Trump, masculinity and class

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Much commentary on Trump's victory has veered between two explanations: either there is a bigger proportion of the electorate with 'deplorable' attitudes to women and minorities than was thought; or economic dislocation has produced an angry white working and middle class eager to punish political elites.

 Cartoon by Chris JohnstonThese explanations are not mutually exclusive. Paul Mason's contention that the contraceptive pill has undermined 40,000 years of male-dominated human development in a few decades, helping explain the misogyny that infected the presidential campaign, is probably true.

But just as the pill has recast sexual, reproductive and gender relationships, the devastation of manufacturing industries has undermined male dominance in the economic sphere and in the realm of social reproduction — at least for many working class and middle class men.

Many men, it appears, blame their loss of status and power not on an economic system that has no use for them anymore, but on women — this helps to explain the tolerance of Trump's sexism and celebration of sexual assault, as well as the troubling growth of family violence in the US and many other countries.

The potent combination of insecurity, latent violence, race and perceived emasculation was captured in the words of a Trump supporter interviewed by The Guardian at the President's inauguration: 'This is the mood of the world ... People want their lives back. I'm a white male who owns firearms. At least for the next four years I get to keep my guns and my balls.'

What this points to is the need to be cautious about making arbitrary distinctions between class and identity politics. We should remember that 'working class' is an identity in itself, and that 'working class male' is a sub-set of it. Economic forces are the primary shaper of class identity, but not the only one.

The essence of working class male identity has been formed over innumerable generations, conditioned by intertwining relationships between manual work; family structure; relations between the sexes; religious and cultural norms, and so on. While the essence of this identity is determined by the worker's relationship to the means of production, there comes a point when the identity takes on an independent existence, becoming a force in its own reproduction.

Thus the very identity of 'working class man' becomes self-reinforcing, with the constituent elements of that identity (toughness, self-sufficiency, physical strength) becoming not just the manifestation of an individual's relationship to the means of production, but the means and object of their own reproduction. It is no longer hard manual labour that creates a tough, self-sufficient man, but the identity 'working class man' that recreates itself.

 

"Rather than work creating a particular form of male identity, male identity now requires a particular relationship to work — without work, men feel no longer able to 'provide' for their families, feel worthless and emasculated."

 

Indeed, the destruction of secure skilled and unskilled male jobs over the last 30 years helps to explain the backlash against mainstream political elites that was exemplified in Trump's victory. But the viciousness of the sexism that marred the election campaign, and the willingness to ignore (or welcome) Trump's misogyny, are a symptom of the undermining of a deep sense of masculinity that, for at least some men, is their primary — perhaps only — identity.

This helps to explain what has long baffled parts of the Left — the phenomenon of working class tories. A materialist understanding of the dynamics of class formation renders this inexplicable. Why do some workers vote against their objective class interests? One explanation, of course, is the effectiveness of the dominant ideology of capitalism to produce false consciousness. No doubt this is important.

But it is also likely that some elements of working class identity are not at all progressive. Think for instance of intra-family solidarity, with clearly identified gender roles within the nuclear family. These may have had a structural functionality in earlier periods, when heavy labour made males the primary wage-earners, and welfare states were undeveloped, leaving families as the locus of social reproduction and individual support. Such elements are now running up against pressures for gender equality.

Given the concrete nature of family relationships, compared to the relative abstraction of class as an economic category, there is little surprise that the identity of 'working class man', given meaning, at least partly, in its relationship of contradistinction to the category 'woman', trumps the identity of 'worker'.

Indeed, the power of masculinity as a source of identity may now be so substantial that it reverses the normal understanding of class identity formation. Rather than work creating a particular form of male identity, male identity now requires a particular relationship to work — without work, men feel no longer able to 'provide' for their families, feel worthless and emasculated.

The problem is, as Paul Mason (Post Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future) says, 'work — the defining activity of capitalism — is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance', leaving masculinity as the central site of contestation. In this sense the key struggle for gender politics today may not be around female identity, or non-binary identities, but the problem of masculinity. For a problem it truly is.

 


Colin LongColin Long is Victorian Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union.

Topic tags: Colin Long, Donald Trump, masculinity, class


 

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You could be right about women but What do you think about banks against Trump? I would like to read opinions on these. https://youtu.be/47BVKMt6NYk?t=3m37s
MM | 13 February 2017


As we all look for answers I thank you for this salient piece which is as well expressed as it is sad and horrifying.
Peter Goers | 13 February 2017


A thought-provoking article. No doubt the truth lies in some amalgam of the matters raised. However, how does the "women for Trump" support group fit into this? Or was that an illusion or aberration in the election campaign?
Dennis | 13 February 2017


I think you are right about masculinity is becoming an issue. I've observed overt aggression growing between men of all ages over the last decade and a disturbing level of contempt for women. I'm just not sure it's solely a lack of reliable work and subversion by the capitalist hegemony. Our culture is now dominated by violent movies, TV etc, and social media allows malcontents to vent their spleens safely. This aggression has translated into everyday life. Perhaps those of us on the left are partly responsible by promising a better life for the working class in a capitalist democracy when we know there is no such thing as the trickle-down effect. The reduction in support for our most vulnerable, while reducing taxes on the mega-wealthy perfectly demonstrates it's really a trickle-up system. We've conned the working class for generations - no wonder they're angry.
Julie Davies | 13 February 2017


A white line down the middle of the road doesn’t stop cars from physically veering to the wrong side and causing accidents, but it does help drivers by alerting them to where they belong, and this averts accidents. Culture/religion, like the white line, allots everyone their place in society , and gives them a sense of security. But if the Culture/religion fails to adapt to changing circumstances, chaos ensues. ‘When there is no Vision, the people perish‘. Usually even a rat knows its place, and retreats from threats, but if cornered, will fight for survival. Dispossessed people, like ’detribalised natives’ revert back to primitive survival instincts and emotional responses, and people like Trump get elected. Pope John’s aggiornamento is desperately needed in many spheres of human activity or we revert to primitive selfishness and twisted survival instincts.
Robert Liddy | 13 February 2017


Thank you Colin for a fascinating reflection. I have to agree with your analysis. I also support Julie Davies' comments. We DO have a problem and it is getting worse!
Gavin | 13 February 2017


Splendid article! As a long time US watcher (I also lived there for two years) I would like to add that I believe that most of us would find it hard to digest the deep racism amongst white Americans - I think many Trump voters are white supremacists deep down, and that resentment of a black President was a big factor in the Republicans blocking of Obama's initiatives.
paul finnane | 13 February 2017


Good question Dennis. Women's support for trump is no illusion just as the failure to support Clinton by large groups of women was no illusion. Also interesting that second and third wave feminism was driven by the contraceptive pill and Greer's Female Eunuch which has evolved into alternative contraception by the right to abortion and a healthy brand of disruptive misandry. Misogyny is not the only wrecker in the china shop. Misandry, however, seems to be a no-go zone in much commentary on the issue of societal disruption.
john frawley | 13 February 2017


I imagine that one way people might channel this masculine aggression is through provoking a war ... scary. But it's also possible that this male reaction is a massive tantrum against having to grow up and take responsibility for the many actions they've refused to up to date (e.g. pregnancies; female and child poverty; chronic power plays; child sex abuse etc etc). We all have a responsibility to raise our boys in ways that enable them to share responsibility and build healthy, well-rounded relationships. What a massive task to undertake!
Mary Tehan | 13 February 2017


Excellent and interesting analysis Colin. I wonder if you noticed this piece in the Atlantic. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/behind-the-internets-dark-anti-democracy-movement/516243/) . Seems like there might be some connecting and alarming ideas here.
john bartlett | 13 February 2017


I was intrigued by this statement of Julie Davies: 'I've observed overt aggression growing between men of all ages over the last decade and a disturbing level of contempt for women.' Having started work in Melbourne over 50 years ago, I certainly found aggression from other men, either superiors or those who perceived you as a competitor, rife. It has, I believe, always been thus. It was a work reflection of what happened on the AFL field, which was as much brute force as skill. Mateship - often spoken about - did happen but was sometimes more the exception than the rule. Were there mentors, or men I looked up to? There were, but these were often those with some maturity born of life, who did not necessarily want to stab their way in the back to the top. It's always worse at the bottom, and, having dropped out of university, I was pretty near the bottom of the pile in the Public Service then. We have this word 'assertive' we use in terms of interpersonal relationships which I think now means 'overtly aggressive and domineering'. I wonder if some of the women have learnt this from some of the men? It is not a good look in either sex.
Edward Fido | 13 February 2017


Technology divided the workers It produced the skilled on whose labour made it possible and the labourers who slaved on the factory production line . It produced a class structure within the working class. Technology is again at work producing again a new set of values. Values that have embraced an ideology based on individualism not collectivism.
Reg Wilding | 13 February 2017


America is a very complex place and very much different from Australia. I was once a US citizen and resident, and one thing I can say with certainty is that OZ is a much kinder and even gentler place. The American male is by himself, feels he alone has to protect himself; if his job goes so does his and his family`s health cover, there is very little welfare support and indeed little t all between him and utter ruin. The unions have collapsed as sources of empowerment, and anyway only represent those with jobs and actually not many of those in any industry with a future. The Democratic Party only represents favoured "identity-victim" issues favoured by inner city elites and not fat older white men losers. Then along comesTrump who seems to give a damn about you, and may be someone on your side; so probably for the first time in decades you vote! And you swing the small number of rust-belt states needed to get Trump in. On the other hand few in the large of the "identity groups" an especially blacks don`t vote at all...the arbitrariness of non-compulsory voting! And Colin, you need to be careful: you represent the classic safe, job-secure, entitled public-sector worker who supports all the fashionable "progressive causes. You don`t represent and may not really understand the worker in a marginal industry, with no qualifications, few skills and no future. Indeed though rigidity and self-centred resistance to client-centred change you may have contributed to his lousy education that helped destroyed him.
Eugene | 13 February 2017


It may explain part of the attraction, but not why Trump got so many Catholic women's vote
Gerard McInerney | 14 February 2017


Thanks for the article that needed to be written. I teach adolescents and know that boys do like to take a contrary view on "the cult of personality" but gender stereotypes need to be constantly challenged . Unemployment is a factor but only one.
Paul Cullen | 18 February 2017


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