Am I man enough? Am I powerful enough? Men put their bodies at risk to cover up pain, fear, and vulnerability.
John Henry of American folk song legend refused to bow to the superiority of a machine. He raced the steam-driven drill and won, though the effort killed him. Because of his strength and pride, John Henry is usually celebrated as a working-class hero. But he is really a capitalist’s dream: a worker who devotes his last ounce of energy to generating profit and then conveniently dies just when a cheaper technology becomes available to replace him.
Every year, thousands of men in the United States die like John Henry, albeit with less drama. They quietly work themselves to exhaustion, bad health, and premature death. Or they take risks and suffer fatal workplace injuries. Women workers die, too, of course, sometimes in exactly the same ways. The difference is that men die trying to prove to themselves and others that they are men.
Conventional wisdom has it that what capitalists exploit is the labor power of workers—the capacity to do work—paying less for it than the value it creates. But it could also be said that what capitalism exploits, what it uses up, in the quest for profit is human bodies. This occurs in both the workplace and the marketplace. One way to enhance the exploitability of male bodies is to instill in them the desire to be men. The trick is to make feelings of self-worth contingent on the ability to display the qualities culturally defined as signs of being a real man.
Ideas about what these qualities are, and about how to display them, change over time and vary from group to group. They can even vary from one situation to the next. And of course humans, full of impulses that do not accord with dominant cultural prescriptions, can resist. On the other hand, the costs of nonconformity—social disapproval, exclusion, shame—lead most people, when it comes to gender display, to stick closely to the script.
Most American men know perfectly well the qualities they must display to be considered fully creditable as men: power, competitiveness, and toughness. This turns out to be enormously useful for generating profit. Just give men opportunities to display manhood in these ways and they’ll do things that add to the bottom line, even if it’s to their own detriment.
Like John Henry, a working-class man’s desire to appear strong and tough will often lead him to lift more weight, keep working despite pain, and forgo safety measures that slow him down and suggest fear or vulnerability. To appear competitive, he may strive to outdo his fellow workers, bringing a smile to the boss’s face.
Middle-class and upper-middle-class men do the equivalent. To display toughness, they work long hours and exalt efficiency over conscience and compassion. They compete for promotions, putting work first in their lives, lest they be seen as wimpy or wussy—sexist code words for “feminine” or “womanly.”
This kind of manhood striving is driven by a contradiction: To be a real man in U.S. society, one must have or display power—the capacity to exert control over one’s self and the surrounding world—but the fact is that most men in a capitalist society have little or no power. For most men, striving for manhood status is an attempt to evade this contradiction, to escape the psychic pain it causes.
The Politics of Toughness
Politicians who serve the richest 1 percent exploit this pain to gain the support of men in the 99 percent. Men who are otherwise powerless are offered the chance to identify with power and toughness by supporting politicians who pose as warriors against crime, terrorism, and welfare abuse. While rich men get tax breaks, working-class men get concealed-carry laws.
Attempts to mitigate the pain of powerlessness can take other forms: excessive risk-taking, suicide, bursts of violence. We thus periodically and predictably witness events such as the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. Easy access to guns is only part of the problem. The other part is an unrealistic and destructive cultural prescription for manhood.
Most boys first learn the lessons of manhood through participation in sports. It is here that boys discover that power, competitiveness, and toughness are the qualities that establish male hierarchies. It is in sports that boys learn to hone their bodies into weapons, to endure physical and emotional pain for the sake of achieving status, and to enjoy the rewards that can come from dominating others.
Some men of exceptional dedication and ability can earn great honors and material rewards as professional athletes. But even these men often sacrifice their bodies for the greater profits of team owners, equipment makers, and advertisers. An NFL contract can be a ticket to stardom. It can also be a ticket to brain damage and a lifetime of pain.
The contradiction between the expectation of power and the reality of powerlessness is part of what makes ordinary men avid fans of violent sports such as boxing, martial arts, and football. Merely to watch is to show a kind of toughness: the ability to face things that make weaker souls turn away. To cheer is to show enthusiasm for the qualities that are imagined to make a man a man.
Powerlessness in the Military
The lessons of sports combine with the desire for manhood to lure some young men, especially those from the working class, into the military. At the outset, the promise is of manly honor through patriotic service to the country and pursuit of noble ideals. There is also the promise that feelings of powerlessness can be assuaged by mastering the means of violence and by playing on a winning team.
But many young men who choose the military path later discover they have been betrayed by more powerful men who need violence to gain access to the labor, markets, and raw materials of other people around the planet.
The irony is that to be reduced to an instrument, to be lied to and taken advantage of because of one’s lack of knowledge, is to be profoundly dishonored as a human being. Celebrating all military service as “heroism” is perhaps supposed to ease the pain of those who join the military and return disillusioned and broken.
For Sale: Symbols of Manhood
As in the workplace and war, men’s bodies are also exploited in the marketplace. It is here that powerlessness in the sphere of production is compensated for symbolically. Any consumer product sold as a symbol of manhood can function in this way. Many such products are innocuous; some are not. Millions of men have died in the last 50 years, yielding many millions of dollars of profit, by seeking manhood in a pack of Marlboros.
Teaching males to seek feelings of worth through displays of power, toughness, and competitiveness turns male bodies into readily exploitable generators of profit. The costs to all but the tiny few who appropriate these profits are enormous: ruined bodies and minds, premature death, perpetual war, depression and drug use, interpersonal violence, and the abuse of women and others who are not men in good standing.
If we want to stop paying these costs, we will need to take at least two kinds of action. First, we will need to nurture new minds in our children, minds not oriented to seeking satisfaction in status, power, and the domination of others. Nor in submission or blind obedience. We can begin to do this now; there’s no need to wait for a revolution.
Second, we need to work to end the exploitative economic and political arrangements that are sustained by a continuing supply of expendable men. This means creating cooperative enterprises in which people exercise democratic control over their labor and its results. Absent the need to dominate and control others, we may discover little need for the kind of manhood that has evolved under capitalism.
In addition to cooperative enterprises, we must also work to create a truly democratic government that limits the power of wealth instead of being its servant. In view of the plutocracy our society has become, it’s fair to say that achieving this kind of democracy will indeed constitute a revolution. Our goal should be to create a world that requires neither John Henrys nor G.I. Joes.
This article originally appeared in Yes! magazine.
Photo—Detail, John Henry. Public domain.