The Men's Rights Movement, Liberals, and the Left
The liberal response to the Men’s Rights Movement tells us almost as much about contemporary politics as does the existence of the odious MRM itself. The growth of the MRM (or Men’s Rights Activists, MRA) of course reflects male entitlement so profound and confused that it cannot recognize that feminism only emerged as a response to thousands of years of patriarchy, which presently exists in the form of systematic institutional and personal violence against women, an accompanying ubiquitous misogynist ideology that sees “bitches” as sexual objects, unequal pay, unpaid “women’s work,” etc. etc. Appropriating the language of rights while depriving them of their liberatory content, the MRM represents a particularly ahistorical and insipid brand of misogyny, as even Nietzsche’s conception of woman as terrorist was at least informed by an understanding that the weapons of the weak will always seem unfair, or “reverse sexist,” to those privileged enough to create and benefit from rules they view as natural and neutral.
Given the moribund state of organized US politics, we might view the MRM as a US version of Greece’s Golden Dawn. You don’t join a political party in today’s USA, you go on A Voice for Men or Reddit-The Red Pill and earn likes by complaining about “selfish bitches” and the “feminization of the military.” Of course, Susan Faludi’s Backlash observed back in 1991 that men’s fear of “feminization,” among other sexist tropes regarding the impending woman takeover, has in fact existed for a century, but MRA might just think that since women are “biologically slower” the process has just been taking a reeeeaaaaallly looooooong time. It goes without saying that the MRM and fellow travelers like Bill Maher entirely miss the irony of blaming women for the never-ending “feminization” of society when the male construction of femininity, entailing demureness and passivity, has been anything but liberatory for women.
The comparison to Golden Dawn is not a merely rhetorical exercise, as, beyond the MRM’s snug relationship with racism, the MRM more than anything else resembles the preposterous neo-Nazi organization known as the National Association for the Advancement of White People. Indeed, the logic informing the MRM is so feeble that we can allow none other than Jerry Springer to refute it. Years ago Springer would invite young, bald, angry neo-Nazis onto his program who, among other things, complained about the injustice of there being a Black Entertainment Channel but no White Entertainment Channel. Springer demolished their worldview by noting that there is in fact a White Entertainment Channel: “It’s called NBC.” Similarly, Men’s Rights Activists don’t realize that there already is a Men’s Rights Movement: it’s called society.
Notwithstanding the blind entitlement and misanthropic ignorance of the MRM, the disconcerting growth of such retrogressive stupidity is rarely fully explained. For instance, Rebecca Solnit’s important essay “A Rape A Minute, A Thousand Corpses A Year” – which devastatingly cites case after case of sexual violence against women – contains a critical oversight (And it is only the most fallacious form of so-called “identity politics” that would hold that my maleness per se precludes me from forwarding such a critique, which at the same time hardly invalidates Solnit’s comment in Men Explain Things to Me that “the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered”).
Solnit asserts that “Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together.” In capitalism, however, very few people, men or women, are free and powerful. Moreover, the power – privilege by definition – that is accorded males at birth is inherently and necessarily relational. Men have this type of power precisely because women don't, just as a male who is labeled a “bitch” or “pussy” is the horrifying antithesis that enables masculinity to construct itself and reproduce its privileges even in all-male environments. While most men and women are doomed to be wage slaves, men have at least historically enjoyed the knowledge that their wages, regardless of the industry, will be higher than women’s, and that until recently they could enjoy the pseudo-traditional responsibility and power that masculinity affords to the "family provider.” It is the continuing collapse of this “grand bargain” between capitalism and sexism that is, in part, provoking such fear and confusion today.
Indeed, Solnit’s denial of a zero-sum game is at odds with the message of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling Lean In, which embraces the cutthroat economic competition it sees as part of “normal life.” Liberal feminism here strives for greater access to artificially finite resources by arguing that women too can be strivers who engage in their own strategic self-exploitation. “We must decide that true equality is long overdue and will be achieved only when more women rise to the top of every government and every industry.” This is of course a remarkably limited conception of “true equality,” since it represents mere interchangeability within existing hierarchies rather than social equalization. Sandberg wants women to also have opportunities to exploit (men but also working class women, who are disproportionately people of color) and oppress (as if Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton represents any kind of advance for humanity).
Mere equality of opportunity ignores that while “anyone” can theoretically “make it” under capitalism, “everyone” by definition cannot. Liberal feminism is neither concerned with the persistence of this “everyone” in general nor the women constituting it in particular. This abstract notion of social mobility (which in practice is about as realistic as Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick tales) omits concrete differences among women, specifically regarding class and race, and can be seen in the popularity of the #YesAllWomen hashtag following Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree (some MRA currently indulge in the temptation of “going Elliot,” notwithstanding their denial of the explicit role of Rodger’s misogyny in the murders).
#YesAllWomen was a response to the predictably defensive assertion that “not all men” engage in misogyny, emphasizing that all women are indeed oppressed by it. But just as important as the fact that all women suffer under misogyny is the fact that different women suffer under wildly different circumstances and in different ways. All women have not been bombed during their weddings, or have been arrested and served time in prison, or have had their husbands, brothers, or sons beaten or killed by the police, or live in poverty. Only a miniscule fraction of “all women” will be able to be CEOs like Sheryl Sandberg because if “all women” made it who would then serve under them and take care of their kids?
Indeed, liberals’ concern with equality is ultimately based on producing superficially fair outcomes, ignoring the critical power disparities that help constitute the basis of exploitation itself. And men are quite right to see that their exploitation – but not only theirs – has been intensifying. What the MRM and liberal feminism have in common is their uncritical acceptance of an exploitative competition whose production of winners necessitates the production of losers.
And it is the desperate and vicious scramble to avoid being the next loser that characterizes much of today’s male discourse concerning women, “triumph” over whom provides the basis of the “male bonding” defining intrinsically sexist clubs such as fraternities. That men worry that their perceived entitlements such as employment and sexual gratification are becoming scarce perpetuates but also reflects the inherently competitive, and increasingly militarized, nature of a society that indeed turns people into things. Frightened by their intensifying commodification and exploitation, men, committed to “competition,” try to “win” “the game” "against women" by unabashedly cultivating manipulative misanthropy and schooling “brothers” in pick-up “artistry.” All the while, political correctness’s fixation on not analysis but politeness, and not critical dialogue but “you can’t say that” censorship, always contains the seed of the backlash against it. It is within such a context that Yale students could “retaliate” against what they deem unfair and obsolete political correctness by going on a march chanting “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal,” and that the university’s suspension of the fraternity can be viewed as a tyrannical attack on freedom.
That some US universities’ have eliminated due process for male students accused of rape – after years of ignoring women who had been assaulted on campus – has been predictably and confusedly interpreted by the MRM as a sign of women’s ascendancy, instead of a quasi-weapon of the weak processed through a self-interested university system fearing legal liability. Simultaneously, that some liberal feminists see the rapacious university system’s belated and indiscriminate intervention into its rape society as a manifestation of justice, demonstrates that liberal feminism is unwilling to fundamentally challenge the institutional infrastructure of oppressive power itself. Liberals merely want to take it over.
Failure of the Left
The so-called Old Left’s acceptance of feminism was belied by an aversion, which famously was associated with its according a primacy to class and not gender. This analytical orthodoxy generated concrete resentment, as revolutionary women in the 1960s and 1970s were notoriously subordinated around the left to coffee-preparing, cleaning, and “supine” positions that would be addressed of course only “after the revolution.” Beyond the resentment and eventual disenchantment produced by its allegiance to so-called class analysis (as it was more oriented toward labor unions than society’s most vulnerable and oppressed), the left’s line forfeited the opportunity of attaining more sophisticated and precise theories of contemporary capitalism.
It was, then, left-feminists who emphasized that patriarchy is far more than a pre-capitalist atavism, and instead interacts with capitalism to produce a highly modern type of women’s oppression. The analytical primacy of class not only tended to miss the specifically sexist effects of capitalism (although Marx has been commonly misunderstood as defending, rather than condemning, capitalism’s devaluation of non-productive labor or “women’s work”), it also led to problematic political conclusions. For instance, Craig Owens remarked that the left’s periodization of a postwar “golden age of labor” ended just as women’s political gains increased, thus excluding these gains from the realm of worthwhile politics. Given left resistance to feminism, not mentioning the persistence of individual and group sexism that has characterized numerous left organizations, it is hardly surprising that many women moved from Marxist anti-capitalism toward what is derisively and peremptorily dismissed as “identity politics.”
It’s a commonplace that today’s left is in tatters, conceptually moribund, derailed by electoral spectacles, and begging for bigger windows in its prison cells. Egregiously, it has ceded ground to liberals, who are seemingly increasingly alone to rail against attacks on women, their concerns mocked by reactionaries on the rise. While the backlash is partly prompted by real and imagined women’s advances in education and employment amid unending capitalist crisis, its primary weapon is male violence itself, not only throughout the world but also in the United States.
Liberal feminism can no more liberate women than the MRM can liberate men. Liberal feminism in fact mirrors the MRM insofar as they are both based on an appropriation (liberation and rights talk, respectively) designed to achieve greater individual competitiveness within a structurally exploitative system. If the left ever manages to unify its practice with its theory it might manage to effectively challenge what it ostensibly opposes: oppression, which continues to direct its most pervasive abuses against girls and women.
Joshua Sperber can be reached at [email protected]