Ideological Abandonment and Declining Sperm Counts
A review of Count Down, by Shanna Swan
Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to understand a peculiar process in leftist thought that I call “Ideological Abandonment.”
Simply stated, it’s the bizarre way where certain principles which were seen as leftist— or more specifically part of a project of liberation and equality—suddenly become abandoned and later turn up what we generally call ‘the right.’
Let me give you an example that has always perplexed me. In the late 1990’s, there was a massive, broad-based movement against globalization. The anti-globalization movement drew in multiple groups—including indigenous rights groups, unions, environmentalists, and organized leftist parties—together to fight against the increasing influence of transnational Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Intergovernmental Organizations.
Groups such as the World Economic Forum, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organization were all seen by this movement as forces that eroded local labor and environmental protections and undermined the local democratic sovereignty of nations and communities. The WTO, for example, had the power to punish a small nation for their refusal to accept genetically modified foods from other countries, products which would both cause environmental damage as well as destroy local producer economies.
The rise of these organizations led to certain treaty regimes that have caused many of the political crises we see now. One place this happened was in Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) forced the Mexican government to allow tariff-free imports from the United States and Canada, including cheaply grown and industrially produced corn. That corn flooded the Mexican market, causing local farmers to go out of business, and those people—along with many people who were part of the corn economy (workers in tortilla factories, for example)—later became part of the massive wave of immigration into the United States because they had no economic opportunities in Mexico anymore.
NAFTA essentially created the immigration crisis in the United States, which then aided the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, the weakening of the power of American unions, and can be said even to have helped eventually give Donald Trump the presidency in 2016.
So, knowing all this, now consider the last time you heard an American leftist talk about anti-globalization. I’m going to guess it’s been a while, and if you’re younger than 30 you probably never have. However, you probably did hear “alt-right” sorts like Richard Spencer talk about “anti-globalism.”
And that’s ideological abandonment. The left stopped standing against this political process (ultimately the internationalization of capital) and then, a decade later, that same position became a core of many right populist movements, which often add an anti-semitic or ultranationalist narrative to the problem.
For someone who’s been at this sort of thing for too long now, you can start to feel a bit schizophrenic or “gaslit.” The thing you were fighting against two decades ago got forgotten and your position now is seen as a far-right position, and then you yourself get accused of being “one of them” because of this.
I can name countless other places this has occurred (and will in subsequent essays), but I need to admit I still don’t fully understand how this happens yet. There is some ideological mechanism that feeds into these shifts that isn’t yet quite clear.
What I do understand, however, is that it’s inevitable that the right will pick up the things the left abandons. The reason for this isn’t as maniacal as some might think (the right is no more or less brilliant nor organized than the left); rather, it’s that the ideas themselves are vital human concerns and so eventually someone will speak to them.
For example, consider how the left’s recent abandonment of men and masculinity hasn’t always been the leftist default. Early socialist feminists framed their anti-war positions towards keeping their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands from getting maimed in capitalist military ventures. You can see masculinity and manhood still remain important aspects of liberation in Silvia Federici’s manifesto, Wages Against Housework, as well as the early work of bell hooks.
But since then, and especially in the last two decades, anything that remotely concerns men as a specific group of people is absent from leftist critique. Now, the only sorts really ever talking about it (with a brave and constantly-canceled few as exceptions to this) is the right. While the left now treats men as an uncomfortable subject at best or more often (especially in the woke iterations) as an apex-oppressor class best extincted from the human ecosystem, the tendencies and thinkers in what we call the right have been getting quite a following merely by telling men they’re not evil.
This brings me to a review I’ve long been afraid of writing, that of the book Count Down, by Shanna Swan, PhD.
Count Down is a summary of the findings from a comprehensive 2017 report Swan co-authored that looked at the effects of endocrine-disrupting pollutants on declining sperm counts, early puberty rates, reductions of fertility, genital deformities1, massive drops in primary hormones in both men and women, as well as increased gender variance across sexes. The book also brings in other studies as well, especially regarding the same problems occurring—often at even higher rates—within animal and fish populations.
The book is a very quick read, and a little cloyingly friendly at times in order to be readable by a non-scientifically trained public. To be fair, though, it probably needed this sugar-coating, because what’s actually detailed in the core of the book is something few would really like to swallow.
The study she co-authored and the studies she includes all detail a really terrifying situation: capitalist production has been altering the fertility, biology, and even the sense of gender of humans through industrial pollutants and petrochemicals which we constantly absorb through what we eat, wear, and where we live.
While the initial press about the study and the book itself focused on the primary findings of reduced sperm counts (dropping 50% over 50 years), that’s hardly the focus of the book itself. Swan gives equal time to the problems affecting both men and women, and even makes some deeply feminist points about how infertility and birth defects in children, both generally blamed on women, actually more often are related to sperm mutations.
Of course, before the book was even released it was politicized by both the right and the left. Fringe groups on the right saw it as proof of feminism destroying men, while the leftist reaction was more often than not, “good. Fuck men.”
More intellectual but just as political was a report written by the GenderSciLab, a social justice academic project out of Harvard. They released a paper criticizing the methodology and conclusions of the original study and pointed to how it fueled right wing ideas about men:
The third reason we focus on Levine et al. is that the paper has entered public discourse, and has been marshalled in service of the narrative that the fertility and health of men in whiter, ‘Western’ nations are in imminent danger… Such narratives about the decline of men have been taken up by white supremacist and misogynist groups who claim that men in the Global North are victims of their liberal feminist environments.
That study was widely quoted on many woke-friendly new outlets, concluding the original study had been entirely debunked by Harvard scientists.
The problem, barely noticed except by the authors of the original report itself, is that none of the GenderSciLab researchers were “peers.” In fact, none of them work in reproductive biology, and only two in the entire academic group have degrees in any kind of biology at all. Particuarly of note, the lead researcher of the paper (and also the director of the GenderSciLab), Sara Richardson, is a historian and philosopher, not a reproductive biologist.
That is, the definitive “debunking” of the study was written by feminist social theorists—not biologists—who admit in their own introduction they were attempting to refute the study because right-aligned people found it useful.
Worse, their refutation doesn’t actually refute the findings at all, but rather proposes the theory that men’s sperm counts vary over history and no connection can or should be made between the evidence of decline and some sort of meaning or reason for that decline. In other words, it’s probably normal for men to have a 50% decline in sperm production over the last five to seven decades and you shouldn’t think this is strange.2
Their refutation doesn’t really mention that they aren’t actually biologists and have no relevant training, nor do any of the articles which site their refutation as definitive proof bring this up either. And despite the fact that they make clear they have a political purpose in refuting the study, this was never challenged by the journalists who cited their work.
Instead, articles claiming the original study had been debunked quickly became the final word on the matter, as if it had all been settled. This is pretty understandable when we keep in mind the implications of the original study, though: if it is true, then we would need to admit that industrial society is doing something bad to men, and that goes against the current leftist position.
But it doesn’t go against a slightly older leftist framework. If you’ve never read Federici’s Wages Against Housework, I urge you to go do so and reel at her framing. Women need liberation from the domestic regime because they have become capitalism’s handmaidens, keeping men from falling apart and doing their domestic/reproductive3 labor for them because capitalism requires it.
In Federici, and in this former sort of feminism, capitalism was seen as damaging to both women and men, and its harm must be fought by both sexes together. In this current leftism, however, anything that capitalism does to men is irrelevant, because men are not exploited4, they are only exploiters.
The left, having abandoned the concerns of men, or more specifically having abandoned the idea that men are a site of capitalist exploitation, now finds itself in a reaction against a right who merely has to ask aloud, “hey, something is damaging men on the biological level—we should do something about this” and thus becomes political relevant to half the population.
Particularly intriguing to me is that Swan’s book actually argues for more societal acceptance of non-binarism and other woke causes, and is full of research on how endocrine disruptors harm everyone, including black and other minority people. Yet this is not enough to absolve her of the crime of anathema, because she has also said men are being harmed by this. Thus the outrage over the study and book and the quick embrace of the political refutation: the order of meaning needed to close itself against an internal contradiction, and it did.
What is particularly annoying about this whole process is that I find myself yet again standing in an ideological territory that was leftist. But now it’s "right-wing” territory, though I didn’t move and the truth didn’t change. Industrial capitalism is changing the way our bodies work and how we see ourselves, and that includes of course women but also men.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t a right or left issue. Environmental destruction—including the human part of the environment—affects people regardless of their political alignments. There isn’t much of a left environmentalism anymore, but we used to not only understand the connection between environmental destruction and economic class, but to make that part of our primary critique of capitalism. The poor suffer from these problems first, and have less access to costly means of fixing these problems. A poor woman cannot afford the same fertility treatments that a rich woman can afford, and so is therefore more harmed by endocrine disrupting pollutants. And because capitalist creates a racial division amongst the poor, black men and women are even less capable of finding solutions to the problems these disruptions cause.
I do have a suspicion as to why the left won’t touch this stuff anymore, and it’s an ugly suspicion. Many of the problems caused by environmental pollutants have become sites of woke identity politics. For instance, Swan’s book cites a connection between the rise of autism spectrum diagnoses and the presence of endocrine disruptors in both the men and women who were these children’s parents. Also, obesity is one of the effects of these pollutants, and many studies have shown that attention disorders, mental illness diagnoses, and learning disabilities are more prevalent in children exposed to high levels of industrial pollutants and endocrine disruptors as infants and fetuses. And there is the super uncomfortable evidence that gender expression is correlated to these pollutants as well, including studies showing that males express more traditionally “feminine” traits and females express more traditionally “masculine” traits (Swan cites some of these and conducted some herself) when they have high levels of endocrine disruptors in their body.
The problem here is that obesity, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, gender fluidity, and mentall illness, which are all “woke” sites of identity, are also likely results of the damage caused by industrial capitalist production. To point out that capitalism is causing the conditions of the identity struggles the left is currently locked into would be seen to somehow “shame” or betray people who have made those things their identities.
But this isn’t actually the case. Swan’s book provides a key as to how the left could both critique industrial capitalism while also not pathologizing people who have suffered its effects. She points out repeatedly that she is happy there is more legal protection for those who express non-binary gender identities, even as she provides evidence that this is likely a phenomenon increasing because of environmental destruction. That is—"hey, this is happening, and capitalism appears to be causing this, and the people affected by it should be protected."
A leftism that takes this sort of line isn’t all that absurd, as unlikely as it seems now. In fact, this is the old anti-globalization leftism, and the leftism of early feminists. Federici’s Wages Against Housework, for example, doesn’t pathologize men for the damage capitalist labor exploitation does to them and the exploitation they reproduce in their domestic relations. Instead, it argues that stopping the initial exploitation would free both men and women from this cycle. The anti-globalization movement didn’t pathologize displaced peoples whose local economies were being destroyed and who were then used by the capitalists to break the power of local labor. Rather, it pointed to the larger problem and argued ultimately that people should have the ability to stay where they are (rather than be forced to leave for better labor markets) if they so chose.
Behind such a leftism is the assertion that there is a more dignified and equal way for humans to live and that there are more ideal conditions that help them live that way. This older sort of leftism asserted that men and women could live together with their sexual differences and not be caught in cycles of exploitation if capitalism were taken out of the equation. Or that people could live in the same traditional societies their ancestors lived in and this was a better state of affairs than having to flee across borders, if only the capitalists would stop destroying their economies.
That same leftism can argue that obesity isn’t a good physical state to be in, and wouldn’t be the default state of much of the poor if capitalism were removed and they instead were able to eat healthier foods and be free from industrial pollutants. And it can argue all that without saying obese people are morally bankrupt or should be ashamed of themselves.
For non-binarism and other gender variations, there is a much more liberating position to take than the woke left even can imagine. That position is this: people should be able to choose to explore their gender and sexuality in any way they see fit and should be able to choose this without being harmed or influenced by industrial pollutants which disrupt their bodies’ hormone production.
If those seem like right-wing positions, it’s only because people identified with the right are some of the few who even talk about these problems with an eye towards an individual’s freedom and self-development. Some leftists still do (again, Silvia Federici, whose book Beyond The Periphery of the Skin I reviewed here) but there’s so few of us, and even fewer of us have the suicidal urge to try to argue these positions in the public sphere any longer.
Unfortunately they must be argued, and will be. Eventually though, this territory, like so many other positions, will become the province of right-aligned thinkers and politicians, solidifying the woke left’s insistence that the bodies of people—especially men’s bodies—are completely irrelevant.
I’m told this is a bad word to use and that there is no such thing as deformed genitals, only “differently-formed” genitals. I was born with one of the increasing birth defects that cause these ‘differences,’ hypospadias. My penis had no urethal opening, and so without medical intervention I would have died from not being able to urinate. That’s not just a ‘difference.’
One of the problems here is that there are insufficient records before that period. They basically project the likelihood that 1970’s levels were particularly high, and maybe they were much lower before that. There is no evidence for that, however, only for the 50 year decline.
In Federici and in Marxism in general, reproduction is all the work you do for yourself to keep yourself alive, like housework, cleaning, cooking, eating, comforting, etc (versus production as the work you do to create things for others).
Unless they are not white, in which case the damage racism does to them is relevant.