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.