Misogyny and the alt-right

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Champion Ruby
Joined: 27-11-07
Jul 7 2017 18:36
Misogyny and the alt-right

You'll be right if you ask if this is an essay submitted for an undergrad degree. Needless to say, I got high grades for it, so thought it'd be worth putting on my blog. Looking forward to commentary from other anarchists. It's also copyleft if ppl think I'm onto something.


Misogyny and the Alt-Right

The rise of the Alternative Right (Alt Right) in the United States has taken many by surprise. Its unconcealed hostility towards women seems anachronistic in the face of decades of progressive work aimed towards the evening out of gender inequalities. Yet the movement has proved to be startlingly influential, despite encompassing forces that openly embrace white supremacy, misogyny and even Nazism. This essay is primarily concerned with the Alt-Right’s relationship with gender and bodies, particularly in terms of its embrace of hyper-masculinity and hostility towards women. It will approach the body as both “a site of intervention and a surface to be inscribed and sculpted” (Gottlieb 2011: 113). Largely due to the contribution of progressive theories such as anarchism and feminism, masculinity has come under scrutiny. These traditions and those building upon them note that if the interrelationships between body and gender can be identified as constructions, these constructions must be grounded in the interests of particular historical forces. With the transition from the industrial to the precarious economy [1] in the West, masculine identity has been thrown into confusion. This essay seeks to situate the Alt-Right’s hostility towards women in this framework, as a defensive posture taken up by a small but influential group that aims to maintain masculine cultural dominance.

Hegemonic constructions of gender are neither natural or given, but subject to continuous change. These constructions are taught to children from a young age, directing them as to what norms and behaviours are acceptable according to their prescribed genders. In the current dominant structure of society, men are by sole merit of their identity privileged over women, who are typically denied the same opportunities that men are privy to (Buscher 2005: 6). The socialisation of children according to gender constructs preserves the structure of patriarchal societies by ensuring that the common acceptance of the dominant group’s worldview remains intact. In other words, the only way a dominant group can maintain its dominance is through gaining the consent of subordinate groups. (Bates 1975: 352). Though coercion is definitely an element of maintaining a dominant group’s power, the true “weavers of the fabric of hegemony”, according to Gramsci, are the “organizing intellectuals” (cited in Donaldson 1993: 645). This refers to those in a position to “articulate experiences, fantasies, and perspectives; reflect on and interpret gender relations” (ibid.), including priests, politicians, academics, editors, advertisers and film-makers, among others.

The current configuration of gender relations is relatively new, having been developed out of post-17th Century European and American military and economic growth in the form of imperial expansion, colonialism and the advent of capitalism, processes driven primarily by men in positions of wealth. With the consolidation of this order, these men were able to amass enormous power. Though deep gendered inequalities had existed beforehand, this was an era of pure patriarchal hegemony (Buscher 2006: 9). This was further cemented by Enlightenment thinking that perceived rational consciousness as being separate to and above the human body. This distinction, which continues to exercise strong influence today, “identifies knowledge, culture, and reason with masculinity and identifies body, nature, and emotion with femininity” (Sasson-Levy & Rapoport 2003: 381). This privileging of rationality is certainly echoed in Alt-Right groups such as the Traditionalist Youth Network, which declares that “women’s biological drives are contrary to the best interests of civilization” (cited in Lyons 2017: 8). Yet it can be argued that biological drives, that is, corporeality, not only “reflect the basic values and themes of the society” (Sasson-Levy & Rapoport 2003: 381), but are also the means by which institutions and discourse are reproduced. In other words, it is bodies themselves that create meanings. Existentialists explain this in terms of specific bodies that inhabit specific contexts. Age, size, colour, health, environment and other “concrete material relations of a person’s bodily existence and her physical and social environment constitute her facticity” (Young 2005: 16). It follows that people have the “ontological freedom to construct (themselves) in relation to this facticity” (ibid) and that this construction, guided as it is by that facticity, will not necessarily correspond to hegemonic constructions.

If gender is “nothing other than a social performative” (Young 2005: 15), some feminists suggest that is may be useful to discard “the concept of gender altogether and renew a concept of the lived body derived from existential phenomenology, as a means of theorizing sexual subjectivity without danger of either biological reductionism or gender essentialism” (ibid: 12). While not denying difference in physique, these feminists argue that if “gender rules and expectations are socially constituted and socially changeable” they should therefore “have no implications for a person’s life prospects, or the way people [treat] one another” (ibid). In recognising that the body represents “a site of cultural contest, a flexible signifier of identities and meanings, and an anchor of political knowledge and action” (Sasson-Levy & Rapoport 2003: 381), the argument goes that rather than having a static meaning, bodies are defined through a range of cultural and political discourses that can hold different meanings at different times. The experience of World War One, for example, shattered the Victorian ‘heroic masculine’ ideal and saw notions of manliness reassessed with reference to the broken bodies and minds of those who had fought in it (Gottlieb 2011: 114).

More contemporaneous to today, the transition in the West from industrial manufacturing to the precarious economy has again forced a reassessment of masculinity. This transition demands “greater adaptability to the demands of consumers, a knowledge economy for elite workers, a service economy for unskilled labor, the internationalization of manual labor, and a lack of job security for everyone” (Sender 2006: 135). This process is facilitated primarily through neoliberal ideology, which calls for the retreat of government from commerce. The ideological rationale for this free market fundamentalism insists that people can only be truly happy when their choices are essentially unlimited and that therefore, dependency on the state is an impediment to their development. The retreat of government intervention since the 1970s has resulted in a severe rupture of gender roles as “state controls that favoured breadwinning jobs for male ‘heads of households’ as well as … public-sector jobs that gave women stable, if unequal, wage labor in human service occupations” (Amar 2010: 7) are rolled back. Stripped of welfare entitlement and structure according to industrial organisation, masculinity has faced a crisis of identity. In this reformulation, the mechanisms by which hegemony is sustained shift from “external forms of government – both the expressly coercive (the police) and the apparently benign (social workers) – (to) internal forms, where success in the new labor marketplace becomes increasingly dependent on the ability to self-govern” (Sender 2006: 135-36).

If the previous economic order’s stability rested on community identity fostered through welfare and job security, the current neoliberal ordering of society rests on the atomisation of those identities. For women, the increased flexibility of the labour market has encouraged largescale entry into full-time work in addition to unpaid domestic and child-rearing labour. This has fuelled resentment among some men as they perceive their role within the family unit threatened and themselves, not inaccurately, as in competition not only with other men for jobs, but with women as well (ibid.). For many men, this inversion of previously taken for granted certainties has resulted in a spike of mental illness, depression and an accompanying rise in violent behaviours as men attempt to reassert a perceived sense of masculinity (Buscher 2005: 7-8). While men could previously rely on their having a certain skill-set to lead reasonably secure lives, “(s)uccess in this ‘new work order’ depends … on how adeptly they have absorbed a work ethic attentive to self-presentation and self-management” (Sender 2006: 145), necessitating greater effort to retain their class positions. It is in this atomisation of previous identities that the movements of the Alt-Right can be located. As broad layers of society face increasingly uncertain futures and fractured identities, the Alt-Right represents an effort to reimpose essentialist conceptualisations of race and gender.

The rise of the Alt-Right movement has been driven by a variety of web-based phenomenon in conjunction with the floundering older right’s struggle for relevancy. On the web-based side, there has been the convergence of the ‘pickup-artist’ scene, the ‘neo-masculinity’ of websites such as Return of Kings, the overt misogyny demonstrated in Gamergate and ‘troll-armies’ based on websites like 4chan (Kiberd 2017: 1). The older right is represented primarily by paleoconservatives and neo-Nazis. This movement crosses over significantly with white supremacist, Christian right and ‘libertarian’ movements, all of which consider the West to be under siege from the left and global elites, both of which they perceive to be undertaking internationalist agendas (Lyons 2017: 3). These social forces began to coalesce after 2008, when the paleoconservative and white supremacist editor Richard Spencer coined the term Alternative Right. Spencer aimed to make this new movement analogous to the European New Right, a movement that has taken a quasi-intellectual approach towards the reformulation of the fascist project, often by incorporating elements of left-wing theory. The Alt-Right has been strongly associated with Donald Trump’s dramatic rise to power, mirroring his “anti-immigrant proposals; defamatory rhetoric against Mexicans, Muslims, women, and others; and his clashes with mainstream conservatives and the Republican Party establishment” (ibid: 5).

Part of the failure to initially recognise the Alt-Right lay in its web-based nature. One commenter, intrigued by the phenomenon, notes how “’explaining’ the Alt-right to a general audience will always make you sound like an overwhelmed grandparent trying to figure out how to work the internet, in part because of their slippery use of irony” (Nagle 2017: 2). It is the anonymous nature of the internet that has both inspired the Alt-Right and given it its platform. Up until the rise of Trump, the predominant assumption in intellectual and left discourse was that the shift in identity accompanying the transition in economic models was a relatively uncontested reality and that those resisting these changes ideationally were more or less a dying force: as Nagle notes, “you cannot come up with new ideas if the intellectual culture of your movement is totally closed down. Which has been the case for years. That’s why the alt-right has been such a shock, because everyone was banking on the fact that everyone now agrees with us” (cited in Kiberd 2017: 4). This assumption has proven to be demonstrably false. As flashpoints of violence throughout the West take place between extreme left and right social forces it becomes increasingly clear that the transition to a precarious economy has provoked severe societal disruptions, one of the most significant of which address issues of gender.

Though patriarchal structures are very much intact, the perceived dismemberment of masculinity by leftist academia coupled with the destabilisation of men’s role in both the economy and family has motivated an anti-feminist backlash. Daryush Valizadeh, one of the spokesmen of the movement, argues that “(w)omen and gays are now seen as superior to straight men. They are being given the benefits in the universities and in the media before everyone here. Their voice is amplified while ours is muted” (2016: 1). This victimhood narrative is prominent in the Alt-Right, belying a tendency towards partially blaming the problems of deindustrialisation on women’s involvement in the new economy and shifts in masculine identity. The American left’s abandonment of class politics can be identified as a major contribution to this problem. Its retreat from class discourse towards an embrace of diversity as its primary focus has seen increasingly large sectors of the American public become isolated from its politics. The American working class has always contained a strong layer of white, Christian men, and their perceived exclusion from discourses concerning gender, racial and sexual identity has driven a significant portion of this demographic firmly to right (Lilla 2016: 1). This struggle has played out most visibly on the internet, where it becomes apparent that leftist online culture has proved incomprehensible to significant sectors of the community, which has reacted with viciously misogynist and racist sentiment. It has not become uncommon to find statements along the lines that for the Alt-Right, “(t)rying to ‘appeal’ to women is an exercise in pointlessness…. it’s not that women should be unwelcome [in the Alt Right], it’s that they’re unimportant” (cited in Lyons 2017: 8). The perceived erosion of masculinity has led this movement to conclude that a retreat to ‘traditional’ Christian structures is desirable, at times even calling for the rolling back of women’s suffrage. The fear of loss is evident in the popularisation of the term ‘cuck’, a reference to a pornographic scenario depicting the cuckolded white man whose wife sleeps with stronger black men (Schwartz 2016: 2). For the Alt-Right, the left’s fascination with identity and the uncertainties brought on by neoliberalism has led them to conclude that only a re-embrace of traditionalist discourse can stop America’s steep descent. A more thorough examination reveals the historical and economic factors behind this breakdown of old certainties, leading to the recognition that the attack on women and minorities provides a convenient smokescreen for those with a vested interest in the neoliberal program.

ukr mayday 2011

[1] This concept is taken from Plan C’s essay “We Are All Very Anxious”: https://www.weareplanc.org/blog/we-are-all-very-anxious/


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