Thursday, 16 May 2013

UKIP and Masculinity

This morning, Diane Abbott gave a heavily trailed speech on the crisis of masculinity. Simplifying her argument somewhat, cultural change and the restructuring of the jobs market has thrown young men into a state of anomie. In one direction they're being flattered as gendered consumers into clothes, gadgets, cars, booze and footy. From another comes the pressure of 'pornified culture' to shag around as much as possible. And there is the ever-present expectation that a man should have a job that can provide for himself and any family that comes along. The problem of course is this hegemonic ideal is not only out of reach for growing numbers of young men, it is also persistently challenged by different kinds of masculinities. And that's well before you start talking about the distinct blurring of gendered identities and sexualities. So yes, Diane is right to draw attention to this issue. It's not so much a harking back to the male breadwinner of old but recognising that for some younger men, gendered anxiety and what it means to be a man can contribute to crime, misogynistic attitudes, violence and a host of other social problems.

But I'm not going to talk about young men. I want to write about older men, and one oft-overlooked facet of UKIP's rise - that its activist base and support is fuelled mainly by men of a certain age. It's been noted here and elsewhere UKIP are not only an anti-politics party, but that it is very uncomfortable with the pace of social change. It's less 'small c' conservative and more 'stop the world, we want to get off'. But because its core support are men in the middle-aged-to-elderly support range, I think its message has an hitherto unremarked gendered dimension. They too are affected by masculine crisis.

When our UKIP male core were much younger, the widespread availability of primary industry and manufacturing jobs played a particular role in the constitution of gendered relations and identities. In North Staffordshire, being a miner or a steel worker required a certain toughness, resilience and strength. As jobs they were unpleasant and occasionally dangerous but were sites where working class masculine identities emerged, where the nature of the work, the all-male workplace camaraderie and the breadwinning wage ticked all the manly boxes. A miner was strong. A miner provided for his family. But shut the pits or close the foundry, this gendered anchor comes unstuck. The source of (masculine) pride melts into the air. In villages, towns and cities across the land the steady loss of these jobs were not replaced like for like. Hundreds of thousands of 'traditional' working class men undertook work in service sector occupations previously coded as 'women's jobs'. The 'nurturing' nature of service work, the compulsory uniforms, the subjection to micromanagement and the emasculation of trade unionism were a world away from the 'men's work' they knew previously.

Not all of the UKIP core experienced this, of course. But before primary industry and manufacturing went into a tailspin, you knew exactly where you stood. The rich man was in his castle. The poor man at his (factory) gate. Tearing this world away was tantamount to emasculation for a generation of men, and now feeds into a wider alienation from British culture. The vast majority of jobs available to the sons of these men lack obvious markers of masculinity. Office work, retail, call centres, caring - the economic dominance of service industries are simultaneously read as symptoms of the feminisation of working life and national decline. And with this has come the butchering of the armed forces, 'elf and safety' culture, political correctness, women doing "men's jobs" and, horror of horrors, gay marriage.

In many ways UKIP is the perceived antidote to a perceived problem. Set against the colourless effetes of David CaMoron and DEd MiliBLand, Nigel Farage is unquestionably a man's man. He might be one of those public boy city trader sorts, but you can go for a pint and a fag with him. He will tell it to you straight. Getting shot of Europe makes us masters of our destiny again. Slinging out the diversity consultants and equality advisors will allow right-thinking Englishmen to speak their mind. And banning gay marriage will knock on the head any 'Adam and Steve' nonsense. In fact, UKIP's whole populist platform is sharp cornered and macho. It concedes nothing and demands everything. Lily-livered compromise is out and plain speaking is in. Don't like it? Offended? Tough. Man up and fight or shut up and bugger off.

It's all nonsense of course, but as any observer of the last 30 years will note, nonsense has the annoying habit of gaining traction and assuming a life of its own. Again, fundamentally, the root of UKIP's manliness is the same as UKIP's populism: insecurity. Until the Labour Party gets to grip with this most basic of yearnings and pursues policies that can properly address it, so-called masculine crisis and anti-political populism will continue to inflict their damage.


Anonymous said...

Did you see John Mann's article about how Labour should tackle UKIP?

I think it's clear that Labour's message on immigration will be much tougher in an attempt to win back voters who deserted them in 2010. Whether it works or not and whether it's justified is another issue.

Speedy said...

Of course a counter argument would be that your own sense of cultural superiority/ inevitability is in fact a chimera - that your views are just as delusional as the ones you deconstruct.

UKIP members may actually be saying - hold on, why is XY and Z "inevitable"?

You will know better than I the effect that Gramsci's "revolution through the organs" has had - how the agenda has been shifted on everything from gay rights to racism as part of a very conscious process and (as I would agree) largely for the public good - but a revolution it has been nonetheless.

Politically this revolution was taken forward when Labour got in to power and extended through immigration, welfare and human rights legislation - and this is principally where UKIP is pushing back. They are saying - being against mass immigration does not make you racist, being sick of judges imposing their moral relativity on the community at large does not make you against human rights.

What's happening with UKIP is essentially a "counter-revolution". It will probably fail as a party, but may succeed as a political force - in a sense perhaps people have woken up to the processes that had been taking place over decades.

So in this context I think you're barking up the wrong tree trying to "understand" the phenomenon in this way - perhaps better to begin by questioning the "inevitability" of the dominant mindset.

Phil said...

Au contraire my friend, I am very much aware that UKIP is a "counter-revolutionary" trend. And yes, you're right. History shows that every progressive push invites a reactionary backlash. But we are talking about social phenomena here, not natural processes. They can be defused and defeated, which is why I write about UKIP. I want to see it undermined, blunted and reversed before it causes too much damage.