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Laurie Penny: Gender divide in the recession?

Mancession? Get real. Let's not waste time naming 'winners' and 'losers'

This week, the press seems unable to decide whether the recession is going to be good for men and bad for women, or good for women and bad for men. The latter scenario has even acquired its own cloying portmanteau – the "mancession" – as journalists attempt to eke column inches out of the wobbly implication of a financial gender war.

The possibility that something more systemic and pernicious is going on simply hasn’t crossed the consciences of headline writers, who understand the value of simplifying every social equation to a playground scrap between the girls and the boys.

Arguments on both sides of this weary discussion are bloating the pages of every major liberal media outlet. Should we worry about men, as suggested by Will Hutton in the Guardian and Alice Miles here in New Statesman, or should we worry about women, as per Deborah Orr in the Guardian and Samira Shackle on newstatesman.com?

The answer, of course, is that we should worry about the poor, whatever their genital arrangement.

It’s not that gender doesn’t matter in this recession. On the contrary; it matters a great deal. As a society, we have been torturously slow in coming to terms with the real, permanent effects that the cultural changes of the past fifty years have had on our economic organisation.

At the annual Marxism conference last weekend, at the Institute of Education, the feminist academic Dr Nina Power observed that the "feminisation" of the British workforce has allowed employers to hold down wages in real terms so that a single salary is no longer enough to support a family, leading to “a race to the bottom in which everyone loses”.

The change in the organisation of families as economic units, the shift in patterns of employment away from traditionally male heavy industry towards jobs in the service sector, the concentration of women in low-paid, part-time and insecure work – these are all factors which will have a bearing upon how this country weathers the economic storms ahead.

They are factors that require a far more subtle response than "who’s winning – men or women?". Meanwhile, right-wing opportunists such as Iain Duncan Smith seem to view the economic downturn as a perfect excuse to shrink the state until it’s small enough to fit into people’s bedrooms, with clunky social engineering projects such as the government’s attack on single mothers.

Gender matters in this recession. What doesn’t matter is trying to figure out which gender is "winning" and which is "losing". Let’s be witheringly clear: there’s only one group of people who will remain secure and comfortable at everyone else’s expense over the next few years, and that’s the rich.

As the coalition sets out to prise away vital support from those who need it most, as new graduates haemorrhage into the dole queue and Tory peers anticipate that housing benefit cuts will create "casualties", the richest people in the country have just seen their collective wealth rise by 30 per cent in the tax year to April 2010.

The profits raked in by Britain’s richest 1,000 people over the past 12 months total £77bn – almost as much as the £83bn of public spending that George Osborne has promised to cut, endangering the homes and jobs of millions.

While the liberal press ties itself in knots over whether women or men will do worse out of the crisis, the wealthy – including the financiers whose toxic speculations caused the crash – are largely exempt from the narrow public conversation about social justice. As the recession closes its jaws on Britain, both sexes are losing out, in different ways and for different reasons.

We all live together, and we all have a stake in protecting each other from further economic hardship, and in these circumstances playing on latent public mistrust of the opposite sex is breathtakingly unhelpful.

The "mancession" debate is entirely lacking in the sense of political totality that is desperately needed if the left is to build a coherent resistance to these cuts.

I expect, in ten years or so, after a double-dip recession has brutalised this country even further, after the lost generation has been lost for good and the welfare state has been throttled into redundancy, someone in an office somewhere will be able to sit down with a calculator and work out once and for all who had it worse: men or women.

But social justice is far more than a giant balance sheet with men on one side and women on the other, and this time the pundits have it dangerously wrong. This is not a gender war. This is class war.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit