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Capitalism, Asperger’s and Autism

It’s common sense that the oppression of women, of black and minority ethnicities, of LGBT folk all have histories. Things change. The same is true of disabilities. People with some form of physical or mental impairment have been variously treated over the centuries. Incarceration, sterilisation, and extermination have all been visited on disabled people over the course of the last century.

But things, in Britain at least, began changing around the 1970s. Attitudes started shifting. Thanks to the efforts of activists with disabilities and their allies, efforts were made to integrate disabled kids into mainstream schools. Legislation was passed outlawing disabled discrimination. Adaptations were made to make society at large less dis-abling for those with impairments. And we have the soon-to-be-replaced Disability Living Allowance, which is a small contribution from the state in recognition that being disadvantaged in a society made for able-bodied people comes with extra, unseen costs to the citizen. And now, thanks to the government’s attacks on social security support for the disabled those important advances are under threat.

The point remains, the nature of the inequalities and prejudices disabled people face are different today than they were 30 years ago, and 30 years before that. But impairments too have a history. Short-sightedness wasn’t much of a problem for the overwhelming mass of humanity in agrarian societies. It became an issue with the advent of mass literacy, but has been mitigated by technologies developed to overcome them – spectacles, eye surgery, etc. Impairments are therefore shaped, positioned and coded by wider social forces. As biological impairments they have existed for as long as there’s been humans knocking about – but what they mean and their consequences for someone with that particular incapacity vary according to the kind of society they live in, and its level of development.

This in mind, allow me to venture a hypothesis. I’m no mental/cognitive health specialist. What I know about the autistic spectrum and Asperger’s Syndrome is very little. It’s a complex area that is still being unravelled. But that isn’t going to stop me advancing a touch of speculation on the main sociological question these two conditions raise. And that is why have autism and Asperger’s only recently been codified as a social concern? It could part be media curiosity, part the growth and spread of the internet, and part visibility attained by the disabled rights movement. The inescapable trope of the autistic genius might have a role, too.

But I think something deeper could be going on, something to do with structural shifts in the advanced capitalist countries. Short-sightedness and dyslexia were not social concerns prior to industrial capitalism. The point came when the demands of capital required something more than able bodies to work in its dark, satanic mills – it needed basic education to record and pass on information at all levels.

Since then, particularly over the last 30 years, manufacturing has taken a battering. The old industries have fallen back and in its place are what we used to call tertiary industry: the service sector. This sector, from retail to investment banking, from call centres to consultancies, all absolutely depend on social relationships. Of course, thus it ever was.

But now is different – the direction of travel clearly is capitalism’s growing dependence on the wealth that can be mined from relationships. Hence the massive values of social media firms who’ve yet to make a single penny of profit. Hence the obligatory ‘person spec’ placed alongside graduate job adverts. Hence the growth of consultancies selling team-building experiences. Hence the concern with Autism and Asperger’s.

For Autistic and Asperger’s people, the economic shift to service finds them singled out as disabled individuals. In front of the new emphasis on relationships, on the complexity of social cues and the (personal and commercial) premiums on networks; they are the newly dis-abled. And this is a very recent shift. Just 20 years ago when I was still at school, I can think of two boys who today would be diagnosed as autistic and with Asperger’s. But back then, they were merely written off respectively as naughty and slow, and dim and simple. Their symptoms existed, but they had not been specially codified by the powers that be. Now, they would.

Therefore, could it be the case that the coincidence of capitalism’s shift-to-service and the codification of Autism and Asperger’s to a disability of social concern has deeper roots?

There is an alternative explanation, but again related to changes in political economy. We know Britain is in the midst of a mental health epidemic. One-in-four of us suffer with a mental health problem during the course of a year. Thankfully, the stigma attached to mental health is beginning to lift and it is starting to be talked about. Partly, this is because these problems are so widespread.

Why should we be surprised that more insecure and pressured work situations lead to stress, anxiety and illness? That low wages, crushing debts and attacks on social security screw people up?

It is reasonable to assume that more job security, more stability would have the effect of decreasing incidences of mental ill-health. But also, with capital’s emphasis on relationship and service, any health problems impacting on its capacity to do business on that basis is bad news. It’s a concern. A social problem. So, is it possible that the relatively recent problematisation of Autism and Asperger’s is a subset of a wider recognition of a crisis around mental health?

3 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    yes of course thing were changing and for the better then Labour sent us into the biggest down turn in living history and believe me thing have gone backward since.

    DLA was always going to go Gordon Brown stated it was a wasted benefits, he at first wanted to end it for everyone, then for the pensioners, then the moron decided people in care, then when PIP’s came out with the Tories labour fell over it’s self agree with it.

    The best bet was Brown getting rid of the DRC one of the best thin New labour did was ended because well it was to good.

    Mainstream education was a good idea, sadly with so many schools with stairs it was doomed and today kids are being returned to specialist education.

    I’ve seen everything go backwards of late jobs have gone and disabled people are heading back to unemployment and sadly Labour are again back to the hard working, and the same hammering down on benefits and welfare.

    I’ve given up bothering with Labour these days and will be voting for the Welsh Assembly but I will leave Miliband to the English.

  2. Valeria says:

    Actually, being an artist and studying psychology at college at some point, I believe in yet another explanation of why there is a drastic raise in the numbers of people, who are being diagnosed with Asperger’s and Autism. It is, in fact, in my opinion, a multi-dimensional structure of capitalism and its current shifts in priorities and “successful” (tried out to be successful) social, commercial and political schemes for selling as many material goods as possible and making people unsatisfied with their current outside environment and subsequently consuming even more. Not only that, it’s also a very nice way to promoto so-called individualism, subsequently isolating individuals from society and any strong bonds with social and political networks (the ones which are based on non-material values). It is the easiest way to control society – make it as unjoint and self-evolved and isolated as possible. Being drugged up/drugs-dependent vegetable on some kind of tranquilizers, anti-depressants, barbiturates, pain-killers, or even illegal or under-the-counter (but spread later illegally) drugs is even better – for both pharmaceutical, drug-cartel and political plasters of the population.
    As you all may know, a lot of people with Asperger’s are told to have a quite special relationship with non-living objects, sounds, experience difficulties in forming long-term effective relationships with other humans. But isn’t this what surrounds us and is being promoted and cultivated through Media, advertising, marketing and pretty much all over the place? We are now constantly communicating through the virtual information resources, such as cellphones, home phones, letters, internet (social networks, e-mails, working with virtual software, etc), books, iPads, music players, radio, television, etcetcetc. The amount of information that is kind of in a way either a one-way type of communication without an ability to form a long-term dialogue even, with a person, or rather its hyperreal image, who is being set as unreachable authority and set as ideal. Which somehow, we’ve got used to being a norm, or a two-way communication, which is now, due to the modern lifestyle of constant consumerism (it has basic psychologic explanation – we look for approval of society through basic codes, get satisfaction from being conformist individualists) and manic state of mind (constantly working, constantly being both happy for the sake of working harder longer hours for same or even lower wages, but unsatisfied and unhappy with the physical image of ourselves, our place in the society and materialistic ownership levels, sleeping less and being attached to various networks constantly somehow valuing our decisions and “does” and “don’ts” for bettering products and services, constantly craving more and more, trying to be seen by as many people as possible, etcetc), but yet having as high level of dissociation as possible (coz it’s easiest to politically and economically brainwash people by one, than in groups), is not just overwhelming, but pushes people to the limit of health in all the meanings set by WHO, to the borderline. No capitalist structure needs a passive, slow-paced consumer – it goes against any successful modern-day economic theories, which are aimed at highest profits possible. Plus, lets remind ourselves, which part of American, for example, economy/capitalist/money-based industry has been bringing the most taxes to the US government in the past few decades – you won’t be wrong if you’ll say any of the things from the list below: medical, psychological, psychotherapeutical, pharmaceutical, etcetc. Let’s recall Ali Lilly’s and Bush’s family. Let’s remind ourselves what are few best ways to avoid taxes and invest millions into something (even making profit of some kind sometimes – be it money, a good name or PR scheme) – invest into art, non-profit organizations, charity, labarotories working on inventing new drugs to cure some uncurable diseases. And let’s remind ourselves how many taxes are brought to worldwide governments, profits to corporations and cartels, lobbyist, politicians, etc – legal drugs (tobacco industry, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine based products, etc) and illegal (by organizing campaigns and wars to fight drug cartels, while simultaneously sponsoring them often). Wars are a quite good way to make money. Sending some special people to overthrow governments in 3rd world countries and constantly showing newsblocks (eg Euronews) with protests around the world – what better ways can you find to plant The Fear and Asocial tendencies in large population groups and create an army of Underground Men (see and read BOTH parts of Dostoevsky’s Underground notes for further explanation) of New Generation, who dull their pain from difficulties of adoptation to society, active communication through neverending viscious circle of consuming goods and services, which are promoted almost ALL OVER THE PLACE. It’s a f****** ACE PLAN, isn’t it?)))) so yea, I’m not a schiczophreniac, but rather a thoughtful person, who’s studied Contemporary art, Psychology, Politics, Macroeconomics, Sociology, History of drugs, Pharmaceutics, Biology, Chemistry, Existentialism, Ecology, Metaphysics etcetc almost everything I could get my thoughts and hands on. And have a wide range of practical experiences of communicating with various social plasters including psychologists and psychiatrists in Russia, UK and USA, journalists, historians, philosophers, polymaths of all kinds.

    There obviously exists this small group of people with special needs and no obvious genetic abnormalities or strands in family, but they are probably that psychosomatic group, that’s been really affected by the drastic ecological/environmental/semiotic/architectural/etc changes (which are being hidden from the general public by all kinds of groups – politics, corporations, oil, chemical industries, etc) over the past 2 centuries or more. It’s not just visuals, or just sounds or smells, colours, materials, air, water, pollution pf basic food and other NEEDED (not wanted. needed) products for survival, unseen waves of various lengths (ultrasound, radiation, from electric appliances, etcetc), but rather everything together.

    I am not sure where I was going with all this…for now I don’t have any clear solutions for this, except reading (in-depth) about and studying the developments (and most importantly ANALYZING in-depth) in holism, sustainability and helping out the immediate local community, caring after every and each person you meet, communicating with both community and strangers, not trashing up your environment any more, avoiding plastic packaging, food with chemical non-organic additives, etc etc…

  3. Valeria says:

    it probly needs a few corrections/editing couple of grammatical/other mistakes and typos, but nevermind. you hopefully you get the clue of what’s actually going on with the whole rise of autism and asperger’s statistics. so you are partially right, too, but it has deeper reasons behind and that’s just a couple of faces of a multi-dimensional global issue/problem, that me and all of the dialogue participators have managed to gather together…unfortunately…and yet…only a tiny thin hope for the things suggested by me to be a part of the solution. or let’s say more of a starting point for educating yourself about where you can search for your personal way to solve some parts/bits of worldwide problems.

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