Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man by Susan Faludi, Chatto and Windus, 1999
Reviewing Stiffed in the Guardian, Ros Coward said that worrying about men will be the "next stage of feminism". As the author of a new book about "the crisis of masculinity" you might expect her to make that claim. Having read Lynne Segal's excellent Slow Motion about the same subject nine years ago, I thought this was all old hat. One thing for sure is that Faludi, as the author of the mega-bestselling feminist book of the '80s, Backlash, will get more publicity than Segal. Stiffed is not as good book as either Slow Motion or, for that matter, Backlash.
Stiffed is big on zeitgeist (a very very very 608 pages big) and short on concrete political analysis. It is a scrapbook of investigative interviews with, mostly white, American men of different generations. Through these narratives Faludi demonstrates how American men have been affected by the recession and the subsequent restructuring of capitalism - the advent of long and short term unemployment as a permanent feature of life, of part-time and "flexible" work, the decline of manufacturing industry and how women have replaced men as the "breadwinner" for families.
Some of the men Faludi talks to are what middle class Americans would call "blue collar", i.e., working class, men in unskilled jobs. Some of the men are what middle-class Americans would call "middle-class" i.e. working-class people who have - or in the past would have had - the skills to get well-paid jobs. Faludi does not make class or race an explicit part of her narrative and this is a real weakness in the book. Instead she looks at the effect of economic and social trends on men per se. So when she interviews a family of young black men from South Central Los Angeles, she does not ignore the racism they have faced in their lives, but does not dwell too deeply on the broader patterns of racism that are found in American society.
Throughout, the book lacks this kind of context. And, although it is a "social history" in as much as it is a snapshot of the moment, it also lacks a sense of history. She does not compare the recent economic recession with other periods of high unemployment. She does not give us any statistics for domestic violence for the past or the present day. Yet one of the anecdotal points of the book is that domestic violence has increased. These comparitive historical facts would have made this book a much more interesting study. As it is, reading Stiffed, you feel as if you are going over the same ground, the same limited set of circumstances, the same ideas. It's all a bit of chore.
But is Faludi convincing about the existence of a "crisis of masculinity" which is perculiar to today's conditions?
Faludi argues that a certain post-war cultural paradigm has been destroyed. The men who returned from the war were told that if they worked hard they would reap a decent living for themselves and their family, that they could have a peice of the American Dream. For Faludi, men were willing to accept this cultural ideal because it was in keeping with their experience of themselves during the war, where the selfless "little man" getting on with it was presented as the hero. She quotes a veteran: "You had 15 guys who for the first time in their lives were not living in a competitive society... There's a job to be done and everyone pitches in... " These men were betrayed when the old industries were shut down and they were not able to pass on the "heritage" of a steady stable existence to their "baby boom" sons.
Faludi is great at describing the mood of that generation but she gets carried away with her own narrative. No doubt Saving Private Ryan is, as Faludi says, a piece of nostalgia. But it is also in its first 30 minutes a realistic evocation of the brutality of war. Faludi does not admit that many of the "grunts" of whom she speaks may have been revolted by, scared to death by and, reasonably, not at all notalgic about their experience. Equally, these men may not all have bought into the American Dream.
Along the way Faludi records the experiences of men in the Vietnam War, an LA gang-banger, a sexually rapacious teenager and many many more. Her main point is that men have - in cultural terms - become as "useless" as women; they have, in her phrase, become "ornaments". Hence the growing obsession with male style and fitness. Faludi argues that for many men "making it" can only be defined in terms of things like getting on the Jerry Springer Show - five minutes of fame. These broad brush strokes have the ring of truth; you feel, yes she has touched on something that is characteristic of modern-day American society. But without an analytical framework and more precise historical, economic and social facts, it is unsatisfactory. Anyone managing to wade through all those pages is likely to feel a bit cheated.
New Realism, New Barbarism: Socialist Theory in the Era of Globalisation, by Boris Kagarlitsky, Pluto, 1999.
This book is the first of three ambitious volumes which seek to recast Marxism, and is not just another academic tract by a tired professor seeking refuge in academia. Kagarlitsky is well known for his involvement in the Russian labour movement, and his concern for practical activity is never far from the surface even as he discusses theory.
Kagarlitsky defines the '90s as a decade of frustration, in which the ideology of neo-liberalism - privatisation, free markets and global competition - seems to have reigned supreme. His own experience in Russia, together with his panoramic survey of the international scene, indicate that this period is better described as one of neo-barbarism, an epoch of decline which he compares to 4th century Rome. Then the apparent successes only shielded the fundamental crisis of the empire, a time when the barbarians could take on the forms of civilisation but not the substance. The parallel with Russia's bastard-capitalism is striking, where the old nomenklatura has not been replaced by a genuine bourgeoisie, and these societies look no nearer to catching up with the West than they did in 1989.
New realism has arisen because of the absence of a socialist alternative to neo-liberalism. Millions of people whose interests lie in change lack the ideology, the programme and the organisation to make it. The result has pulled reformism to the right, where electoral success (such as New Labour's in Britain) has masked political failure, and socialism redefined merely by 'values' such as social justice which are readily incorporated into the capitalist project. The tragedy is well summed up by South Africa after apartheid, where the ANC presides over free-market capitalism. Kagarlitsky takes no solace from "history is on our side", denounced as a consolationary myth and disproven by the rolling back of the welfare state after decades of gradual improvement. If history is far from being a rectilinear process of movement towards more advanced forms, then struggles for reform which are not also struggles for a new society are doomed to reverse and defeat. For Kagarlitsky, only Marxism has the answer to these defeats and the malaise of the period.
Yet Marxism too has suffered historic defeat, not from the fall of the Berlin Wall but decades earlier, as it became incorporated into academia and engulfed by Stalinism. Kagarlitsky does not make as much of the impact of Stalinism as I think is necessary, but he is committed to a return to the simple truths of classical Marxism - and crucially the centrality of the working class as the subject and object of socialist transformation. He concludes the book with a ringing confirmation that Marx is still alive because capitalism is still alive, and that Marx's analysis of capitalism remains valid. He approvingly quotes the choice for humanity summed up by Rosa Luxemburg: socialism or barbarism.
Kagarlitsky dismisses arguments about the "end of the proletariat" and the "end of work", fashionable in universities, pointing to the restructuring of world capitalism and the intensified exploitation of waged labour as signs of the relevance of the working class. In fact the new technologies afford some workers, such as computer operators, even greater potential power both to bring the system to a halt and to remake it in their own interests. He is alive to the radical possibilities of the Internet, which challenges both state censorship and free market property rights.
The book is not without its oddities, such as when Kagarlitsky compares the working class to a crocodile, a survivor from the earlier world of dinosaurs, and concedes that it may survive not as the largest class but like the peasantry, as just a significant force. The early section on South Africa reads too much like a lament for the South African Communist Party, which in fact always acted as a brake on the development of independent working class organisation. And his account of alternatives to "peripheral capitalism" (i.e. Stalinism and Third World nationalism) indicate that his Marxism is not entirely free of these influences.
These weaknesses do detract from his overall attempt to refocus Marxism on the existing realities of world capitalism. Yet there is enough here to suggest Kagarlitsky is groping in the right direction. It will be interesting to see if he can sketch out the programmatic contours of this recast Marxism in the subsequent books.
The Return of Depression Economics, by Paul Krugman.
Keynesian economics was sent to the dustbin because it failed in the 1970s? It's been totally discredited ever since then? Right? Dead wrong.
Paul Krugman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, probably the most famous economist of his generation, is an unrepentant Keynesian. This short book gives a crisp, readable and instructive account of the Asia-centred economic crisis of 1997-9. The key idea is Keynes's "liquidity trap" - where a general desire to hold cash (to provide safety against future troubles; to be ready for new industrial-investment openings when they arise, which is not yet; to fend off creditors pressing for their cash) makes it harder to get cash (you want to sell, but no-one with cash wants to part with it and buy), and the vicious circle spirals into a slump. Keynes himself gave credit to Marx for discovering this phenomenon earlier. Marx went much further than Keynes, I think, in showing the roots of the "liquidity trap" in the fundamental contradictions of capitalist production, but Keynes's exposition of the mechanics is far more developed than Marx's unfinished notes and fragments on the question.
Krugman, like Keynes, sees himself as a gadfly within the Establishment. His arguments that Japan should get itself out of its slump by deliberately creating inflation, and that Malaysia was right to reimpose capital controls, are too daring for most. But the mainstream is not so far away. No-one has argued for leaving Asia's crisis, for free-market mechanisms to fix it, nor denied the broadly "Keynesian" idea that the Japanese government should put "stimulus" into its economy.
Besides, Keynesian economics did not fail in the 1970s. It served the bourgeoisie well. It got them out of the sharp slump of 1974-5 quite fast, and enabled them to contain and tame the great working class militancy of that period. Thatcherism (economic rationalism, neo-liberalism, whatever) followed because the Keynesian policies had succeeded to the extent that the bourgeoisie felt confident about a counter-offensive. Its true pioneer, in fact, was not Thatcher but Pinochet in Chile after 1973 - proving that the precondition for "neo-liberalism" was not some intellectual discredit for Keynes's economics, but a confident ruling class avid for revenge.
For the "neo-liberal" offensive, however, the ruling classes were best served by people who believed in it as general doctrine, not just as an expedient for smashing down the working class. Hence, as Krugman has shown in an earlier book, Peddling Prosperity, at the start of the 1980s US government economic advice was dominated by outright cranks.
The nonsense-theory of monetarism was abandoned by the Tories themselves within a few years. The growl that remains from that Cheshire tiger is the idea of "no gain without pain" - that if capitalist crises do not exact their full toll of suffering, then "the economy" will not have had the proper "purge" which that crisis showed to be necessary, and any recovery will be "unsound". That idea is still widespread - and very useful to the ruling classes, though it also exists in perverse "Marxist-fatalist" variants. Krugman, though he is no radical or socialist, usefully shows its falseness.
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