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“It’s not like it says SYSTEM on the Door”: Capitalism, Aging, & Systematized Oppression in Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings

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“It’s not like it says SYSTEM on the Door”:

Capitalism, Aging, & Systematized Oppression
in Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings


Throughout Good Kings Bad Kings, each point of view character plays into and against structures of capitalism, mostly expressed in the institution of Illinois Learning & Life Center. Many of the characters are trapped by "the System", as the character Joanne Madsen refers to it, on page 200. Each has their own varying level of consciousness of that system.  However, Joanne herself has trouble defining what it is: so, how could the monolithic system be defined more concisely? How can we name the oppression that is created by the system, and begin to work against it by naming and knowing it?

There are a few sets of interrelated factors to consider, and a few theorists who can help to guide us. The first of these sets of factors is the constant role of money, the lack of it, and the desire for more. A second set is tensions of age, ability, and the question of independence. The work of Marilyn Waring in feminist economics, Chandra Mohanty’s assertion of feminism as anti-capitalist, and the concept that social movements must not be entirely defined by what they are against (again from Mohanty)  can help to guide us on thinking about the first. Additionally, Obioma Nnaemeka’s concept of nego-feminism can help us to understand the second.

Money & Capitalism

One of the most consistent themes in Good Kings Bad Kings is the role of money, in nearly every decision that is made. ILLC is an integral part of a system that exploits disabled children and young adults, treating their very lives and beings as commodities. This is all done in the name of “caring” for them, and “giving them the best lives”. In fact, this rhetoric of “caring for those poor children” is fundamentally devaluing of the worth of their lives. This is shown over and over again in multiple chapters, but most notably in Michelle Volkmann’s chapters. Michelle is a low-level employee of Whitney-Palm, a recruiter, who is at the same time an exploiter of the disabled, and exploited by the company. At the same time that her salary is enough that it keeps her on a fairly even keel financially, it is so low that she would not be able to quit and survive long enough to find another job, and she additionally earns a commission off of each bed she fills at a Whitney-Palm facility.

The company has a corner on the market: The State of Illinois is obligated by law to care for the disabled under certain conditions, in the real world, and have farmed out the work as contract to private companies. In the novel, this is through the fictitious “care company” Whitney-Palm. The only thing that Whitney-Palm truly cares about, as dictated by the principles of capitalism, is making a profit off of their patients; they do not care about taking care of their patients any more than what is needed to maintain appearance of adhering to the letter of the law.

This is where the work of Marilyn Waring comes in. In her book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth (1999 edition), and the documentary about her life and work, Who Counts? (National Film Board of Canada, 1995), Waring discusses the ways in which capitalism exploits nearly everyone within its system. In fact, she begins the film with the example of the Exxon Valdez Disaster, citing it as one of the most economically valuable events in recent memory. She illustrates the point by citing many different corners of the market that earned money because of it, many of them not obvious; the people employed in cleaning up the disaster, the media’s increased revenues in covering the story, the donations coming in to environmental nonprofits. Yet this is one of the greatest environmental disasters in history—we still are feeling the implications, and do not know all of them. Would the animals that died in the disaster consider it valuable? What will be the long-term impact on human life?

So too is the exploitation of the disabled incredibly profitable, and incredibly deleterious. At every step of the way, Whitney-Palm, and especially individuals higher up in the corporation’s structure, is making money off of each resident. Let us take the case of Pierre (seen mostly in Ricky Hernandez’s point-of-view chapters): he has been stuck in the system since he picked up by the police, sent to hospitals for treatment, to several different facilities for his disabilities, and through much litigation. In fact, the doctor in charge of care for the residents of ILLC, Dr. Caviolini[1], sends Pierre to St. Theresa’s hospital for myriad medical tests during one memorable week, during the earlier part of the novel, when Pierre had no flare-up of his condition present.[2]

However, late in the novel, he is beaten severely over a small incident by one of the caregivers employed there, a former prison guard. At this point, Pierre is taken by EMTs to Children’s Memorial Hospital[3], one of the few places not paid off by Whitney-Palm. Finally, he is given adequate care, and is able to start healing. The caregiver who inflicted his injuries, too, is finally fired, though no legal action is taken against him.

If we want to frame this in terms of capitalist economics, Pierre is one of the most profitable patients of ILLC. He keeps generating value, with every one of his problems, at each junction: it is only when he is sent to Children’s Memorial Hospital that he is able to escape that part of the system, for a short time.

The essential problem with capitalist economics, which is one of the foundations of the monolithic “System” that Joanne refers to, is that value is generated off of anything that generates money for anyone. At its heart, economics should be conceived of as a system of determining value. Is this truly creating something of value, when people earn money off of each other’s suffering?


The structure of institutionalization of the disabled also plays directly into questions of age, ability, and independence. This is illustrated especially well in the character of Teddy Dobbs. 

Throughout the novel, the people in power at ILLC refer to the patients as “children.” However, there are multiple age brackets present at ILLC, from very young children to young adults. Teddy himself is 21, and anticipating being transferred to a nursing home just after he turns 22, the legal age at which he will no longer be able to live at ILLC. Instead, the company which runs ILLC, Whitney-Palm, decided to send him directly out to a facility several hours from his father, where he would be completely isolated and dependent, even more so than he had been in his life before.

Teddy spends much of the novel trying to avert being transferred, and to instead use his legal right to independent housing through a charitable organization called Access Now, near-certainly a fictionalized version of the real-life Chicago organization Access Living. If he had been able to gain an apartment, with all the necessary support services, it would have been one of the first times in his life where he had agency, which the systematized oppression expressed and maintained by ILLC had forced him and his father into being robbed of.

At ILLC, Teddy is treated along with all the other residents as being a dependent child, despite the fact that he is into his twenties. At a nursing home, he would be treated as one of the elderly, a group that is also strongly infantilized. He would be going from being treated as a young person with no agency, outside of his developmental stage, to being treated as an elderly person with no agency. The developmental period of adulthood is what our society tells us should be when we have effective autonomy and agency over ourselves. Effectively, among many other things, the “System” was trying to rob Teddy of his adulthood, as it has so many other people with disabilities.


Yet another expression of the effects of the “System” can be seen in the characters of Jimmie Kendrick and Ricky Hernandez. Both characters are caregivers at ILLC, and are forced by their socioeconomic status to continue working at a place they know is so fundamentally flawed, oppressive, and exploitive. Their actions throughout the novel, of trying to the best they can for the people they can help, illustrate the concept of nego-feminism, named by Obioma Nnaemeka in her 2004 paper.  

Jimmie does this greatly through her caring for Yessenia Lopez, one of the residents of ILLC and a point-of-view character, but she also does this through her approach in treating all the residents she interacts with. She tries as best she can to treat them all as people first, not as problems or patients, actively not objectifying them, and working with them, rather than doing work to them. Ricky, too, has a similar approach. He actively tries to imagine what is going on in the minds of each ILLC resident he works with, most notably Pierre, especially when many of the essential problems that the residents have is that they cannot easily communicate their needs, wants, and desires.

What they are doing is the heart of nego-feminism. They are working in an institution that is what Joanne calls one of the places that should have a sign saying “System” on the door. Yet, they are working with and through the system to destabilize and dismantle that same system, to return humanity and equality to a profoundly unequal and dehumanizing situation. Their good intentions and actions are what make them heroic and nego-feminists, though they likely have no way to name it, other than “trying to do good.”


Nego-feminism, too, comes into play towards in an event towards the end of the book: when Yessenia Lopez stages her (initially) one-woman protest. At this point in the book, Teddy has been killed by complications from a horrible accident in a shower at ILLC. In fact, the incident surrounding Teddy’s death is a tragic accident that could have been averted but for the exploitation of his caregiver: the woman caring for him wasn’t even able to take a break to call her husband. If she had been able to take that break, instead of taking a chance on an incredibly vulnerable person, she would have been able to be there and present when the pipes malfunctioned. She would have been able to pull him from the superheated water that burned through his skin, to his very bones, to stop him from slipping and getting concussed. If his caregiver had been able to be there, Teddy would not have died in horrible pain, and before his time.

Yessi returns from his funeral, and begins her planned, one-woman protest against her and her comrades’ treatment at the hands of ILLC. The form of her protest, in fact, is inspired by a gift that Joanne gave her.[4] It is a poster of a “hot brother”, as Yessi puts it, a man in a wheelchair who chained himself to the doors of one of the “System” buildings as protest. Yessi uses this as the starting point of her protest: she belts herself and her wheelchair to a tree in front of ILLC, dressed up in some of her favorite clothes, and holds a sign she made that says “THIS PLACE ABUSE AND KILL CHILDREN.” Soon, as people return from Teddy’s funeral, they begin to join her—whomever can afford to be there publically, like some of her fellow residents, and Joanne, the person who inspired her. Joanne calls up the people she knows at Access Now, and together they all build this into an event that gets on the news, and brings attention to the horrors of the system that ILLC so desperately tried to cover up. This is probably Yessi’s first experience of the accomplishments of interdependence, a core tenet of the Independent Living movement in the Disability Rights Movement, which Access Now is an active organization therein. By each person doing what they can, starting with Yessi’s solo protest, and then each person group adding on what they can do, they build a greater whole than any one of them could do alone.

Naming & Identifying the “System”

At its heart, the “System” that Joanne named can be characterized as capitalist, oppressive, and exploitive of everyone but the people pulling the strings. Even those who are not the most obviously exploited[5] are themselves exploited, at the same time they play into the System. It is those who work against it, even if they may be within the System, that can, must, and do work to change the system. These groups must work together to defeat the capitalist, patriarchal system of oppression, to recognize it, and to dismantle it, to move towards a community where these horrors are no longer commonplace.



Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "“Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity Through Anticapitalist Struggles." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 8 No. 2, Winter 2003, 499-535. Print.

Nnaemeka, Obioma. "Nego‐Feminism: Theorizing, Practicing, and Pruning Africa’s Way.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 9 No. 2, Winter 2004, 357-85. Print.

Nussbaum, Susan. Good Kings Bad Kings. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2013. Print.

Waring, Marilyn. Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth. 2nd ed. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

[1] Dr. Caviolini even discusses the patients as if they were commodities—he makes a routine of exploiting the children for money from the insurance companies! However, justice finally catches up with him, at least in some way: the FBI is able to have enough material to indict him by the end of the book.

[2] It is never made completely clear what Pierre’s conditions are—he is described as profoundly abused, with multiple head injuries, and possible mental disabilities/illnesses that were present even before his head injuries. Dr. Caviolini, and other doctors that have treated him, have diagnosed with him diseases that he may not have, and yet have put no diagnosis to his multiple head injuries, based on which is the most profitable.

[3] One of only a few facilities that was not renamed/fictionalized.

[4] Note that Joanne is a fellow crip woman with enough privilege from her accident settlement money to be able to not work, and to be very involved with crip activism.

[5] The most-exploited being the “commodities”, the patients, the residents of ILLC.