement is contested. Likewise, I argue, extractive abandonment requires a backwards reading of quasi-market outputs (inferring social relations from profit accounting) which misidentifies sources of economic extraction and para/extra-economic domination within segregated provision. The exclusion of these variables creates an overly linear analytic model compared to previous attempts (which described shifting, often chaotic, responses to multiple capitalist contradictions), hamstringing its contribution to strategic questions for contemporary liberation struggles.
Period4 Apr 2023


  • Marxism
  • Disablement
  • Social Movement Studies
  • Beatrice Adler-Bolton
  • Artie Vierkant
  • Political economy of health