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Fight Capitalism, Fight for Neurodivergent Liberation

Neurodivergent and disability liberation will have to come from the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist system which values different forms of human behavior and directs resources to meeting human needs.

Samuel Karlin

May 23, 2023
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The following is the text of a speech given at a panel organized by Denver Communists and International Socialists (NL). This speech and the other speeches from the panel can be watched here.

I’m Sam, with Left Voice. I’m really grateful that the comrades at Denver Communists set up this event to discuss neurodivergent oppression from a Marxist framework. Capitalism necessitates and benefits from all forms of oppression, so I’m glad to be thinking with comrades about the ways neurodivergent oppression functions and how it relates to a socialist strategy that can overthrow capitalism.

I’m autistic and a few years ago I wrote for Left Voice about coming to terms with my disability, and how it will never be meaningfully accepted by capitalism. I’ve really appreciated hearing from autistic and otherwise neurodivergent comrades that my experiences resonated with them. One of the main things I wrote about was how my disability raises the question of work and its purpose under capitalism.

The point of work under capitalism is to be as efficient as possible to create products which can generate profit for bosses and capitalists who don’t work. And autistic and neurodivergent people are likely to be less efficient or at least perceived that way. This has been my experience, and it makes keeping up in this system hard. My ability to process visual input is delayed, which means I can’t drive, and that limits how many jobs I can work if they’re not remote or accessible by public transportation. My fingers move clunkily so jobs that require fast-paced hand-work are out. Even when I’ve found jobs I can do, there’s no guarantee that my natural way of communication will be accepted, so I often put extra labor into masking my disability so I can pass as neurotypical.

These are just my experiences, but they touch on the larger challenge disability presents to the logic of capitalism. A 2013 study by the University of Massachusetts found that adults with intellectual disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as adults without these disabilities. This isn’t because we can’t work or don’t want to work. Of course, we don’t want to do the grueling or arbitrary labor that makes up most work under capitalism. Not even neurotypicals want that. But we want to be able to provide for our needs. We want to be able to take care of ourselves instead of being dependent on families or on underfunded and often exploitative non-profits and programs. And we want to be part of the larger human experience where people produce things together and learn from one another. But capitalism doesn’t value work for the larger human experience. Capitalism uses work for profit for private interests, and the real or perceived added cost of accommodations for disabled and neurodivergent workers means less profit, so we’re less likely to be employed and more likely to be left on the margins of society.

For many, the oppression of being neurodivergent is also connected to forms of racial oppression. There’s a systemic lack of mental health resources provided to impoverished and disproportionately Black and Brown communities. Oftentimes, even when people from these communities do receive diagnoses, they’re still more likely to be deprived of accommodations and support and are more likely to be criminalized by the state and ostracized by ableist stereotypes for their different ways of interacting with the world.

We recently saw how much more intense neurodivergent oppression is for Black autistic people in the murder of Jordan Neely in New York City. Jordan’s life and his murder show the very worst ways the state treats disabled people who suffer other forms of oppression. He was hungry and having a mental health crisis, yelling about his hunger on the subway, which is disruptive in the eyes of capitalism, but not harmful to anyone. And much of why Jordan was hungry and yelling ties into the ways that his disabilities were exacerbated by the violence and trauma capitalism imposed on him as someone whose mother was killed in femicide during his childhood and who grew up in foster care. Jordan Neely needed help, but ableism put forward by capitalism teaches people to see people experiencing mental health crises on the subway as a problem or a threat, and racism makes Black disabled people out to be even more dangerous. In this context, Daniel Penny, an ex-Marine, saw Neely as a threat because he wasn’t acting “normal” and choked him to death. And for days the city, led by Democrat and former cop Eric Adams, allowed Penny to walk around, essentially deputizing his actions. As an autistic person, I’m terrified around police, members of the military, and people who have received training by institutions of state repression because of cases like Jordan Neely’s murder. And Black members of the autistic community have all the more reason to be afraid.

As revolutionary socialists, it’s important we fight all forms of oppression, from autistic people like me who are fairly safe and supported but are devalued and disadvantaged at work, to autistic people like Jordan Neely who are left especially destitute under capitalism and punished by racist violence for it, and to the neurodivergent community internationally which includes all who have become disabled through imperialism and war.

My article I wrote about my experiences makes the point that the fight for autism acceptance is the fight for socialism. I hope I’ve made clear that capitalism is not a system that allows for equality for neurodivergence. The disability rights movement has made important advances and won reforms which make living with disabilities easier than it was decades ago. But still, these reforms have not and cannot change the logic fundamental to capitalism, which values people based on how easy it is to exploit their labor and how much profit they can produce quickly. This logic will never be compatible with disability, and in fact creates and expands disability through the systematic breaking of bodies and minds. When capitalism cannot easily exploit the labor of disabled people, many of us are treated as a problem for the state to deal with. So neurodivergent and disability liberation will have to come from the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist system which values different forms of human behavior and directs resources to meeting human needs. Or as Marx put it, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

In fighting for a socialist system, we’re going to face powerful forces. We’re going to have to fight the state which will seek to co-opt our anger. And we’re going to see the state crack down on us.

We need to be prepared to seriously fight back against intense co-optation and repression, and I believe that to wage that fight, we need a party. It needs to be a party that understands the power that the working class has to shut down capitalism and grind production to a halt. Only the working class can do that. But in order to defeat a capitalist system that weakens class struggle by fostering racist, sexist, queer-phopic, xenophobic, and ableist ideology, we need to fight against all forms of oppression including neurodivergent oppression. To me, this makes it important that there’s a party of, by, and for the working class which fights for socialism. And I want a working class party fighting for socialism to be one that organizes autistic people with jobs to fight oppression by organizing our workplaces. I want it to be a party that fights in solidarity with disabled folks who want work but are denied it because of their disabilities. I want this to be a party that wages political struggle against stereotypes which hurt neurodivergent people because it knows how those stereotypes hurt the unity and power of the working class. I want a party that fights to secure universal, inclusive healthcare and housing for disabled people. I want a party that fights for public education that takes into account all styles of learning so neurodivergent students don’t struggle. I want it to be a party that organizes workers to strike for justice when people like Jordan Neely are murdered by the state, and leads the working class to fight against anti-worker institutions like the police and military which act as the enemies of disability liberation and equality.

As Left Voice we want to open a conversation with folks in this call, as well as everyone around the country interested in breaking with the Democrats and building an independent, working class party that fights for socialism. This is something I and other autistic comrades at Left Voice are working to build, and it’s a project I’d love to build with the comrades on this call today. Because I’m sick of living in a capitalist world that devalues me and the rest of the neurodivergent community, and I believe that with a strategy and a working class party, we can fight neurodivergent oppression and all oppression and fight for a socialist world where we’re valued and safe.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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