Friday, 22 November 2013

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 time. Incarceration, sterilisation, and extermination were visited on disabled people over the course of the last century. But things, in Britain at least, began changing around the 1970s. Attitudes shifted. Thanks to 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 our society less dis-abling for those with impairments. The soon-to-be-replaced Disability Living Allowance 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, this principle is 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, tweaked and coded by wider social forces. As physical and mental incapacities they have existed for as long as there's been humans knocking about - but what they mean and their consequences for someone with them 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. 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 and organisational engineering. 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?


Keith Watermelon said...

"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."

i'm not sure of your point here. if you're suggesting that the situation 20 years ago was better, then you're wrong. it took me until the age of 32 to be diagnosed with aspergers. 20 years ago, i was at school, having a bloody horrible time of it, bullied by other youngsters and repeatedly told by teachers that i was rude, lazy, stupid, disruptive or anti-social (all of which i can now understand in a much more informed way by recognising that my neurology was and is significantly difference to the vast majority of people around me). had i understood my condition back then, and been able to demand appropriate support, this may have made a very real difference to my life.

the removal of aspergers from the latest dsm is also a retrograde step, and one that will almost certainly make it harder for aspies to obtain correct diagnoses and adequate support, and this is turn is likely to lead to greater stress and worsening of mental health for those of us with aspergers (and clearly the replacement of dla with pip, with its ridiculous new descriptors, will worsen things further).

Giovanni Tiso said...

"And that is why have Autism and Asperger's only recently been codified as a social concern?"

They've only recently been properly understood as clinical concerns. I worked in mental health briefly in the late Nineties and with hindsight (and without being a psychologist or psychiatrist) I can tell you with absolute certainty that two of the people I looked after there out of roughly twenty were misdiagnosed, and actually autistic. The literature on this is fairly clear: the autism epidemic is due to a sharper understanding of the contours of the spectrum disorder, leading to much higher rates of diagnosis.

In isolation, the issue of the social and cultural understanding of autism is more complicated. I’m not ruling out that the hypothesis you advance here may be relevant (have written something of the sort about the great novel about autism as a cultural condition which is Noon’s Falling Out of Cars), but consider how autistic people are also regarded as model, advantaged citizens, in relation of their (supposed; often somewhat exaggerated) facility with computers and ease of fitting into workplaces where social relationships are secondary to the relationship with one’s computing machine.

Phil said...

No Keith, I'm definitely not saying it was better back in the day. Identifying social problems can and sometimes does improve the lot of those identified by them. No, the question I'm interested in is why, as a social concern, Asperger's and Autism emerged as an "official" social concern at a paticular conjuncture.

Phil said...

Of course Giovani, these things are complex. But every social problem, every diagnosis has a history, a story of formation as a social concern. I'm not an expert by any means, but I am interested in looking into this further, time permitting.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Reading into the history of Bettelheim's The Empty Fortress may be a good starting point. Also, the French film Le mur, which is available online with subtitles (but was banned in France).

Roger said...

As a high functioning Aspie myself I am in exactly this position.

In a world of more or less full employment my somewhat defective social skills counted less than my first class degree and analytical abilities.

Now however I am completely fucked and probably unemployable.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thesis, however, I'm sceptical about your powers of diagnosis about boys you knew in school. There are a number of children (and adults) at the mild end who don't quite fulfil enough criteria to have a diagnosis of ASD. There are all kinds of crossovers with ADHD, dyspraxia, tourette's etc. and ultimately it's the level of difficulty which should determine DLA not a label.

Lionel Braithwaite said...

I'm an Aspie myself (diagnosed at age 36!) and it has been as much hell for me as it has been for Keith Watermelon.

Because of my Asperger's, I've been not able to get a good enough education that would enable me to thrive and succeed in life, and have also had incidents where I lost my temper in school and hit people. The system failed me, as nobody was able to diagnose this when I was a child or give me any support, so I ended going to a crappy private 'school' after junior high that was nothing but a fly-by-night diploma mill where I got abused in the second and third term by a nasty woman. From there things went downhill completely, as I want from program to program, and now...I'm on ODSP and I have diabetes, as well as depression. I can clearly see where Keith Watermelon's coming from, and want to know why the frack the British government want to take Asperger's out of the DSM.

Human society has to start figuring out how to deal with this condition, either by issuing financial and employment supports, or by researching a cure. medications or technologies to that effect of helping people with Asperger's be normal enough to work in the new paradigm mention in this blog post (they can also help a lot by trying to bring back manufacturing jobs and all of the other labor jobs we used to have so that Aspie's won't be out of sorts when working.)

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that the other responses to this post are missing the point somewhat. This is the defensiveness and concrete-thinking that typically is thrown at any deep thinking about the autism 'epidemic'.

I really enjoyed reading this, and think that you are onto something...

But I'd go one step further. I think that the crucial issue for any autism genealogy is in changes in capital and production specifically during the 1970s and 1980s. And that from this, the crucial question to ask becomes - "how did this establish a social context in which a 'spectrum disorder' of any sort could become feasible?".