Friday, 17 May 2013

Male Models

Good morning everybody. I should of course be marking…

OK, one of the things that caught my eye this week was Diane Abbott MP's claim that masculinity is in crisis, in a speech to think-tank Demos. Her central points were that men are being failed by economic and cultural conditions, leading to damaged men and damaged relationships with and attitudes towards women.

At this point, I'm tempted to upload a copy of my PhD thesis, originally entitled '"There's something wrong with us blokes": Constructions of Masculinity in Four 1930s Welsh Novels In English", though the quote was cut for archiving purposes. I've also written a piece recently called '"The Male Shoutings of Men": Masculinity and Fascist Epistemology in How Green Was My Valley'.

Stakhanov, the USSR's productivity pin-up

Soviet hero-workers
The point of both these pieces is that they explicitly say that capitalism both constructs and destructs masculinity, particularly in periods of economic crisis. In the books I write about, masculinity is entirely constructed through manual labour, primarily mining. Physical strength, the ability to provide for one's family, the camaraderie of all-male labour, socialisation and trades union/political activity created a society and society in which women were publicly invisible and masculinity seemed awesomely powerful.

However, while mining provided comprehensible models of masculinity, it also destroyed individual men. The harder one worked, the more broken the miner's body became. The diseases associated with mining and other manual labour rapidly turned the hero-worker into a battered hulk if it didn't kill him outright in an accident. The ability to provide for one's family became subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Then there's the relationship between capitalism and labour. How humanising is the requirement to sell your body to a corporation anyway? Less abstractly, if your masculinity is tied up in work and wages, what happens when there is no work? In some areas of South Wales, unemployment reached 100% for long periods. Men used to work, to bringing home the bacon and earning the respect of their families were forced to depend on the state, charity and the resourcefulness of their wives. Some adapted admirably: others did not, with a rise in domestic violence, alcoholism, depression and despair.

In the books about which I write, these contradictions and tensions are writ large. My argument is that this crisis of masculinity lead in many cases to the adoption of extreme politics. In the case of Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and other left novels, Communism was a most attractive creed. Apart from its obvious critique of capitalism's obvious failures, it lionised (as these images indicated), the Super Man. The latest edition of the novel features another Soviet propaganda piece without - I think - any irony at all:

Detail from John Hastings' 1935 The Worker of the Future Disrupting the Economic Chaos of the Present, mural at the Marx Memorial Library, London (thanks to Cath Feely for this attribution).

However, there's a lot more to the gender politics of Cwmardy than most commentators acknowledge. Firstly, the proto-feminism of Communist women is both admired and feared: Len's partner Mary loses humanity as she becomes an activist, culminating in her sending Len to his death in the Spanish Civil War. Len's father is the classic victim of capitalist masculinity. He's called Big Jim. He's a miner, a fighter, a soldier and a lover: yet all these things are taken away from him as the effects of a career below ground wreck his body and unemployment humbles him. Len is a classic failure of hegemonic capitalistic masculinity. He's thoughtful, depressive, sexually timid and physically weak. Unfitted for manual work and too shy for boisterous bouts of heavy drinking and singing, he eventually finds a solution in the arms of Communism, which dissolves individualism in another ideology of mass masculinity: solidarity with ones brothers and sister. Sadly, it's not enough to soothe Len's oddnesses, and accepting death in Spain (another, militaristic version of masculinity) is his solution. 

In another leftwing novel, Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons, three brothers are faced with twin crises of masculinity and capitalism. Herbert the shopkeeper opts to mimic middle-class feminised prissiness, yet it's clear that he's faking it and that economic change will destroy him. Alf – a miner until the mine closes – becomes a socially disruptive force, locked in battle with a corrupt female charity worker and sexually exploiting a woman with severe learning difficulties: without old or new versions of socially responsible masculinity (though the Party offers some hope), his masculine aggression becomes dangerous. The third brother, Hugh, educated out of his class, is aware that this is how hegemony works: his response is to refuse escape and to conduct affairs with the wives of capitalism's managerial class as a form of revenge. 

On the other side of the political divide, Fascism also valorised extreme forms of masculinity. While Communism was pro-feminist to some extent, Fascism required the separation of male and female spheres. Men were fighters, en masse and outside. Women belonged in the home. In Welsh literature, How Green Was My Valley opts for a Welsh Fascism with distinctly Nazi overtones as a solution to masculine and cultural decay. Mining is wrecked by the workers, seen as 'lice', 'pigs', 'monkeys' and 'dogs', subverted by Marxist agitators: there's no serious economic analysis. The hero, Huw, relocates masculinity in individual craft labour, chivalry, resistance to cultural and physical decay - fairly standard stuff. But then one day he gets his first erection, and life is very different. Sex with women is dangerous to him: 'soft', curvy, rounded women are a trap: young women in the novel are essentially whores (Ceinwen) or symbolic of Welsh cultural ruination, doomed to an early death. It's not sex that makes Huw a man - it's the masculine power that comes from puberty. Huw starts having visions, mostly modelled on Nazi art and rallies: men in armour, carrying flaming torches. He learns from these visions that 'real' men aren't miners, don't join unions. Real men are militaristic leaders, scourges of Jews, bankers, half-breeds, socialists and proletarians. Real men must be higher up and separate, looking down on the rabble from the mountains. 

It's easy to see the roots of fascism in male crisis, but we need to stress that the origins of all masculine failure are in capitalism. Masculinity in a capitalist system is about performing particular roles: worker and consumer. The same might be said of femininity: both concepts are constructed in particular ways to serve the needs of capitalism. But in the post-industrial condition in which Britain finds itself (read Christopher Meredith's Shifts), the male crisis is most pressing because working-class men have moved from mass employment to mass unemployment, or from manual labour to service industry and consumerism. There's no doubt that male mass society damaged men, women and relations between the sexes, but it provided some form of agency to men. 

Now, the children of miners and steelworkers are marooned. Many haven't adapted to the emancipation of women, and they're not helped by – as Abbott points out – capitalism's relentless objectification of the female body as a sales ploy. From Fairy Liquid ads which constantly portray women as house-bound, voluntary domestic slaves to popular culture's obsessive presentation of women as willing, available, compulsorily heterosexual unpaid prostitutes, men have no space in which to develop a secure, open, stable and progressive masculinity. The result is teenagers texting each other pictures of their female classmates in degrading sexual poses, widespread homophobia, emotional damage, failed family structures, violent crime and paranoid defensiveness. 

I don't think there ever was a golden age of masculine security, nor that there's a potential fixed form of masculinity that would suit everyone, for ever. Nor do I think that abolishing capitalism will solve all our problems in one fell swoop: all economic and ideological structures deform the individual, as Len finds in Cwmardy (something the novel's Stalinist fans do their best to ignore). Culture is hard to shake off, too. 

Abbott says that markets produce

  • A generation of British men without realistic heroes, who feel like they have been set up to fail.
  • A ‘we’ve got nothing left to lose’ generation of British men.
  • A nation of atomised, lonely, entrepreneurial boys, who often have lives without meaning.
  • A society where British manhood is now shaped more by market expectations – often unachievable ones - than by fathers, family values, a sense of community spirit and perseverance.
  • I believe we need to say loudly and clearly, that there is a powerful role for fathers. The truth is that just as loving fathers are a benefit to children, so loving families are a benefit to men.
I don't disagree. Men suffer under consumer capitalism just as women do, and often make things worse for themselves and women. I don't share her belief that there was or must have been a nice society formed by happy families in stable communities in which Daddy is strong and emotionally resilient (reading social history or discovering the sexual horrors of this and previous ages dispels this), but I think her analysis of the current problems are supported by cultural analysis. She carefully doesn't blame families or feral kids or whatever: we have a structural problem, which is something the Tories don't talk about. If you engineer mass unemployment, or a low-wage economy (I'm looking at you, too, New Labour), or demand that people leave London because housing benefit won't cover the costs, thus separating families from their communities, extended network of relations etc, then you get unfocussed anger and social decay.

Imagine being 20, male or female, unemployed and suddenly being dumped in Stoke. All your friends and family are in London. You have no social circle. No prospect of employment. Hostility from your new neighbours who are struggling themselves, and from the authorities who blame your unemployment on idleness rather than a national crisis. Result? You spend your time killing prostitutes on your X-Box, take up drink and drugs, and engage in antisocial behaviour. There's no chance of education, you can't find capital for your business ideas, you don't have a union or older role models: you're Alf of Sorrow for thy Sons and you're going to hurt yourself and those around you. You may become a parent but the odds are against you being a decent role model, however good your intentions. Without the opportunity to engage in the positive aspects of masculinity and femininity, people develop hyper-real versions of these things: with men, it's often violence and the sexual degradation of women. Or as Abbott puts it:
I’m particularly troubled by a culture of hyper-masculinity – a culture that exaggerates masculinity in the face of a perceived threat to it. We see it in our schools; in the culture of some of our big business financial institutions; in some of our in inner cities; and even on many student campuses. At its worst, it’s a celebration of heartlessness; a lack of respect for women’s autonomy; and the normalisation of homophobia. I fear it’s often crude individualism dressed up as modern manhood. 

Decent, fulfilling work may help men. Marx wavered between the Dignity of Labour and a vision of the Communist Future in which a small amount of work subsidised a life of leisure and intellectual fulfilment, but it's fairly clear that decent work is psychologically beneficial - and yet capitalism relies on reducing men and women to drones, and keeping a reserve army of desperate unemployed people on hand to depress wages and frighten the rest of us into obedience.  

What of women? Abbott talks, rightly I think, of porn culture's infection of everyday socialisation. Young, working-class and often highly-educated women have been persuaded that even the most degrading sexual activities and attitudes are 'empowering' – you may recall that I recently wrote about teaching Jilly Cooper's Riders and the way it depicts fellatio as a sexual adventure for women rather than one-way gratification of the abusive and cruel men in their lives. Porn is mainstream and it teaches men that their sexuality depends on progressively more demeaning use of women, rather than mutual pleasure. Fifty Shades of Grey is symptomatic of this: it presents female submission as somehow empowering, while uncritically idolising unearned capitalist success: Christian Grey is where sexual and economic violence come together (no pun intended). 

Abbott's solutions are clear and OK: better transmission between the generations of positive, emotionally-open masculinity. Stable, fulfilling work, and state provision of health and psychological services. But we need to go further. Banning porn or exploitative games or whatever aren't solutions: we need to end a culture which benefits from the consumption of goods which promote atomisation and antagonism. 

And that means ending capitalism as an economic structure and as a cultural condition. My 1930s Welsh authors knew this (well, the leftwing ones did). And now you do too. 

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