Productivity: The Ableist Fantasy

Productivity: The Ableist Fantasy

Photograph by Anastasia Miseyko/Connected Archives


Words by Georgina Johnson

Capitalism doesn’t want you, writes The Slow Grind editor Georgina Johnson. If you can’t fully oil and optimize your being to its standards, it will spit you out with inaccessibility and an overly-complicated medical system.

I sat in my gynecologist and fertility doctor’s office and said frankly that: “I can’t get lost in the system.” Our appointment had come at a particularly difficult time. Ever since yet another hospital admission in June 2021, my life had felt like a fizzing electrical wire ready to shock me physically at every which turn. “You aren’t lost,” she told me. “You’ve just got to go at the pace of the system.”


Regardless of what she said, I felt lost. The silence and inaction from doctors felt—and continues to feel—like an open, empty cave with no light and no answers. But that is often what it is to be unwell; no options but to move at the pace of a system that wasn’t built to serve or fully understand pain, chronic illness or mental health—and even less so the confluence of all three. The truth is that capitalism doesn’t want you. If you can’t fully oil and optimize your being to its standards, it will spit you out with inaccessibility, and an overly-complicated medical system with the aim of erasing you because you aren’t fully able, you’re disabled, chronically ill or suffer with something enduring.


I wish I didn’t feel so much fury or have to channel it into my writing, but what I won’t do is write another think-piece on how to optimize to your heart’s content—or despite the discontent. I don’t want to feed the noise of “keep on and be strong,” because for those that are already so deeply underserved the very definition of “strong” is already void. Why do we collate productivity with strength as if these two are the default states we should be able to activate with immediacy? No. Fall down, cry aloud, scream and shout, do it alone or with people you trust, talk whatever it is through—and then talk it through again—until you break those synapses. Take the time to get quiet at first; processing, absorbing, building the energy to find the words. Whatever it is, learn the lines of your body, your grief, your fury. Don’t feed the beast and don’t validate the lie of calm. The world is on fire; you are on fire. Don’t sit back and stare in the face of a fire—see it for what it is and do what you can to save yourself.

Why do we collate productivity with strength as if these two are the default states we should be able to activate with immediacy? No.

Georgina Johnson
Editor, The Slow Grind

Capitalism’s function is to make land, sea, air, and body productive and profitable—let’s get that clear from the jump. I often get annoyed by the vagueness with which the word Capitalism is thrown around. It’s like nobody can define it in terms that the non-academic can understand, but I’ve found a description that I feel is pretty clear from the writers Ian G. R.Shaw and Marv Waterstone: “Capitalism is more than just an economic system: it is an existential conflict felt deep in our bones, our minds and our ecosystems.” In their book Wageless Life, Shaw and Waterstone illustrate how the seeping of capitalism “into nearly every pore of the planet” creates a moral justification around the disposability and replaceability of individuals. This justification subjects those of us that cannot be productive in all the ways Patriarchal Capitalism demands to a “crushing form of social violence” that labels them as “[the] alien body… [the] cancerous growth gnawing at the healthy tissues of society.”


The unwell then, are naturally a part of this strata of the population that become worldless in the self-expanding profit economy by being marked as the “surplus population”—as outcasts that are perpetually in and out of the labor force. They are intimately affected by the precarity of a fluctuating socio-economic environment because the system cannot and will not support them. The violence of the ideology lies in the fact that it is entirely purposeful and justified through the normalization of behaviors that, in particular, the industrialized or steadily employed worker validates—deliberately or not—through the creation of structures that isolate the “alien.”


Acts of unlearning threaten the very existence of this belief system. When Audre Lorde in her Cancer Journals said that “imposed silence about any areas of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness,” I feel she is talking precisely to how, through the collective masking and choreographed dissociation of pain, we are intentionally (or unintentionally) refusing to unlearn. It’s a sentiment also expressed by Nafissa Thompson-Spires in her essay On Telling Ugly Stories: Writing with a Chronic Illness where she speaks with a fullness that I find hard to read, even as someone with a chronic illness—a fellow alien. I felt that I was the one writing the words in her essay. She has chronic endometriosis, as do I. And when she says that she doesn’t “want to get a reputation for being unable to do things” she speaks on the rationale for silence. She goes on:


“Endometriosis is idiosyncratic…It often causes many more problems than [unbearably] painful periods and infertility, problems like pelvic-floor dysfunction, which makes sex difficult and at times impossible; higher rates of infections; depression; anxiety; chronic fatigue; vulvodynia; anemia; insomnia; all sorts of digestive problems; and unexplained bleeding… The characteristic stabbing pains often extend from the abdomen to the pelvis and the legs. Sometimes endo makes it difficult to walk.” 


The latter I know well. When you are in consistent pain, it is hard to care about much. It’s hard to be present and it’s even harder to be productive, so you stay silent for fear of getting the unable-to-do-things reputation. And when our lives are flooded with the ministry of toxic-positivity—one of the many modern messages that serve economic progress and acceleration—all we wish for is to be productive, active, and if you are unwell then you want to be reintegrated into the able-to-do-things class of the population.

By prioritizing empathy in a world built on apathy, we reorganize and reclaim our planet and our bodies with care and with tenderness.

Georgina Johnson
Editor, The Slow Grind

But there are ways to begin mending our broken system. Ariel Salleh, in her book Ecofeminism As Politics, spells out with depth and honesty just how crucial she believes ecofeminist actions to be in overturning communal behaviors, those that prioritize the domination and productivity of both nature and the body. Salleh reminds us that capitalism’s function affects both the human and the beyond human. It undermines our relationship to nature so that we cohesively exploit and extract from her. Salleh also declares that the link between the personal and the political is inextricably strong. Through her analysis of various movements and writers that sought to celebrate “the social value of caring,” Salleh references the ancient Greek word oikos, which refers to familial relationships within a household but which is also the “etymological root for both ecology and economics.”


The shared root can seem ironic in this day and age as the connections between care, community and ecological preservation have been systematically severed from the neoliberal systems that govern us—to the point of erasure. But, by reminding ourselves that we are part of an ecosystem—valuable members of an intricately beautiful, life-affirming community—we can begin to heal the wounds caused by profit-seeking, productivity, and extractivism.


So, what we are ultimately talking about when we discuss illness is value. A profit-driven welfare system, for instance, will repeatedly put into question the viability and useability of the ill body. Our world has been so crippled by the chase for capital that creating space for true welfare, for a system that cares for our bodies and our planet, seems like it would end the world as we know it. In some ways, it would. And any ending feels scary—but when you have been made worldless a thousand times over, and have internalized distrust for your own body simply because it cannot be productive in a capitalist sense, you meet the end of yourself almost every day. As such, maybe the end would just mean an end to the equation of: labor = power, and power + capital = fully human.


Here, then, is the mandate and the key. Audre Lorde further writes in her Cancer Journals that the process of writing and reckoning with illness is a “process of integrating…crisis into life” because looking in the face of that which renders you powerless is frightening. But she also tells us that “fears are most powerful when they are not given voice.” So, maybe in revoking the power of silence, in learning to write with fury and to believe in both our own pain and the pain of those with chronic illness, we learn to empathize with a wider worldly struggle. It might seem enormous, yes, but, by prioritizing empathy in a world built on apathy, we do as Lorde says—we reorganize “the enemy outside and within” and reclaim our planet and our bodies with care and with tenderness.

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