Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men

Jack Donovan is famous for the idea that men should operate in gangs, and for being gay while saying so. He should be famous for the distinction between "being a good man” and “being good at being a man”, because that is worthy of J L Austin himself, and for his identification of the four tactical virtues: strength, courage, mastery and honour.
Being a good man has to do with ideas about morality, ethics, religion, and behaving productively within a given civilisational structure… Being good at being a man is about…showing other men that you are the kind of guy they’d want on their team if the shit hits the fan… [demonstrating] strength, courage, mastery [and] commitment… A man who is more concerned with being a good man than with being good at being a man makes a very well-behaved slave.
What Donovan gets is that men want the good opinion and recognition of other men because only other men know what was involved, intellectually, personally and physically, in our achievement. Women’s opinions don’t count because women don’t care about the things that men care about: strength, courage, mastery and honour. Men don’t really care about their supervisor’s opinion of them because their supervisor doesn’t give a damn about anything but how well we fit in to the machine. (Tactically the opinions of supervisors and women matter, because life is easier if neither are bitching all the time, but one wouldn’t want to base one’s entire life around keeping the wife and boss happy. Would you?)

What makes Donovan’s book refreshing is that he doesn’t blame feminism. Women only appear as sirens inviting men to wreck themselves on the rocks of all things soft and compromised. There’s a reason for that we’ve already mentioned.

His villain is modern technology and the post-industrial economy and society that it creates. This has removed most of the chances that men have to acquire and exercise the four tactical virtues: strength, courage, mastery and honour. Processes and mechanisation has removed the need for Mastery from all but a handful of mostly intellectual roles. Power steering means women can drive buses, so that Strength isn’t needed. An astonishing level of public safety and policing means that we can withdraw large sums of money from machines in the middle of the night on busy roads without a thought of being mugged - there goes Courage. The whole idea of Honour from one’s fellow man is a joke when equal opportunity legislation means he turns out to be a woman.

However, while this is the right criminal, it’s the wrong crime. Being good at being a man can’t depend on a particular mode of the economy or the exact arrangements in society. A man can have strength, courage, mastery and honour in most economies and societies - but it will look different in each one, and perhaps each may regard the others’ as un-manly.

Men aren’t compromised by feminism, or post-industrial society, or the Health and Safety at Work Act. Some are compromised by marriage, children and the need to earn a living. They may not always have been physically soft. Modern entertainment technology, plus the commuting that scatters workers to the four quarters at the end of the day, has probably lead to fewer chances for men to spend time with each other socially. But some men have always skived and tried to cheat each other: that’s why we have all the commercial law we have now. If bakers had never adulterated flour with chalk, I might have believed in a Golden Age of Manly Virtue, but they did and I don’t. There is no “crisis of manhood”, it’s always been this way, only the costumes change.

Acquiring and living the four tactical virtues is a personal project that a man pursues despite the economy he works in, the society he lives in, and the men he knows. He cannot suppose that the men around him want to be virtuous, nor that the society values virtue, nor that it will be rewarded. A man chooses to work towards being good at being a man because he cannot live as a compromised person. And it has always been this way.

Donovan does not think that men in post-modern Capitalism will ever act as a united political force. I agree. That leaves personal action, which always feels a little bathetic after some high-grade, wide-ranging social analysis.

What does a man do when he wants to become better at being a man? Donovan’s answer is to “start a gang”. Not as in the Sons of Anarchy, but as in a bunch of like-minded guys to do stuff with.
You need to learn how to read each other and work together as a group. Go to the shooting range. Go hunting. Play paintball. Go to the gym. Take martial arts classes. Join a sports team. Take a workshop. Learn a useful skill. Get off your asses and do something. In harder times, the men that you do these kinds of things with are going to be the first men you call. They will be your gang. They will be your us.
Errr, no. That’s not quite enough.

When you are on the end of a wrongful dismissal, you need a union or an employment lawyer, preferably one who knows some journalists. You need a criminal lawyer with a flair for publicity to handle that false rape accusation. When the pipes burst, you need a plumber, and when you break a bone, you need a surgeon. Your gang is unlikely to include one, and certainly won’t include all, of the specialists you need. You need huge amounts of personal fortitude to sustain the campaign, and your buddies can’t help you with that, beyond a few platitudes. Because you’re going to need a lot of cash or the ability to live on very little - and your buddies won’t help you with that. They are regular guys with regular jobs like you. Dealing with misfortune in post-modern capitalism isn’t like defending the village from raiders or saving the animals from a flood. When bad things happen in post-modern capitalism, you have to get to Krasnoyarsk with the kindness of strangers. And once you get back from Krasnoyarsk, you might hang out with the guys again, but they won’t be your gang. They will be a bunch of guys you shoot the breeze (or the paintball) with, but who, when the shit hit your fan, were no more help than some guy on the pavement last week.

That’s the difference between the mythical life of the savannah tribe and post-modern capitalism. In post-modern capitalism, each man needs his own Rolodex of useful contacts, from plumbers to employment lawyers, electricians to employment agents. He needs the time and skills to keep these contacts fresh, and any businessman will tell you that doing that can take a week or more from your month. He needs to have something useful to trade with these contacts: he needs to be in their Rolodexes. The principle is the same - he needs to demonstrate he can be useful to those other men - but the camaraderie will be missing.

Few people have those social skills. Which is why we had the Yellow Pages, and have Google now. Building that kind of Rolodex takes a long time the moment you live in a town much larger than about five thousand people. So let’s add “the social skills needed to build and maintain a rolodex” (I’m trying to avoid the n-word) to the list of tactical virtues, though it’s not one Aristotle would have recognised. His towns were small enough that “everyone” knew each other.

The Way of Men is one of the better books on masculinity today. But it still doesn’t understand just how corrosive post-modern capitalism is, and how it turns everything to its advantage.

Heck. Even Jack’s selling merchandise.

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