This article was originally published with my friends at Cosmonaut.
This will be a study of the phenomenology of man. I am not very well versed in the theory of gender, but I may have a perspective to share since I am both interested in the social structures that surround me, and also an immigrant from the periphery, where masculinity exists in a more concrete manner than in the global North. In the latter, the manhood of taverns, honor, and brotherhood has been replaced by the abstract virility of the administrator, banker, and the assertive intellectual. Although this tendency of transforming the masculinity of combat and war into the essence of a lawyer or powerful executive exists in all corners of the planet, it is denser in the wealthier countries. In other words, the alpha males of the free market have impeccable skin and ten-percent body fat, yet their power derives from abstract numbers in bank accounts. However, the masculine program still persists, even if it has changed form.
The masculine program could be defined as the program of the warrior. In many societies, especially Western ones, men were taught the principles of war in a cultural and formal manner. When neither the police nor the professional soldier existed, every man was a potential warrior, a person capable of wielding violence to defend his property and to kill in the name of the lord, king, or emperor. The warrior program has survived in contemporary masculinity – the modern man still aspires to be a good warrior – a good performer of stoicism, domination, and violence. However, these values are realized in a sublimated manner – the warrior now exists in the office as a manager, or on the directive board of some bank; the ancient words of Marcus Aurelius and Sun Tzu end up imposed by suits and phone calls, even if once upon a time they were enforced by the sword.
But not all men end up as managers or millionaires. The majority of them are workers or unemployed – beings dominated by someone else, by the boss, the cop, the social worker, and the fat man in the tavern. In other eras, even the lowliest of peasants had potential access to domination, through the glory of war. However, “lawful” masculine violence is institutionalized in the police and the military, which contain a very reduced number of people. Furthermore, the sublimated form of the warrior program, for example in the figure of a CEO of Silicon Valley, can only be realized by a small number of bourgeois individuals and professionals.
Then, for the majority of men, the only two ways of dealing with the warrior program are simply to not emulate it, or to apply it in an unlawful manner, reducing the warrior to a criminal that beats up their partner or becomes part of a gang. Therefore, we have a problem – man, who has been socialized as a warrior, turns into a being that can only channel the rageful parts of the libido, such as aggression and domination, while the other parts of his sexuality, such as that which converts two subjects into one being, are repressed: intimacy, vulnerability, love, and mutual respect. That’s why I want to write a bit about this phenomenon, exploring the way in which the masculine program asphyxiates the libido, withering it within a mould that does not quite fit in modernity, where the desires of the ancient warrior become sublimated in the office, sports, or in self-destructive violence.
It’s interesting to witness how men try to elaborate on that program, in this desert of computers, video games, and Prozac pills. Recently, I was a witness to this same process, where a community tried to extract the content of this program, uttering it in propositions. The place of this remarkable event was a thread on Facebook, where a person asked their community of cybernauts the question: “what is a positive masculinity?”. There were dozens of answers; the 4chan racist, the anime nerd, and the internet Marxist discussed the heroic values that supposedly melded: “not fearing death”, “bravery”, and “combat abilities” – abstract positions that tried to codify the essence of man. But these precepts were so abstract that they were completely separated from the concrete life of these people, men that are office workers, other students, some who lived with their parents. These utterances couldn’t be anything other than symptoms of alienation, in the same way the neurotic thinks about catastrophe and death even while living in a rich suburb and holding three degrees.
This event on facebook caused me to have an epiphany – the categories behind that malaise that I’d felt for so many years became intelligible. I began to ask myself how many men actually feel comfortable under their skin, experience those precepts in their blood, without having to think of them in an abstract manner. Most men must shrink their heart so that it can fit in the straightjacket of virility because, in a world of spreadsheets, electromagnetic waves, and hunched desk jockeys, the spilling of blood becomes ephemeral. Since not all men can be bosses or millionaires, that warrior spirit ends in mental malaise, domestic violence, or fascism.
I am a man from the third world. I was born in a city where more than ninety percent of people are Catholic, and where divorce was rare and taboo. In this society, I was socialized as a man. I learned that that camaraderie, responsibility, honor, and violence are the programmatic content of masculinity. I had to participate in rituals that filled me with virility. I remember when I fought on the school’s playground because some of my classmates made my life miserable, since I was tall and fat, yet shy and peaceful – in other words, the perfect target for those who wished to satisfy their sadistic desires for domination. I defended myself with violence, for it was the manner in which a man, who is essentially a warrior, proved his worth before other men. This truth was relayed to me by other men whom I loved, such as friends or family members. When I avenged my honor and the others knew, my heart was filled with glory. Yet, the physical fight was not a natural impulse for me – I had to premeditate the violence that made me so uncomfortable.
I do not think that the contradictions that lay within me, that discomfort before the imperatives of masculinity, were only experienced by me. I believe the majority of men do not fit completely into the mould. This can be seen in the rage, alcoholism, and suicide that has always plagued men – that death drive that has destroyed so many men through drugs and explosions of violence. We may satisfy certain aspects of masculinity, such as our identification with the masculine body, with a certain fashion sense, sexual tastes, and hobbies. However, the precepts of the ideal man – the principles behind the stoic and honorable warrior, were merely aspirational.
It was not until the day I experienced sexual love where I began to realize the psychic damage that masculinity had caused me. It was not until my mid-twenties when I was able to experiment with emotional and sexual intimacy. All those years I had lived without experiencing that sensation of unity, the extension of the ego beyond the boundaries of my body, its fusion with another ego in order to create one spiritual object. The moments I had lived with other men, even if they sometimes attained emotional intimacy, could never reach the climax of the physical game – unification became stillborn.
Although men’s friendships reciprocate the anger, camaraderie, and sometimes even love, the tactile game does not exist beyond homosexuality or sports. Then, for the majority of men, the real dissolution of the ego with that of another subject only appears in heterosexual relations. A person like me, that grew up shy and fat, and lived behind screens and with my nose inside a book, did not have a concept of ego unification, because I very seldom had sexual intimacy. I was isolated in the prison of my brain, finding everything beyond the phallic ego unintelligible. Given my isolation in the phallic universe, only cultural artifacts that embodied the warrior program attracted me. I read books on stoicism, listened to music that glorified the ancient era of warriors and gods, and consumed a television diet filled with cowboys, detectives, and fighters. But once I had access to another ego through intimate love, I was able to enjoy more sensual music, loosen my shoulders before the assaults against my masculinity, and appreciate poems that dealt with issues beyond death or nihilism without feeling hurt or embarrassed.
I cannot pretend that I have never felt the seduction of power, that I have never derived enjoyment from the humiliation of my enemies, and inclusively sometimes of my friends. The problem is that I have only been taught the pleasure of aggression and domination, without learning to enjoy and understand the other aspects of the libido. Yet, the core of the libido must be polymorphous, for the existence of BDSM has taught us that within a situation of trust and play, the human being can enjoy in a primordial manner many contrasting faces of power, from submission and domination, to libidinal equality. Yet, men are only socially equipped to enjoy power, and in this modern world of abstract systems that dominate us beyond the concrete orders of the boss, it’s impossible to maintain complete control.
Many powerful men entertain more sadomasochistic fantasies. Cities with the highest concentration of executives also have the largest density of sex dungeons and dominatrices. The different tendencies of the libido seek to unleash themselves in the concrete, outside of fantasy, yet men are only programmed to use that dominating and violent part of the libido, which in the past could be unleashed in war and sport. Yet, little by little, modernity shrinks the percentage of men that become warriors, for there are fewer soldiers, more bureaucratic control, and the relations of domination become too abstract to be combated in a physical manner. Therefore, the aggressive libido is unleashed against oneself and others, sometimes exploding in massive violence such as school shootings or terrorist attacks.
I have mostly spoken about man as an individual and his repression. Yet, there is a sociological dimension to this warrior program. One of the persons that diagnosed this psychological malaise was Wilheim Reich. Reich wrote a fairly famous book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism that tried to diagnose fascism as a political expression of the sexual repression suffered within the authoritarian family. For him, fascism was caused by a combination of (i) anxieties rooted in the trauma of the infant before the structures of the authoritarian family, and (ii) the political channeling of the aggressive impulses, such as the death drive.
This anxiety comes from the fear of freedom engendered by the strict rules of the family; fascism channels this fear of liberty and difference through means such as propaganda, racism, or sexism. Fascism offers a cure for this anxiety through the totalitarian state, even if this comfort is merely immediate and short termed. The aggressive impulses, such as the death drive, are channeled through military marches, war, and that catharsis of turning into a worm before the omnipotent leader. Finally, fascism channels libidinal aggression against its enemies, through means such as assassination, war, and terror. But in spite of the desire for the order of the fatherly figure, or for violence against the other, fascism channels rebellion against authority. Fascism emerges as an illusory opposition against the established order. For example, in the decades of the twenties and thirties, fascism unleashed itself against the young democratic republics of Europe.
This analysis of Reich’s can be applied to the 21st century since there is a reactionary current amidst the youth of the west, where the old ideas of neoliberal conservatism are replaced by a pseudo-rebellion that has revived white nationalism and encouraged misogynists. Since the West has not taught men how to channel the loving and unifying aspects of the libido, reaction ends up becoming a release valve for young men that do not know of love as a totality, who unleash their sexuality in camaraderie and violence against the other.
I do not pretend to argue that reaction, such as fascism, is simply derived from the socialization of men into warriors. There are material causes rooted in class structures and economic crises, and also in reasons of an ideological nature. However, these ideological and socio-economic causes conspire against the masculine libido, tying it to the constrictive warrior program, while at the same time diminishing the opportunities for war-like violence. I believe the socialist program should emphasize this problem – not as a condemnation of men as individuals, but by recognizing that the social order causes their malaise since it does not permit them alternative ways of expressing libido. Some alternative forms of libidinal expression are homosocial love, submission, emotional vulnerability, and a sensuality that transcends sports or homosexual relations. Today, reactionary ideologues try to impose the warrior program with pseudoscience, like misreadings of evolutionary psychology, manipulating the sexual insecurities of young men. We socialists must argue that such “cures” offered by reactionary intellectuals do not offer either liberation or happiness – the true antidote for this malaise is the abolition of the warrior program.