I’m sure a million people have had this thought, but it strikes me that half the developed world’s political challenges – from terrorism to the alt-right, Russian and Eastern European nationalism, urban gang culture, suicide rates – they revolve around the insecurities of young men.
One thing that is interesting about all these areas is how low a view the younger men involved have of themselves and the shared feeling that they have no place, ability to contribute, or change anything. Or in the case of 4chan users, no way to overcome crippling social and sexual inadequacy.
A lot of this is bound up in the expectations men have of a perhaps slightly imagined past, in which everybody was important but there were also privileged male roles, which gave young male lives a sense of prestige and importance. Unfortunately this is a long way from the reality of whole communities working fields or stuck down mines, the real history we are all descended from, but it’s the presentation of frames like this which matter, not accuracy. The very existence of liberalisation of the family and of feminism offer a way in to making vulnerable young men believe this stuff and return to the certainties of past glory, simply because a person who feels vulnerable will see this as the most obvious alternative to the instability in their own lives that social change may cause.
In the case of gang culture the opposite frame is used to exploit the same feeling, namely the pervasive idea that inequality and historic injustice in working class and BAME communities is impossible to escape, particularly if you don’t see yourself as ‘special’.
Both frames of argument have the effect of robbing young men of agency and power, cementing vulnerability, which is very much an intentional step in creating an extremist or a criminal.
People can say what they like about the likes of Jordan Peterson, but I don’t believe writing this feeling off and ignoring it is a good way forward, and people like him earn their success on the back of addressing it. As do all kinds of manipulators. Unfortunately for the left, practically every other social force (nationalism, organised crime, traditional conservatism, religious supremacists) have seen opportunity in the problem and sought to offer solutions to young male insecurity. On the left for some reason we often see this as in competition with feminism or other types of liberation politics, where in my view it’s a necessary part of protecting its structures and gains, simply in the sense that feminism, antiracism etc are movements that men should be secure enough to feel supportive of, or at least at ease with.
There’s a big and wholly legitimate list of social needs, like secure skilled jobs and some level of security of living, most obviously. Capitalism is failing monumentally in developed countries to provide young men with the opportunity for dignified labour or fair recompense, and the only reaction of the clueless bourgeois press is to sit around scratching its head wondering why younger people want to eat well and why they haven’t suddenly bought a car and pulled a house deposit out of their ass.
But as a leftist I churn that shite out every day. Insofar as men are concerned, part of this has to be about individual responsibility to find hope, strength, compassion; to make their own sense of place and to contribute. This is certainly true when things get as far as a young man needing to resist exploitation or manipulation – this is impossible without optimism, a critical mind, or a sense of pride in self. Any of this is obviously challenging if you don’t have a supportive family or if your social capital is poor, of course. Maybe that’s where the left needs to head, in terms of organising and in terms of policy. Young men and their bullshit are actually quite important, after all.
I probably don’t have the answers, in fairness. This post might as well just be the lyrics of YMCA.