Marxism and Autism discussion notes, 1 February 2016

As public understanding of autism grows, there are different approaches to understanding it.
* A medical approach, which sees autism as a disease or a tragedy, that we are broken and need fixing
* A more progressive approach that recognises neurological diversity, but does not necessarily locate it within social structures.
It is important to understand all disability within a social context, but perhaps especially so autism, as it relates to the way that people interact socially. If autistic people don’t follow social rules, we have to ask who makes those rules?

So, we want to explore whether Marxism can help us understand autism and the autistic experience in our current society.
The impact of capitalism on current (autistic) lives.
* Capitalism brought great development, enabling more scientific enquiry, understanding, support etc.
* However, it has increased social pressure and sensory stimulation.
* Modern capitalism is both developed and distressing.
* Increased autism diagnosis: panicky medical-modellers say this shows an autism ‘epidemic’; the more progressive response says that no, it is because of increased awareness, availability of diagnosis etc. We might add that it may also be because social pressure / sensory overload causes such distress that more autistic people seek diagnosis in order to access help.
* Capitalism put a premium on how good you are socially, which has made autism an issue.
* Class differences in autistic experiences: poverty, access to support, etc. – this was mentioned in the notes but not developed in the discussion.

Autism, neurodiversity and production.
* In a Marxist analysis, exploitation of labour is central.
* Autistic people are disadvantaged in employment.
* The employers’ offensive and new management techniques (eg. de-staffing, ‘hot-desking’, performance management) have a detrimental effect on autistic workers as well as on other workers.
* Insecure employment – temporary and zero-hour contracts etc – has an especially detrimental impact on autistic workers, as well as on other workers, due to insecurity and unpredictability; agency working has made us ‘disposable’ and easily replaced.
* There has been a shift towards a ‘customer service’ approach, promoting ‘soft’/social skills above technical skills, and commodifying public services.
* Marxist concepts such as alienation may be useful in understanding autistic people’s experiences.
* Change workplaces not workers!
* Workers’ control would alleviate distress and discrimination as well as being a better economic model.
* Exploitation and commodification of autistic people’s special talents; the ‘exotic other’; extraction of surplus value of our intellectual labour.

The role of education
* Schools are excluding autistic students.
* Schools value conformity, obedience to authority, competition, striving for perfection, etc – these create difficulties for autistic people.
* There is a ‘hidden curriculum’ – the unwritten, unofficial, even unintended lessons that students learn about social norms.
* Schools and universities mirror the capitalist mode of production, with a ‘customer services’ culture; they are a neo-liberal treadmill.
* The current education system causes distress and mental health problems to autistic students.

Autism and austerity

* Cuts are effecting services for autistic people.
* Austerity also causes social distress and insecurity.

Shift from the collective to the individual
* Defeats of the labour movement have led to a collapse in political discourse from the collective to the individual, despite the rejection of Thatcher’s view that “there is no such thing as society”.
* Public money is spent on berating people over lifestyle choices rather than challenging capital and its creation/exacerbation of social problems.
* 1997-2010 Labour government’s improvements in workers’ rights were individual (and limited) rather than collective.
* Exclusive emphasis on individual responsibility is a neo-liberal idea.
* Emphasis on ‘success’ sets people up to fail.
* Current legislation on ‘reasonable adjustments’ is inadequate, as it focuses on individual changes rather than requiring general accessibility.
* Universal design requires eg. buildings, workplaces to be accessible and comfortable for all rather than requiring an individual to ask for a change.

The political economy of autism
* And/or the political economy of the neurodiverse working class.* We can consider demands for political and economic change that would alleviate discrimination, exclusion and distress, and advance equality.
* We can also advocate that the workers’ movement’s demands reflect the neurological diversity of the working class.
* What sort of society are we fighting for?

Our economic model

* It is important not to simply repeat a mantra that economic growth is good, without regard to the future of the planet.
Some Marxists have addressed this.
* A modern Marxist analysis will address that we now live in a knowledge economy, that not all workplaces are factories. * A communistic economic model is more sustainable than a capitalistic economic model.
* How can an autistic person own his/her different way of thinking?

The social model of disability
* Contributors support this model and believe that it can be applied to autism.
* It would be useful to have further discussion on how, and to engage with arguments against it.
* For people with an autistic mindset, society is very disabling.

Useful theoretical approaches

* Historical materialism: It would be a mistake to attempt a ‘snapshot’ analysis of autism in society. It is important to consider historical experience and differences between societies.
* Alienation
* Durkheim’s theory of anomie, especially regarding mental health and distress
* Commodity fetishism, especially regarding the marketing of autistic people’s special talents
* Gramsci and cultural hegemony

Liberation struggles
* Autistic people’s struggles.
* Record of autistic people organising together has been disastrous.
* Need to build on each others’ strengths.
* Limitations of focusing to much on legal cases; collective mobilisation is more effective.* Autistic people in the disabled people’s movement, which has kept up activism against austerity.
* In critical disability and autism studies, and emancipatory research, there are objections to autism-specific work;
tension between unity and respect for diversity

Autistic people in the labour movement and on the left
* Need to audit the failures of the left and the Labour Party
* Retreat from the public sphere
* Failure to recognise the gains of capitalism and progress through generations
* Need to recognise our agency for change, our historical consciousness
* Good at saying what it’s against, less good at saying what it’s for
* Not enough debate, too much infighting
Parallels and lessons from other liberation movements
* There are particularly strong parallels between autistic struggles for liberation and the LGBT liberation movement
* Solidarity between different struggles is powerful – watch Pride!
* Critique of ‘identity politics* ‘Neuroqueer’ is interesting
* Is the far higher rate of diagnosis of autism in males due to it being more prevalent in males, or due to gendered diagnosis?

What is our group for and where do we go from here?
* We are a ‘thinktank’ about autism and Marxism, intending our theoretical work to help build solidarity and struggle.
* Our emphasis is on developing theory.
* We will arrange at least two further meetings, at least one of which will be on a weekend.
* We will decide a name for our group at the next meeting.
* Janine will write up and circulate the notes of this discussion.
* Janine will suggest to Workers’ Liberty a session on our work at its annual Ideas for Freedom event this year.* Everyone is welcome to write (or record, or draw, or whatever your preferred medium) a contribution to further discussion.

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