Fascism in the twentieth century emerged in a direct conflict between reactionaries and an increasingly powerful left. We forget that sometimes. The capitalist class and fascism aren’t the same, but capital will rely on violent reactionaries when they sense they are in trouble. By the same token, many on the intellectual left are quick to dismiss those who call today’s reactionaries ‘fascists’ because there is no powerful, organized left . . . though the left is growing stronger, more organized, and more militant in recent years. Frequently cited characteristics of fascism — or its twenty-first century cognates, if you will — include ethno-nationalism and a predisposition to violent authoritarianism.
As always, it seems, hegemonic (and violent) constructions of masculinity are left out of these formulations. This has consequences; for example, reaction-to-reaction that is equally masculinist. I myself, as a man who spent two decades under arms in the military, automatically go there . . . we need guns to stop the guys with guns, we need our own alpha males (or alpha “honorary men” women), we need some quick, devastatingly violent resolution. I have to actually will myself past this kind of thinking because I — like many men (and more and more women) — have been habituated to this form of thought.
Hegemonic American masculinity — like masculinity in all militaristic societies — is culturally formed in the practice of war; and learned by the male from infancy. It is irrevocably combined with the formation, as well as the perversion, of eros. “Power,” says Nancy Hartsock, “irreducibly involves questions of eros.”
The association between eros, hostility, and domination, learned during a man’s earliest formative years, is not incidental to domination in the other spheres of life. It is vital for the reproduction of ‘conquest-masculinity’; and the normalization of conquest-masculinity in culture reproduces that developmental model: “To the extent that either sexual relations or other relations are structured by a dynamic of domination/submission, the others as well will operate along these dimensions, and in consequence, the community as a whole will be structured by domination.” (Hartsock)
Fascist-minded men are invariably hostile to women. I’ll simply note the recent incident involving Congresspersons Ocasio-Cortez and Yoho. Or we could point to virtually anything that comes out of the mouth of Donald Trump and his male acolytes. Women are to be servile, supportive, sexually available, and silent. Real men objectify women, because objectification is an essential component of conquest.
The United States has been at war in one form or another since its inception. And in warlike cultures, cultural production itself is geared toward the celebration of war and martial masculinity. Just look at our own stories of ‘war heroism’ and how bigly they figure into our national imaginary.
The practice of war changes men. It forms them. In any standing military, there is a shocking and abrupt period of basic training, an intense formative process that transforms the civilian into a soldier. If there were no need for a particular kind of formation for military service, there would be no need for the shock treatment of basic training, or “boot camp.”
When I was preparing to go through basic training fifty years ago, I lost count of the men who told me that time in the army would make me “a man.” Given that I had already reached the age of majority with the requisite physiology, it seems obvious that they were talking about something more than being an adult male. Merriam-Webster defines masculine as “having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man.” So, how do certain qualities and behaviors come to be associated with men?
If the archetypical practice of men is war, then those characteristics
associated with war-fighting men come to be seen as characteristic of masculinity. When men’s practice is domination and conquest, then the best male is understood to be the one who most effectively dominates and conquers. In militaristic societies, these characteristics come to be understood as male virtues. Courage and strength, yes, even endurance, but also careless cruelty, or in a more biblical idiom, hard-heartedness. Warriors must have the ability to see others as mere objects and to protect their own psyches using compartmentalization. Commanders of Nazi death camps could still be ‘good family men.’
Real men in imperial militaristic cultures ‘conquer’ women, ‘conquer’ nature (feminized), and ‘conquer’ colonies. I wrote a book about this that began, “War is implicated in masculinity, Masculinity is implicated in war. Masculinity is implicated in the contempt for and domination of women.”
The left can compartmentalize, too, because we have our share of masculinity personified. That’s how we can separate a fascist nitwit calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch” in a roomful of people from DHS storm troopers kidnapping protesters off the streets of Portland, and from Democrats joining Republicans to prevent the end of our war in Afghanistan.
We’re quick to recognize — we leftists — how class corresponds to these events; but we are far less often willing to confront the ways that constructions of masculinity and — yes — patriarchy are the psychic fuel of fascism.
And yet, any understanding we have of whatever you want to call this authoritarian rightward lurch is only partial without an account of the psychology of these men who don body armor and guns. I’m sorry it’s complicated, but patriarchy is alive and well and it has every bit as much of an impact on our current crisis as class. In fact, the idea that they can be separated is an aspect of our own compartmentalization.