Robert Chapman’s version of Neurodivergent Power, like the radical social movements it draws from, is about resisting prevailing ideas about worth—who and what is disposable or valued. It adds to a critique of the capitalist system: “Neurodivergent Power places our sights squarely on our collective ability to resist the entire economic system that disables and discriminates against us.”

In classic Marxist theory, capitalist labor markets require a “reserve army” of labor that can be tapped into during economic expansion or laid off during economic contraction. Some view disabled people as historically serving as surplus population; for others, they don’t even serve as that reserve army but are essentially an underclass.

Disability is also central to the formation of the state, which can regulate and control the unequal distribution of surplus by invoking biological difference as the “natural” cause of inequality. As Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant argue, “there exists a core relation of health to capitalism called extractive abandonment. And in the process of constructing, destroying, and reconstructing health, the state itself is made.”

The workings of disability are gendered and racialized.

We can find ample evidence of these forces at play since the 1970s, when the “problem” of post-industrialization and the “unproductivity” of disabled people was solved by making disability a site for value extraction. Suddenly, it became a commodity for whole industries—health care, medical, and welfare professionals; charities (e.g. Autism Speaks); and carceral institutions, from jails to nursing homes. This is what Marta Russell popularized as “Handicapitalism.” To that we can add new modes of consumption, like Chapman’s examples of disability-friendly supermarkets.

This making of surplus and the state is gendered and racialized, but the insights of Black feminism and racial capitalism are absent in Chapman’s account. As Ruthie Gilmore explains in a 2022 interview: “mass incarceration, this ultimate fixing of large numbers of people in place, is key to understanding the forms of capitalism that have been ascendant since the 1970s or so. We’ve seen the same thing with the hardening of national borders.” Elsewhere, she observes: “this is what is meant by racialization. And the state itself, not just interests or forces external to the state, is built and enhanced through these practices.”

Chapman’s important call for Neurodivergent Power is thankfully not new. Its aims resonate with those of Disability Justice—a movement, organizing frame, and revolutionary praxis calling not for inclusion in the status quo (employment, leisure, education) but for changing structures and sociopolitical-economic conditions. Chapman agrees: there is much to be critiqued in Liberal Neurodiversity, such as the ways disability rights have become part of a nonprofit-industrial complex and the inherent problems within rights discourses more broadly.

As Chapman points out, one of Liberal Neurodiversity’s key flaws is that it requires being identified as neurodivergent in the first place. Here, Chapman can take crucial lessons from the intersectional dimensions of Disability Justice—the importance of centering liberation even with those who do not and cannot claim disability or neurodivergence (either as an identity or as a politics) but still want to live free. Workers of color systematically become disabled through the process of commodifying labor and extracting surplus value and yet do not necessarily identify as such. Claiming neurodivergence or disability—concepts with a white, settler provenance—can become another state surveillance mechanism, compounded by racism.

There are still further lessons to be learned. Chapman’s call for Neurodivergent Power, for example, does not engage with the whole range of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD) or their existing politics. As autistic self-advocate Esther Warwick shared with me in correspondence about Chapman’s essay, conflating Autism advocacy, the disability rights movement, online neurodiversity activists, and national and state autism organizations as “Liberal Neurodiversity” obscures the ideological distance between them.

Connecting neurodiversity (and its critiques) to other disability movements is thus central to understanding its lineage, as well as its more radical potential—including carceral abolition. Take Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, a group whose goals include abolishing residential disability institutions and reimagining societies to not confine people with disabilities. How would taking the politics of intellectual disability—and people with IDD—seriously add to our understanding of inherent worth, or of abolition of confinement? The case is also potent with critiques of psychiatry (entangled as the field is in the history of the autism diagnosis and its dispersal). Some even suggest that it is autism, and later neurodiversity, that are the thread between “Mental Illness” and intellectual disability in terms of its global spread, as diagnosis and movement.

These connections crystalize how disability movements are connected to the backlash to radical demands of the state—the backlash that ushered in neoliberalism. In the United States, the closing down of asylums and the evisceration of the social safety net (including investment in housing and well-being) coincided with the rise of financial, social, and cultural investment in mass incarceration. Today’s push to build more infrastructure for forced psychiatric confinement (California’s recent passage of Prop 1, for example), which we have not seen since the 1980s, erases decades of fighting to close down psychiatric institutions and contesting the segregation of people with disabilities (especially IDD). This activism should be understood as the largest decarceration movement in U.S. history. Instead, it has become a scapegoat for the faults of neoliberalism and racial capitalism. In the wake of this attempt to suppress radicalism, we have seen the rise of a nonprofit–industrial complex for autism, a characteristic form of neoliberal advocacy.

It is also important to place disability and mad movements within a longer history of left and radical movements, particularly those in the United States in the 1960 and ’70s. It is commonly known that waves of liberation movements—from feminist, civil rights (and later Black power), gay (and later queer) and others—critiqued and tried to break apart oppressive structures related to their subordination. Far less well known is that these oppressive structures included psychiatry and medicalization. Psychologists for a Democratic Society, for example, was formed as an offshoot to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This is also apparent in newsletters and zines affiliated with radical movements such as SNCC and the Black Panthers, which explicitly critiqued psychiatrization and medicalization. Specific ad-hoc coalitions and campaigns also formed around the nexus of racialized criminalization and pathologization, as well as around the critique of the suggestion that a brain disorder (episodic dys-control syndrome) was responsible for the uprisings in many U.S. cities in the mid-1960s, to name a few.

This kind of analysis suggests that the liberation movements of the past are more than simply analogues for Neurodivergent Power to draw from. Instead, those movements have historically always been tied to struggles around disability and neurodiversity. They may have more to teach us yet.