Empire of Normality by Robert Chapman

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Robert Chapman’s incisive book Empires of Normality explores the history of neurodiversity and its intertwining links with capitalism and neoliberalism, the development of what they term as the ‘Empire of Normality,’ and urges us to dream of a neurodiverse future. Chapman outlines the Empire of Normality as a set of societal systems and practices that reinforce neurotypical norms affecting our bodies, minds, and emotions (15). A scholar of Marx and class struggle, Chapman grounds their argument in what they define as ‘Neurodivergent Marxism,’ which demonstrates how “the rise and workings of the pathology paradigm are intimately intertwined with not just the vested interests of various groups of people, but, vitally, the underlying logics of capitalism itself” (13). Chapman’s writing is strengthened by the addition of their personal narrative and embrace of neurodivergence, and it is evident that this book is a deeply personal commitment of strength and dedication to understanding neurodivergence.

The book charts an extensive history of the rise of industrialism beginning in the early nineteenth century onwards, with the histories of Western conceptions of health explained in an approachable, detailed tone, including a notable thorough overview in Chapters Three and Four on Francis Galton’s work and the emergence of eugenics. The critique of ‘normalcy’ is especially profound in the chapter titled “Post-Fordism as a Mass Disabling Event,” focusing on how “the emotional requirements of the service economy [and] the invasive sensory and information environment of the modern world, where economic relations require a constant bombardment of lights, advertising, screens, and so forth” excludes autistic individuals from the ‘normalcy’ of capitalism (115). Chapman also cites disability studies scholar Anne McGuire’s work (also my former professor at the University of Toronto) on childhood and autism, wherein “the child with closer proximity with neurotypicality is presented as a good investment: ‘The normative time of childhood is precisely that time of seemingly infinite ‘laters’; the child is positioned as ‘early on’ the (normative) biological timeline and therefore is understood as having more of that desired and desirable commodity of time’” (122). The combined critiques of neoliberal time connects to Alison Kafer’s theory of crip time, as theorised in her work Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013). Crip time “bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds” (Kafer, 2013) and does not subscribe to a normative understanding of time — defined by 9-5 labour in service of capitalism, which in turn relies on a neurotypical routine that is intimately tied with our conceptions of normalcy.

Chapman’s work reminded me of the power of disability studies, a core part of my academic background that is not a focus of my current work, but their citations of works like Sami Schalk’s Black Disability Politics (2022), emphasise the importance of disability and neurodiversity theory in conjunction with activism. In light of recent and crucial activism on Palestinian liberation, Chapman’s call for neurodiversity activism to concentrate on ‘changing material conditions’ is even more prescient: “Until now, there has been little to no analysis in neurodiversity theory and activism of political economy, or of whether liberation under capitalism is even possible. It is that I think we need to go beyond” (137). It is by addressing the systemic inequities where we recognise how “disablement and pathologisation occurs through colonial and capitalist logics, and often reproduces their valuations” that we can begin to imagine liberated futures (147). Readers of Chapman’s work may also be interested in Jasbir K. Puar’s 2017 work The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, and Disability that addresses the intersecting oppressions of capitalism, colonialism, and ableism, especially in the context of Israeli state violence and occupation.

Empires of Normality will be of particular interest to anyone interested in the history of psychiatry and medicine, and Chapman does well to investigate the histories of disability and neurodivergence that are far too often ignored in similar academic narratives. The book concludes with Chapman urging, and perhaps challenging us, to “work towards a future world beyond the Empire of Normality. It is true that this is not a future that we can yet properly comprehend … Our strength too will grow as we organise as neurodivergent workers and members of the surplus class, across borders and sites of struggle globally. Our possibilities will expand as the old world falters and its structures crumble” (165). I, too, am hopeful that we can get there one day.

Thank you the kind editors at Pluto Press for sending us a review copy of Empires of Normality. You can purchase your copy of the book here and sign up to our mailing list by sending an email to neurodiverseox@st-annes.ox.ac.uk to receive a 25% discount on the title.



Chapman, Robert. Empires of Normality: Neurodiversity and Capitalism. Pluto Press, 2023.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Puar, Jasbir K. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Schalk, Sami. Black Disability Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022.

Georgia Lin is a DPhil candidate in Education at Brasenose College researching the experiences of women of colour students in student activism movements at Oxford. She is the Project Coordinator for Neurodiversity at Oxford and enjoys befriending cats.