The incels are coming. Hide the socks.
The word incel means different things to different people, which makes for dangerous discussions. On the surface, all it takes to qualify as an incel is to be involuntarily celibate, a fairly common turn of fate that most people experience at least once, and yet a community of homegrown extremists and terrorists have taken up the label incel to describe something darker: a defeatist mentality asserting that women (and especially feminists) have doomed a large percentage of men to implacable misery.
If by “incel”, one means a misogynist or extremist, than nothing is acceptable but an utter desire to end that culture. Of course, to attack incels as people risks association with one of the oldest pillars of patriarchy: virgin shaming. This is why I don’t like the term incel: the extremists began using it to sympathy, but also to recruit, because although pathological misogynists are uncommon, people suffering annoying dry spells (and in the ages of 15–25, when people are most susceptible to propaganda, they are mostly men) are not.
Make no mistake about the incel identity, though: whatever the word meant once, it has lately been used as a self-identification by a culture and ideology so frightening, retrogressive, misogynistic, and downright insane that it takes a strong stomach to look at it square-on.
In an age of proliferating identities, where personality traits become labels, and we have terms like demisexual, otherkin, wagecuck and NEET flying about, the identity of incel is perhaps the strangest, because it fixates on what is, for almost everyone in fact, a transient frustration. Sexually speaking, there’s an order of magnitude more demand for young (18–23) women than men of that age, and so this period of time is unpleasant for most men. It’s so much so that societies have to invent ways to deal with it: prostitution is an old one, and martial culture (giving young men a source of worth) is another. College is yet another technique that tries to handle it, by culturally and geographically isolating 18–22 year olds so young men have a chance. Mostly, though, this problem is managed privately using wealth transfer, especially around social and cultural capital where there’s enough ambiguity to make it socially acceptable. Young men from privilege get set up, by their parents and inherited networks, with precocious career advancement to give them esteem, build their confidence, and make maximize their “eligibility” when they hit the golden score of male sexual attractiveness (25 to 44) and look for marital partners. The rest of the young men can go die, as far as conservative patriarchal societies like our late-stage corporate capitalism are concerned.
That’s what’s so weird about incel rage. These men are blaming women for something that patriarchy did to them. Women didn’t create the Hollywood narrative under which only young sex counts (quite opposite from the truth) and a man is a loser if a virgin at 25. Women didn’t crash the job market. Women didn’t drive up college tuitions. Patriarchy– and about 90 percent of the people running it are men– did that.
Inherent in the incel worldview is the notion that this transient state– an unfavorable sexual power balance, since women reach high levels of sexual attractiveness so much earlier than men– will last forever. Average- and even above-average-looking incels declare themselves “ugly” based on facial bone structure traits that haven’t been fetishized as much since the racist pseudoscience of the late 19th century. Male grievance culture isn’t new; it’s been around forever. What is new is the degree of despair and violence. It wouldn’t have been able to hit a critical mass until recently. Male grievance culture– from mainstream sexism in the 1950s and ’60s, to the rakish porn-star chauvinism of the 1970s and ’80s, to the pickup artistry of the 1990s and ’00s, to the raving misogyny of incels today– has been increasingly cult-like with each iteration. What gives a true cult its ultimate hard-on? Apocalypse. What did it take to bring the incel phenomenon about? Socioeconomic collapse.
The economic changes of 2008 were managed well-enough to protect the wealthier and older people by keeping asset prices up. Socioeconomically, however, they were cataclysmic and most of society is underappreciative of the damage that has been done. We’ll be reeling from this, fifty years from now. The shithole we let our society become, that’ll kill people in the future even if we fix everything now. For example, people will die in 2060 because of anti-medical prejudices and bad habits developed, right now, in this era of unaffordable, lousy care, atrocious coverage, and adversarial behavior by employers and insurers who’ll break a social contract (and often a legal one) as soon as there’s a dollar in it. The world changed; an apocalypse actually happened.
What does this have to do with incels? Well, they are a post-apocalyptic creature. What makes them unnerving and sometimes disgusting is their complete lack of insight into the nature of the apocalypse inflicted upon them. They blame women for a social calamity– one that has left them hurting and miserable– that was, in fact, caused by corporate capitalism.
Incels believe that priapic creatures like “Chads” (the male entitlement figure of yesteryear) and “Tyrones” (an offensive African-American stereotype) scour the wasteland of modern human sexuality and fight over the last remaining “pure” women like junkyard animals. Names that Chicagoans and Twin Cities residents used to describe less-sophisticated Midwesterners who gave the region a bad name– Trixie, Chad, Becky and Cam– have mutated into supposed creatures one would expect to fight in the 2300 AD world of Chrono Trigger. Anyway, in this post-apocalyptic, over-fucked and semen-drenched world, everyone’s having lots of sex– frequent, amazing sex, because that totally happens at 18, and also inexplicably stops around 23– except them.
I’ve spent months studying human sexuality, in part as background research for Farisa’s Crossing, since I’m having to build characters with sexualities different from my own. You’d think there’d be data to support this sexual apocalypse, if one were going on. Nope. For example, infidelity and marital failure are becoming less common, as is participation in high school and college casual sex. The culture’s healing, not falling apart. What’s driving it? It turns out that feminism is a good thing, especially for so-called “beta” males who lack the glib charm, aggressive presence, irresponsible risk-seeking and financial resources to succeed at high-frequency casual promiscuity.
It’s patriarchy that drives women into the arms of boorish alpha males– the sorts who climb corporate hierarchies– not feminism. When women don’t have to marry early out of economic necessity, and when they choose their husbands instead of having those choices made by their fathers or economic forces, so-called “beta” males win (contrary to “Chad” phobia) more often than the aggressive, boorish men our society deems “alpha”.
Incels and MRAs halfway acknowledge female maturation, but because they’re so obsessed with casual sex, they’ve built up another toxic narrative to explain it.
The worst men seem to win at casual sex. No one disputes this. Even if decent men are having casual sex– and one must be careful about terminology here: does it count as casual if it becomes a legitimate relationship? what about if it happens between two close friends?– it is most often the case that the indecent are loud about it. Perhaps normal people are doing all kinds of stuff only they know about, but the loudest cultural narrative one sees in casual sex is that of macho, entitled men taking advantage of women with low self-esteem (often, victims of abuse) with copious alcohol in the mix. This is unhealthy; it’s hideous. Is it the sexual mainstream? No.
There is no sexual apocalypse. Terminological debates aside, casual sex and in particular stranger sex (to which incel fantasies about hyper-aggressive demonic men absconding with superficial women might apply) seem to be going down. This variety of sexuality, perhaps deserving of its vilification for its superficiality and tendency to spread disease, isn’t common at all. Most women have no casual encounters; or they have one, don’t like it, and never do it again; or they only have them when led to believe (often by unscrupulous men such as “pickup artists”) that romantic relationships are forming, which is not their fault. Few women knowingly have causal sex and they don’t enjoy it: only about 10 percent of women orgasm on a one-night-stand. In this light, the incel mythology about women pining for selfish “Chads” is a bit absurd to anyone who understands sex. Monogamous relationships, which women overwhelmingly prefer (with a few exceptions), are very much in, and feminism is no threat to them.
There’s a difference, of course, between a dry spell and an apocalypse: between weather and climate collapse. Like most 20-year-old men, I was socially and romantically unsuccessful compared to what I wanted to be at that age, but I knew it would get better. At that age, women have all the options and men have maximal competition; it improves. Incels, on the other hand, have tied themselves to the mast with an extreme notion that there’s no hope. Most of these guys aren’t unattractive or seriously disabled (except, perhaps, for often-treatable mental illnesses) and they come overwhelmingly from the middle class of the English-speaking world. They live in diverse countries where they could easily meet women from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. It is not hopeless, at least sexually speaking, for them at all; if they evicted the misogynistic, cultish garbage from their heads, they’d be fine.
They just need something better to do with themselves. See, the way we handled dry spells, back before the 0.1 percent trashed the economy, was to focus on our careers. Those existed back then. There was a time– in 2018, it’s hard to imagine this– when applying for jobs actually worked. Transiently sexless men had something to do other than stew about experiences they weren’t having.
We are not in a sexual apocalypse caused by feminism. We are in a socioeconomic apocalypse caused by corporate capitalism– also known sometimes as “the patriarchy”, though I dislike this term because it demonizes fatherhood, and it gives too much credit to an oppressive system. We must know who our true enemies really are. Incels have allowed themselves to become useful idiots, who blame the malfeasance of corporate patiarchy on women.
Incels aren’t miserable because of women. They’re not miserable because they aren’t getting sex, because it’s always been hard for young men to get sex, and because sexless doesn’t always lead to such rage. To wit, most 60-year-old widows become involuntarily celibate, but don’t fall into rage. These men are miserable because society has subjected them to a long con. They’ve been swindled. Society has stuffed their minds full of rotten ideas that are leading them down a bad road.
When a corporate-capitalist society such as Mussolini’s Italy or Corporate America perceives peace, it does not go out of its way to differentiate gender roles: for example, in overt governmental fascism, men and women are both told they must support the state; in our covert employer-nucleated fascism, the directive is to support a manager’s career and hope to be invited to ride his coattails. When such a society perceives war, though, gender roles emerge: the woman becomes a soldier factory, favored for her ability to produce children of the master race; men become sacrificial and are told to accept posthumous glory, for not all will survive what the society decides it must do.
Our time is unique, in that peace and war have become one, like the gas and liquid phases of a supercritical fluid. Most Americans do not sacrifice, as we would in war– meat and sugar are not rationed, gas prices of $3 per gallon are cause for complaint– and the wealthiest quarter of us can live in peaceful prosperity. At the same time, war surrounds us: two campaigns we started (with unclear intention) last decade still rage in the Middle East; our appetite for drugs has financed violence and upheaval from Juarez to Medellin; and social media drama can render an individual unemployable (and blacklisting is, I would argue, an act of war). In what state are we? A peace with pockets of war, or a war that looks like peace? If war, who is fighting whom?
Patriarchal and fascistic societies ramp up toxic masculinity in preparation for war, especially when they intend to be the aggressor, and wind it down (into smoldering chauvinism, as in the 1950s) during peace. So what’s our state today? We live in a mostly-peaceful but tenuous time of asymmetric economic war. Overt acts of aggression (health insurance denials; negative employment references and blacklisting; social-media harassment campaigns; poisoning of public water resources) are fairly uncommon, but terrifying, rapid in their onset, and hard to prevent or control. We live in a time where 140 characters from a powerful person can send fifty unconnected strangers to harass any target in the world. We live in a time when workers get fired, quite literally by computers whose sole purpose is performance surveillance; the manager’s only function is to read the monthly print-out and deliver the bad news.
It’s important to understand that, while this war is different from any other, it is a real war. The 0.1 percent has not been waging “class war”, some inferior category thereof, against the rest of us. It is, and has been for a long time, an actual war. People have died because of it.
Incels get the nature of this calamity wrong. They’re too young to know about health insurance, and they haven’t gotten in the corporate world yet, which is why they think it’s only women who are capable of maltreating people. It’s impossible to sympathize with the militant incels, because they lash out at innocents, but they are perceptive of the fact that an apocalypse is underway. Their mistake is that they mischaracterize it. Millennials really have been fucked over by previous generations.
Had the upper class not stabbed us in the back, we know what society would look like, and we know because this is what was like, forty years ago: if you had a car and a college education, you could talk your way on to a job anywhere in the country. You’d call an executive on Thursday, have an hour-long lunch with him on Friday, and start on Monday. If you were 27 or older, you’d get a management-level job. If you were 32 or older, you’d get an executive job. If the job required an advanced degree, the company would send you back to school. If it was 1:30 in the afternoon and you were still working, you were a go-getter who’d get every promotion. This is the country we used to have, and our elite took it from us, and we should be willing to fight them– to die, and even to kill, if necessary– if we stand a chance of getting it back.
What killed our society, starting in the 1970s? The right wing wants people to believe that social advances (feminism, gender liberalism) had something to with the economic degradation that began around the same time. That could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the situation for women and racial minorities has been declining of late, specifically because of worsening economic inequality and job prospects. So what did go to hell in the late 1970s? Again, the culprit is toxic masculinity.
The elite of the 1940s–70s saw themselves as a national elite and took pride in making the country better: building libraries and museums, supporting progressive causes, and making education more available. To the extent that this can be gendered (and at the time, it was) this was a productive masculinity that brought society (and, over time, women) forward. Toxic masculinity never took a break, but in economics, it was on defense for a solid forty years, only to rage back into focus in the 1980s. Why?
One might be tempted to pin our society’s self-created decline on “the Reagan Era”, but I don’t think one conservative politician can be blamed for everything that happened. Rather, as we became increasingly connected, our national elite re-polarized. This ties in to our hatred for Baby Boomers. Most Baby Boomers aren’t the privileged assholes we love to hate on– the traditional Boomer narrative ignores black Boomers, gay Boomers, dead-in-Vietnam Boomers, and Boomers who fought for the rights of minorities or engaged in the (alas, losing) battle against corporate supremacy. But the Boomer 1% deserves its horrible reputation. These were the guys who compared themselves to oil sheikhs, third-world despots, narcotraficantes, and (after 1990) post-Soviet kleptocrats and decided that the American CEO– making $400,000 per year, and having to follow his country’s laws– was the short man in the group.
The lesson from the Boomer 1% is to forget Milton’s comparison of reigning in hell versus serving in heaven. From a material perspective, it is even superior to reign in hell over reigning in heaven. The 1980s is the decade when our elite began intentionally de-civilizing us in order to join the slurry of kleptocratic garbage that is the global elite.
It is hard to imagine reversing the above. The national elite, as it once was, is dead. After selling us out, it was subsumed into the malevolent global one. Toxic masculinity runs the world again– to everyone’s detriment. It’s the force that drives a man with $1 billion to want $10 billion, or a man with a beautiful wife to cheat because he has decided that the world owes him 10 (and then 100) beautiful women. It is not enough for him to drink and enjoy his milkshake. He must drink all the milkshakes, even if he throws up afterward.
Incels are not the men running the world, of course. They’re not drinking any milkshakes. In fact, they’re triple-threat losers. They’re sexual losers because of their social alienation and self-sabotaging tendencies, perhaps inherited from our puritanical culture’s views of sex as dirty (amplified by an envy of the mature and less inhibited). They’re social losers because toxic masculinity says in no uncertain terms that low-status, unsuccessful men are worth less than garbage and ought to be viewed with suspicion. They’re economic losers because the high-autonomy middle-class jobs (which would be fantastic plum positions by today’s standards) have been replaced by technologically surveilled and menial subordinate work. They exhibit toxic masculinity in their odious attitudes toward women, but they’ve also been crushed by it.
The logical fallacies of the male grievance culture are too numerous to list– each one could get an essay of its own– but the most prominent (no pun intended) is the apex fallacy. An apex fallacy exists when one compares the most successful or fortuante of one group against the average-case performance or outcomes of one’s own. Reactionaries and nostalgists often indulge in apex fallacies, comparing their lot as average people today to those of kings, knights and ladies– not peasants who die at 33 of typhoid. Likewise, incels believe that women drown in male attention because they’re hyperfocused on the white, blonde, young “Stacies” that so many other men are chasing. Apex fallacies exist, likely, because it is advantageous to observe the most successful individuals. When the pinnacle of a society is corrupt, calamity is likely to follow for that reason– bad examples are being set– and we should be scared for that reason. Incels look at the top of society and see people devoid of virtue– the unaccountable, unscrupulous, self-indulgent “Chads”, almost always from well-connected families– winning. Their most noted reaction, “Why can’t that be me?”, is hardly sympathetic, but their problem is. In terms of male role models, our society is in dissolution.
Corporate capitalism, and other forms of dysfunctional patriarchy, cannot keep themselves afloat without using various narratives to manipulate people’s desires and therefore allay the resentment that would otherwise accrue to the corrupt top. For example, it is patriarchy (not feminism) that tells men they are worthless if they cannot support a family on one income. To be a “basement dweller”, under patriarchy, is to be less than human. The system tells men to derive their sense of worth from capability, especially as expressed in competitive endeavors– even if those contests are dehumanizing or stupid. In high school and college, one of the most fetishized (but also most detrimental to personal growth) competence metrics is the ability to procure sex when one wants it. (And, further according to this narrative, men always want sex; or else there is something wrong with them.) When incels struggle with a normal, benign thing– that it is difficult for men under 25 to find sexual partners– they begin to see themselves as useless incompetence, doomed to fail in all other areas of life. They shut down; they lose contact with their friends, their grades drop, and they become addicted to video games and internet trolling– living out their power fantasies behind a keyboard.
What does patriarchy think of this massive waste of male talent? Patriarchy couldn’t be happier. See, virgin shaming is what keeps men going into work, in order to procure those pictures of dead people, that can be traded for social experiences like overpriced meals and recreational neurotoxins, that may on occasion lead to sexual access.
There’s a response I can imagine coming from incels and MRAs, which is that women, as much as men, can participate in virgin shaming, gold digging, and various other behaviors that keep toxic masculinity in place. Of course, that’s true. See, feminism doesn’t require a conviction that women are innately morally superior to men. I am a feminist and hold no such belief. I think the distributions of moral character are most likely equivalent across genders. And just as there are good men aligned with feminist causes, there are plenty of women who lend their support to patriarchy, who enforce its doctrines, and even who prefer to live within it. Women actually exist who uphold toxic values by making themselves available to the sorts of malignant, aggressive men running our civilization into the ground. It is not acknowledge of their existence that makes MRAs and incels problematic; it is their inaccurate believe that immature, damaged women are somehow representative of the gender (they are not) that makes this dangerous. The truth is that, in a world with billions of people within it, you’re bound to find everything.
What is feminism? I think it has two components. One is the belief that women ought to have equal political and economic rights to men. That, on itself, doesn’t need to be called feminism. If this were all there were to the feminist cause, I’d have no issue with people who say, “I’m not a feminist; I’m an equalist”. The second component pertains not to biological femaleness but to femininity. This gets tricky, because it’s not clear that any of the differences between “masculine” and “feminine” nature exist in any innate way. Any discussion of masculinity and femininity must be relative to a cultural frame. There’s a lot of virtue– compassion, judgment, quiet competence, collaboration over competition, sexual restraint– that lives in what out culture construes as feminine. What makes toxic masculinity so virulent is that it’s built to destroy the feminine. It does not necessarily hate females; it hates femininity in women, but especially in men. What we’re learning, as our late-stage corporate capitalism destroys the planet ecologically, culturally, and socially as well as economically, is that in order to survive for another century, we’re going to have to become more feminine. It is not about women as superior to men (I do not think they are) but the need for us, as humans, to evolve in a more feminine direction and, while retaining masculinity’s virtues, purge it of its aggressive and toxic elements.
Feminism also has tons of historical support. Making things better for women also makes the world better for men. Gender is not a zero-sum game.
Self-indulgence is often marked by misogynists (most likely, a case of projection) as a female vice, but it’s actually the core of toxic masculinity. This is not to say that female self-indulgence and toxic femininity don’t exist– every woman who demands an expensive carbon crystal before she’ll marry is engaging in an instance of toxic femininity (manufactured by toxic men in the diamond industry)– but it seems to be toxic masculinity that is most capable of metastasis. Toxic masculinity says: one must grow up and acquire, acquire, acquire; one must do it fast; and one who acquires less than other men is inferior and not really a man at all. Accrued wealth and paid work– the influence of family contacts, though it accounts for almost all of what actaully happens in the career game– become the sole, numerical metric of male value. One cannot criticize the might-makes-right corporate system, either, unless one wants to risk being called “whiny”, “weak”, “a snowflake”, or (who can forget this classic?) “a fag”.
Corporate capitalism and toxic masculinity are cruel, and there’s no moral justification for shoehorning 50 percent of the population into it (and forcing the other 50 percent to clean up). But is this brand of masculinity a con? I don’t think it always was. In the 1950s, there was real work to be done, and people could make a living by doing it. Competence and merit actually mattered: there were more small businesses, it was easier for a skilled person to escape a reputation problem and reinvent himself, and there was high federal investment in R&D, resulting in 4–6 percent annual economic growth. For all the flaws of that era– I can’t think of anyone sane who’d want to restore 1950s gender or race relation– it was a time when work worked.
Keynes predicted that, by now, we’d be working about 5–10 hours per week. That turned out to be right. So where’s our leisure society? Nowhere, because of the Graeberian imperative to hold position. People now spend 10 hours to work a 2-hour day, the rest of the time full of useless anxiety in open-plan offices that exist largely to humiliate them. If the bosses figure out how little work is necessary, they’ll cut jobs and workers will lose, so it must be hidden. The work being done almost never matters; it is mostly a commodity, and little respect accrues to people who do actual work. Instead, we’re a nation of professional reputation managers. If you’re not disgusted by the notion, you’re not human. Of course, this means that the winners of the new economy are those people (mostly, physically imposing men, because even though such violent confrontations have been rare for thousands of years– it’s now how we like to do business– it is just easier to ask for favors when one could physically end the other’s life) who can force others to manicure their own personal reputations. Neofeudalism sets in: those who have permanent staffs of reputation managers (of course, the firms that employ them fully believe real work is being done, and occasionally it is) become lords, and those who support their campaigns for relevance in a blandly decadent, pointless economic system become the vassals.
One can see this most prominently in that people do things that are more work-like for their hobbies– gardening, hunting, hiking, learning new fields, writing– than the stupid, sedentary, humiliating subordinate bullshit they endure in under the proto-fascist corporate regime of status reports about status reports they call “work”. Men (and women) used to go to work and do things, but now they go to work and subordinate to other, almost always completely useless, men.
Isn’t this ancient, though? Hasn’t work always been about subordination? Well, yes and no. This topic requires more words than I can give it, but complex endeavors always require operational subordination. That is, some people have to take direction from others, and apprentices need more direction than seasoned masters. There’s nothing wrong with operational subordination; we do it every day, to our benefit, when we stop at a red traffic signal. It is better to follow a sound order and wait two minutes than to disobey it and possibly die in a preventable traffic accident. Operational subordination isn’t humiliating; it’s just something we need to do. In today’s corporate climate, though, the demand has gone beyond lawful operational subordination into personal subordination. It is not enough for the worker to take direction; he must fully accept the total superiority of the manager. It is not enough to do the job well; he must pretend to like it, he must ask for more grunt work when he is underutilized, and he can never for a second allow anyone to hold the suspicion that he might be smarter than the mediocre apparatchik doling out the tasks.
Here is where I offend some leftists: it may be entirely due to socialization, but men and women are different. Women are, to put it bluntly, better actors. They learn how to be pleasant to people they dislike, to mirror emotions without feeling them, and to engage in the ceremony of personal subordination while, in fact, avoiding major compromise. They’re socialized to put a crumple zone between them and abuse that is coming from uphill. Perhaps that’s why, even though corporate culture is terrible for women, it’s devastating to men. Women can play a humiliating, stupid game– powdering the bottoms and attending the whims of adult babies called “executives”– without total personal collapse, whereas men seem unable to do so. I don’t think the explanation is that men are weaker; I think we are not socialized as well to be actors– to be able to play a humiliating, subordinate role for 8 hours per day without internalizing it– and that we are also pushed to identify with paid work (a problem, in an economy where humiliation is the only thing left most people will pay for) more than women are.
If you tell men that the highest expression of masculinity is to go into a workplace and subordinate to other men– not the temporary operational subordination of the apprentice, but a permanent personal subordination to better-placed, my-daddy-made-a-call mediocrity– you’re going to have a masculine crisis on your hands. And we do. While I won’t get into detail about Jordan Peterson, his appeal seems to derive from his willingness to address the masculine crisis head-on, without fear. (This is not to say that he knows how to solve it.) But here’s the truth: our masculine crisis will not be solved until we eradicate artificial scarcities (which exist to manipulate men into working hard, on the promise that those proxies for female sexual attention– job titles, higher salaries– actually mean something) and corporate capitalism itself. To kill corporate capitalism, we’ll need to institute a more compassionate society– one that takes care of people, sending them to school if they wish, paying favors forward without expecting immediate return– and that would be, traditionally, more feminine. So we have the odd-sounding-but-true conclusion that the solution to our masculine crisis is (in part) feminism.
What was done to these incels was not done by women. It was done to them by patriarchy: a system that has inculcated the notion of women as sexual objects and rewards for participating in an economic system that professes to be meritocracy but that, on closer inspection, is no further along an evolutionary journey than might-makes-right barbarism. They are just entitled-men-the-enemy. They have been infected by terrible ideas and they are suffering intensely. And while their expressions of rage, both on and off the internet, are often unacceptable, we must raise our focus away from this particular element, and smash the woman-hating, racist, elitist, proto-fascist corporate system that created them in the first place.