Published in Solidairty 434, 29 March 2017:
Can Marxism can help us to understand autistic experience in modern capitalism? How might Marxism inform our struggles for equality and liberation?
There are different approaches to understanding autism. Perhaps the dominant approach is a medical one: seeing autism as a disease or tragedy, and autistic people as being broken and needing fixing. Over recent years, a more progressive approach has developed. It stresses acceptance of autistic people rather than simply “awareness”, and demands rights, equality and support rather than abusive “treatments”.
This approach is based on the concept of neurodiversity: the recognition that the human species is neurologically diverse; that different people have different brain wiring. But this more progressive approach, while welcome, does not necessarily locate autism and neurodiversity within the social, economic and political structures of society. It is important to do this — firstly, because all disability exists in a social context; and secondly, because autism is largely an issue of how people interact socially. We are all expected to follow social rules, but who makes those social rules, and how?
Definitions: Autism and Marxism
Autism is an atypical neurology, an unusual brain wiring. Perhaps if the majority of the population is Windows, autistic people are Mac. This atypical neurology leads to atypical processing, cognitive functioning and communication, differences in social interaction and sensitivity to sensory inputs such as sound or light.
Marxism is scientific socialism. It studies socialism rather than just wishing for it, providing a critique of capitalism and advocating the self-emancipation of the working-class, the basic exploited class under capitalism. Marx described the working class as having “radical chains”, meaning the potential and power to liberate not just itself but other oppressed people too. Marxism sees change — and social liberation — coming through class struggle, with the ultimate aim of abolishing the division of society into classes.
The impact of capitalism on autistic lives
When capitalism became the established system, it brought development, knowledge, understanding, scientific enquiry, and the potential of providing more support for people. It accelerated production. It was a big improvement on what came before it. However, it also increased — and still increases — social pressure. It brings people together in a much more intense way, and puts a premium on how “good” you are socially.
Capitalism also increases light, noise and other sensory stimulation. For autistic people, modern capitalism is both developed and distressing. It brings huge advantages, great potential, but it also brings great distress. When we talk about autistic people being disabled, we mean that capitalism disables autistic people.
Explaining increasing diagnoses
There has been a significant increase in autism diagnosis over recent years. Why? Some who take a medical model approach explain it as an epidemic. A graphic circulated in the US declares: 10 years ago, 1 in 1000; 5 years ago, 1 in 500; today 1 in 88; and asks “scared yet?”
I am more scared of the thinking behind that graphic than I am of the increasing recognition of the prevalence of autism. The more progressive and accurate explanation is that rather than the prevalence of autism increasing, it is our recognition of it that is growing: society has an increased awareness of autism; there is a greater availability of diagnosis; and the criteria for diagnosing autism have been steadily widened over the years.
We can go further than this. The increasing social pressure that capitalism places on people, the increasing sensory overload that it throws at us, is causing more and more distress, so more and more autistic people are seeking diagnosis in order to access help. Society and its autistic members are coming into conflict with each other more and more. A lot of autistic people get their autism diagnosis having initially sought help for a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression.
Austerity and class differences in autistic experience
Since the economic crisis started in 2008, governments have pursued austerity policies, making working-class people pay for an economic crisis that we did not create. Those policies have deepened poverty and taken away access to support. In that situation, and in difficult situations generally, autistic people from wealthier families can often cope better. This is not to say that life is easy if you are from a wealthy background, but at least there is more access to resources and care.
Public spending cuts are directly affecting autistic people. Services have had their funding cut or have closed, including family support services, employment support services, day centres and other services. Austerity also causes social distress and insecurity, so it increases autistic people’s need for support with one hand, and takes away that support with the other.
Often you are expected to turn to charities when there is no public support available. But although some autism charities do provide some useful services, they play a negative role too. They reinforce the view of autistic people as objects of pity, often using patronising imagery to attract donations. They are rarely led by autistic people, and they don’t always stand on the same side as those of us fighting for liberation.
The misnamed US charity Autism Speaks promotes horrendous negative views of autism as a “tragedy”, and is regularly picketed by autistic activists. In the UK, the National Autistic Society is not nearly as bad, but it has an unacceptably wide pay gap between its senior managers and its support workers, and in 2013/14 it provoked teaching unions to strike by expecting teachers in its schools to work for lower pay than nationally-agreed rates for teachers in mainstream state schools.
Autism, neurodiversity, and production
In any Marxist analysis, it is important to look at the exploitation of labour. Autistic people are disadvantaged in employment. These statistics are for the UK, but the situation is similar elsewhere: • 43% of autistic adults have left or lost a job because of their condition • 41% of autistic adults over 55 have spent over 10 years without a paid job • 37% of autistic adults have never been in paid employment after the age of 16 • 15% of autistic adults are in full-time employment
Under the pretext of the economic crisis, employers have waged an offensive, with high-pressure management techniques and insecure employment. The rise of short-term contracts, unpredictable working hours and zero-hours contracts has a detrimental effect on all workers — but if you have an autistic mindset, and rely on predictability and routine, the impact can be even worse.
We have also seen a shift towards “customer service”, towards “soft” or “social” skills being valued above technical skills, even in quite technical industries such as public transport. We have seen public services commodified, with service users now seen as “customers”.
This can cause problems for people whose focus is their technical ability at the job rather than on narrowly-defined social skills. But alongside that, we have seen employers making more effort to recruit and accommodate autistic workers. While that is welcome, sometimes those employers let slip that one of their reasons is that they see the potential to exploit autistic people.
They talk about how much more productive certain autistic people may be, and how they are less likely to be distracted by social gossip. They may well be “cherry-picking” those autistic workers with the highest level of skill and the lowest level of support need. Such employers are commodifying autistic people’s talents rather than valuing them.
Work under capitalism is highly regimented, in its pace, its methods, its processes and its targets. Work provides very little or no scope or flexibility for people who think differently and who want to do things in a different way.
Crucial to winning a better future for autistic people, particularly in the area of work, is to change work not workers. There is plenty of advice available to autistic people on how to get or keep a job, but most of it is based around how to change ourselves to impress the employer and to “fit in” at work – basically, how to act like you are not autistic.
Far better than that would be for work itself to change, with the work environment, the pace and methods of work made more accessible to people whatever their brain wiring. Central to that is the idea of workers’ control: both individually and collectively, workers having control over, for example, the sensory environment in the workplace and how the job is done.
From the collective to the individual
Over the last few decades, in the shadow of labour movement defeats, the political discourse has shifted focus from the collective to the individual. Rather than bringing recognition of individual rights and differences, though, it has undermined the prospects of collective progress. We also have an emphasis on “success” that sets people up to fail.
Because if society sets standard of success that you don’t meet then the implication is that you have fallen short, that it is somehow your fault. One example is the legal notion of “reasonable adjustments”, changes that must be made to enable an autistic or otherwise disabled person to participate equally.
It was a step forward that this was incorporated into disability discrimination legislation. However, you only get these adjustments as an individual, they are only made when you identify yourself and your disability, and you have to prove that you are somehow flawed to get the adjustments you need.
It would be far better for workplaces, services and society to change generally, to become more accessible and more autism-friendly, to address autistic disadvantage in a collective rather than just an individual way.
The political economy of autism
Karl Marx wrote about “the political economy of the working class”, meaning the working class fighting for laws and policies that benefit us even if that is costly to capitalism. If we wrote a list of the changes we want in order to achieve equality for autistic people, then the bill for capitalism might be quite hefty.
But that’s just tough — we want those changes, those measures to alleviate distress, to stop discrimination and exclusion. We want to advance equality, regardless of the cost to the existing capitalist system.
A group of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent activists are currently working with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to draft an autism/neurodiversity manifesto — a list of policies for Labour to deliver significant progress towards equality. Labour movement demands will only win for autistic people if they reflect the neurodiversity of the working class — if, instead of assuming typical methods of thinking, they recognise that just as the working class is ethnically diverse, gender diverse, sexually and otherwise diverse, it is also neurologically diverse.
This opens up the discussion of what sort of society we are fighting for. What will socialism look like? How will it acknowledge and accept neurological diversity in a way that capitalism does not?
Transforming the labour movement
Autistic people fighting oppression want to be part of a united labour movement and left. We can facilitate that by auditing the failures of the left and the Labour Party, and by recognising our agency for change, our historical consciousness. We are not just analysing or commenting on society, we are trying to change it.
Our own movement will only be effective on this issue if it is habitable and accessible to autistic people. Trade unions, Labour Party, socialist groups –—think about your events, your activities, your publications, your members’ behaviour: would an autistic person find them welcoming or distressing? What changes can you make? What are you missing out on while you remain inhospitable?
Trade unions have recently increased work on this issue, but there is still a long way to go.
Taking this discussion forward
We might look in more detail at whether these and other theoretical approaches can be useful in understanding autistic experience under capitalism:
- Historical materialism: Karl Marx’s method of understanding society by studying how it has produced and reproduced the material requirements of life through history, rather than just taking a snapshot of society as it currently stands.
- Commodity fetishism: Marx wrote about the way in which under capitalism, the social relationships involved in production are presented as economic relations; human factors become commodities.
- Alienation: Marx also wrote about how under capitalism, the products of your labour are taken from you, leading to social alienation from various aspects of our humanity.
- Anomie and forced division of labour: Sociologist Émile Durkheim developed theories of breakdown of social norms and of how the profit motive drives people into unsuitable work.
- Cultural hegemony: Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote about the way in which a society which is, or has the potential to be, culturally diverse, comes to be dominated by the ideas and culture of the ruling class to the exclusion of those that do not fit in with its norms.
- Stigma: Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the idea of stigma as being socially discrediting, and how society disadvantages minorities who it sees as deviant.
- Social model of disability: For hundreds of years, disability was seen as something wrong with the individual, that needed fixing, shutting away or pitying. In the 1970s, the radical disabled people’s movement developed a new approach, distinguishing impairment from disability and arguing that society disables people with impairments by setting up barriers to equal and independent participation.
This is only the start of a discussion about Marxism and autism. There is a lot more work to be done, more avenues of understanding to explore.
Join the debate:
- Discussions about Marxism and Autism have taken place under the auspices of PARC: the Participatory Autism Research Centre – further discussions will be scheduled soon.
- Two Workers’ Liberty branches are holding public meetings on Marxism and Autism this week, with discussions led by Janine Booth:
- Leeds: Monday 3 April, 6.30-8.30pm, Packhorse Pub, Woodhouse Lane
- Newcastle: Wednesday 5 April, 7-9pm, Broadacre House, Market Street
- Online material and discussions on Janine’s website, here: www.janinebooth.com/issues-and-campaigns/marxism-and-autism