Thursday, 26 May 2016

All the Old Dudes

Tyler Cowen asks, "What the hell is going on?", which is always a pertinent question. He explains his dismay: "Donald Trump may get the nuclear suitcase, a cranky 'park bench' socialist took Hillary Clinton to the wire, many countries are becoming less free, and the neo-Nazi party came very close to assuming power in Austria". The sentence opens with a classic comic technique in which people or concepts are diminished by association with mundane objects (suitcase, park bench, pigs-head), and closes with a crescendo of hyperbole. The Austrian Freedom Party isn't neo-Nazi (it's lineage is national-liberal), it was in government during the 2000-05 coalition, and the post of President is largely ceremonial. The ideological payload of the sentence is contained in the middle claim - that there has been a widespread reduction in freedom across the globe - which is unadorned and unsupported by any evidence.

This is not to say that evidence is lacking, but conventional measures of freedom tend to focus on the degree to which countries mirror Western ideals in terms of representative democracy, press regulation and Internet access. High profile slippage in recent years has occured in places like Mexico, Turkey and Ukraine. In other words, a decline in freedom is something that we typically expect to see outside of nations such as the USA and Austria. Cowen claims "these bizarre reactions are occurring across a number of countries", but in fact they aren't occurring uniformly. There is no populist insurgency in Japan and neo-Nazis aren't on the brink of power in Canada. The examples Cowen gives do not reflect a common malaise, unless you believe Vladimir Putin is pulling Donald Trump's strings or that Bernie Sanders is a secret neo-Nazi. So why the global hell-in-a-handcart vibe? The purpose is to tee us up for a global explanation.

In Cowen's view, "The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them? Brutes? [his italics] Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer. They do less well with nice. And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well." Though the Latin root means "heavy", and the word is often a synonym for "animal", "brute" in English has traditionally been a class term, used in reference to the dull stupidity and viciousness of the lower orders. This is about the working class.

Cowen continues: "A lot of men did better psychologically and maybe also economically in a world where America had a greater number of tough manufacturing jobs. They thrived under brutish conditions, including a military draft to crack some of their heads into line". This ignores that most manufacturing jobs were not "tough" even at the height of the industrial revolution, let alone in the 1960s and 70s. They might be tiring, mind-numbing and incidentally fatal, but manning machinery or packing boxes was always more typical than bashing metal, for both men and women. Likewise, there have always been more jobs in services than in manufacturing. The nineteenth century saw a sectoral shift from field to factory but many more workers quit rural idiocy for employment in shops than in foundries.

"Tough" work was given ideological prominence as the quintessence of labour precisely because of its "brutishness" (later recuperated by socialists as "nobility"). This lives on in the nostalgia of manufacturing, which is still held to be more "artless" than services despite its technical sophistication. Jobs in manufacturing have been in decline since the 1920s, with only a temporary pick-up during the 1940s due to the needs of war production (a pick-up that was largely achieved by drafting in women to do "tough" jobs). While a case can be made that the conservative turn in politics in the late-40s and early-50s was partly the result of men seeking to limit female competition in the workplace, a theory that increased conservative voting among males correlates with a decline in manufacturing jobs does not match actual voting patterns. Similarly, harassment has been a feature of the Internet since the get-go, reflecting sexism and bigotry in academia and IT. This is no more attributable to a decline in manufacturing jobs than increased press regulation in Turkey is.

Cowen is chiefly known for his musings on the impact of technology and the rate of innovation (The Great Stagnation, Average is Over) and here echoes Peter Thiel: "perhaps men did better in the age of 'technological progress without globalization' rather than 'globalization without technological progress'". This not only falls into the trap of treating technology as masculine and trade as feminine, but it also suggests that the two are mutually exclusive rather than dependent. Globalisation is the product of transport and communications technology (e.g. shipping containers and email), while technological innovation is highly geared to globalisation because of potential scale effects (e.g. this is why cell-phones rapidly overtook fixed-line phones).

Cowen prefers a gendered theory because it "avoids the weaknesses of purely economic explanations." In other words, forget class: economic redundancy is just Nature's way of telling you you've got a scrotum but insufficient smarts for a college degree. The invocation of Peter Thiel reminds us that much of the turn towards class contempt in modern political discourse originates in Silicon Valley. Though Thiel is an outrider in his open distaste for democracy and support for Donald Trump, he is simply more frank in his opinions than most of the "weird Democrats" bankrolling Hillary Clinton. Similarly, his apparent funding of Hulk Hogan's punitive case against Gawker is merely an amplified form of the censorship and blacklisting that centrists have adopted in recent years in the face of growing criticism. As ever, the insistence on civility is a demand for the enforcement of status.

While Cowen and Thiel are both interesting thinkers, the same cannot be said for Steve Hilton, the former Number 10 policy "guru" who quit the UK in frustration for California in 2012. He has returned to our shores this week to tell us that the EU is "secretive and impenetrable", which is both wrong and irrelevant, and that government is a "technocratic elite", which is ironic given that he runs a tech startup trying to upgrade democracy. He has described Donald Trump as "refreshing" and Jeremy Corbyn as "bullied by the political establishment". He is of course describing himself. He has even tried to pin the label of "disruptor" on the Labour leader: "that kind of impulse of really representing a break with the way things are done is something I really share" (the redundant use of "really" is the hallmark of the bullshitter).

Hilton is a ridiculous figure, but his egotism has the same source as Thiel's angry contempt and Cowen's more jocular snobbery. The overlap between the Californian Ideology and Cowen's theory is not a belief that men are a problem as a gender - we're talking about brutes here, not professors of economics or venture capitalists - but that working class men are an irrelevance and should politely quit the stage. The final irony is that all three of them are either approaching or now into their 50s. In other words, they are at that stage in life when middle class men of the postwar era traditionally expected to be at the peak of their earning potential and their social status. In this sense they, rather than the male working class, represent a dying breed.


  1. Enforcement of status? Or attempt to recover social prestige? As you say, away from the building site, coal face or smelter manufacturing has never been 'tough'. Many low status jobs though had prestige - breadwinner, Union member, participant in the future. The argument over women on the front line is the same - an attempt to maintain the prestige of 'mans work' and not anything about ability per se. You point out that in Japan there is no insurgency at this time, maybe because that culture still pays a lot of attention to these issues (but I'm no expert on Japan).

    1. "The argument over women on the front line is the same - an attempt to maintain the prestige of 'mans work' and not anything about ability per se."

      I'm not sure that it has anything to do with prestige in this case. The argument is the old one that women are weak vessels who need to be protected from certain activities which they would lack the physical, mental and emotional strength to perform effectively. This position has been dramatically undermined.

      I think that 'men' as a group are as diverse as most artificially-created categories, and I would argue that they have become less sexist, racist, overtly aggressive, etc, and this mainly due to women's assertion of greater rights. I find it somewhat ridiculous to think that there has been some sort of 'male backlash' against an 'effeminisation' of society or the decline in traditional male stereotypes.

    2. Although I take your point for society at large, during my time in the military I never encountered the view that women were weak vessels. Rather they sometimes proved to be among the strongest. With regard to the post I was merely trying to add some nuance to the status argument so that it might help produce an intersectional account for recent political developments, by which I mean the way support for people like trump cannot be fully explained by class analysis.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Emvironment31 May 2016 at 17:27

    We are potentially less free because those in power now have the tools to gain total control of information, in any meaningful sense. Under this apparatus I would expect to see less dissenters.

    We always have as much power as they will allow us but with technological advancements we have less chance of escaping their attention. In the so called dictatorships of the past, such as the Soviet Union, the actual level of central control of society was minimal, and when compared to the control enjoyed by the advanced nations we could almost say the Soviet Union was a Utopia of freedom compared to the realities of today, where every street corner now does have a camera of some sort.

    And the trajectory is going in one direction, more and more control. Nowhere to hide!

    Control of the internet, as well as a massive increase of surveillance technology, used to enforce parking right through to taking snapshots of protesters and picking drone targets is paramount.

    The British government has hugely increased the number of sites deemed illegal , is clamping down on them in a huge way.

    At the moment the police are not noticeably involving themselves day to day matters but I believe this is coming and anyone not seeing the warning signs are complacent at best.

    There is probably no putting the genie back in the bottle, which is why I see only a dystopian future. I think the pessimists are more correct than the optimists.

    The problem with Cowens’s view is that he takes small differences in polling data to mean something absolute and often the opposite of what the polling is saying. So, for example, around 65% of men didn’t think Syrian children should be allowed to settle in Britain even if their life was in danger, well the figure for women was around 60%! But for the likes of Cowen this is proof that men are bad and women are good! The same goes for the EU vote, around 40% of men say leave and around 35% of women and from these small differences an entire erroneous gender theory is built!