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Problem with no name

Men too are victims of a patriachal con, says Laurie Penny

As feminists, the liberation of the y-chromosomed half of the human race has never been high on our list of priorities, but it's high time that we started a serious recruitment drive. Although the feminist movement has faced many obstacles and lost many battles, women have now won themselves enough social and economic capital that we can finally start to address the other half of the equation – to whit, the emancipation of men from capitalist patriarchy.

There are many urgent reasons why socialist feminists of all genders need to concern themselves with popular misandry and the subjugation of men, especially when we're facing down the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. A recession is never a good time for women's rights: economic crisis moves economic equality from the agenda, and a great deal of women's struggle in and out of the workplace revolves around the battle for equal economic status. Cuts to welfare benefits and part-time employment hit women with children hardest. But most importantly of all, recession creates a large body of justly angry, disenfranchised working men, men who are encouraged implicitly and sometimes explicitly to take that anger out where it will do least damage to capitalist hegemony: namely, on women.

It is a well-known and oft-repeated fact that domestic violence against women increases in times of economic crisis, usually, as is the case now, contiguously with a cut in state spending on women's refuges. But another backlash against feminism itself is also to be expected – and as feminists, the fallacy that the problems that men face in a recession are the fault of feminism is something that we need to face.

There is a very real crisis in masculinity occurring under late industrial capitalism, and the current economic downturn is exacerbating its symptoms: a residual lack of socialised identity for men outside the workplace is conspiring with rising unemployment and a lack of meaningful work in the middle tiers of the service and information economies to create a time-bomb of mental ill health amongst working-age men, whose suicide rate is quadruple that of women and rising.

Before women's liberation, the status of head of the household and breadwinner was one of the few arenas in which disenfranchised men could wield influence. However, the necessary erosion of men's domination of the family and the movement of many women into the workplace has not been balanced by a commensurate sharing of the responsibilities of childcare and a liberation of men from mandatory drudgery, drudgery which is still too often phrased as payment for the disappearing right to patriarchal power within the confines of the home. As traditional masculinity continues to collapse, the once-valued ‘masculine' attributes of craft, loyalty, strength, emotional resilience and capacity to physically defend people and property are no longer honoured and rarely rewarded.

Feminism has worked hard to challenge the capitalist narrative of mandatory female domesticity – it must now work to challenge the capitalist cultural narrative in which the ideal male is an emotionless, efficient worker drone. The ‘working stiff' is as damaging a stereotype as the angel in the house and feminists must be the first to challenge it.

Men, too, are victims of a patriarchal con, a con which is intimately entangled with the machinations of capitalism. Working class men, young men and men from racial and ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to this con: raised to believe that they will inherit the earth if they behave in specific power-seeking, violent and rigidly hetero-normative ways, as these men grow up they realise that they have been tricked into a set of behaviours that serve ends other than their own. Those whose ends are served are the same patriarchs - literally, those who exercise the rule of the father, elder and wealthier cohorts of the bourgeoisie, business and political classes - whose ends are served by women behaving in gender-codified ways under capitalism. A great deal of men become justly angry at this treatment, and this anger escalates in times of recession, where the inbuilt inequalities in this economic equation are emphasised by inflation and rising unemployment.

This has been the problem with no name for generations of men. Unfortunately, as prices and tempers rise, the anger of men is already being misdirected at women, and specifically at feminists, rather than at the more numinous industrial-capitalist socialisation model. In her seminal work Stiffed: the Betrayal of the Modern Man, Pulitzer-prize winning feminist journalist Susan Faludi explains that:

‘What women are challenging is something everyone can see. Men's grievances, by contrast, seem hyperbolic, almost hysterical; so many men seem to be doing battle with phantoms and witches that exist only in their own overheated imaginations. Women see men as guarding the fort, so they don't see how the culture shapes men. Men don't see how they are influenced by the culture either; in fact, they prefer not to. If they did, they would have to let go of the illusion of control.

The misdirection of the valid anger of working-class men against the women who should be their allies has been one of the greatest coups of late-20th century capitalism. And unfortunately, the evidence of a new backlash against feminism, founded on the idea that women are depriving men of jobs, opportunities, dignity and status, is mounting both online (where the feminist resurgence of the 21st century began) and in the meatspace. The irony, of course, is that for a great many disenfranchised men feminism could be the solution, not the problem. This is because rather than pining for exploitative and emotionally degrading models of personal power, feminism aims to build empowerment beyond the confines of gender binaries, all of which limit the capacity of the individual to be fully human.

The great joke of the industrial capitalist model of masculinity is that in any given society millions of men fall automatically outside its boundaries: effeminate men, homosexual, bisexual and transsexual men, men with mental, physical and learning disabilities, men whose skill is in academia and learning, sensitive men, short men, very elderly men, young boys. However, all men, like all women, are worked over by outdated models of masculinity and femininity – and we must not allow men's anger at the erosion of traditional masculinity to prevent them becoming allies in the struggle for personal fulfilment for all.

In the world they supposedly own and run, men are at the mercy of cultural forces that disfigure their lives and destroy their chance at happiness. Cultural movements of previous recessions – the New Romanticism of the 1970s, for example, or the revival of dandyism in the 1930s – have unsubtly challenged the limitations of traditional masculinity, and it is this sense of betrayal that feminists of all genders must seize upon. If we are to face down the coming crisis as a society, we will need to stand together against the adversarial gender models handed down to us – and realise that the real cause of social disenfranchisement is bigger than gender. Under industrial capitalism, men and women share a common enemy: we must not let that enemy divide and conquer us any longer.