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The Surplus Male Problem
Sometimes, societies have more men than they know what to do with.
I’ve been reading (and will soon write a review, because it’s really excellent) Nina Powers’ recent book, What Do Men Want, and it’s led me to think a bit further about some interesting contradictions within woke ideology regarding the matter of gender, class, and the way those two categories play out.
As she notes in her book, there are certain statistics (often cited by Men’s Rights Activists) which don’t really fit into the woke ideological framework and the idea that women are always more victimized then men. For instance, the very high death rates of men in “blue-collar” jobs (roofing, construction, and other manual labor especially) far outpace the chance of dying on the job for women in any profession. Also, there’s always been a corollary to the fact that men commit more violent crimes than women, which is that men are more likely to commit those crimes against other men.
But there’s another statistic that I rarely ever see cited (I haven’t yet finished Nina’s book, so I don’t know if she does or not), one with which I have intimate knowledge.
You maybe know this, but I was a social worker for homeless people for six years in Seattle. I didn’t have the necessary university qualifications for that work, by the way; instead, I got the job through life experience, as I had also been homeless. That was for a very short (about 6 months) period in my early 20’s, during which I sometimes slept in a friend’s car, or hidden in the bushes in a city park, occasionally on the floor in an anarchist squat, once in a while in an alley, sometimes on a couch, and quite often in the bed of a random man I’d just met at a bar to trade sex for a warm place to sleep.
Again, though, this was a very short period of my life, and I was quite lucky. I wasn’t addicted to drugs, wasn’t mentally ill, and I actually had a job during that time working as a receptionist at a hair salon. Eventually I was able to save up enough money and, through a bit of ‘luck,’ find a really small room in a house owned by a deadbeat landlord that I could rent. I ended up living there for 16 years, eventually moving into the largest room of the house, and made a pretty good life of it all.
I bring all this up specifically because homelessness is a men’s issue. I mean, you wouldn’t actually know this if you read most headlines or issue statements about it, including several recent articles I’ve encountered which speak of a crisis in “transgender homelessness” or with headlines like “New Data Shows That Homelessness Is a Women’s Rights Issue.”
The hard statistics, on the other hand, are pretty clear. For instance, this chart breaking down homeless populations according to gender in the United States.
Now, occasionally you’ll see organisations mention this fact, though it is often buried within other statistics specifically relating to other demographics. For instance, this statement from a UK charity, which opens with the following line:
“In 2017 just 14% of rough sleepers in the UK were women.”
I want you to read that a few times before then reading this next quote, which is several paragraphs down.
Gender therefore acts as both a symptom and a cause of homelessness – and it also affects men. Men are more likely to be made redundant and less likely to be re-employed than women, thus increasing their risk of falling into debt and losing their home. They are more likely to suffer with mental health issues and those who experience domestic violence are less likely to seek help or receive support, as many services are limited to women.
If it seems a bit weird, I need to assure you it’s not. This is the way we talked about homelessness at the agency I worked for, and the way the local government talked about it, and the way homelessness is framed in general. Despite the fact that men are universally the vast majority of homeless populations, this point is very rarely mentioned. When it is mentioned, it is often severely minimized, just as it was in that quote.
Why, though? I imagine a Men’s Rights Activist might suggest some reasons for this and a woke social justice activist might suggest other reasons (if they even admit this fact). However, I think a conservative Marxist framework seems to be a much more practical explanation.
In pre-industrial/pre-capitalist societies, the vast majority of men worked as agricultural laborers. So did the vast majority of women. The reason for this is quite simple: farming is how food is gotten, and food is necessary for survival. Thus, you farm to survive.
The birth of industrial capitalism in England during the 17th century was impossible without a radical change in the way humans accessed land. That was the Enclosure Movement, the parceling out and fencing off of the Commons to individual landowners. This meant that producing for yourself was much harder, and to do so you usually had to produce for someone else (through wage labor).
At the same time, factories arose, and the vast majority of the workers in those factories were men. There are several reasons for this, including societal restraints on the exploitation of women’s labor (holdouts from feudal and Catholic cultural beliefs), biological differences (men don’t need time off from work to suckle their infants or to give birth), and also one of the most unnoticed points of agreement between Traditionalists and Marxist feminism: the problem of “surplus males.”
Sometimes, societies have more men than they know what to do with. That’s not to say there are any more men than usual during those times, but rather that there are too many unproductive or un-integrated men. When that happens, the rate of violence and social unrest in society escalates.
The birth of capitalism created such a surplus, and at a much higher rate than what had occurred in pre-capitalist Europe. Factories, however, ended up being a very efficient way to manage this problem, a much better way than earlier methods, at least for a little while.
Again, this had happened before. Silvia Federici points to this problem in her study, Caliban & The Witch, citing the repeated historical fact that town leaders would legalize prostitution and de-criminalize rape whenever there was such a surplus male problem. What was happening was that there was increasing pressure from young men who had no employment or access to wealth (and often not even food), and those men would start rioting or committing increasing acts of criminality (thieving, burglarly, assault on wealthier townsfolk, etc). To relieve this pressure without actually changing the material conditions for those men, the leaders would then rechannel that surplus male rage onto women.
It’s quite terrifying to consider, but this earlier method worked very, very well. In every case, loosening the societal restrictions against sexual exploitation or abuse of women sufficed to quell the criminality and social unrest. That’s why mayors, governors, and kings kept using this tactic, over and over and over again.
There’s another tactic they can use, though, one that you see employed repeatedly in every society and definitely in Europe up until the middle of the 20th century. This one is even more violent, but also more effective: war.
When you have more males than you can efficiently use within a society, and when that surplus threatens the societal order, you can go send them off to kill each other. The first World War was probably the most efficient use of this tactic, removing at least 10 million young surplus males from the earth, primarily from industrial capitalist nations.
Yes, of course, the war was “about” other things, but from a Marxist view it was also about the ruling classes managing their surplus male problem. Few probably even remember this, but the Marxist (and anarchist—with the glaring exception of Kropotkin who wrote eagerly of his desire to see people slaughtered) opposition to the war was founded on the analysis that imperialist war was a way of undermining internal revolutionary pressure.
The thing to remember about this tactic is that it isn’t a new one. The Crusades and the colonization of the Americas were also instances of this. In both of those cases, the ruling class sent surplus males off to fight and conquer people in other lands, certain they would benefit regardless the outcome. If the men survived and succeeded, than the coffers would be full of more wealth. If they died, then they wouldn’t be coming home and disrupting the social order. It was a win either way.
Again, we need to remember that no matter how brutal and perhaps right-wing it seems to think about things this way, this is a framework that significantly defined early feminist and Marxist opposition to war. It’s been completely forgotten now, but Mother’s Day was founded by a socialist feminist specifically as an opposition to war, citing the fact that the ruling class was sending off the sons of those mothers to die rather than letting those men have a chance to live and thrive in society.
The vast over-representation of males in homeless populations now is a sign of a surplus male problem. So, too, is the staggeringly high rates of male criminality. Though gang-related crime is usually seen as a racial issue, it’s better seen as a surplus male issue, as we know that black men have extremely high rates of unemployment. While woke ideology argues this is because of racism (and they are at least partially correct here), it cannot possibly address the larger issue of what those men might be able to do instead within modern societies. And their fear of a fascist insurgency is also the fear of surplus males finding a collective identity and consciousness to fill in the void left by the off-shoring of their jobs.
Yeah, I’m a bitter old Marxist (well, 45 in a few days anyway), so I’m still going to point out that there was an alternative collective identity proffered, that of the worker. Sure, it didn’t work out so well for communist states, who themselves ground up their surplus males in wars and gulags, but it did offer something better to men (and to women) than tacitly-legal rape, drug-addiction, gang warfare, or a life sleeping in your own piss on the street.
Every society encounters this problem, and even when we look at the way animist or indigenous societies have managed their surplus males we find similar solutions, which are not very pretty. But the way modern capitalism manages it is uglier, and it’s not hard to see why so many theorists on masculinity keep returning to the mythic—even a brutal and violent mythic—as a saner option. Leaving men to suicide, die from addiction, or rot in prisons or homeless shelters will only make those who nevertheless survive disrupt society in even more insane ways.