Thoughts on the “Incel,” Masculinity, and the Future of Postindustrial Society

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Since the deadly van attack in Toronto, I’ve been thinking about the dark and foreboding concept of the “incel.” This so-called movement is made up of angry, isolated, and (seemingly) mostly white young men who, frustrated by failures in love, work, and life in general, vent their hurt and rage at women, who they blame for denying them love and particularly sex.

They are the “involuntary celibates,” and their online demimonde overlaps significantly with the other furtive elements of the alt-right and the “Dark Enlightenment” (not kidding here) — movements that openly reject liberal ideals of equality among races, genders, and nationalities, and who espouse (in various ways) a return to a radically hierarchical, pre-modern society.

I first began to read about these groups in 2014 or 2015, long before Pepe the Frog became an extremely unfortunate icon in US political culture. I saw one reference to a guy named Mencius Moldbug, a computer programmer who fancies himself a philosopher, and got sucked into a lengthy fugue state exploring this strange corner of the Internet, clicking from link to link.

These were young white men who A. believed in their own superiority, and B. concluded that their own lack of success, in spite of this assumed superiority, could only be caused by the triple menace of feminism, multiculturalism, and civil rights. They called themselves “neoreactionaries,” and, at the time, they seemed like an extremely small, strange fringe element.

Those days seem long ago.  A presidential candidate rode into office on a torrent of support from people who felt no need to pay lip service to ideals of equality whatsoever. Quite the opposite. The reptile brain of wounded masculinity snapped into action, taking the form of unabashed racism and misogyny, along with (naturally) a warped and belligerent form of nationalism.

The Toronto attacker appears to have identified as an Incel. His actions echo the 2014 Isla Vista murders committed by Elliot Rodger (who may have inspired him), and to an extent the horrific mass shooting carried out by Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik in 2011. The former wanted to punish women for rejecting him; the latter seethed at feminists and what he called the “feminization” of Europe.

What does this mean for postindustrial societies going forward, with all the demographic and structural changes we expect to see in the twenty-first century?  Chief among those trends, in my view, are increasing automation (resulting in fewer jobs in certain sectors), the continued advancement of women in work and education, and a steady decline of population growth in most developed countries.

Obviously, the term “involuntary celibate” presumes that sex and affection are something women owe men, which is extremely dangerous in itself. But the figure of the frustrated, seemingly emasculated, powerless male has been rising in the culture for a while. As many have noted, Fight Club was an early, key manifestation — the white-collar drone who casts aside his Crate & Barrel catalog to become a real man by way of atavistic violence.

I see a few big things happening here:

First, a general anxiety among white men in Europe and North America, stemming from a sense of lost status in a diversifying society.

Second, a perception among men of their own failure to compete successfully in a postindustrial economy, where women are pulling away in terms of education, attaining the skills necessary to thrive in the economy of the future. (Though wage inequality persists and barriers to professional advancement for women obviously remain, the trend toward continued growth in workforce participation and income since the 1970s shows little sign of stopping — a fact that traditional conservatives and the alt-right alike bemoan because women’s pursuit of careers and financial independence, in their view, threatens the family. By extension, their independence undercuts the psychic wage men traditionally received from having women depend on them.)

Third, and relatedly, the steady decline of reproduction, parenting, and the patriarchal family as the organizing principles of society across the developed world, particularly in Europe and Russia, but also in North America.  Lo and behold, when women have economic and educational opportunities, they often do not choose to have ten kids. Increasingly, men and women alike are choosing not to have children — a “problem” that governments in countries such as Japan have increasingly worried about.

Each of these factors flows into the otherwise puzzling sense of being marginalized and under siege that is the hallmark of the alt-right. The frightening and ugly slogan “you will not replace us,” made infamous by the Nazi rally in Charlottesville last year, contains behind its menace the usual vulnerability of the bully: I’m scared because there’s no place for me, or not the place I thought I would have. And because I’m scared, I’m angry and wanting revenge.

By no means do I intend to write a pitying brief for Nazis here, but rather to think about how broad demographic, cultural, economic and indeed technological changes are giving rise to a pathological political culture. The old pathways to male self-affirmation are seemingly being closed off, as more women eschew marriage and children for other kinds of fulfillment, while only those men who can play the game of higher ed, career advancement and postindustrial labor get to have “the good life” (however that is defined now).

This is not to say that the old ways were especially right or good, but it is clear that many Americans look back longingly at a time before the successes of feminism and the civil rights movement, as well as the old industrial economy. (This is Trumpism in a nutshell.)  Of course, the Springsteen image of getting a union card and a wedding coat at age 19 was already dying when he wrote “The River” in 1978 (as the singer was very well aware). It’s forty years later now, and you have a millennial and postmillenial generation of young men who came of age after deindustrialization, some of whom see no apparent path to goals of career, family, even sex.

This is the same individual who has been comically portrayed and hand-wringingly discussed in the media as the “failure to launch,” the guy in PJs eating cheetos in his parents’ basement, not getting a job, refusing to marry and buy a house and do all the things adult American men are supposed to do.  Whether this caricature has much validity is up for debate; millennials have been unfairly castigated by their elders for not doing right in an economy of stagnant growth and, for many, few opportunities.  One thing is true: this no longer feels like the stuff of mediocre romantic comedies, to put it mildly.

Again, none of this discussion is meant to rationalize the utterly abhorrent culture of incels and the alt-right. But it seems to me there are fundamental changes in gender relations and the nature of work in our postindustrial world that are bubbling up in unpredictable ways.

What’s even more frightening is thinking about what this means for places like India and China, where long-held preferences for male children have led to men dramatically outnumbering women, as well as demographically declining populations in Japan, Russia, and most of Europe. These trends make for some very scary possibilities.  Having millions of angry, horny, bored young men with nothing to do around is a recipe for trouble.

China is relaxing its one-child policy, in the hopes of avoiding a lopsided society where the old greatly outnumber the young.  This ship might be very difficult to turn around, though.  And efforts in nations such as Denmark, Germany, and Japan to encourage women to have children do not seem terribly promising so far.  Influencing the deeply personal choices of millions of individuals, couples, and families is not something one does with the flip of a switch. One might also ask whether it is a good thing for governments to meddle in decisions about childbearing at all.

We can have a future with more babies or fewer babies (I’m agnostic on this one); better jobs or worse ones (stronger wage growth and better opportunities would, in my view, benefit social cohesion); diversity and inclusion or nationalism and exclusion (I prefer the former, obviously, but the West as a whole seems to be going in the other direction at the moment).  These are all choices we individually and collectively have to make that will shape the contours of a future society. I would like to see one where everyone is able to develop their talents fully, with greater gender equity and less prejudice, more inclusion and a dynamic economy that generates broadly shared opportunities.

All of this would be very nice, indeed — but it is a mistake to assume, deterministically, that phenomena such as the incel stem directly from economic or demographic conditions.  The elephant in the room remains gender.  Even with a more equitable and inclusive society, the problem of masculinity will not be solved.

None of this is necessary, though. There is nothing innate about men that makes this pathology inevitable.  We could start by breaking down the pernicious assumptions that children learn early on, that to be a boy or a man is to dominate and talk the loudest, that to be gentle or nurturing is to be feminine, which is to say, bad.  We could conceptualize success in different ways that do not revolve entirely around attaining wealth and power.  We could stop telling jokes about men getting raped in prison. (How far, indeed, is this very common cultural trope from calling something a “cuck”?)

If we could find ways for everyone to feel loved and included, contributing meaningfully to the world around them, while breaking down toxic old metrics of what it means to “succeed” at being a man, you would not have “incels.” And there would be fewer young men marching off with AK-47s to murder innocent men, women, and children, just to feel some power and agency and prove their ultimate superiority with the worst and bluntest instruments imaginable.

This is expanded and edited from a Twitter thread on April 24, 2018.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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