A searing analysis of health and illness under capitalism from hosts of the hit podcast “Death Panel”
In this fiery, theoretical tour-de-force, Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant offer an overview of life and death under capitalism and argue for a new global left politics aimed at severing the ties between capital and one of its primary tools: health.
Written by co-hosts of the hit “Death Panel” podcast and longtime disability justice and healthcare activists Adler-Bolton and Vierkant, Health Communism first examines how capital has instrumentalized health, disability, madness, and illness to create a class seen as “surplus,” regarded as a fiscal and social burden. Demarcating the healthy from the surplus, the worker from the “unfit” to work, the authors argue, serves not only to undermine solidarity but to mark whole populations for extraction by the industries that have emerged to manage and contain this “surplus” population. Health Communism then looks to the grave threat capital poses to global public health, and at the rare movements around the world that have successfully challenged the extractive economy of health.
Ultimately, Adler-Bolton and Vierkant argue, we will not succeed in defeating capitalism until we sever health from capital. To do this will require a radical new politics of solidarity that centers the surplus, built on an understanding that we must not base the value of human life on one’s willingness or ability to be productive within the current political economy. Capital, it turns out, only fears health.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton is an artist and writer, currently completing an MA in CUNY’s Disability Studies program. She is disabled and chronically ill, a subject position which made clear to her how untenable the American left’s approach to health care legislation was. Artie Vierkant is an artist and writer.
Alongside social scientist Philip Rocco, they started the “Death Panel” podcast in 2018, a popular twice-weekly podcast on “struggles over healthcare, economic inequality, social justice, and the people, policies, and media narratives that stand in the way.” Death Panel has a listener-initiated reading group on disability justice and has become a “cult hit” in the art world.
"This book changed the way I think about health, power, state capacity, extraction, social welfare, and resistance. It is an immensely useful tool for wrestling with the most urgent questions facing our movements in these terrifying times. Readable and filled with concise histories and clear examples to illustrate nuanced analysis, it will no doubt become required reading among those struggling against the death cult that is racial capitalism."
—Dean Spade, author of Mutual Aid
"Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant bring us a galvanizing proposition: Unlike the rest of us, capital is not alive; it merely animates itself through our host bodies. This book shares the impressive truth that we are all surplus in the political economy of health, whether we are presently 'healthy' or 'sick.' Adler-Bolton and Vierkant teach that our shared condition of vulnerability is ever ready to transform into our collective strength."
—Jules Gill-Peterson, author of Histories of the Transgender Child
"Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant have been a lifeline for many during the COVID-19 pandemic through their Death Panel podcast, deconstructing the failed American response with a knife that cuts like truth. Here, they do something even more remarkable: imagine a better future. Health Communism doesn’t tinker around the edges. It makes a direct assault on the idea that health can survive under capitalism, where the sick are simply disposable, while the system making a killing along the way. No one talks like Adler-Bolton and Vierkant do - those in public health and medicine are too deeply embedded in the status quo to even acknowledge the searing logic of their words. They stake out the far edge of what is possible and remind us that only the journey towards that horizon will make us free."
—Gregg Gonsalves, Yale School of Public Health and Yale Law School
"Health against health! I can't remember the last time I learned so much in under 200 pages. Nor can I imagine a more needful book for the pandemic we are still in, let alone the pandemics yet to come. This exquisitely researched 'surplus manifesto' made me cry tears of rage, but demonstrated powerfully to me that our collective illness can be ‘turned into a weapon.’ In my view, everyone new to disability liberation should read this text. Everyone who wants to stop the destruction of their bodies by capitalism should join the Death Panel community. If we let them, Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant will teach the left how to really understand capitalism, at the cellular and somatic levels. So, if you are holding this book, congratulations. Here is deep wisdom to arm a struggle towards forms of human embodiment as yet undreamed-of; inspiration for a million insurgencies of communist health."
—Sophie Lewis, author of Abolish the Family
"I could not help but cheer as I read Health Communism. The most analytically sharp analysis of the relations between capitalism and disability since the pioneering work of Marta Russell, this powerfully explicative work is a rousing manifesto for the sick and becoming-surplus to unite."
—Jasbir Puar, author of The Right to Maim
"Health Communism illustrates how people are viewed as fuel from which to extract profits through the medicalization and financialization of health outputs...[it] serves as a wake-up call for the dehumanization of healthcare delivery."
—Roberta E. Winter, The New York Journal of Books
"In Health Communism, [Adler-Bolton and Vierkant] show how members of the 'unproductive' surplus class are cast as burdens even as health capitalism sets up entire cottage industries (e.g. for-profit nursing homes, prisons) to extract value from this very population."
—Charlie Markbreiter, Bookforum
"This seamless book fills an urgent void in leftist theories of illness...the achievement of such a concise yet cogent framework (aided by the fact that the past years have only confirmed its conclusion) is a marvel."
—Selen Ozturk, PopMatters
"Surveying a century of sickness under an increasingly privatized system, in Health Communism Adler-Bolton and Vierkant argue that we have to demand much more than Medicare for All in order to fix health care."
—Spencer Green, The New Republic
"This is a book you should read before you die, because the ideas synthesized by Adler-Bolton and Vierkant could save our collective lives. Health Communism diagnoses our shared social sickness correctly. Rooted in the contemporary reality of mass death and disability, it reworks our familiar, commonsense concepts of sickness and health, care and cure, labor and waste to show how capitalist biomedicine wrings every last drop of productive labor from us before discarding us into the trash heap of 'surplus population' to carelessly be picked over and plundered until our death...Indeed, we are all ill under capitalism. Read this book. Care for your neighbors. Smash capitalism. Malingerers of the world unite."
—Jon Shaffer, Peste Magazine
"Health Communism is itself a blueprint, in the (roughly translated) words of SPK, for turning illness into a weapon."
—Jess McAllen, The Baffler
"[Health Communism] is a new way to find the universal in the particular, which is the kind of thinking tool we are in desperate need of at the moment. Turning those ideas into practice is a greater challenge. Where to start? Health communists begin with a compelling vision of society not as divided between abled and disabled or sick and well but as a vast web of people, all of whom have both abilities to contribute and needs to meet."
—Malcolm Harris, New York Magazine
"Heath Communism is not "well-behaved": It is not interested in sober consideration, dry pontifications. It thrives through a sense of optimism. There is a joy to a manifesto that sits alongside its anger. If it is birthed from complaint and fury, these emotions are funneled through a hope that things could be otherwise-most of all, an optimism for a new collective."
—Jon Venn, Full Stop
"Best Books of 2022"
—Joshua Frank, Counterpunch
"If you have ever gone to work sick because you need the job to treat the sickness, you know the basic argument of Health Communism to be true: health under capitalism is an impossibility."
—Natalie Adler, LUX Magazine
"Health Communism is, most fundamentally, a call for a new and expansive concept of health as a commons, a collective experience, and a collective commitment to human flourishing, freed from the ideological and financial strictures of market discipline."
—Abby Cartus, The New Republic
"This creative, wide-ranging book would be important under any circumstances since it helps readers understand widespread social processes that are genuinely violent in their operations yet often curiously bloodless in their ideological depictions. The book is especially urgent in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Health Communism helps make clear both the fundamental social patterns that gave rise to the pandemic, and stresses that any real solutions to those patterns will require far-reaching social change."
—Nate Holdren, Theory & Event