Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Autism and Anticapitalism

April 2 was World Autism Awareness Day. Our author wonders what  the condition means for him as a socialist activist.

Nathaniel Flakin

April 3, 2019
Facebook Twitter Share
Photograph by Anders Hellberg

I only figured out that I am on the autism spectrum in the last year. So this is the first time I’ve heard of #WorldAutismAwarenessDay on April 2. That’s why I’m writing this article one day late.

What a time to be on the autism spectrum! Sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg from Sweden has inspired young people around the world. On March 15, over 1 million joined the #FridaysForFuture school strikes. Thunberg is the most prominent activist I’ve ever seen who is openly and visibly on the spectrum.

What is autism? It is a condition that affects a person’s ability to perceive and follow the unspoken and infinitely complex rules of human interaction. A neurotypical person (what some would call a “normal” person) will intuitively read cues in a social setting, but for a person on the autism spectrum this can be an exasperating challenge. My favorite explanation described the condition this way:

Your brain is happiest when you are working with certain types of information, which get filed very neatly so you can access them whenever you need them. Your brain is uncomfortable when it goes out into the world, because it becomes bombarded by information overload and by behavior of other people it cannot easily predict.

The stereotype is that people on the autism spectrum lack empathy. But in reality, they are putting lots of extra effort into understanding the feelings of those around them. Autism is a spectrum, so some autistic people speak almost like neurotypical people, while others never speak at all.

Autism affects communication, but scientists have trouble describing how exactly. If you are on the spectrum, any neurotypical person can tell that your mannerisms are “kinda funny.” But why exactly? Your speech might be monotonous or overintoned, your facial expressions stiff but also too dramatic, and the pauses in your speech are somehow “wrong.” The point is that most people never think about things like this, and people on the spectrum can’t figure it out.

People with autism are often good at speaking uncomfortable truths. When Thunberg was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year, the assembled capitalist elites surely expected her to deliver some platitudes about the future. Instead, she said something that 99% of climate activists deliberately avoid saying:

Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we will have created, but that is not true, because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame. Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.

I imagine a neurotypical person—especially one as young as Thunberg—would have “read the room” and adapted the message to what the audience wanted to hear. But a person on the spectrum might be less interested in social norms than in objective truth. Thunberg herself began her school strikes alone in front of the Swedish parliament:

Without my diagnosis, I would never have started school striking. Because then I would have been like everyone else.


View this post on Instagram


Today is #AutismAwarenessDay . Proud to be on the spectrum! And no, autism (as well as ADHD, ADD, Tourette’s, OCD, ODD etc) is not a “gift”. For most it is an endless fight against schools, workplaces and bullies. But under the right circumstances, given the right adjustments it CAN be a superpower. I’ve had my fair share of depressions, alienation, anxiety and disorders. But without my diagnosis, I would never have started school striking. Because then I would have been like everyone else. Our societies need to change, and we need people who think outside the box and we need to start taking care of each other. And embrace our differences. #aspiepower #autism

A post shared by Greta Thunberg (@gretathunberg) on

This is an example of Spectrum Super Powers.

A friend met Greta in Berlin on March 25 and reported that she seemed much more comfortable speaking in front of 25,000 people than meeting in a room with 10. But that makes perfect sense to me: As a speaker, she has to follow very explicit rules in order to fulfill a role, and that role ends at a set time. In a room, in contrast, there are just as many rules, but no one ever bothers to explain them. Is this the right time to introduce myself? Are people eating here? When is this going to end?

People on the spectrum are good at processing information rationally. One psychologist reported that they “don’t discriminate against anyone based on race, gender, age, or any other surface criteria.” As I learn more about the spectrum, I have the feeling that people with autism are overrepresented on the anticapitalist left. After all, it really doesn’t make sense that a tiny minority of people own the means of production, does it?

No, not everyone on the spectrum is a savant, a Rain Man or a highly paid computer programmer. In fact, about half of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed. In some ways, we are sometimes presented as better workers for monotonous tasks. (Added bonus for capital: A lack of social skills makes it more difficult to organize with colleagues.) But we are pretty bad at doing things just because someone else told us. And that is almost all labor under capitalism.

We might not be well suited for work under capitalism. But as Thunberg shows, we can make an important contribution to a mass movement fighting for radical changes to the economy. Socialist revolution will be the ultimate Spectrum Super Power.

As Karl Marx said, we want a world based on the principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Facebook Twitter Share

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.


Ideas & Debates

Tents at the Rutgers University in NJ during the Palestine encampment in May, 2024

What the Movement for Palestine Can Learn from the Rutgers Encampment Deal

The Gaza solidarity encampment at Rutgers New Brunswick ended in a deal between the administration and a negotiations team at the camp. It’s been a highly controversial decision. The experience at Rutgers shows the need for a truly democratic, bottom-up fight for Palestine.

Jason Koslowski

May 17, 2024
A banner at the City College Encampment in NYC which reads: "The 5 demands: 1) Divest 2) Boycott 3) Solidarity 4) Demilitarize 5) A People's CUNY

Specters of Vietnam in the pro-Palestinian Movement

The reemergence of the student movement raises echoes of the past that help to articulate key aspects of the direction of the movement against the genocide in Palestine. Here we consider a few links between today and the movement against the war in Vietnam.

Daniel Alfonso

May 12, 2024

The Student Revolt for Palestine

The student revolt for Palestine in the United States is spreading throughout the world. It is essential that the student movement unites against repression and draws the masses into the fight for a free Palestine.

Jimena Vergara

May 6, 2024

Left Voice Magazine for April 2024 — Labor Notes Edition!

In this issue, we delve into the state and future of the labor movement today. We take a look at the prospects for Palestinian liberation through the lens of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, and discuss the way that Amazon has created new conditions of exploitation and how workers across the world are fighting back.

Left Voice

April 20, 2024


A Russian tank fires toward Kharkiv on the May 10 offensive against Ukraine.

Russia’s Offensive in Ukraine May Be a Turning Point in the War

Russia’s May 10 offensive in Ukraine may be a turning point in the dynamics of the war, and the specter of Ukraine’s defeat is exposing the cracks that divide the Western powers.

Claudia Cinatti

May 21, 2024
Signs and banners at the picket line in front of the UC Santa Cruz in May, 2024. UC student workers are beginning a historic strike for Palestine, against genocide.

University of California Student Workers Begin Historic Political Strike against Repression and Genocide

This week, student and postdoctoral workers at the University of California began a historic strike in response to the brutal, violent repression of students, faculty, and staff protesting for Palestine. The action marks an important escalation of the labor movement’s struggle in defense of Palestine and the right to protest.

Olivia Wood

May 21, 2024
Protesters carrying Palestinian flags march on a street in front of a line of cops

Activists, Including Left Voice and Detroit Will Breathe Members, Arrested at Protest of Biden in Detroit, Free All Arrested and Drop All Charges

Detroit police brutally arrested activists who were protesting outside of Biden's speech to the NAACP.

Left Voice

May 19, 2024

Victory for the UAW at Volkswagen Plant in Chattanooga Represents a Potential Turning Point for Labor

Following a year of strong union struggles, a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee has voted to unionize with the UAW. This victory, in the traditionally anti-union South, shows that the terrain of labor struggle in the U.S. is shifting.

Joey Eichler

May 17, 2024