Autistic, dyspraxic, dyslexic and other people with atypical brain wiring have particular experiences under capitalism. These experiences have positive and negative aspects, and for many people include distress and disadvantage. What are the roots and the causes of this experience? Can we develop the positives while removing the disadvantages? Can we resolve the negatives by tweaking the current system? Or does equality and liberation require a new, radically different system? How do we achieve positive change?
This article will consider these questions in three sections:
- the experience of neurodivergent people under capitalism
- how socialism might remove the distress and discrimination that neurodivergent people experience
- how we get from 1 to 2!
1. Capitalism and neurodiversity
When capitalism came along, it rapidly developed society’s productive capacity. Human society became able to provide people with goods and services that no previous society had been able to provide and so to significantly improve their conditions of life.
However, it placed productive resources in the hands of private owners, so the way in which production increased was narrow, profit-driven and undemocratic. This created inequality and distress, and also led to the exclusion and oppression of neurologically atypical people, those whose brains are wired differently from typical people.
How does capitalism do this?
Rigid organisation of work. Capitalism’s new system of production, typified by factories, made every worker in a production process do the same thing in the same way at the same speed. This does not work well for people who work at a different pace or who see things in a different way. If your spatial awareness is more finely-tuned than your verbal awareness, if you process information in a different way to most people, if you concentrate in shorter spans than others, that is of little interest to the factory owner, who makes you work at the same pace and same way as everyone else. And although there have been many changes to production since the mills and factories of the nineteenth century, modern workplaces such as call centres, offices and warehouses work in similarly rigid ways. Lack of control over work processes is a key factor in the disadvantage and distress that neurodivergent people experience.
Sensory overload. Many neurodivergent people have unusually high (or unusually low) sensitivities to sensory inputs. An autistic or a dyspraxic person may, for example, be affected more than average by light, sound, smell or texture. Capitalism rapidly intensified the sensory environment, generating much more light and noise than previous societies. As time goes on, this assault on the senses becomes ever greater: particularly in big cities, modern capitalism batters your senses on a daily basis.
Social premium. How confident you are, how easily you get on with people, how well you ‘fit in’ … Social factors are becoming more and more important to your ‘success’ in the capitalist marketplace. This makes it harder for people who find social interaction difficult or stressful, who dislike eye contact or who communicate in atypical ways, which includes many autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. Over capitalism’s two- or three-century lifespan, production has shifted from agriculture and manufacturing towards service industries, where these ‘soft skills’ are valued more highly. There has been a shift within industries as well as between them, as even public services have become commodities in which managers insist that ‘customers’ require service with a smile. For example, railway employers appear to have become less concerned about their staff’s ability to do railway work and a lot more concerned about their ability to say ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’ to people after telling them that their train has been cancelled.
The commodification of neurodiversity. As knowledge of neurological diversity has grown, so capitalists have become aware of a new market for new products. Companies produce and sell software, toys, sensory aids, expensive treatments and so on. Some of this is useful, but some of it is not, and some of it is harmful. It promotes the idea that what atypical people need is not acceptance but products.
Profit-driven research. What research there is into autism and other neurodivergent conditions is driven by the companies doing the research, which are driven by developing products that they can sell. Research is very important, but there is a political content to what is driving it. The awful American charity ‘Autism Speaks’ spends millions of dollars on trying to find a cure for autism rather than providing support services or campaigning for acceptance, and in doing so is harming autistic people by portraying autism as a tragic illness or defect that needs to be eliminated.
Uneven progress. The development of production and social progress under capitalism creates new difficulties even while it moves society forward. For example. the brain wiring that is now called dyslexia has probably existed for thousands of years, but it did not become a problem and was not labelled ‘dyslexia’ until written language developed and became widespread, as it was not an issue until then. So the reason that dyslexic people have a problem or disability is because our society developed written language in a form that does not suit their brain wiring, not because they have some sort of fault. There is an interesting case of a man raised by an English family in Japan, who grew up bilingual and was severely dyslexic in English and not dyslexic at all in Japanese. This shows that his so-called impairment, his disability, is actually constructed by something that has developed socially ie. the form that language takes. Capitalism did something fantastic – it inherited, developed and universalised written language – but it did so in a way that suited the majority neurology and left behind the minority that it does not suit.
So, if we replace capitalism with a better system, how could it do things better for neurodivergent people?
How could it mobilise the contribution of the diverse brains of humanity in a more rational society?
2. Socialism and liberation
Under socialism, production will be planned for need rather than for profit. Instead of producing goods and services to sell for private profit, as capitalism does, a socialist system will see productive wealth owned collectively and controlled democratically. It will identify human needs and allocate resources to meet those needs.
Universal design. With collective ownership and democratic planning, we could transform the built environment. We could apply ‘Universal Design’, an approach which takes into account all impairments and neurological variants in designing the built environment. Buildings and outdoor designed spaces can have not only step-free access but also a minimum-distress sensory environment, clear navigation, information in various formats, relaxation spaces, and so on.
Support services. Under government austerity policies, support services for autistic, dyspraxic and other people have been cut. Even without the pretext of economic crisis, capitalism does not provide the services we need: there is not even universal public provision of dyslexia or dyspraxia assessments for adults. Under socialism, we will put our resources where they are needed rather than where someone can make money out of them: we will support people’s care and participation in society.
Pluralism in communication methods. If society were to facilitate people to communicate in the way that suits them, then it would include many more people. In our current society, it is ‘efficient’ for a particular capitalist enterprise to insist on communication conformity – so, for example, a company will exclude dyslexic people by insisting on all reports being in writing, or exclude autistic people by insisting on eye contact in interviews. By contrast, socialism will organise society collectively, as a whole, rather than in competing units, so can enable people to communicate verbally, visually, or in whichever way suits them best.
Democratic and accountable research. Scientific research is important and valuable, but neurodivergent people are often justifiably nervous about the sort of research that is going on. We want to have a say in what sort of research is done and how the questions are asked. When a charity or a pharmaceutical company asks what causes autism, it is already making an assumption that autistic brain wiring is a deviation from the norm. It is surely more objective to ask what causes different brains to develop differently. Under socialism, we will be able to resource research, and to focus it on better understanding neurological difference in order to reduce disadvantage and distress. Moreover, instead of having lots of separate research departments of separate companies competing with each other, researchers will be able to co-operate and thus achieve more rapid progress.
Workers’ control. Having more control over your sensory environment, the hours you work and the pace and method of your work would take a great deal of pressure and hostility away from neurodivergent people. It would make workplaces less distressing and therefore more accessible. Only sixteen per cent of autistic adults of working age are in full-time employment – not because only sixteen per cent of autistic adults are capable of working full-time, but because working conditions are so hostile and we have so little control. Capitalism may be ‘efficient’ in generating profits for individual capitalist enterprises, but it is not an efficient use of resources across the board. Many autistic people struggle with jobs where it is not clear how their work fits in to the overall production process. This is common under capitalism, which does not consider this to be the worker’s concern, and which requires you only to do your bit to produce a product which is taken away from you and sold. Socialism will end this alienation of workers from the products of our labour and reconnect us with the work we do.
The good without the bad. We want socialism to benefit neurodivergent people by combining the advantages of mass production with a renewed scope for diversity and individuality. We don’t want to go back to pre-capitalist societies or to abandon the levels of production that we have now (although there are levels of production that we don’t need, such as weapons, advertising and duplicate products). We want mass production without everyone having to be the same, sitting next to each other, doing the same thing, producing the same fifteen widgets per hour, meeting the same performance targets. If you want to go off on an obsessive tangent about something then you might actually come up with a real breakthrough, so let’s have a society that allows that.
Co-operative not competitive. Competition is distressing for many neuroatypical people (as well as for many neurotypical people). Capitalism encourages us to compete over everything. Employers pit workers against each other: who is going to do better in their performance review, who is going to get the bonus, who is going to be employee of the month. Firms compete with each other, making employment insecure. A cooperative economy would remove that level of hostility.
Reduced sensory overload. Democratic, considerate planning could reduce sensory stimuli. A clean, sustainable environment would be better than an assault on your senses, and as a bonus, would save the planet! A co-operative rather than competitive economy would reduce the volume of advertising. Imagine a world without adverts and see how much calmer and more pleasant it would be.
Karl Marx said: from each according to ability, to each according to need. This is the guiding principle of what we are fighting for: that people contribute to society in the way and to the level that they are able to and receive the support and resources that they need to get on with their lives.
3. From capitalism to socialism
Sadly, capitalism is not going to say ‘Good points. Let’s have socialism instead.’
We have achieved some progress under capitalism. For example, left-handedness is a neurological variant, and in the not-too-distant past, left-handed people were seriously mistreated. Schools caned kids’ left hands or tied them behind their backs to force them to write with their right hands. Then people objected, and society realised that it didn’t matter which hand was dominant. Some capitalists spotted an opportunity to produce left-handed scissors and guitars and make some money, and now very few left-handed people would say that they are oppressed, even if things might be a bit awkward at times.
That is an example of how by campaigning, arguing and enlightenment, we can achieve progress within capitalism. But these changes were at low or no cost to capitalists, and even profitable for some. That is not going to be the case with other disadvantages facing neurodivergent people. Capitalism will not willingly make changes that cost it money or power. Workers’ control is essential to accepting neurological diversity but will cost capitalists both money and power: it will mean that they are not in charge of ‘their’ workplaces any more, and they will not accept that graciously.
We can achieve full liberation only if we overthrow and supersede capitalism – and we will be most effective if we do so in a neurodiversity-friendly way!
We can make the case for liberation through socialism: we can say to autistic, dyslexic, other neurodivergent people and our allies that yes, we can fight for advances within this society, but we can go beyond this to imagine and fight for a different society. We can do this most effectively if we develop theory, write and discuss seriously about Marxism, autism and neurodiversity, as Workers’ Liberty has started to do.
As knowledge grows about autism, dyslexia and the diversity of human brain wiring, it is important to avoid going along with mainstream ‘neurodiversity awareness’ and the employers’ agenda. Bland ‘awareness’ campaigns ask only that people notice the issue a bit more; they do not demand change. We need action not just awareness. Some employers are now acknowledging neurodiversity. For some, this gives them another equality kitemark, another badge to wear to show that they care. Others are taking up the issue for directly exploitative reasons, and if you look close up, you can find them openly admitting this. There are employers who actively recruit autistic people, attracting praise for providing employment to people who struggle in other jobs. But then you might read an interview with the Chief Executive, who explains that they like autistic workers because ‘they don’t waste time having conversations with other people, so they are more productive’, or something similar. These employers seem interested in us because they think they can exploit us more than others, and are probably recruiting the more independent, skilled autistic people, rather than those who have more limited capacity and need constant support.
We campaign for radical, life-improving demands. The draft Labour Party Autism and Neurodiversity Manifesto, which a group of us have been working on with the support of John McDonnell, has all sorts of progressive policies to address the issues we have mentioned. We can also discuss what transitional demands would be useful on the issue of neurodiversity – what demands could guide us in the fight that we have now but also prompt people to look at changing society as a whole in order to achieve them thoroughly.
We need to educate and mobilise our movement. Let’s be out there protesting against abuse and discrimination. Activists have protested against US charity Autism Speaks and its negative portrayal of autism, against the Judge Rotenberg Centre and its electric shock treatment of autistic young people, against snake-oil salespeople and their quack cures. And let’s step up our training and educational programmes across the labour and neurodiversity movements.
We will be more effective if we make the left and the labour movement neurodiversity-friendly and more accessible to neurodivergent people.
That means using materials in different formats. We can not just rely on a text-heavy newspaper any more. People may not read it if they are dyslexic; or they may not read huge chunks at a time if they have a shorter attention span than others. Thanks to capitalism, the technology exists where we can easily do things in different formats. We can very easily make short videos about what we want to say about socialism; we can use graphic methods; we can travel around and speak to large and small gatherings; we don’t have to rely on just the printed word any more.
We can also be more socially inclusive. Of course people form friendship groups in political movements, but let’s be aware that this can leave people out and let’s ensure that people are included in what we do, in our events and activities, even if they don't banter like others do.
Harassment and bullying exclude neurodivergent and other people. The labour movement has never been immune from these, and I think the problem may be on the increase. If people are treated badly and made to feel bad about themselves, then in the end they burn out or walk away. The culture of respectful comradeship does not exist across our movement in the way that we need it too.
We can also improve the sensory environment at our events: provide a quiet room, tone down the sensory stimulus.
Capitalism develops productive resources, but it does so in the interests of the small ruling class that is motivated by making profit and so creates distress and disadvantage for neurodivergent people.
By reorganising society on a socialist basis, with a democratically-planned economy geared towards human need not private profit, we can start to remove those barriers and problems that capitalism creates and make a more inclusive, less discriminatory society.
We have looked at some of the ways of how to get there – mobilising, developing theory, making our own movement more accessible.
We are beginning to show the potential of achieving liberation through socialism.
This article is based on the talk I gave at Workers' Liberty's event, Ideas for Freedom 2018.