Recent years have seen an increase in white supremacist violence. Fueled by a cycle of hate encouraged by the conspiracy-laden world of the alt-right, from the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2016 terrorist acts by right-wingers outnumbered Islamists by nearly a two to one ratio. Even the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have been forced to acknowledge, in a recent report, that white supremacy is a major source of domestic terrorism.
To take one of the most recent examples, on February 19th a document was filed with the District Court of Maryland charging Christopher Paul Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant, as a domestic terrorist. Inspired by, among other things, a manifesto written by Anders Behring Breivik, Hasson stockpiled a large amount of weapons and wrote “Have to take serious look at appropriate individual targets, to bring greatest impact. Professors, DR’s, Politian’s, Judges, leftists in general” as he wanted to “get whitey off the couch” and use a terrorist act to encourage white people to rise up and turn the US into a white homeland.
The roots of the alt-right today have been documented well by scholars such as David Neiwert who has written on the ways its origins can be traced back as early as the 1990s, the age of right-wing white militants and the Oklahoma City Bombing. While descriptive accounts such as this shine much light on the concrete actions and ideology of right-wing white supremacists, they do not address broader questions of the ways in which the historical and contemporary contradictions of capitalism push racism, sexism, and violence. By showing how the power of capitalism, and its shifting periods, has encouraged particular types of social pressures, a deeper explanation of the causes of toxic white masculinity might be located.
While gender inequality existed well before the rise of capitalism, the gradual remaking of social relations in the image of capital, and subsumption of life to capitalism, entailed the remaking of gender relations to synchronize with the power of capital. As this occurred older forms of masculinity were slowly remade in uneven ways to fit with new types of masculinity that had greater accord with capitalist social relations. In other words, there was no “inner logic” of capital that necessitated a specific type of gender relation or form of manhood. The ways masculinity reacted to the rise of capitalism structurally articulated with capital but was also historically contingent.
Within this, additionally, masculinity has never been singular, rather, there are multiple masculinities. And even a single man will put on different masks of manhood in different social situations; whether at home or at work, with their partners, or family, or friends. In daily life masculinity is negotiated. It is contradictory as a particular man performs different, and potentially conflicting, types of manhood in various social situations. But masculinity does tend to situate around an image of hegemonic masculinity, the dominant type of socially acceptable manhood in a given historical context.
Regardless, men are pushed to live up to a standard of being a “real man” and historically this has meant being patriarchal and dominating, misogynist, egotistical, sexist, and in the case of white men, devaluating other races of men such as Asians and Native Americans as effeminate, and Africans as hypersexual, among other stereotypes. As W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out many years ago the history of capitalism, colonialism, and empire brought with it the invention of whiteness as a racial category as global white supremacy provided a glue to hold capitalism together.
In the US case, the history of masculinity and the rise of capitalism had a complicated relationship. The initial settlers in the Virginia colony were primarily white men who sailed across the ocean and viewed colonization as a way to reproduce and strengthen their masculinity. Many of them were gentlemen who hoped their colonial settlement would be a new space to recreate their aristocratic lifestyles. They brought over indentured servants to work for them, and, in many regards against the will of the Virginia Company that pushed for a more diverse economy, began to specialize in tobacco production. As, through the 1600s, indentured servants were gradually replaced with black slaves, and as women, so-called “tobacco brides,” were brought over and traded for tobacco, the link between racism and white masculinity grew. By the end of the 1600s a legal system was in place separating free or temporarily indentured whites from so-called ‘red’ native Americans and black slaves. And as classes of ‘poor white trash’ and middling ‘plain folk’ developed alongside big planters, so even poor white men could find confidence in defining their masculinity through racism.
Meanwhile, in the north, the New England colony took a different path, both in terms of the social relations themselves and the ways masculinity was defined. As one religious Puritan settler put it, “our ribs were not ordained to be our rulers.” A woman’s place was under that of the man, ruler of the family. But the ideal community which formed was not one organized around capital, but the moral economy of the religious community. This set in place a trajectory of small farm based production, in which labor for the household took precedence over market production.
Over time, though, the relations of masculinity that supported more capitalist relations in the south and less capitalist relations in the north shifted. In the north, in the half century before the Civil War, the breadwinner-housewife relation gradually became the hegemonic white ideal. As urban artisans became wage laborers and as small farmers were either dispossessed through for instance debts and rising land prices, or else simply became market dependent for their survival, so the woman’s place as remade as the “purifying” motherly space against the competitive, rational, business-oriented man’s space. This ideal was perhaps dominant ideologically, but only the privileged white middle and upper class could live up to it. From Irish workers laboring alongside slaves building railroads, to black urban domestic woman workers, to even poor whites themselves, concrete gender relations never fit the ideal.
This was especially true for black workers in the south after the Civil War. The question of manhood was a central question to the question of abolition. As the militant black abolitionist David Walker put it “Are we MEN!!—I ask you, O my brethren! are we MEN?” And for white abolitionists, slavery, it was said, degraded the manhood of slaves and likewise distorted the manhood of slaveowners, as it pushed them towards brutality and away from the ideals of liberal northern freedom. Now freed from the confines of slavery, black men were in a position to remake their manhood. Some did internalize a certain type of patriarchal middle-class values, including some church leaders and those who were able to move up to a somewhat more middle class economic position. But for most ex-slaves, while they were not necessarily opposed to wage labor-it was better than slavery-many desired simply a piece of land to farm on and have a stable family life. Over time, a variety of sharecropping arrangements won out over black autonomy and independence, though, as the white south, supported by northern capital, reasserted their racialized profit-oriented system of labor control.
Through all the complicated articulations between the ever-changing forms of capitalism and masculinity some continuities remained. To take a prototypical example from popular blog theartofmanliness.com, which has over one million Facebook followers, masculinity is comprised of virtues including courage, loyalty, industry, resilience, resolution, personal responsibility, self-reliance, integrity, and sacrifice. Masculinity is exercised through physical strength and intellectual entrepreneurship: a successful man is a wealthy man.
This then leads to the question of white male terrorism today. White people in general feel they are under threat. As one NPR survey found, 55 percent of white people say they feel they are being discriminated against. And white men are feeling their position at the top of the social hierarchy is being challenged although their privileges still propel them to the top: after all, out of the Fortune 500’s CEOs only 24 are women. White men feel it is their rightful place to be on top, and they feel they deserve this because they got there due to their hard work. And more broadly, white supremacy has always been central to the history of American capitalism: a country built on slavery, patriarchy, and ethnic cleansing from the start.
And white men are being challenged, in some regards. From #BlackLivesMatter criticizing the persistence of racism as central to the American dream to #MeToo pushing back against men’s view of women as instruments for their own pleasure and satisfaction, so there is a political tendency for white patriarchy to be less politically and socially acceptable than it was in the past.
At the same time, white men are finding it more difficult to live up to the ideals of manhood to which they were born into and ascribe to. As the economic security white men had in an earlier era has been replaced with the neoliberal age of precarious labor and the “gig economy,” so men are struggling to live up to their supposed role as provider, protector, and patriarch. As has been well documented, over the last several decades stable middle class jobs have been increasingly replaced with part time, temporary positions hollowing out, to some extent, the class basis of post-World War II white supremacy. While this precariousness has hit workers of color harder than white workers, it has also meant a decrease in status for those whites unable to live up to the middle class ideal.
Take the case of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. His class position was one of the unstable working class, and, in struggling with this, he found white supremacy and racism to be a solution. As Roof’s elementary school principle Ted Watcher noted, the community Roof came from was one divided from more privileged whites and a source of resentment. In other words, Roof’s working class frustration found an outlet in racism.
The general explanation for these attacks has been that of the “lone wolf,” as if each act of white terrorism is due to individual mental health issues rather than broader social processes at work. For instance, after Robert Bowers killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the media narrative suggested that the man had personal problems which led him towards racism and anti-Semitism. Less discussed was Bowers’ working class position as a truck driver and the ways racism becomes a failed scapegoat to the pressures of working class life. Similarly, mail bomber Cesar Altieri Sayoc was seen as a “loner” with mental health issues. Although half-Filipino, half-Italian, Sayoc espoused homophobic views and racism towards African Americans and Jews. He also, at one point, used an online account handle Killall Socialist. Most importantly, he was a steroid abusing hyper-macho bouncer who attempted to realize his manhood through muscles and saw right-wing politics as an expression of his own masculinity.
As neoliberalism pushes us away from finding collective solutions to social problems, and instead towards individualization, and as working class life has become increasingly segmented, divided, and lonely, so the tendency becomes to turn right towards hate and racism as a perceived solution rather than to turn left towards class solidarity. In this context tensions caused by both the political pushback against white male supremacy and unstable neoliberal economic conditions has made it harder for white men to live up to their ideal image of manhood, creating a cauldron of contradictions. The result is that men, and especially white men, lash out. They organize into the alt-right. They attack schools. They attack synagogues, mosques, and historically black churches. They attack women. They attack people of color. All in an attempt to use violence and murder to renew their manhood, and pushed by the contradictions between their ideal of “being a man,” the material realty that disallows this idea from being fulfilled, and the pressures of contemporary capitalism.
James Parisot currently teaches (precariously) in the sociology department at Drexel University. He is the author of How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Pluto, 2019) and co-editor of American Hegemony and the Rise of Emerging Powers: Cooperation or Conflict? (Routledge, 2017).
Image: Blink O’fanaye CC BY-NC 2.0 Flickr