I have a new theory, and a more sympathetic one, about the new American conservative movement, sometimes called “economic populism”, and what “Making America Great Again” was really, for many voters, about.
Lest anyone doubt my liberal bona fides, I’m writing Farisa’s Crossing, a novel with a female protagonist and an anti-corporate, anti-fascist message. I did not vote for Donald Trump. In fact, I was physically ill for three days after he won. Though I’d be a centrist or conservative in some European countries, I’m probably in the leftmost 5 percent by U.S. standards. I support gay marriage, and I consider addressing climate change to be one of the most important issues of our time. I wish my taxes were higher, not lower; I support universal healthcare. I’ve lost job opportunities because of my public anti-fascism. I loathe racism, sexism, and authoritarianism of all forms and my writing history shows it.
This said, I don’t think this “economic populism” is motivated by racism, sexism, or xenophobia. I also do not think it is– as often supposed, even by those who admit many conservatives are not racist– that these economically anxious white men discount the suffering of people different from them. In fact, I think that most of them, though they may not articulate themselves well, are just as angry about corporate capitalism’s ill-treatment of women and vulnerable minorities.
What’s going on? There’s something at hand that few people have noticed, or articulated. I don’t think it’s fair to write off the entire conservative movement as having nothing to say, only there are some racists, sexists, and fascists– the people Hillary Clinton rightly but impoliticly called “deplorables”– among them. What, at root, are they so angry about?
The “PC Culture” Threat
Some people will admit that they voted for Trump because they’re sick of “PC Culture”.
It’s fashionable on the left to hear that in the worst possible way– to infer from a dislike for “PC Culture” a desire to be racist and sexist. That’s really unfair. There are sensible adults on the left, and we also make fun of the PC idiocy– some of us openly, and most of us in private. We don’t have much respect for the college kid who slacks off, gets a B- (a Millennial F) on his final exam, and then excuses his lack of study with a complaint that the course material was “patriarchal”.
For an aside, I used to be an agoraphobic, so I know all about “safe space”. A competent therapist will push you to get out of your safe space; if you indulge the panic monster, it owns you. It is a loaded, disability-related term– if I wanted to get PC on this, which I don’t; because I think in this context it works well– and it describes what you’re not supposed to do. Likewise, if someone does something that triggers a panic attack, it is not his fault. It is my biology and my responsibility to take control of it. Anyway, back to business….
I am leftist because I’m culturally conservative. What’s the biggest threat to our civilization? Militant nihilism. It comes at us from left and right. Leftist nihilism takes the form of postmodern moral relativism or, at another extreme, rigid adherence to a identity-political religion. Right-wing nihilism comes from the corporate system, the entropic purpose of which is to turn everything people value– anything that can be “converted into dollars”, and this includes attention, social access and cultural resources– into the heat-death lowest form of value: wealth owned by the richest people. Inequality is a complicated topic– perfect equality can’t be achieved; full equality of results is not desirable– but anyone who cannot see that, all else being equal, $1 held by a billionaire is a lower state of value than $1 held by a hungry person, is not thinking straight.
One man– at once a public intellectual and YouTube celebrity, a combination I did not expect to see– who stands out as an anti-nihilist is a center-right psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson. He has been inaccurately portrayed both by ignorant, knee-jerk leftists (seeking to paint him as a fascist, which he is not) and repulsive elements of the right (“alt-right”) that wish to co-opt him. There are a number of videos of him on YouTube, that he did not post, with misleading titles that present him as having extreme right-wing views. His actual positions are nuanced. I urge everyone to listen to one of his class lectures before forming an opinion of him.
I disagree with Peterson on a few things. For one, I think he focuses more on the militant nihilism (“neo-Marxism”) of the left. Perhaps I would feel that way if I were in academia. From where I stand, though– the U.S. private sector– the right-wing nihilism is much more of a threat.
The leftist nihilists are winning a few battles in academia, but losing most of them elsewhere. On the other hand, the center-right corporates– centrist insofar as they are more wedded to their authoritarianism than to rightism or capitalism– control most of daily life. There is no opting out of the purposeless work and cultural degradation that corporate capitalism has wrought. People can choose not to read Foucault and Derrida; they cannot choose not to go to work and, for most people, that means being a corporate subordinate and losing the bulk of one’s life to pointless activity.
“PC Culture” may not be an existential threat to our civilization, but it is a bad thing. It’s a lot less bad than the racism and sexism and ableism that it emerged as a reaction against, but that doesn’t make it good.
See, there really are people on the left who make a performance art out of being offended. Of course, they have a right to be heard– one can rarely tell on an individual basis who’s sincere and who is playing some kind of game, so I’m hesitant to write an individual off as a “performative leftist” as opposed to someone feeling genuine offense– but I’ve dealt with professional offense-takers and they’re insufferable. When the virtue signaling spills over into campaigns to ruin individuals’ careers, it has gone too far, and the professional offense-takers who cry “Wolf!” make life harder with people who have real grievances.
We still need feminism, anti-racism, and anti-feminism. We may need our legitimate social justice impulses more than ever, because things are getting weird and the bad guys of the alt-right (and they are bad, and they are scary) are coming out. However, we don’t need divisive identity politics and we don’t need the PC lynch mobs that rise up to get people fired over one stupid tweet.
Why is there such a hatred for “PC Culture”? Some people are racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic and otherwise bigoted, and I have no sympathy for any of those assholes. I do not think they make the majority of those who complain about “PC Culture”. Rather, I think there are also many middle-of-the-road people who fear being fired, pilloried, frivolously sued, blacklisted over a small mistake, a nonexistent or small transgression, or even a deliberate misrepresentation of their speech or actions by someone with more influence or reach.
How common are these things? Well, do I know innocent people who’ve lost jobs to PC lynch mobs; but, I know a larger number of innocent people who’ve left jobs because of harassment. If we’re talking about a man, I’d guess that he’s 100 times more likely to be fired for having a sick kid or parent (this is shockingly common) than over a stray dick joke. I’ve seen so many true sexual harassers– deliberately predatory men who really ought to be fired and sued– evade accountability in the corporate world that I bet it’s rare for an innocent man to be strung up. It’s probably more common for a man to be sexually harassed than for him to be falsely accused of the crime.
So, if PC lynch mobs are actually quite rare (as they seem to be) then why is there such commotion about them? It’s a lot more common– and objectively unjust, and illegal– for an employer to fire someone with a sick child, but the former story travels more than the latter. Why?
Let’s talk about the long, dark donglenacht of the soul that unfolded in 2013, or as it is more commonly known, “DongleGate“. Here’s what went down: a man made a few dirty jokes, including a dick pun off the word “dongle”, at a conference. A woman, even though she’d played the hilariously offensive game Cards Against Humanity the night before, decided to get triggered. (Again with the SJWs and their damn misappropriated panic-disorder lingo.) She shamed the two men, with a photo and a nasty tweet. She didn’t deserve what came next, but she made a mistake. She shouldn’t have done that. The man’s cowardly employer, Playhaven– may they rot in hell for this– fired him.
In a better world than what we have, we’d have seen idealistic young people, incensed by Playhaven’s cowardice, encircle the headquarters and barricade it, allowing rank-and-file employees to leave while safely “bossnapping” Playhaven’s executives until they gave the man they fired a public apology and either reinstated his employment or offered a fair severance as an admission of their own wrongdoing and cowardice. That’s what decent outraged people would have done. Unfortunately, there are some terrible people on the Internet (who knew?) who expressed their outrage in a different way….
Some of the worst people in the world descended. They sent rape and death threats to the woman who posted the tweet. They called her employer. All of that was inexcusable. Did she do a bad thing? Yes. But she, as a vulnerable individual, ought to have been left alone. It is one thing to target a company that fires an innocent man; it is not OK to send threats and harassment to a woman who fucked up on social media… I mean, we’ve all been there. In the end, the shitstorm led to her cowardly employer, SendGrid– may they also rot in hell for this– firing her.
At the end of this dongle controversy (dong-troversy?) two regular workers got fired. That’s a damn shame. What happened to the cowardly executives who dumped these people when their reputations were at risk, and when needed an employer’s support the most? Nothing, to my knowledge. That’s also a damn shame. These cowardly, evil, socially worthless executives are the people who need to be punished– not regular people who make regular mistakes.
At some point, we as a society will have to do something about the corporates. We need to unify, not let them divide us. The story of DongleGate is not one of woman versus man; it is one of cowardly scumbags in positions of power who dumped people on the streets because of inane social media drama.
So why is DongleGate interesting? With 7 billion people in the world, weird things happen all the time and most don’t get talked about. What, about this one, struck a nerve?
Let’s analyze a similar case: a mild-mannered software engineer, James Damore, was fired from Google after posting, seemingly in good faith, an essay on the possibility of distributional differences between male and female inclinations toward technology. (It is not controversial in empirical psychology that these exist.) He wasn’t fired for the essay; it was largely ignored. He was fired, due to executive cowardice, in the shitstorm that followed.
Personally, I think Damore was wrong on a few points. I’ve worked in the tech industry for a long time. The industry is hostile and exclusionary toward women– there is a lot of sexual harassment in it, and although it does not seem to deliberately underpay them, it does under-promote them. Also, the slight psychological differences (which may not be innate) one observes do not explain away the gender disparity, either in the industry at large, or in its leadership. It is probably true that even if the industry did everything right, it wouldn’t achieve a 50/50 ratio… but the observed ratio (about 20/80 in staff roles, and 5/95 in leadership) is ridiculous, and clearly indicative of problems in the industry– and they are legion.
I shared Damore’s story with a friend who doesn’t work in the tech industry, and she wasn’t sympathetic. “What was he doing, posting that thing at work?” Having worked at Google, and in many other corporate environments, I know what she meant. It’s never wise to share opinions on gender issues, at work, with ten thousand colleagues. It can only be used against a person. Damore’s move was not wise. But did he deserve to be fired? By the stated rules of the tech industry, no. He offered a controversial (and, in my view, incorrect) argument in good faith.
So let me disclose that I worked for Google in 2011, also as a software engineer. I made a somewhat similar mistake: I criticized a business decision. I was proven right (after I left). The fallout continued after I left Google; my name was placed (and may still be) on one of the suspected unionist lists that is passed around Silicon Valley. I have lost job opportunities (and I have collected settlements) because of that. I suspect that I am as notorious in some circles as James Damore, though (for personal reasons) I haven’t courted public notoriety.
Google claims to value internal dissent. Most tech companies say they do. None actually do. A historical analogue of this is the Hundred Flowers Campaign in Maoist China. Mao professed to be ready for liberalization and debate, in order to get dissenters to expose themselves. Not a year later, he cracked down on them. The corporate courting of internal dissent that one sees in tech companies is similar. Executives are not keen on hearing the peons’ ideas; they just want the troublemakers to expose themselves.
Traditional companies for adults do not make pretenses about radical transparency and openness to dissent. No one at Goldman Sachs thinks he can send a political manifesto, even a benign one, to ten thousand people and hold that job for much longer. Tech companies, however, nurture a halfway house post-college culture, because it makes young people more willing to subsume themselves entirely into work.
In general, tech companies’ executives ignore the gnashing of proletarian teeth on mailing lists like “eng-misc” or chat rooms like “#general”. It never helps to have a mailing list presence, and it can hurt, even if the contributions are benign.
I’ve been in tech companies long enough to know how these giant tech firms that’ve been around for 20 years can say they’ve “never had a layoff”. They fucking lie. The layoff is dressed as a performance-based firing, because (1) they don’t want to pay severance; (2) they don’t want the press of an above-board layoff, fearing their best people will leave; and (3) they want to keep being able to say they’ve never had a layoff. So, instead of a layoff, they have a “low performer initiative” and, instead of being an unpleasant thing that happens in an afternoon and is then over, it becomes a political witch hunt. (If they use “stack ranking”, they do it once or more per year; the fun never ends!) The first people to be pressed? The self-identified troublemakers on mailing lists. It doesn’t matter if they were troublemakers in good faith, or even if they weren’t making much trouble– often these decisions aren’t made based on what is said, but on the word count alone.
So, James Damore would likely have faced termination, not for what he said, but on the supposition that anyone who’d write such a prominent memo was not using his time for his assigned work. In that light, Damore’s career at Google, had it not ended in PC flashover, would have gone out silently in the hundred-flower harvest.
We can understand what happened. It is a dirty thing to admit in public, but I know how tech executives think. Why, though, do stories like Damore’s resonate? Tech companies fire hundreds of people per day for being disabled or having pro-union sentiments or for having sick kids and driving up health premiums; why do those unjust terminations (far more common) stoke so much paranoia? Why are men so paranoid about this one thing?
There is an answer, something deep and true, and that will be terribly hard to resolve.
Take a deep breath.
We have allowed the nihilists– mostly, the corporate nihilists, a case I’ll soon make– to ruin masculinity. This has been a disaster for men and women both.
Masculinity vs. The Hydra of Reputation
Here’s where I put myself at risk. Let’s talk about gender.
The extreme leftist position is that all aspects of gender are socially constructed (we’ll get to what that means) while a hard-line traditionalist might believe that 1950s gender roles suit everyone perfectly and the rest of us just need to get in line. Very few people, I would think, buy in to either of these extremes. And I hope no one is at all sympathetic toward the rabid, medieval anti-feminism that exists in parts of the Middle East.
This said, let me state two truths about gender. One is traditionally liberal, and the other is conservative.
Number 1, the liberal truth: people do not all conform to gender norms, and we have no right to expect them to. There have always been men who are attracted to men, women who are attracted to women, men who want to live as or become women, women who want to live as or become men, and people who identified strongly with neither or both genders. There is a long tail of gender inclinations, and there always has been, although oppressive social norms (e.g., the mistaken belief that gay or transgender people were mentally ill) in the past may have hid the fact.
As a society, we must value the civil and political rights of transgender, genderqueer, and otherwise non-binary people as we would our own. They should never be denied jobs, housing, or educational opportunities because of who they are. If a person born with a penis wants to become a woman– in identity, hormonally, or surgically– it is none of my business.
Number 2, the conservative truth: two genders, combined, make up about 90 percent of the population: heterosexual male and heterosexual female. This 90 percent figure is a bit lower (50–70 percent?) if we insist on total heterosexuality; it rises to 98–99 percent if we include cis-gender homosexuals and bisexuals with their respective gender groups (and, I would argue, we should).
I would never say that we should not show kindness and uphold social justice toward the non-conforming minority. But, most people find themselves well-served by gender roles corresponding to their sex at birth. Most men want to live and feel like men, and are attracted to people who act and live like women. Most women want to live and feel like women, and are attracted to people who live and act like men.
As a corollary, 45–49 percent of the population– cisgender men– will align themselves with some variant of traditional masculinity. We should not ignore it; we should not demonize it; we should not infantilize it.
Of course, gender is a spectrum (I’m back on my native liberal side). If we use “25” and “75” to represent the points (on a 0–100 continuum) where society expects men and women to be, the reality is that most of us are closer to the middle. The median man’s probably a 35, and the median woman might be 60. I’m probably 42 or so, more feminine than most men, but slightly “masculine of center”. As someone who’s attracted to women, and married to a woman who’s attracted to men, it has always been convenient for me to stick with my born sex. But I respect the wishes of people for whom that that is not the case, and I don’t identify strongly with masculinity. In fact, I believe reincarnation is literally true; just as I have been other races and religions in previous lives, I have probably been a woman in half of them.
All taken together: we need to respect gender variations, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that mainstream gender applies to most people. Moreover, most people who deviate in one way are typical in others; so, plenty of gay men identify with masculinity, and plenty of lesbians identify with femininity. There’s no dichotomy between the liberal and conservative truths put above: we can extend social decency, kindness, and justice to people in the two main genders that make up 90 percent, as well as to those in the other 10 percent– the long tail of more infrequent gender constellations.
Okay, so we agree that gender fluidity is a thing. What about biological differences between the two main genders? There are some. Gender is not completely socially constructed. Yes, differences within groups are much larger than those between. Yes, it is immoral (and, in many jurisdictions, illegal) to treat people poorly because of their gender. Yes, it is still unclear to science which aspects of gender are intrinsic, which are epigenetic, and which are socially constructed or arbitrary. However, if we ignore the inclinations of 90 percent of the population, we do so at our peril.
So, what are masculinity and femininity? To what degree are they socially constructed?
First, we have to note what a social construct is. It is not a pejorative notion. The week is a social construct; there is no such thing as “Thursday” in nature. Here’s another one: red lights mean stop and green means go. That’s an arbitrary social construct, but it’s useful. Social constructs can also harbor deep truths. For example, marriage is a (useful) social construct, while the superiority of monogamy and pair bonding for family formation is an inflexible human truth.
Masculinity and femininity are partially socially constructed. Partially.
Societies’ feminine ideals vary quite a lot, and they change quickly. For example, some cultures consider thin women to be beautiful, while others prefer women to be Rubenesque. Some cultures give sex workers a sacred status, while others outlaw and stigmatize sex work. Some cultures discourage women from working outside the home and others expect them to do so. What cultures want from women, what they consider beautiful, and what is fashionable, all change by the decade.
Masculinity, on the other hand, has a fixed core: a man protects, and he provides.
This does not mean that women can’t also protect and provide. Women can, and they’re often good at it. This doesn’t mean that a man should be ashamed if his wife makes more money than he does. It only means that the man must keep himself up to the job. Society needs people who protect and provide. As I said, women can do this work and are often good at it; but men must do it, or they are not men.
On that, let’s talk about what it means when we say a low-quality male is not a man. We are not calling him a woman, but a boy. It’s his juvenility, and not femininity, that draws contempt.
I also believe that this core masculine demand on men is inflexible. It’s possible that gender expectations will converge. In that case, it will be a movement of the feminine social contract to a traditionally masculine position. The core requirements of masculinity that have been in place for fifty thousand years are staying put.
What does this have to do with the overhyped fear of “PC Culture”? What does it have to do with the desire to “Make America Great Again”? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Many things were bad about the 1950s and ’60s, but there’s one critical way in which that period was better and more civilized than the current day. In that time, a man earned jobs based on his skills, talents, and efforts. A man could survive on what he could do.
I disliked Trump, I voted against him, and I still loathe him; but, “Make America Great Again” was not, in my view, about pushing women or minorities down. Rather, it was about bringing back the time when a person could get a good job on an hour of conversation. In the 1960s, there were no back-channel references, credit checks were not a condition for employment, and there was no treasure trove of social media that an employer could plumb for embarrassing things that he– or someone else with the same first and last name– said 17 years ago.
In that world, jobs were plentiful and skilled people were in demand, so a man could live on his abilities. In today’s world, he needs a lot more. We see calamities like unpaid internships and shameless corporate nepotism. We see people fired or denied jobs over things they said that were taken out of context; no one would take the time to read what they actually said, because hungry workers are so plentiful (in a job-scarce world) that individual laborers have become worthless. America really is, economically, less great than it was before and we need to come to terms with that.
Though we can and should reduce the carnage, Millennials are fucked in a way that has already done lasting damage. To illustrate my point, I worked at a grocery store in 2000 and remember how older people (b. 1920–30) used to carry coin purses, because in the Great Depression, one had to track every cent. It became a habit for them. Likewise, even if we solve every healthcare problem we have, we’re going to have preventable deaths of 70-year-olds in 2055 dying of preventative causes, because of what we’re doing now. They will, because going to a hospital meant life-wrecking debt in their formative years (today), develop a habit of avoiding doctors that will kill them decades from now.
To get a sense of what things used to be like, on the job front: fifty years ago, a person with no connections could pull up stakes, drive across the country– Friday to Wednesday, 600 miles per day– and arrive in a city where he’d never been and knew no one. On Wednesday afternoon from the hotel, he’d call up the CEO of a company, asking for an hour of conversation and perhaps offering to buy lunch (although the CEO would pay). They’d talk over lunch on Thursday about Shakespeare or birdwatching for an hour or two, and the city’s newcomer would start in his new job, as the VP of something, on Monday morning. That’s how the corporate world used to work!
What changed? It is not the advancement of women and minorities that stopped this. In fact, while the story above is slightly privileged, it wasn’t white men who had those opportunities; it was the well-educated (who tended to be white men, because society sucked in other ways). If you went to college, you could make intelligent conversation, and if you could make intelligent conversation, you could get an age-appropriate executive role anywhere.
These days, you can’t get that kind of job (or, increasingly, any job) without a reputation.
This evolution is bad for everyone. It’s bad for men and women. It’s bad for whites and people of color. It’s bad for New England Yankees who’ve been here since the 1650s and for brilliant autodidacts who came over from Mexico last month. We shouldn’t be divided. It is not a political or racial or gendered issue, this wanting to take our country back from the 0.1 percent, in order to restore it to a job-plentiful state. We all need to do this together.
The enemy isn’t “others”. It certainly isn’t immigrants who just got here. Jobs are scarce for one reason: the 0.1 percent is stealing all the money. Instead of investing corporate profits into R&D and growth, they buy back their own stock and pay themselves bonuses. On top of that, they support corrupt politicians who give them tax breaks, resulting in a slowdown of federal R&D and politically induced dysfunction of the government. It has to stop. We need to get our national act together..
The linchpin of today’s corrupt system is what I call Big Reputation. It’s the system, facilitated by technology, that presents itself as a meritocracy because it wants to ratify the supposed superiority of the upper classes– people whose daddies can buy them positions on “30 Under 30” lists and get their go-nowhere startups “acqui-hired”– while it leaves the rest of us in confusion and darkness.
Big Reputation is bad. It hurts women and it hurts men. It hurts white people and black people. Yet, we’re seeing a stronger anger against it from men. That’s what the hatred of “PC Culture” is about. Why? Here’s why:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who lives on his reputation is a failed man; a boy; no man at all.
“PC Culture” angers men not because there is a high probability (there isn’t) of their reputations being destroyed by it. It’s deeper and more serious than that: it angers us because it reminds us that, in 2018, we live on our reputations in the first place. We’re not supposed to. Useful men live on their skills and abilities; useless men live on their reputations.
Does Big Reputation mean that our corporate overlords have won, and we are now perfectly fungible, and we are now all completely useless? Perhaps. It’s a distressing thought.
As I’ve said, there’s much in how societies construe gender that is flexible, but this core element is not. To be a man rather than a boy, a man must live on his skills and talents and efforts. It has been that way for fifty thousand years. If he lives on his reputation, he is a preening fuck; a failure; a thrall. It doesn’t matter if he makes $2 million per year. If someone can “pick up a phone” and end him, he has failed at being a man.
This doesn’t mean that men can’t benefit from their reputations. If reputation makes the difference between having four clients versus three, that’s fine. But a man who lives on his reputation, and could not get on without it, will fall invariably into self-loathing and self-destruction. It’s how we’re programmed. And, in 2018, thanks to both the technological changes that make Big Reputation possible and the job scarcity that makes it potent, men increasingly live on their reputations. This is great for the booze industry; for society as a whole, less so. It’s not good for men, obviously. It’s not good for women, either, because they are not attracted to weak men.
So, yeah. That’s the real reason why “PC Culture” makes so many men want to blow some shit up. They aren’t racist; they aren’t sexist; and the probability that their reputations are actually damaged by a PC lynch mob is (as discussed) very small. But it reminds them that they live on their reputations. The existence of the threat humiliates them.
It also makes sense that what I am saying would be true. A man who lives on his reputation does not provide for or protect his family; those who say good things about him do. Positive reputation is fragile. Negative reputation can be indestructible, like a hydra, even if each claim against the man is refuted. Employers abuse this power, which lasts long after the workers move on to other jobs, to emasculate them. It is not a fear of being fired that prevents workers from unionizing. They’re afraid of bad references, malicious disparagement, and blacklisting that technology have made easy.
Furthermore, most people lack the ability to opt out of Big Reputation. For a worker not to have “a LinkedIn” and “a Twitter” and “a Facebook” is conceived-of by employers as a political statement. It raises questions like… Do you avoid LinkedIn because you lie on your CV? Do you eschew Twitter because you have no friends and fear you won’t get more than 10 followers? Why aren’t you listed as an Influencer on the social analytics app I just bought? Why can’t you be normal and overshare like the other workers? Why can’t I know what you look like in swimwear?
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
– Revelation 13:16-17
Okay, but how is Big Reputation gendered? That, I haven’t addressed yet. So, here we go.
For women and men, it’s undesirable to have a bad reputation. I don’t intend to claim that either gender has it easier on that front.
What’s different? For men, whether the reputation is good or bad doesn’t matter: for him live on reputation at all means that he is incompetent, because he’s not capable of living on his skills. That is how it has worked for fifty thousand years: the useful men lived on what they could do, and the useless men lived on what others thought about them.
We understand a certain male paranoia in depth, and we can get past the “white male resentment” narrative, because the issue is so much more universal than that.
So who’s responsible for the problem? Not women, not racial minorities; but, instead, the very rich people who stole all the money and made good jobs scarce. They’ve been the enemy the whole time.
Let’s examine something: how are they able to get away with it?
Psychopathy and Macho Subordinacy
American corporate culture is deeply weird.
We call a corporation a fictional person but it’s not that at all. It cannot be killed. It cannot be jailed. The worst that happens to it, usually, is a fine. It’s not a person; it’s a god, and a malevolent false one. Now, when we create gods in our own image, we are quick to give them genders. What is the corporate god’s gender?
Corporate culture is at once hypermasculine and dismally effete. It is driven by a will to dominate for domination’s own sake. Its phallic presence is everywhere, in terms like “up and to the right”, “shoot me a memo”, and “drill down”. This makes the case for toxic masculinity. At the same time, it’s evasive and self-emasculating, relying heavily on the passive voice and useless abstraction: “paradigm shift”, “synergize”, and “deliverables”. Corporate America is at once domineering and preening, machistic and meek. Its gender combines the worst of both traditional genders.
This is what I call an adverse synthesis. It is common for people offering bad deals to combine the drawbacks of two existing models (conferring, from a zero-sum perspective, the advantages of both to themselves) and see if they can make it pass. So, for example, corporate capitalism is an adverse synthesis of capitalism and socialism. The elite– the 0.1 percent– get socialism’s safety net and capitalism’s opportunities for immense wealth. The rest of us get the worst of both systems: the uninspiring, bureaucratic jobs we’d have under the Kremlin, but the job instability of a market economy.
The core of corporate culture is macho subordinacy. It is an adverse synthesis as well; androgynous in all the worst ways. Its purpose, and you see this in the way it uses words, is to give toxically-masculine objectivity to toxically-feminine cattiness. It uses “deliver” intransitively, which is vomit-inducing among people who care about language; “Tom isn’t delivering” lends false objectivity to the middle school girl’s “we’ve all, like, decided–?– that, like, Tom is like, stupid–?– and we don’t like him, okay?” This is just the surface; its crimes against language are legion. It has come to my attention that it utilizes what the popular parlance calls “weasel words” to dampen the immediate impact of unfavorable information. In human words, it insults the listener’s intelligence in order to slow down bad news.
The macho subordinate employee works 90 hours per week on a project that someone else will own. He’ll discard his own weekend, just to make his colleagues look bad. He gets his swell on by calling another worker “not a team player”. (It is odd that managers claim to want “team players”, when real team players would unionize.) He dedicates his life to parasitism, narcissism, and backbiting. He loves office politics, which exhausts well-adjusted human beings but is his natural element.
Where does macho subordinacy come from? Here’s my theory: in the pre-monogamous societies that comprised at least some of our evolutionary history, it had a niche.
Let’s make no bones about it: pre-monogamous societies were ugly. They were bad for women, whose status was that of chattel. In a world where a high-status man could have tens of “wives” and hundreds of children, an individual woman got little attention, affection, or care. Such societies were also bad for most men. Low-status men had no wives and were involuntarily celibate, making them prone to violence. Men of middling status, with one or a few wives, lived in a chaotic society, because the men above and below them in status were always trying to kill each other.
Pre-monogamous societies help us understand one of the ugliest artifacts of the human mind: psychopathy. To be violent, deceptive, and unencumbered by conscience might get a person killed. Or, it might propel him to the top of the status hierarchy. In a sound, stable world where monogamy and relative economic equality are the norm, it’s simply not worth it to take this risk. In a pre-monogamous society, from a “selfish gene” perspective, though, the strategy makes sense. The psychopath is more likely to die young, but he’s also more likely to end up at the top of the status hierarchy, where he can have 300 children.
We tend to think of psychopaths as “evil”. It’s a term that is as close as objective, empirical psychology will allow itself to get to calling someone “a bad person”. Is it, though? It’s hard to say. Personally, I believe good and evil do exist, but I won’t argue that case here, and I don’t think it’s necessarily true that psychopathy is evil. (Certainly, not all evil comes from psychopaths.) A more neutral perspective on it is that the psychopath is an r-strategist.
The notion of an “r-strategist”– or its opposite, the “K-strategist”– is one that pops up in evolutionary game theory, and they correspond to the age-old tradeoff between quantity and quality. The r-strategist plays for quantity and speed (rate of reproduction, r) while the K-strategist optimizes for quality and longevity (carrying capacity, K). An insect might leave a brood of hundreds of infants, and most will die within minutes; animals like parrots and whales have few offspring and high paternal investment. Mayflies breed quickly and live for a day; humans have a handful of offspring and can live 100 years. There are two things to say about this, before getting into the thick of the matter. One: complex species aren’t purely one or the other; we aren’t a K-selected or r-selected species, but both. I would argue that most humans actually have two sex drives: an “r-drive” that has one baser set of desires, and a “K-drive” that would like to have a small number of successful offspring– that is, start a family. Two: in the animal kingdom, and in objective terms, one can’t really moralize. The grains we eat are seeds from r-selected plants that, though they are marginal if found at all in a 500-year-old forest, do very well after a catastrophe like a fire or volcanic ashfall (or tilling by humans). It is because we built society in a certain way, and because we value stability and despise pointless violence or suffering, that we’ve decided the K-drive to be better.
I would guess that human morality evolved in an arms race between our two contradictory sex drives. The r-drive is stereotypically stronger in men, peaks around 17, and has a lot of antisocial desires that are better served by pornography than real life. The K-drive seems to peak around 35, is stereotypically stronger in women, and favors pair bonding and deep emotional commitment. The r-drive wants to fuck as many different people as it can; the K-drive wants to have few children (by ancient standards, that’s eight instead of two hundred) and invest in each one. The r-strategists, if there are too many of them, destabilize civilization, insofar as pre-monogamous societies lead men into positional violence, the stakes of status being so high, and turn women into chattel. The K-strategists tend to be future-oriented progressives (in an apolitical sense of the word) who seek positive-sum opportunities; the r-drive is zero-sum and animalistic. It is the K-drive that civilized us, that told us to slow the fuck down when it came to making babies, focusing instead on maternal and child health. The r-drive cares as much about consent– a notion we invented– as an insect that devours its mate after copulation; the K-drive recognizes not to be violated as a fundamental human right.
Is the r-drive “evil”, or the K-drive “good”? I’m a K-heavy, somewhat androgynous, happily married man. I have no use for male dominance hierarchies or pre-monogamous behavior patterns. So, I’d be inclined to say: fuck the r-drive; it does us no good. But, I don’t think it’s that simple. In the wake of catastrophic depopulation, it’s the r-strategists who get the species up and running again. This is probably why people under constant stress (e.g., the poor, the very rich) seem to be more r-driven while people in peace tend to be influenced more strongly by the K-drive. At any rate, it is our K-drive that both thrives in and seeks stability, and so it is what started civilization, and therefore it makes sense that we would call it good.
We have mythologized this transition– from the constant warfare of pre-monogamous societies, to progressive civilizations founded on pair-bonding relationships– as the angel and devil perched on the shoulder. It is perceived as a conflict between good (progress, stability, kindness, compassion) and evil (stasis, violence, selfishness, indulgence). The universality of this conflict (except among psychopaths, and we’ll get to that) is testament to how deeply both drives are buried in us.
Using these notions, we can look through some elements of our culture. To start, there’s the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction. Gradual decline (like the kind U.S. Millennials face today) is depressing, and it is boring as shit. I can’t imagine the wake of a true apocalypse being better; if there’s to be a zombie apocalypse, my preference would be to leave this world. So what’s the appeal of a world ravaged by zombies? In the wake of catastrophe (as opposed to the slow decline into dystopia we see right now) the r-driven impulses become useful. In the wake of a zombie apocalypse, there’s a place for the true alpha male that modern society has no use for.
Next, let’s talk about God. The existence, character, or gender of a true God is beyond the scope of this essay. I’m talking about the supernatural figures– Zeus, Amun-Ra, Jehovah– that we in “the West” have created in our own image. I attended the 2017 Women’s March in Chicago, and one of the signs said, “The Future Is Female”. I think this is archetypically true. When we conceive of God, we tend to split (Them?) into two halves: masculine and feminine.
The r-heavy, hyper-masculine alpha male wants to create thousands of copies of himself. The K-heavy, androgynous parent wants sacred union, transcendence, and improvement. The former is a copy machine on steroids; the latter has higher goals.
The often-masculine God of the Past is the ultimate r-strategist: he created millions of inferior copies of himself and left the world to itself, and now it has gone to shit. In many cosmologies, he doesn’t bother to create an afterlife; the earliest iterations of religion either didn’t have one, or they had a non-punitive but unpleasant one (e.g., the Greek Hades, Mesopotamian Irkalla). Religions tended, historically, to conceive of heavens or nirvana– and, that place whose fury is a woman’s scorn: hell– many generations later. For example, the later Greeks differentiated the non-punitive, gloomy Hades into Tartarus (an actual hell) and Elysium. Jewish agnosticism toward the afterlife yielded to the positive affirmations thereof in Christianity, Islam, and liberal Judaism. The Old Man of the Past yields to her. She is the Mother of the Future; the elven Farissa after whom a certain fictional protagonist, Farisa, is named; the feminine God (Gnostic Sophia) to whom the wayward child is born again and seeks ultimate return. In Christianity, we see this when the New Testament’s God manifests himself as a celibate, androgynous healer and teacher. Jesus does not wrestle bears or shoot lasers from his eyes; he shows compassion, love, and vulnerability– traditionally feminine traits.
Our minds draw from both categories of creative element. We’ve decided, as a society, that humans are too valuable to allow r-strategic behaviors in reproduction; this is why we mandate fathers to pay child support. There is too much cost in creating a human without K-driven commitment. With ideas, though, we recognize the value in quantity-based exploration as well as quality-based refinement. I would argue that brainstorming (divergent creativity) is memetic r-selection. Refinement and editing (convergent creativity) are memetic K-selection. To be truly creative, one needs both.
Finally, let’s talk about monogamy. It was the ultimate “revenge of the nerds”. Most likely, it came from a coalition between men in the middle of the status hierarchy and women. Both wanted to end the male-on-male violence that was characteristic of pre-monogamous societies, but also kept them in squalor. Monogamy also improved the status of women; they became more like partners than chattel. It is a weird irony of our times that a few misguided leftists associate monogamous pair bonding with “patriarchy”. The first feminists– not the best; for sure, not the best– were the ancient people who invented monogamy in the first place.
I hope that I’ve given the reader a three-dimensional picture of the world in which the psychopath arose. Balanced humans have r- and K-drives, and this is a source of conflict within us. It’s why we turn ideas over in our heads for hours, ponder whether the selfish or easy course of action is the right one, and care to define notions of good and evil that don’t seem to exist among lower animals. This cognitive work makes us better, but it also slows us down. The pure r-strategist is what today’s world calls the psychopath, but in a pre-monogamous era, he was well adapted to his circumstances.
Now, are all psychopaths promiscuous men? No. In fact, I think there are two subtypes of psychopath. One is archetypically male and the other is archetypically female: the brute and the bitch. We’ve focused, to this point, on the brute.
Please note, as we work through this ugly topic, that these subtypes do not always correspond to the biological sex or gender identity of the individual. There are men who are psychopaths of the female subtype, and women in the male subtype. In fact, as we’ll discuss, the most successful people in the corporate world are men in the female subtype of psychopath.
The brute is what most of us picture when we hear the word psychopath: a physical bully, a criminal, or even a serial killer. This brand of psychopath had his heyday in the pre-monogamous world. He might have died before 30, but while he was alive, he terrified his rivals and sired hundreds of kids. Today, though, the brute does poorly. He doesn’t grow up to run the world. He has poor impulse control and is just as likely to become a drug addict. He spends a lot of time in jail. His sexual promiscuity, dishonesty, and narcissism prevent him from having a stable relationship. He can’t hold down a job, because he has no sense of permanence, and struggles with the performative submission most jobs require. He also doesn’t have much ambition; the male-subtype psychopath is usually quite lazy. He’s more likely to be unemployed and living on others’ resources (without having the typical masculine sense of shame about it) than to sit in boring meetings with the self-important wads who run the world.
So what’s the other type of psychopathy?
Note that, in study of the human mind, we find few differences (if they exist at all) between the man and woman. I suspect this is inherent to our primate race to become smart. Our development, in evolutionary terms, was so rapid that nature didn’t have time to separate male and female innovations. Anything smart, anything that worked, it put in both sexes. This is why, I believe, there’s so little sexual dimorphism in the human psyche. So it’s likely that, as soon as there was a male psychopath, there were female psychopaths.
Now, what should a female psychopath, in a pre-monogamous society, do?
It’s not good, for a psychopath in a pre-monogamous society, optimizing for r-strategic genetic proliferation, to be born a woman. Lady MacBeth pleaded that the gods would “unsex me here”; she wanted to be a man, because the male psychopath’s game was so much more direct and easier to play. A female psychopath might be able to rise to the top of a dominance hierarchy and run a tribe or even an empire, but there’s no way for her to have 300 children. If she wants to play the psychopath’s game, it must be played through her male children. She must give birth to a male psychopath who will spread her seed.
We see this in Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones. Male-subtype psychopaths seem to be incapable of love, whereas female-subtype psychopaths are only mostly incapable of love. Cersei’s love for Myrcella (a girl) and Tommen (a non-psychopath boy) is probably an affectation, but hers for Joffrey– her psychopathic son– is real. The male-subtype psychopath will ignore his or her children. The female-subtype psychopath will indulge them until they become intolerable little shits.
It’s probably not much of a reveal that corporate executives, though mostly men, are female-type psychopaths. This might explain why they have such horrible kids. It is not through abandon that this happens; it’s intentional. A shitty kid, who gets bought out of his mistakes and lands well anyway because of the parent’s resources, is a trophy of sorts. The roots of this are deep: the female-type psychopath’s ancestral life purpose is to lay tracks for the male-type psychopath who’ll actually spread her genetic material.
What does the female-type psychopath’s strategy look like, in a pre-monogamous context? Gender roles are more severe (not less so) in pre-monogamous societies. So it might seem that it would be preferable for an ambitious woman to escape chattel status, but for the female psychopath, it’s not reproductively useful. She could play the brute’s game, and she might win it, but even if she did, she wouldn’t have the same reproductive payoff that a man gets. Her odds are much better with the bitch game.
She needs to do three things to win the bitch game. First, she needs to have boys. Half of her children will be boys, so that’s not hard. Second, the odds are best for her children if they have a high-status father: an alpha male. (If the alpha’s intrinsic fitness is weak, paternity fraud becomes an option.) Isn’t that enough? Well, no. In a pre-monogamous society, chieftains have harems of wives and lots of children, and most of those kids won’t inherit his social status, because they’re too numerous. Thus: third, she needs to become his favorite. She must be the true wife instead of a wench; her children will then be heirs and those by the other women will be bastards. She can’t just join the harem; she must also rise to the top of it.
What is the male-type psychopath’s favorite tool? Violence. This doesn’t work well for a female psychopath who wants to become a high-status man’s favorite wife. The husband (like a corporate supervisor) can never see her games; he must think he is the one doing the choosing. It’s a beauty contest and he’s the judge, and she can’t make herself prettier, so she needs to make the competition uglier. If she uses violence, the husband will see her as destructive to her property. So, she must work furtively.
Her first tool is to use emotional violence to induce depression and neuroticism in any woman who threatens her. If this works, the targeted woman appears sickly and unfit, so the husband will not choose her. This lives on, without any gendered element, in the corporate world. The limiting factor in corporate advancement is not ability– most corporate work is relatively easy at an IQ of 115 and mind-numbingly trivial at 130– but psychiatric attrition. One succeeds in the corporate world not through performance, but by being able to resist others’ methods of reducing one’s performance– and, if a bit evil, by using such techniques against more talented colleagues.
Her second tool, if the first doesn’t work, is to flat-out lie about the more attractive women. If she cannot make the other girl depressed, neurotic, or unstable enough for the husband to disfavor or reject her, she’ll have to create such an impression. So, she’ll make up stories about the target until she is ostracized. Not surprisingly, this is also common in the corporate world.
The brute (toxic masculinity) and the bitch (toxic femininity) are the archetypes of psychopathy. The first is the one who uses violence, force, and low-bred charm to get his genetic material into as many women as possible. The second is the saboteur who’ll destroy women who outshine her. In the messy real world, of course, there are female brutes and male bitches.
In fact, it’s the male bitch who wins the corporate game.
This is something Ayn Rand got wrong. She portrayed capitalism as an alpha-male theatre of expression. The would-be pre-monogamous alpha males– the brutes– don’t do well in corporate capitalism. That’s fine, really, because that guy’s so toxic we’re better off to be rid of him. The world doesn’t need self-indulgent narcissists, petty criminals, sadists or absentee fathers. In truth, corporate capitalism is much more like the Soviet bureaucracy that Rand detested than the idyllic yeoman capitalism– Jeffersonian and utopian; pioneering and heroic– that she and most conservatives have in mind. And what sort of person wins in a corrupt bureaucracy: the furtive saboteur, the bitch.
Why is it usually the male bitch who wins? We’ve discussed that men and women aren’t very different, and there are historical reasons (but, probably, also epigenetic ones) that men hold high positions in the corporate world. Business, at the upper end, is a game where performance evaluation is so subjective– with reputations taking tens or hundreds of years to converge, as in the arts– that animalistic dominance behaviors drive the day-to-day operations and status fluctuations. If you’re going to ask a rich venture capitalist for $20 million, it’s far better to be a 6-foot-3 man who could (in a different kind of world, the brute’s world that we never forget can exist) kill him, than it is to be a 5-foot-4 woman. This explains the raw strength, in business, of the man over the woman. How does this tie into bitchiness, though? Well, bitches (of both sexes) have strength in numbers, and they’re tribal, and the first people they target for exclusion are those who are different. In business, this means that male bitches can use their superior numbers (derived from physical advantages, as discussed) to out-bitch the women. Often, that’s what they do.
Consider how private-sector bureaucracies are set up. The Company stands in for the archetypical alpha male– a distant fatherly god; an immortal figure who claims to provide meaning, but whose deathless constancy and lack of compassion, which impose a might-makes-right universe, in fact eradicate it. The subordinate executives, jockeying for his favoritism, lining themselves up to be judged in a beauty contest while secretly demolishing each other, are Capital’s harem.
In the pre-monogamous harem, the husband thinks he is selecting a favorite wife based on beauty or charm, ignorant of the machinations that an ugly, unhealthy woman can use to destroy her competition. In the corporate boardroom, Capital selects and promotes favored people on what it thinks is “performance” when, in truth, intrinsic performance doesn’t matter much. There isn’t nearly as much personal profit in “performing” than in the side game that corporate executives play to make their sister wives uglier: disparaging and disrupting the performances of everyone else. This explains why high-talent people are attacked first in the corporate world. (Source: personal experience.) The 17 hours of work that corporate executives do each month might be what Capital– a god manifest in a priesthood called “the board” think it is paying them for, but it’s not what determines who advances and fails.
The corporate world is masculine by self assertion. It presents itself as paternal, ruthless, and militant (“tough love”) against the elements of humanity it deems feminine or inefficient. Yet it is run by men using the strategy of the female-type of psychopath. Isn’t that weird?
It’s not that weird, because I think the archetype of the bitch is genderless. It’s probably no accident that we use the word “bitch” most bitingly for two seemingly opposite, but in fact deeply similar, modes of gender failure: a mean-spirited, resentful, saboteur woman; or a duplicitous, ineffectual, and subordinate man. The bitch will do everything he or she (here, avoiding a gendered pronoun is important) can to wreck other subordinates and rise to the top of the harem, but the bitch will never rise into his or her own. The bitch, male or female, will always be resentful, subordinate, and furtively destructive. In a pre-monogamous society, she is the harem queen at the mercy of her husband. In the corporate world, he is the executive who lives on his reputation.
Now, let’s discuss further the gendered nature of corporate malevolence. Why does macho subordinacy exist? Why might men react differently to it than women do, and why might it treat them differently?
I do not intend to say that corporate malevolence is worse for one gender for another. I don’t know. It’s differently bad for each. It’s also hard for any of us to escape. I find the corporate system’s right-wing nihilism to be more of a threat to civilization than anything coming out of the left. People can opt out of college casual sex and whatever “postmodern Marxism” means, and many people do. On the other hand, no one but the rich and the tenured professors can opt out of meaningless jobs and status reports.
I would size up corporate system’s different flavors of malevolence toward men and women like so: it does not know what to do with women; it knows exactly what to do with men.
See, its malevolence toward women is improvised and organic. It doesn’t set out to be vicious to them, although it often is. It is, or at least wills to be, a male dominance hierarchy in which women just do not belong. Sure, women are half the population. It does not care. It has been what it is for hundreds of years.
I am not saying that workplaces should be this way. I intend to argue the exact opposite. We should not exclude women from meaningful work– that’s morally inexcusable– and male dominance hierarchies are, I believe, regressive and useless. It’s nonetheless true that, as the corporate system conceives of itself, it is an organism in which women have no place. Be angry, but not at me; I am just the messenger on this, and I am disgusted that it is so.
Excluding women from the workplace might be the only thing on which the bosses and grunts, historically, could agree. Executives did not want women to see them abusing other men. It was better that their wives and doctors not know where their trips to Europe really came from. The grunts could take solace in the fact that, as bad as it was to be a grunt, their beatings did not occur in front of women. At least they had that. It’s better to be beat up behind the gym than in front of the whole school.
If you were a college professor, or a government researcher, or a physician in the 1960s, you’d see no reason to exclude women, because you worked in a liberal meritocracy. If you worked in business, though, you knew exactly why the men wanted to keep women out; this does not excuse their doing so, but only explains their motivations.
In 2018, the corporate workplace is even more of a male dominance hierarchy than it used to be. It’s a might-makes-right anti-meritocracy that has tossed aside the “Theory Y” (read: traditionally feminine) notions of fairness, investment in the individual employee, and pro-social behavior. Thanks to Silicon Valley’s so-called innovations (e.g., aggressive micromanagement such as “Agile Scrum“, open-plan offices, surveillance technologies) the toxic masculinity of Theory X has won.
What should we do? Well, it was never morally acceptable to block women from having careers or earning fair pay. In fact, we ought to improve further on that front. Rather, we ought to fix the workplace. Male dominance hierarchies are innately dysfunctional. We ought to evict them to benign and objective contests like sports and video games. We certainly ought not live in a world where a person’s income is staked on such structures.
In other words, the corporate system’s mistreatment of the woman is accidental. It does not want to harass or demean women; it simply doesn’t care what happens to them.
On the other hand, the game the corporate system plays against men is scripted and deliberate. The system has had hundreds of years to perfect its masculine long con, which it rolls out in a new form every generation; Silicon Valley techno-capitalism, with its false claims of being something other than “corporate”, is just the latest dressing on old tricks. This con game presents the lie that Capital’s harem is a rules-based meritocracy, which men find attractive. It is no such thing. In fact, people of merit– being a vulnerable minority– are often the first ones targeted and excluded.
What this system does to men may not be worse than what it does to women; but, the masculine con can be described and analyzed more precisely, because it has had such a long time to evolve.
Both men and women have a desire to feel useful. The need to work lives deep in us. What’s further true is that a man will consider himself useless if he lives on his reputation, even if that reputation is positive. A man who lives on his reputation has staked his family’s safety on the opinions strangers hold of him, and is as irresponsible as the pathological gambler. A man who senses that he is in such a position wilts and dies, and this is what corporate burnout is often about: not long work hours– because long work hours are theater; very few corporates work an honest 40 hours per week, much less 80.
Jordan Peterson has been asked why his work resonates so strongly with men, and his answer is that men demand a sense of responsibility that our nihilistic society does not give them. They’re beginning to see through the corporate regime’s con game. Men want to be able to live, provide, and protect based on their skills and abilities, in rules-based systems, and hate the corporate world’s harem-queen dynamics in which no one knows what the rules really are, and in which reputation is everything. The left has always hated the corporate system, but now the right is coming out against it. We may be able to take it down, if we take stock of what’s really going on.
Why are corporations set up this way? Internal competition– the harem-queen dynamic– doesn’t make companies more profitable. In fact, we had a healthier private sector from 1945 to 1980, when cultural dynamics favored a Theory Y workplace and internal competition was rare; back then, our economy grew at 4–5 percent per year, and now it grows at 1–2 percent. Society doesn’t benefit from the new harem-queen workplace with its fast firings and high-frequency bitchiness. So who does? Corporate executives do. The truth is that these people don’t care all that much about how profitable their firms are; the only thing they care about is remaining executives. The system, as it is, keeps the bottom divided against itself, the middle likewise and also precarious, and the people in charge exactly where they are, with their paid-to-self bonuses “for performance” (yeah, right) rising each year. So, genuine performance isn’t interesting to them; they care more about maintaining control and dominance.
Men are told, in a corporatist society like ours, that the highest form of masculine expression is to get an impressive job title and make a lot of money. Then, they get into the corporate system and see (usually male) harem queens– preening fucks with no masculine virtues (nor feminine ones)– rising fastest to the top. This dissonance is traumatic to men, because it’s largely only men who were stupid enough to believe in corporate meritocracy in the first place. Women tend to know better from the outset. This might be why women favor the well-regulated professions and avoid ill-regulated ones like academia and corporate industry, which devolve quickly into harem-queen systems.
That there is no other option makes it worse; the man is trapped. The basic masculine social construct forces the man into paid work, but all he is likely able to get is emasculating subordinate work and then, to top it all of, he’s likely to answer to a harem queen with neither the masculine nor feminine virtues. Some men just break; they burn out, they get lazy, they renounce masculinity like the Japanese hikikomori. Others, however, double and triple down on self-deception and doublethink– these are the startup bros– and this enables them to ignore their emasculation and tolerate the corporate world.
There’s one final and quite important note about masculinity: some men are very, very stupid. (Some revelation, huh? It only took a few thousand words to get here.) Just as there are stupid people (mostly men) who’ll swallow laundry pods and attempt bicycle roof jumps, there are stupid people (mostly men) who, rather than bristling at a humiliating, subordinate role in the workplace, will turn the misery of it into a contest– a badge of honor, even, to suffer more than anyone else can. To me, this misdirection of masculine energy is moronic. It’s like flooring the gas with the parking brake on: you don’t go fast, and it stinks. Still, there are men whose capacity for self-deception is greater than mine. They’ll accept the macho subordinacy of, say, the Agile Scrotum bro culture in software. What, you can’t handle the sprint deadlines? What are you, a fag?
Many of us are too honest with ourselves, though.
What I’ve described, a sort of masculine apocalypse, is hard to fix. Men live on their reputations more than ever before. In the 1960s, losing a job meant going and getting another one. A bad boss could end a job, but that was it, and after that he had no power. Talking one’s way on to a better job wasn’t that hard=. That’s how America used to be, and that’s how it ought to still be. That’s what made America great.
We now have the tools to understand Big Reputation, this confluence of unprecedented technological power and employer-side malevolence.
In 1965, there were dysfunctional companies, no doubt, that ran themselves based on harem-queen dynamics. However, one could leave such a place. Shitty job? Find another. A worker’s reputation might be ruined, within the firm, by some petty tyrant; in that case, he’d just go off and join a competitor. If you had a college degree and car, you could talk your way on to a job anywhere in the country. That’s why America was great. It had nothing to do with racism or sexism. The worker’s leverage also meant that companies had an incentive not to let themselves be run as harems; a firm that became dysfunctional like that would have people leave.
In 2018, though, one needs a reputation to get a job. What does that mean? It means that the harem-queen dynamics are no longer confined within dysfunctional firms, or confined within firms at all. The harem-queen game has spilled out and occupies the inter-firm level: resume culture. It’s everywhere. It can’t be escaped. Instead of some firms being harems, Capital itself now has one harem and it’s the entire private-sector workforce.
This will not end well.
Big Reputation sold itself to the public as providing an avenue toward fame and independence. One could tweet the 140 characters that went viral and led to a job offer as the VP of Marketing at the next Google. Of course, power law distributions apply. There’ll be a YouTube celebrity here and there, but for every one of her, we can expect hundreds of people to lose jobs because of things their employers discover, that are not relevant to the job but put a person at permanent disadvantage in a too-competitive (for individuals, that is; it is not competitive enough, for firms) labor market.
Micro-fame is not a good thing for most people. It’s just available enough to be used against a worker, but not nearly propulsive enough to bring a person forever out of workaday subordination. Most of us lose in the age of social media and traceable career history. The era of mystery and excitement– when another person was excited to meet you, because he did not think he everything about you– was better than this one. Today, this cloud of information (not all true, but Big Reputation does best in a post-truth world) is used to surveil, threaten, and debase workers.
This might be harder to change than one realizes. Technology is both desirable and irresistible, although we’ll need to manage it better. Unfortunately, its result is that definable work has been commoditized, outsourced, and put to such low status that advancement from it is impossible. What’s left is intangible work. The real job of a white-collar, private-sector worker is not the stated job but reputation management. That’s all we really do, anymore: implement the personal-advancement campaigns of our superiors. Underlings are promoted if they expand and improve the reputations of their managers; executives are promoted if they make their companies look good. Since we’re a nation of 100+ million reputation managers– and isn’t that a horrible thought? but it is true– is it not surprising that an individual’s reputation (no matter how inaccurate, it doesn’t matter) would be more important than skills? Could we expect anything else?
We understand the injustice. We ought to fix it, for men and for women.
Why did I choose, for this essay, to focus on the masculine side of the equation? There are multiple reasons.
First, I’m a man, so I know that side better.
Second, we know for certain that this is an issue men face. It may also become a women’s issue, just as much. As I said, societies fluctuate in terms of how they define femininity– I’ll continue to note that the feminine regimes are often more oppressive than the masculine ones, which is why the world desperately needs feminism– but there is a core of masculinity that does not change. This core is under threat.
Third, it seems to be men who fall hardest in an age of dishonor and emasculation, like the one we face now under corporate dominance and Big Reputation. Women suffer, but men collapse; and the collapse of men often increases the suffering of women.
Why so? Women are allowed to define themselves multiply; she can be a teacher and a writer and a mother. It is logistically unlikely that a woman can be a good mother and a corporate executive– the former is a 24/7 job of ultimate responsibility; the latter is a 24/7 job that involves no real work but constant politicking– but society accepts that she may be both or one or the other. A man, however, is judged a complete failure if he does not win in a game that is more rigged, more zero-sum, and more emasculating with each passing year. In a prior era, when we actually made things, there was a place for men; but reputation management is about as zero-sum as it gets. There is no point to it.
A woman can look at the corporate system’s collapse with emotional distance and say, “Yeah, it’s unfair, and it sucks”, but she is not so deeply dishonored by unemployment or subordination that she implodes and must reconstruct herself. She does not have fifty thousand years of training into the notion that if she cannot live on her skills, abilities, and effort– hard to do in the era of Big Reputation– then she is, by definition, useless.
The peaceful outcome of widespread masculine collapse is what we see in Japan’s hikikomori. This is bad, but at least it doesn’t get people killed. The other masculine response is… war.
The reader might know why I write, now. The stakes are high. We are in far more danger than we think. We must do everything we can to find a final but nonviolent resolution to the problem. We will not be able to solve this if we refuse to look at what’s really going on.
Big Reputation is the highest expression yet of the corporate world’s might-makes-right nihilism. What is said, under Big Reputation, becomes what is true. It oppresses women, but its effect on men goes further; it hollows them out. They become aimless and nihilistic, and this vacuum can be filled by many things. Not all possibilities are good. It is easiest to sell war to angry, nihilistic young men who see purpose in nothing else.
What’s happening right now isn’t a men’s issue and it’s definitely not a white male issue. Big Reputation oppresses everyone. What differs is that while its actions oppress women, the fact that it’s there at all– an inescapable, global harem-queen culture– is an existential threat to men. Male bodies will continue to exist, but what lives in them will not be men, if Big Reputation is allowed to prevail.
With cis-gender men being 49 percent of the population, and with women likely to become more masculine as genders equalize, and with most women being attracted to cis-gender men and wanting to uphold the ability of men to be men, we can’t ignore this problem. I find it annoying when I hear complaints about how the emerging anti-corporate right is driven by “white male resentment”, as if this made every single person feeling it a racist or sexist. Much of it is economic resentment that is justified; the fact that white men (along with everyone else) feel it is irrelevant and it is disingenuous (and a bit racist) to present it in such a way. This justified resentment crosses categories. None of us, whether we identify more with the left or right, has a true enemy other than the 0.1 percent who made jobs scarce by stealing all the money.
It is probably not correct Latin, but I’ve created an aphorism that I’m fond of: illegitimi non dividendum; don’t let the bastards divide you.
What do I want? Well, we probably will get back to the kind of job-rich society we used to have, but there are two ways this can happen, and one’s better than the other. The better: we take the country back from its elite, and we fix it. The worse: we end up in some kind of war (possibly a civil war) that, like the one in the 1940s, brings us to full employment. I prefer to to skip over the poverty and killing and just go right to the fixing.
Let’s first talk about some technical fixes. We need to curb the abuse of data. I’m not that worried about advertisers. I’m not worried at all about government agencies that may go overboard with their zealotry, but rarely have malign intent. I’m worried about the business world; I’m worried about employers. We can’t rely on a 1960s-era legal framework to solve 2018’s problems. We don’t live in an era where you can call a large company’s chief executive on Thursday, interview for a job on Friday, and start on Monday. Perhaps we’ll get back to that, but until we do, the laws must evolve with our times.
For one example, it should be the law that by default, employers can only make hiring decisions based on information directly furnished by the applicant. I do support an exception: when there’s a public safety element– for example, in law enforcement, sensitive intelligence roles, or even professional driving– one can allow additional information: web searches, social media history, and background checks. When it’s just money on the line? No way; the rights of the worker must win. I won’t apologize for valuing the human right to reinvent oneself over whether a rich person makes $150,000 or $150,100 today.
Is it realistic to expect no one to ever “Google” someone else, such as a job applicant? No. Everyone Googles everyone; that’s not going to stop. It’s the force of human curiosity. We address this in two ways.
First, if someone Googles or Facebooks a job applicant, or talks about him to a friend in a conversation that could be construed as a reference check, that itself should not be illegal. We only need to put adequate reporting in place. We need clear laws about when it is legal, and when not, to make an adverse hiring decision based on such information; if it is not relevant to the job, the law should side with the employee. If information not furnished by an employee contributes to a decision not to hire him, we need appropriate federal filings as well as notification to the employee about what the decision was, when it was made, and why it was made. If a back-channel reference call led to someone not getting a job, the employee has a right to know who made it and what was said, so he can sue the rat bastard, because society just doesn’t work if people like that get away with shit.
There can be exemptions to these reporting requirements. Public-safety jobs present a legitimate reason for employee scrutiny that doesn’t exist when only commerce is at stake. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees should be exempt from many of these reporting requirements, if only because I’m inclined to err in favor of reducing regulations on small companies that might be less able to afford compliance.
People have a human right to know why they are or are not getting jobs. We have allowed mystery and chicanery for too long and it has bred discrimination, anomie, and a never-ending national jobless spell that persists even in spite of the numerical end of the “Great Recession”. We’ve created an age of paranoia and precariousness.
Secondly, we need to give individuals increased control over how the technology giants present them to the public. They should have the right to remove Google hits that misrepresent them. Will it cost money for the tech giants, to allow people to clean up their search histories? Of course it will; perhaps it’ll cost Google $100 million or even $1 billion. Whatever. Google will live.
We need laws that prevent people from missing out on opportunities because of nonsense factors like “I just don’t like him” or “he’s a fan of the wrong sports team”. This means more bureaucracy, but the smart kind. “Bureaucracy” gets a bad name, but people only notice it when it breaks down. When bureaucracies work, it’s fantastic.
We need aggressive government intervention on personnel matters in companies, at least as pertains to the employees’ future prospects. In the DongleGate example, it would have been right for the government to demand both employers (Playhaven and SendGrid) pay two years’ severance to each employee, and that their chief executives apologize for the decisions and state that the terminated employees did no wrong. If these executives did not make such statements, they’d either resign (which would be their right; free speech means one cannot be compelled to say something, but there is no inalienable right to ‘free speech, plus you keep your overpaid executive job’) or face jail time.
We also need laws regarding internal communication within companies of sufficient size. If an employee’s performance reviews can prevent him from transferring elsewhere in the company, then the employee’s right to appeal those reviews to an external authority, such as a government agency or court or union, that can speedily change such reviews, is one that must be upheld. Unions actually solved this problem decades ago, but if we’re not going to go with unions, then we need aggressive governmental intervention until this misbehavior by employers ceases.
Technical fixes, like those above, will solve some problems and scale back the atmosphere of paranoia. They might be able to make capitalism work again. They might not make the country great again (and, spoiler alert, Trump won’t either) but they’ll vet us started. They’ll bring us to Somewhat-OK, and that’s a step up.
What about our deeper problems? Technology has built the monster of Big Reputation, but people would not listen to what it has to say if there weren’t a prevailing job scarcity. We’ve let the 0.1 percent steal too much money and, since Citizens United, we’ve let them wreck our politics. The problem is not Putin meddling with elections; the Koch Brothers did way more damage to our country’s politics than a few Russian trolls and fake news outlets. And what is really causing American decline? Slow economic growth, and we are stagnant because we’ve cut federal funding for R&D, in order to finance top-bracket tax cuts (read: welfare checks for rich people) and because corporations no longer invest their profits into the future and create jobs, but instead buy back their own stock and give it to executives.
How do we fix all of this?
We need to look at the anti-corporate right’s grievances. There’s a lot of overlap between what they have to say and what the anti-corporate left has to say. We have the same enemy: a culture of militant nihilism that has sapped our capabilities, commercialized our culture, created massive economic and geographic inequalities, and pit us all against each other.
I think that some of my colleagues on the left get so wrapped up in winning instead of solving that they start to believe their own polemic, which is that the Republican Party consists entirely of “businessmen, religious nuts, and racists”. If you believe this, then you believe that all the poor on the right are racist or zealots (since they aren’t the business elite, clearly). I don’t think that’s true. I think that their anti-corporate sentiment is legitimate. One of the main reasons why Trump won is that most people in the “Red States” believe that the elitist, corporate fucks running our country into the ground are liberals. It’s not true, but Fox News (an evil corporation) has told them so and the idea has stuck. (In truth, the corporate system is neither liberal or conservative, but largely centrist; it cares more about its own authoritarianism– and hobbling the government’s ability to serve the public– than it does about which party is nominally in charge.) If we could communicate the nature of our shared enemy, and work together on a strategy to fix the country, we might be able to unify and pull it off.
Did Trump shamelessly court the worst elements of our society? Yes. It’s something the Republicans have been doing for years. But, Trump also drew in a lot of middle-of-the-road conservatives who aren’t racist or sexist, but who are angry about something emasculating that almost no one today (including them) understands: the new life under Big Reputation, the age of technological surveillance, the apotheosis of the corporate system.
We can work with conservatives. The corporate system is so rotten that it’s no longer conservative; it is regressive; it is ripping up the earth. Progress and conservation are not, at the present time or ever, opposed. We ought to conserve what is good in our culture, and progress from that.
How do we find common ground in a time that seems polarized? One thing that I have noticed in the U.S. is that politics and personal identity tie in together differently on the left than the right.
For example, most of us leftists and liberals call ourselves “Democrats”, but we’re not thrilled about the behavior of our own party. Very few of us have true partisan loyalty. When “our people” turn out to be hypocrites or predators (cf. Anthony Weiner, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein) we do not defend them. We let them fall out of view, because life is too competitive to let someone who sexts minors to have a spot in anything.
We’re proud of ditching people who fail to live up to our values, but conservative people tend to see that as a vice. They place a higher priority on loyalty to individuals. I’m not sure that they’re wrong, when it comes to the general principle. Cosby and Weinstein deserve all the punishment they’re getting– they deserve more punishment, in truth– but are we too quick to tear down minor offenders, people who say the wrong thing on camera? We might be. The leftist overreaction to Jordan Peterson is an example of this; the corporate cowardice in the firing of James Damore is another one. I admire the true conservative whose value on personal loyalty and integrity is offended by actions like that.
Their sense of loyalty to people, more than ideas, also explains why Republican voters (who, by their stated positions, are center-right rather than right-wing) tend to vote for extremists, ideologues, and incompetents, especially if they are incumbents. It’s not about the voting records (although I wish it were) for many of them; it’s more, “He’s not amazing, but I like the guy, and can I really vote to fire him?”
As I said, most of us on the left will call ourselves “Democrats”, but have a sense of distance from the insiders of the party. It’s different on the right; Republican is a brand. This is why there are conservatives who identify as Republican (loyal to the brand) and others who call themselves independent (and who usually vote Republican, with reservations about the Party).
So what is their brand? What is ours; do we even have one?
The Democratic Party doesn’t really have a brand, though I admire the Minnesota state party’s insistence on remaining the Democratic–Farmer–Labor (or DFL) Party, because brand identity matters. This may be what we need to build off; we ought to shed our image as the party of “coastal intellectuals”. Conservatives are angry because they sense a lack of cultural influence. They see people not like them getting book deals and TV spots at age 22, while they go to work precarious corporate jobs, and they’re pissed. One of the reasons why Jordan Peterson does not trigger them, though he’s a big-city intellectual, is that he kept his Alberta accent and mannerisms.
Core to the Republican brand is a style of masculinity, a sense of rugged individualism, and an affinity for the working man who lives on his skills and efforts– not the preening fuck (someone that, let’s be honest, we hate on both the left and the right) who lives on his reputation.
It’s important to note that not all traits of that right-leaning masculinity are bad ones. (Nor do all left-leaning men fail to have it. The ancient man on whom much of it is based, Jesus of Nazareth, was a leftist and arguably a feminist in his time.) It’s also not only men who care about it; women do, too. No woman will ever be attracted to a half-man who lives on his reputation. This makes all the sense in the world, too. Though I disagree with his politics, the Republican (by brand) who fishes on the weekend is probably a better father and husband (and a better friend, and someone I’d rather hang out with) than the executive manchild in Silicon Valley, who must beg the venture capitalists nonstop to give him– and his career, and his reputation– another day (and who also votes Republican, but will never admit to it).
I am more sympathetic than many of my left-leaning friends, when it comes to American conservatism. I don’t think it is, at core, about racial bigotry or anti-feminism or pushing women out of the workplace. Rather, I think American conservatism draws its core from an acknowledgement of the 50,000-year-old truth (which is not, on its own, conservative, but universal) that skills and effort ought to have value, and that while a woman should be able to live on merit rather than reputation, a man must be able to do so or he has failed as a man and may as well implode. Conservatives want to fix capitalism but, deeper than that, they fear the terrible, nihilistic world that our corporate masters are driving us toward. What they get wrong is their sense that this assault on meaning comes from the left. In truth, corporate executives have done more to strip meaning out of life than a million Foucaults or Derridas ever could.
I would like to find a way to unite the anti-corporate left with the anti-corporate right that we are now calling “economic populists”. We need to understand them. I did not vote for “their guy” (meaning Trump) and I still despise him, but I have no quarrel with them. They are not all racist white men; they are not all racist; they are not all white; they are not all men.
I would never court, or want in such a coalition, the racists, sexists, xenophobes, or religious bigots. Such ideas have no place in modern society. Let’s be glad if we lose their votes. I think there are enough non-racist men and women left over among the so-called “economic populists” to build a new coalition and take our shared enemies– the corporate fucks, the 0.1 percent, the manipulators who surveil and emasculate us with the tools of Big Reputation– down, peacefully, and for hundreds of years. There’s no good reason not to do so.
There’s a perception, in the wake of 2016’s election, that we’re a “politically polarized” country. No, we’re not. Most of us want the same things: universal affordable healthcare, strong public education, moderate gun control, reliable infrastructure, plentiful good jobs, a moderate and smart immigration policy that refreshes the nation but does not tank our labor market, an environment friendly to small businesses, and to take responsibility for our lives but also control of our destinies. Ignore the political branding around “Democrat” and “Republican”. Ask people what they actually want, and we’re not that polarized. We’re just led by a bunch of assholes who benefit by dividing us.
The middle-of-the-road, culturally conservative but anti-corporate, “economic populist” is fucking angry, because our failed society has him living on his reputation. (Or, she is living on her reputation. Or, she is horrified that her husband lives on his reputation. Or, she cannot find a man she is attracted to because men increasingly live on their reputations. Or, he is horrified because he and his husband live on their reputations.) He probably has not nice words to say about “PC Culture”, and he has a friend whose uncle’s neighbor’s doctor’s boyfriend’s college roommate was fired unjustly for a stray joke at work, and this scares him to death– it sickens him, it sickens me, and it should sicken you– but he’s not racist or sexist and doesn’t dislike immigrants. He has probably accepted gay marriage; perhaps his nephew is gay. He may have voted for Bush, but sees the Iraq war as a mistake. He might even accept a tax increase if he’s confident that the money will be spent wisely– on national parks, on public research, on better healthcare. Leftist coastal intellectuals would know this about this guy if they actually went into “the Red States” once in a while and talked to him.
I focused mainly on the masculine story– the deep sense of failure and shame a man feels, whether rich or poor, if he forced to live on reputation, because skill and talent have been devalued– not because it is more important than the feminine story, but because it is something the left, fixated on the (false, I believe) notion that gender is entirely socially constructed, ignores. We’ve let it become a blind spot. It should not be. It drives much of what’s going on today. Caring about what our society does for men does not mean we cease to care what it does for women.
It’s time to unify– men and women; traditional left and traditional right; white and brown and black; religious and not; Californian and Texan and Pennsylvanian and Michigander– and take our country back from the corporates. It is not a partisan issue. It is not even an economic or cultural issue. It is, to put it plainly, a job that it is time for us to do.