‘On the Problem of White Men (in a “Postmodern” World)’, by Mark Dean

Image by Karla Cote. Reproduced under Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Please clap.

— Jeb Bush

A young man becomes the victim of a heinous crime. While out on the town one night, he is dealt a blow to the back of the head by another man’s fist, enters a coma and, days later, dies of his injuries. The young man is a victim of something unspeakable. That an innocent person could be attacked at random and for no apparent reason speaks to some festering wound in the organ of society. The media and social commentators call for swift justice to be sought against his perpetrator, and the morally righteous demand deep institutional changes in society. No one questions the validity of this young man’s experience, nor the suffering of his family and friends. We take at face value the urgent need to address the causes of an act so deplorable, and everyone feels personally affected without insisting upon the details. Alcohol is to blame; lock-out laws are put in place, and police presence in popular nightspots is increased.

He had so much potential, says the middle-aged father.

A young woman becomes the victim of a heinous crime. But it happens to her, and women like (and unlike) her, every day. Sometimes these women are raped and sometimes they are raped and murdered. With increasing attention to the issue, media and social commentators call for justice. But many also question the validity of these women’s experiences. Many challenge their suffering, and that of their family and friends — if only she’d not been walking by herself at night; if only she hadn’t been doing something, anything, that translates to ‘asking for it’.

Like breathing. She is victimised but, just as readily, she is blamed. No effective measures are put in place and, at the same time, the federal government quietly cuts funding to women’s crisis services. In implicit support of government inaction, the media and social commentators react by calling for attention to how women must take personal responsibility for their safety. The police echo this with a call for women to be aware of their surroundings where men need not ever consider such vigilance. The acknowledgement is that women are insecure in dark public places but, with increasing prevalence, the takeaway is that they are also unsafe in broad daylight — at the bus stop, the supermarket; at the workplace, in their homes — but that nothing can be done.

As a man with daughters, I know now why this is concerning, says the middle-aged father.

As his own daughters reach the age of the countless victims who, just like his own children, had so much potential, the middle-aged man finally understands. And here we are, at an altogether unsurprising place whereby the suffering of women, practically institutionalised in our Western, Anglo-Saxon culture, is only validated through the lens of the man finally able to humanise women because he’s played an instrumental role in producing some himself.

This is altogether unsurprising. The power structures of capitalism have maintained the privileged place of men at the top of the social, political, and economic hierarchy for centuries. Why should they question their own position of experience and knowing? This implicit and pervasive sense of privilege strikes again in the disparate voices debating the social problem of women disproportionately experiencing danger in our modern age. However, with increased prevalence, this debate occurs in a more explicit and often violent form. Indeed, the issue of women’s precarious place in society, physically and otherwise, has been taken on by men’s rights activists (MRAs) as one that is all about them — albeit, not in a way that acknowledges it is legitimately all about them, as this would entail conceding to the fact that, fundamentally, the great majority of men must change their views and behaviours towards women. Instead, this issue of women’s equal representation in social, political, cultural, and economic life is read by MRAs as a threat to, quite specifically, them: white men.

Within this subgroup of anti-women terrorists with white supremacist leanings, the most radicalised amongst them, ‘Involuntary Celibates’ (‘incels’ for short) are evidently the most openly violent. One of them perpetrated an act of terror in Toronto this April, killing ten people and injuring sixteen others. This terrorist attack, as with another like it in Isla Vista in 2014, was justified by the perpetrator as a response to their state of involuntarily celibacy, engendered by the fact that the women they would like to have sex with do not have sex with them. Simply, they think women owe them their bodies. This is decidedly more perverse than the middle-aged father’s realisation that women are people once his daughters begin to resemble a woman brutally raped and murdered. But in both cases the rationale is the same: it is the world that must accept my view; it is the world that must shift to my perspective.

At the broadest level, incels believe they are the victims of the three waves of feminism in Western societies that have, as sociologist Nancy Fraser has explained, led to: first, women’s representation (voting rights); second, the greater redistribution of economic benefits to women (waged employment); and third, more recently, women’s social recognition (identity). What the feminist movement represents to incels is an affront to a ‘natural’ hierarchical order that men control because of innate, biological characteristics. This reductive view of humans as projecting in society their base biological functions is not just perverse, it is also dangerous — emerging straight from the philosophical origins of economic liberalism and thinkers like Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. These post-Enlightenment thinkers based their political-economic analysis of society on a caste system — ranking people into classes, with the wealthy being the only group capable of changing society. The poor and working class were incapable of moving into higher standing due to the inherent biological shortcomings that made them beggars or waged muscle in the first place.

Those men at the top were deemed the only class capable of shaping the future because they owned property, the central institution of capitalism, somehow linked intrinsically to family nobility. The law did not permit women to own property given that, through marriage, they became the property of landholding men as well. Women’s role in society was to ensure the right kind of people were reproduced: more men to hold onto wealth and power and ensure the ruling class maintained ownership of property and riches, more women for more of the right babies. Think of a micro-level equivalent in same-sex private schools that socialise male and female students in co-ed schools at the appropriate age — puberty — when their hormones have more control of them than does any sense of a good tertiary entrance rank. Via their children, the bonds form between families of this ‘ruling’ class and so wealth grows ever greater at the top.

Malthus, Ricardo, and their ilk were effectively social-Darwinist-thinkers-before-Darwin. Describing Karl Polanyi’s critique of their economic thought in The Power of Market Fundamentalism, sociologists Fred Block and Margaret Somers highlight Polanyi’s desire for us to understand how it is a deeply disturbing theory of being human that reduces us to purely biological instincts as a proxy for economic motivations and action:

Reinventing the social world as a system that works according to the ‘laws of the jungle' was among the most significant — and egregious — of classical political economy’s dictates, as it transformed our social world from a system of socially- constructed arrangements into one that achieved its own equilibrium by being left alone to self-regulate no differently from dogs and goats alone on an island.

From its outset, genetics underpinned the capitalist order and reinforced the ideas of the privileged men it served. Today’s incels demand the same for our social order under capitalism, despite the fact that progress in multiple areas of social and scientific inquiry have all but dispensed with the notion that men are natural leaders and women are natural nurturers. These traits are socialised on the basis of cisgender ideals, but a great deal of overlap and divergence exists on the spectrum between these ‘standards'. Humanity’s critical thinking skills also allow us to distinguish ourselves as a species apart from other animals — meaning, as should be somewhat obvious today, that we’re not socially, or sexually, bound by our biology. Genetics aren’t responsible for the reality that most high-paid CEOs are men and most low-paid cleaners are women. This does nothing more than speak to the fact that capitalism is incapable of delivering a society wherein the tables have been decisively turned, which is not the goal of feminism anyway.

An everyday gender-dystopian reality is the product of the capitalist organisation of the economy, not a natural order. As Martha E Gimenez argues in the 2005 essay ‘Capitalism and the Oppression of Women: Marx Revisited’, the capitalist mode of production determines the mode of reproduction in society. This, in turn, produces unequal relations between men and women not as biologically universal factors, but as a product of “the recognition of the complex network of macro-level effects, upon male-female relationships, of a mode of production driven by capital accumulation rather than by the goal of satisfying human needs.” Gimenez notes that humans are capable of organising society based on collectivised, non-market institutions, but suggests critically that these alternative forms are “difficult, if not impossible to sustain […] within a mode of social and legal organization that rests on private property and individual responsibility.” The most effective way for capitalism to reproduce itself socially is by creating value from scarcity, exploiting labour, and regulating inequality — politically, economically, socially, sexually, racially.

To this point, the major takeaway of the incel movement is this: the penis is masculine and therefore represents order. The vagina is feminine and therefore represents disorder. Using the argument of a natural order to suggest that feminism has ruined everything is both facile and deeply ignorant of the social and economic institutions that render our contemporary experience of humanity as anything but one resembling a natural order. This is where Jordan Peterson, the latest pseudo-intellectual darling of the alt-right, enters the fray with his fixation on Jungian evolutionary psychology lending ammunition to a fascist movement that presupposes modern culture springs from a natural capitalistic order reflecting human needs.

Incels love Peterson because he believes that the powerful place of men in society is what civilisation needs and what history has preordained. To him and to his followers, the fifties resembled a time when this balance was perfectly struck. Peterson speaks to something all incels feel deep down: that women should be subordinate to men and realised only through male desires facilitated by existing capitalistic social structures. Sexual oppression is a normal and perfectly natural condition to incels. Why? An answer to the lure of Peterson’s doctrine is captured by Nellie Bowles in her New York Times article, ‘Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy’. Bowles reports Peterson’s mission is to convince men — and women — that to re-embed eternal biological values is to restore natural order in a world where chaos is exemplified by the fact that women have, for decades now, sought equal representation, redistribution, and recognition. Effectively, women’s struggle to gain some influence over capitalist production’s determination of social reproduction has created all the world’s problems and produced a crisis of masculinity. This leads Peterson to propose such solutions as a policy that compulsorily assigns wives to men who feel under-appreciated by the opposite sex. This is a perfect example of the way incels believe the world owes them reparations and their flagrant rejection of any notion that they must change their attitudes. It’s not much of a stretch to evoke some of the most disturbing scenes from The Handmaid’s Tale to follow this logical thread to its frayed end: fascism.

However, not once does Peterson allow his own thinking to pursue its logical origin (and conclusion) in fascism; the problem, as he diagnoses it, is resurgent Marxism. Peterson interchangeably calls this postmodernism. But Fredric Jameson identified postmodernism more acutely as the cultural logic of late capitalism — the tendency to favour the analysis of immaterial aesthetic over grounded analysis of material experience within the capitalist mode of production. This does not stop Peterson’s shallow, immaterial, and anti-Marxist justification being made routinely by incels, who without reflexivity, accept economic liberalism as an inherently biological trait. They understand socialism in simplistic terms, unable to connect the conditions of their lived experience to material relations under capitalism.

None of this appears to stop Peterson from reminding himself of the evils of cultural Marxism through the medium of Soviet-era communist art hung above his bed and on the walls of his living room. As Bowles reports, Peterson steels himself, even more dubiously, with anecdotes of the weak men encountered in his life turning to drugs instead of rejecting them as destructive Marxist-feminist-induced products of social liberalism. If saying no to drugs was actually a choice that people suffering addiction could make so easily, Peterson’s views on the matter might find their way out of his deep, poorly-narrated fantasy world. Nevertheless, this imagery is employed discursively in Peterson’s teachings, ringing the intellectually rusted bells of lonely, young, straight white men that self-identify as incels. Whatever their simplistic understanding of socialism, it seems to be construed as a leftist agenda designed to produce so much sexual liberty that, to their horror, women can choose their sexual partners. These incels are the victims of the sexually active ‘Stacys’, getting down with the ‘Chads’ of the world; Stacy fails to appreciate what the misunderstood incel has to offer, and the world would be a better place if only she’d stop for a moment and pay attention to him. Again, the running theme here is that the miseries of the world must be viewed through the lens of the young male, lonely and frustrated as his magnanimity goes unrewarded. And yet in his intellectual laziness, the incel is not only unwilling to reflect upon his own behaviour and attitudes towards women, but also consider why he might idealise a world that has had very real negative consequences for him as well.

This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.

Mark Dean is based in Adelaide and works as a researcher and tutor. In 2017 he completed a PhD in political economy at The University of Adelaide and, with resentment, now embraces the gig economy.