Home > Culture and media > Books > Empire of Normality – review
  • Review

Empire of Normality – review

Chapman’s book offers a vitally needed theoretical framework for neurodivergent anti-capitalism, writes Gerald Roche

6 to 7 minute read

Protestors holding placards reading slogans including "stand up" and "autism is not a crime" blocking the the light rail line in St. Paul, Minnesota

Title: Empire of Normality: Neurodiversity and Capitalism

Author: Robert Chapman

Publisher: Pluto Press

Year: 2023

As an autistic person who lives within capitalism, the basic idea that capitalism, not autism itself, is disabling, makes a lot of sense to me. Indeed, my own experiences demonstrate some of Robert Chapman’s key arguments, so I’ll include some of those experiences to help illustrate those ideas.

Chapman’s book traces a long historical arc that takes us on an ambitious but smooth journey through a vast span of time: from ancient Greece, through the transition from feudalism to capitalism, to the rise of eugenics in the 19th century, across the tumult of the 20th century, up to the present day and the ascendancy of neoliberalism.

In retelling this history, Chapman recounts how disability emerged in tandem with capitalism, as our value came to be measured in terms of our capacity to work for wages and produce profit for other people. At the same time, the systematic destruction of support structures such as the extended family and local community drove disabled people into the arms of the modern state. This state has been reluctant at best, and hostile at worst, to the idea of recognising the full humanity of disabled people. Instead, it has built itself around the ideal of an imagined ‘normal’ person who can work for wages and has thus earned the right to state support in the event of temporary disability.

This cosy trio of state, capitalism, and normality has continuously disabled people since the 19th century. Exported around the world by imperialism, this disabling machine has transformed itself repeatedly in relation to the changing nature of capitalism. Chapman’s discussion of neoliberalism illustrates how this shifting relationship between capitalism, the state and normality produces new forms of disablement.

Mass Disamblement

When neoliberals came to power in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere throughout the 1980s, they attacked the welfare state, aiming to free individuals from the ‘nanny state’, while also helping the rich to become even richer. At the same time, neoliberals worked at building new international agreements and institutions that enabled business interests to escape their national confines. So, as the welfare state was hollowed out, the Fordist production-line economy was sent offshore in search of lower wages, looser safety regulations, and more sympathetic political systems, unencumbered by our shallow electoral democracy.

Back home in the capitalist metropole, the service economy boomed. As the neoliberal machinery ground on, defanging labour unions and dragging parties across the spectrum into an ‘apolitical’ centrist consensus, a whole new world of work was born: the precarious, agile, zero-hours, resilient, nimble world of eternal gigging. The middle class, to which I once aspired, began to shrink and recede, leaving millions of us standing at the historical high-tide mark of socioeconomic mobility: forlorn, awkwardly damp and, in my case, disabled.

Chapman describes the advent of neoliberal work as a ‘mass disabling event’, when ‘traits that were previously relatively benign became associated with some level of disablement, while traits that might have only been minimally disabling became significantly so.’ The book discusses three key features of work in the neoliberal service economy that disable autistic people: the destruction of routine, an increase in emotional labour and an increase in cognitive labour. Sharing my own experience of these will hopefully help non-autistic readers understand how neoliberal work disables us.

Working to exhaustion

First, the destruction of routine and predictability. Personally, I need these to feel safe and to function. In their absence, pervasive anxiety takes hold, invading every waking moment and even intruding into sleep. In the struggle to find stability, I over-commit and work to exhaustion and burnout, hoping that this project or that contract will lead to something resembling an ongoing, pre-neoliberal job, maybe even a career. But that security never materialises, so in search of the next gig I find myself repeatedly propelled into an overwhelming, exhausting world where discrimination against autistic people is rampant.

Second is the social and emotional labour of working and finding work. Generally, I prefer to keep a low profile: to ‘stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe’ (as Kafka would say). However, work within neoliberalism requires us to all be our own publicity agents: to constantly put ourselves out there and to parasitise our social relations for economic opportunity. Regardless of how anxious I feel, I have to present myself as not only generically normal, but also affable, relaxed and relatable – constantly. Catching up for a coffee might turn into an ad hoc job interview, and optional social events are always compulsory networking fests. My experience of autism means that identifying (let alone expressing) emotions is hard work, and I constantly struggle to hit the right emotional register when I’m doing the social work of maintaining professional relationships.

Chapman’s proposal pushes back against liberal approaches that tolerate and include economically productive neurodivergent people while further disabling and abandoning others

And finally, there is the cognitive labour of juggling it all. In addition to being our own publicity agents, we also have to be our own line manager and HR department. Multiple contracts, multiple gigs, jobs within jobs. I work to distribute the work among myself, smashing out emails between zoom meetings, tracking messages across multiple platforms, delightedly announcing everything on LinkedIn, weaving multiple timelines into gigantic Gantt charts and working through weekends.

People often describe this as a juggle, but to me it feels more like playing dodgeball with sea urchins. Like many autistic people, I prefer work that requires deep, sustained focus. I tend to experience demands for frequent task switching as a form of physical pain that clouds my mind and destroys my capacity to focus. But if neoliberal work can be reduced to a single task, it’s task-switching.

‘Neuro-inclusive’ facade

So, neoliberal work debilitates autistic people with its lack of predictability and its profusion of social, emotional and cognitive labour. For autistic people like me who are employed – and about two thirds of autistic people are not – it almost certainly contributes to our high levels of anxiety and depression. For other autistic people, these features of neoliberal work are barriers that exclude them. And so it is worth considering how our exclusion from work and our disablement in work combine to contribute to some of the most alarming features of autistic life: our greatly increased risk of suicide and much lower life expectancy.

As if being physically and psychologically debilitated by neoliberal workways isn’t enough, it gets worse. Chapman describes, and I’ve personally experienced, how neurodivergence is now increasingly treated as a resource to be exploited. Autistic difference is turned into a source of value that can be extracted. Autistic people are seen as having ‘superpowers’ that can be mined for new efficiencies that enhance corporate competitiveness, so long as our neurodivergence consists of exploitable work-ready traits. Chapman argues that rather than solving the problem of our disablement, this new face of capitalism merely perpetuates the same harmful system but with a new ‘neuro-inclusive’ facade.

Which is why Chapman proposes what they call ‘neurodivergent Marxism’ – an intersectional approach to analysing how capitalism produces and maintains multiple forms of oppression, to ensure that new sites of extraction can be constantly identified and exploited in the endless pursuit of capital accumulation.

Chapman’s proposal pushes back against liberal approaches that tolerate and include economically productive neurodivergent people while further disabling and abandoning others. Against this emerging consensus for how social justice for autistic people should be imagined and pursued, Chapman draws on traditions of militant trade unionism and Marxist internationalism to explore how capitalism’s empire of normality can be challenged to create a world where everyone’s needs are met, regardless of their productivity.

In such a world, there would still be autistic people, but we would no longer be disabled. To me, that’s a world worth fighting for.

Gerald Roche is an associate professor at La Trobe University, working on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...