The Great He-cession

With huge numbers of men pushed out of the workplace, are we experiencing the death of macho?

Topics: U.S. Economy, Broadsheet, Great Recession, Gender Roles,

What centuries of feminist protest didn’t accomplish, the global recession will. So argues Reihan Salam in “The Death of Macho,” an article recently in Foreign Policy magazine. Salam writes that today’s “Great Recession” has not only done away with “the macho men’s club called finance capitalism,” but will — with 80 percent of domestic job losses sustained by men, and, by the end of 2009, 28 million men out of work worldwide — also result in “a collective crisis for millions of working men across the globe.” This “he-session,” as economists and bloggers have begun to call it, has created a backlash that will result in nothing less than a new world order: one in which electorates will respond by voting women into power, male-dominated fields like construction and manufacturing will shrink, and predominantly female sectors — education, healthcare, social services — will expand. Men, unemployed and undereducated, will be forced to adapt to this woman-friendly world, or they will end up “surly, lonely, and hard-drinking” — or worse, “historically obsolete.” Bleak, indeed. Get ready, Salam warns, for the death of macho.

Salam, a fellow at the New America Foundation, defines macho as “aggressive, risk-seeking behavior.” He blames these tendencies for the global financial and housing crises. But it isn’t just the “macho men” of finance who are to blame; so are their “mostly male counterparts” in government who served to “prop up macho.” In fact, according to Salam, “the housing bubble in the United States was a pro-male policy.” By refusing to halt the bloat in the housing sector, policymakers buoyed industries populated mostly by men, like construction, real estate, truck transport, and architecture. This was because a growing housing market meant increased employment, which in the end meant more votes. “Indeed, subsidizing macho had all kind of benefits, and to puncture the housing bubble would have been political suicide,” Salam writes.

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There are some obvious problems with this line of reasoning, not least of which is calling the housing bubble — a phenomenon that resulted from the failure of mortgage-backed securities and the subsequent credit crisis — a “policy.” Then, too, it’s possible to argue that the inflation in the housing sector also served to “prop up” women, since, at least for a time, more women were able to afford their own homes. Finally, it seems exceedingly odd to say that it would have been political suicide not to support macho. Women vote too, and, since 1980, in greater numbers than men. Wouldn’t it have been political suicide to alienate female voters as well?

But let’s leave aside further critique of Salam’s very broad argument, like the fact that much of his evidence actually breaks down along class lines, and when Americans had the chance to elect a woman, we didn’t. Let’s assume his premise is correct, that we are witnessing an unprecedented shift in power, from men to women. “As women start to start to gain more of the social, economic, and political power they have long been denied, it will be nothing les than a full-scale revolution the likes of which human civilization has never experienced,” Salam writes. While I’m certainly in favor of the advancement of women, Salam’s assumptions, and the ideas about gender in which they’re rooted, are essentialist and problematic. Men are aggressive, seeking and taking risks, and women are … what? The domesticated opposite? Salam doesn’t say. But his article assumes that women (and the mysterious qualities they possess) will nevertheless reign supreme.

Are we to believe that in this forthcoming female-run world, where women form, say, the majority of the U.S. Senate, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and the partner class at law firms and on Wall Street, they will behave the same as when they filled the ranks of the service industries? Does it make sense to predict that women with power will act the same as women without? Or that men, shorn of their power, must either get with the revolution by neutering themselves, or roam around pissed-off and drunk? Isn’t this –  to charge Salam with the crime often committed by feminist scholars –  reductive and overly “gendered”? Perhaps it’s not men who are innately aggressive risk-takers; perhaps the institutions themselves engender these qualities. There have certainly been plenty of female leaders who have exhibited aggression and swagger; think of Margaret Thatcher, or Indira Gandhi, or Golda Meir. If women do eventually run the world, as Salam suggests, will the world change, or will running the world change women?

If the recent mistakes of certain men at the highest levels of finance and government have altered our beliefs and opened our minds toward the possibility of more women in power, that’s progress. But to conclude that the mistakes of a handful of men say anything conclusive about the entire gender is wrongheaded. And as for Salaam’s assumption that women aren’t aggressive or daring, well there’s only one word for it, isn’t there? Macho.

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