Autistic, dyspraxic, dyslexic and other people with atypical brain wiring have particular experiences under capitalism – with positive and negative aspects, but for many people including distress and disadvantage. This article looks at the experience of neurodivergent people under capitalism, how socialism might remove distress and discrimination, and how we can achieve that.
Capitalism and neurodiversity
Capitalism developed society’s productive capacity, enabling it to provide people with goods and services that no previous society had been able to. But it placed productive resources with private owners, so production increased in a narrow, profit-driven, undemocratic way, creating inequality and distress, and also marginalising neurologically atypical people.
How does capitalism do this? Rigid organisation of work. Capitalism makes every worker in a production process do the same thing in the same way at the same speed, which does not work well for people who work at a different pace or who see things in a different way. Although there have been many changes 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 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, particularly in big cities.
Social premium. How confident you are, how easily you get on with people, how well you “fit in”: such 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. Capitalist production has shifted towards service industries, where “soft skills” are valued more highly, and even public services have become commodities in which managers insist that “customers” require service with a smile. For example, railway employers have become less concerned about their staff’s ability to do railway work and 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.
Commodifying 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 more.
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 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 became widespread. So the reason that dyslexic people have a problem or disability is not because they are faulty, but because society developed written language in a form that does not suit their brain wiring.
There is an interesting case of an English man raised in Japan, who grew up bilingual, severely dyslexic in English and not dyslexic at all in Japanese. This shows that his so-called impairment, his disability, is constructed by something that has developed socially i.e.. 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.
How could socialism do better?
Under socialism, production will be planned for need rather than for profit. Universal design. With collective ownership and democratic planning, we could transform the built environment, applying “Universal Design”. 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. Socialism will provide the support services that neurodivergent people need, and which capitalism does not provide.
Pluralism in communication methods. In our current society, it is “efficient” for a particular capitalist enterprise to insist on communication conformity. 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, rather than in competing units, so can enable people to communicate verbally, visually, or in whichever way suits them.
Democratic and accountable research. 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, with neurodivergent people having a say about the sort of research that is done.
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 our sensory environment, the hours we work and the pace and method of our work will 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. 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. A cooperative 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.
From capitalism to socialism
We have achieved some progress under capitalism. For example, left-handedness is a neurological variant, and in the not-too-distant past, lefthanded people were seriously mistreated. Schools caned kids’ left hands or tied them behind their backs to force them to write with their right hands. But now there are left-handed scissors and guitars, and 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: it will mean that they are not in charge of “their” workplaces any more, and they will not accept that graciously. 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 structure, 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 now acknowledge 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 neurodiversityfriendly 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 to. We can also improve the sensory environment at our events: provide a quiet room, tone down the sensory stimulus.
To summarise: 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.