Why are young men veering to the ideological right? Don’t blame women or feminism; blame capitalism
This image from the Financial Times went somewhat viral at the end of January 2024. It shows that across the Global North, young women are trending exponentially to the ideological left and young men are trending exponentially to the ideological right.
To readers of Sara Banet-Weiser’s scholarship on the intertwined phenomena of “popular feminism” and “popular misogyny,” this data is far from surprising. Her article “Popular Misogyny, A Zeitgeist” was published in 2015, and her scholarly monograph on the subject, “Empowered,” was published in 2018. In this work she argues that the media environment fosters a new form of anti-feminist backlash:
The transformation of a technologically enhanced public discourse that explicitly threatens sexual violence and other forms of violation is a different iteration of backlash…in the contemporary mediascape, popular misogyny increases in size and scope at the same time as popular feminism circulates more widely then ever before. We need to think of the call-and-response connection between them.
The internet and social media allow for forms of communication (and, I would add, capitalism) that allow both sorts of vibes to be more palpable and have a wider reach than they had in the mass media era of the late nineteenth and most of the 20th centuries. Specifically, the economics and aesthetics of “platforms” like X/Twitter, TikTok, and the like reward virality and exponential growth. For example, as musician and music critic Jamie Brooks noted, the alt-right rap track by Tom MacDonald featuring rightwing influencer Ben Shapiro “literally says ‘all my people download this, let’s get a billboard number one.’ he mentions the download loophole in the lyrics directly.” Whereas music charts traditionally track the number of plays a song gets on the radio combined with its sales, and thus measure the relative frequency of a song among a population in a defined period of time, the strategy Brooks identifies in MacDonald’s song (and with another recent right-wing viral song, “Rich Men North of Richmond”) is about a small number of dedicated fans buying multiple downloads in order to give this piece of intellectual property exponential/viral growth in chart performance. Billboard’s current rules weight downloads more than streams or airplay, so coordinated mass-purchasing of downloads is the most effective way of exponentially inflating a song’s chart performance. This strategy is not unique to the right wing and is widely used by fan armies like the Swifties and the BTS Army. For this reason, it’s reflective of the political economy of platformized popular culture: the performance of platformed content, and the platform companies themselves (i.e., their stock price) is successful when it exhibits exponential growth. This is why solidly successful properties like Bandcamp and Pitchfork were killed by their owners: they were performing well enough to keep the lights on and pay the staff, but that solid performance was not the sort of viral growth that investors these days expect.
Banet-Weiser gestures towards this framing of popularity as viral/exponential growth in describing the affective responses she has to popular feminist and popular misogynist spectacles. She describes both “the chills–excited, exhilarating chills that allow us to repeat “finally, finally,” when Beyoncé performs at the VMAs with the word “feminism” behind her in spectacular lights” and “a terrified, what-the-fuck-is-happening kind of chill that we get when we read about horrifically violent rape threats against female game developers.” These chills are swells of positive and negative affect that arise when the vibe shifts suddenly in the direction of popular feminist or popular misogynist virality and success. (Gender studies scholar Michelle Murphy talks about a similar sort of popular feminist affect here and here.) They are an affective expression of the same sort of exponential growth both to the ideological left and ideological right represented on the chart at the top of this post.
As I mentioned above in my discussion of Billboard, this structure of exponentiality is not just an aesthetic, it’s also a factor in the political economy of the music industry, the tech industry, and capitalism generally today. In a financialized economy, the point is not to turn a profit through everyday operations, it’s to generate a windfall of profits for investors by flipping distressed properties into ones the stock market believes will be wildly successful in the future. Spotify did that to the record industry, by flipping records from a thing the Napster-and-iPod-era music industry couldn’t even sell to “content” driving a data surveillance platform that, regardless of its profitability, continues to maintain both a high stock price and the good will of investors. The success of Kate Bush’s single “Running Up That Hill” is a similar case: the song was critically acclaimed when it was originally released in the 1980s but it was never a popular hit. However, once it went viral on TikTok after appearing in an episode of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Bush received a landfall of cash as her intellectual property’s value exponentially increased. She didn’t make that money from selling records, but from the viral success of an asset she owned. In today’s financialized political economy, the perceived capacity for exponential growth is what success looks like.
I wrote a whole book about the implications of financialization and popular feminism on femininity: femininity is figured as resilience, or the ability to flip sexist damage into spectacular success. Popular misogyny is the masculine complement to that: it takes perceived loss of status as an injury and then makes a spectacle out of overcoming that damage through things like podcasts, social media, rap songs, etc.
This is neoliberal creative destruction (think: the gentrification of Manhattan after the 1970s crash, post-Katrina New Orleans, the way private equity guts companies and sells off their parts, the IMF’s approach to the Global South, etc.) applied to personal identity. Everybody but cis straight nondisabled white men already starts from a position of relative damage, held back by sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, religious and ethnic bias, undocumented status, you name it. Chishetero nondisabled white men aren’t already disadvantaged by patriarchal racial capitalism, so to succeed in this political economy they have to invent and perform some type of damage. The perceived loss of prior entitlement–such as the entitlement to sexual property in women’s bodies (incels), or the entitlement to mansplain (“free speech”)–fits the bill exactly. Wounded entitlement is how cishetero white men in particular can position themselves as damaged and thus capable of resilient comeback.
I was listening to Pretty Hate Machine the other day when I realized that the first three songs each contain a refrain depicting the perceived loss of entitlement: “You can’t take that away from me,” “I used to be somebody,” etc. Reznor’s lyrics depict a narrator fearful and angry over potential and perceived loss of things he has previously been entitled to. From parents’ groups whipping up moral panics about school libraries and drag queens trespassing upon their parental rights over their children to Charlottesville alt-right bros chanting that they won’t be replaced by non-white people to mens’ rights activists and incel culture, Reznor’s wounded entitlement vibe is the foundation of today’s alt-right grievance. Alt right media makes a spectacle both of that grievance, and of its vindication. In gamergate, for example, the attacks on women were themselves social media spectacles, viral pile-ons that drove engagement on platforms like Twitter. Similarly, the one thing the 45th president of the US is actually good at is making a spectacle of wounded entitlement: it’s like literally the name of his fan army. When he was kicked off Twitter, he was effectively its main character, driving user engagement worldwide. Just as popular feminist influencers like “bimbo” Chrissy Chlapecka turn their performance of overcoming patriarchy’s damage into a way to go viral and monetize their social media accounts, the alt-right performance of wounded entitlement and its retribution as a tactic to succeed in a market where value is expected to grow at the exponential rate only possible when you flip a distressed asset.
Young men’s hard swerve to the right is not primarily the result of psychological or soft power/cultural factors. There is a deep structural reason why the performance of (white) masculinity as wounded entitlement is rewarded and valued: it’s how this identity can be monetized, how (white) cishetero men can create and exhibit the viral growth in both human capital and market value that a financialized, asset-based economy prizes.
Gener has always been a property relation. As Carole Pateman explains in 1988’s The Sexual Contract, traditionally it has been one in which white men were entitled to the property-in-person of everyone else. Citing John Locke, Pateman explains, “‘every Man,’ Locke explains, ‘has Property in his own Person. This no body has any Right to but himself” (55). While personhood is conceived of as a right to the property in your own body, it is reserved exclusively for (white) men: up until very recently, women were formally prohibited from owning both material property, the sexual property in their bodies, and so on. Even today when women are formally equal to men–I can have a credit card in my own name and marital rape is illegal in the U.S.–men are still widely granted entitlement to women’s ideas and their bodies. Traditionally, the difference between men and women was the difference between owner and owned.
Pateman was analyzing classical social contract theory/classical liberalism; in a neoliberal context, gender is still a property relation, but it works differently. Gender categories are deregulated–anybody of any gender can occupy the role of the popular misogynist/wounded entitled subject (hi LibsofTikTok and Moms for Liberty)–it just happens to be men that most commonly do that. At the same time, capitalism’s emphasis evolves from ownership and exchange to investment. In a financialized, asset-based economy, the point isn’t to make money by selling a good or a service, but by the appreciation of assets like stock and property. And investors are looking to put their money into assets with the greatest, most exponential level of return, like crypto/Bitcoin has at times been. This is why media properties that were doing just fine at keeping the lights on and paying staff, like Pitchfork and Bandcamp, have recently been shuttered by their owners: they (unlike, uh, Spotify, which still struggles to maintain regular profitability but nevertheless never has the same struggle with investor perceptions of future success) didn’t appear to be capable of the sort of exponential growth typically achieved by flipping a distressed asset. We are at a stage in capitalism where the capitalist class primarily understands property relations as investments, and in this context the privileged status is not simply that of the owner, but of the owner of the asset with the perceived capacity for exponential growth in value. This is why theorists like Tiqqun and Michelle Murphy have argued that the figure of the girl is the quintessential example of human capital: “Her rates of return are so high precisely because her value begins so low.” Performing wounded entitlement is how traditionally privileged identities (especially white cishetero nondisabled masculinity) can present itself as starting from behind and thus capable of a similarly scalar rate of return. In this economy, you have to appear like a good investment, and you can do that either by performing the identity of a historically marginalized group, or, if you’re not a member of one of those, by performing identity-based wounded entitlement. In this respect the girlboss and the alt-right bro are both privileged statuses, just on different ends of the spectrum of gendered vibes.
If you scratch below the surface and consider the structural issues shaping the politics of gender, the economy, and the political economy of media industries, it’s no mystery why young men in the Global North are leaning further and further to the right: there are a lot of rewards available if they do.