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4 September 2023

The manosphere is poisoning conservatism

Fringe ideas about sex have increasing political power on the right.

By Sebastian Milbank

In Britain men were once more likely to vote Labour than women. Labour would have held power from 1945-1980 without interruption if only men were allowed to vote. Today there is a near-worldwide association between gender and left/right allegiance, with men in Britain consistently voting Tory, and women consistently voting Labour. A recent survey suggested that 25 per cent of young men agreed with Andrew Tate’s views on women, with respondents agreeing to a sampling of his statements including that rape victims “bear some responsibility” for being assaulted, that married women are “property”, and that it is shameful for women (but not men) to be promiscuous.

The disruption of the link between working-class men and parties of the centre left is an epochal event, driven by Western deindustrialisation, the withering of union power, and greater automation. Despite the optimism that disruption would ultimately provide better outcomes, wages have declined in real terms since the Eighties across the West. This period has coincided with an acceleration of female workplace participation, declining fertility, liberalising norms around divorce, homosexuality and casual sex, and the arrival of the internet. It has proved the perfect breeding ground for conspiracies and ideologies that appeal to men who feel discarded by society.

Faced with the paradox of a society whose value system and culture have become ever more radically egalitarian, even as economic divides have widened and work and education become more competitive, there is a natural opening for an ideology that simply dismisses egalitarianism as a lie, and promises to give you the key to winning the rigged game. The “red pill” moment occurs when men realise that all the lessons of nice, left-liberal culture don’t actually help them to succeed.

Enter the “manosphere”, a sort of social media symposium of self-help gurus, pick-up artists and culture warriors. It’s a world that ranges from the shallows of Jordan Peterson fandom, to the creepiness of Andrew Tate cultists. Also in evidence are Christian traditionalist dads bewailing the “feminisation” of religious life.

The manosphere is only one outgrowth of a wider social movement towards individualism, and a growing embrace of a self-serving, hyper-competitive, marketised worldview. Institutional forms of belonging – labour unions, churches or workplaces – have all declined. At the same time mass movements based on individual identity have blossomed. Many on the left have celebrated the increased salience of ethnic minority, feminist and queer activism; they have risen in tandem with a right-wing identity politics, which has taken its most combustible form among young men.

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Many manosphere influencers are hugely popular, and many of the most extreme are the most successful. The relatively soft-edged Peterson, who warns that “if men are pushed too hard to feminise they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology”, is a huge phenomenon (4.6 million followers on Twitter) but is dwarfed by Tate (7.7 million followers). Leaving aside the question of whether one can blame “feminisation” for the rush of men to the right, there is a powerful association with voting for right-wing and far-right parties, and being a young man. The highest levels of support for the Polish, Estonian and Hungarian far-right are among young men.

Using a mixture of self-help-style philosophy, potted evolutionary psychology and sexist tropes, manosphere gurus don’t really bother with a political programme as much as they offer strategies for individual advancement. Rather than the solidarity politics of previous generations of male political movements, they offer ways of defeating and out-thinking other men, and manipulating women into sleeping with you. And rather than acting as intellectuals, they’re enthusiastic participants in the online marketplace, with the most prominent voices in the “movement” doing a roaring trade in books, podcasts and videos promising to empower their followers.

Unlike traditional political movements, the manosphere has all the agility and wide but shallow appeal of a viral marketing campaign, attracting fans from every class and background. Tate himself is mixed race, a kickboxer, a former Big Brother contestant, and a convert to Islam, and easily connects to ethnic minority boys.

If the manosphere appears ridiculous to outsiders, it also offers young men the pretence of something they aren’t getting elsewhere – advice, a community, a sense of purpose and significance. Malign notions sink in because they’re served alongside a generous portion of common sense. People believe Tate when he says insane things like “I like men who are fully depressed and miserable but brutally effective and capable” or “sadness is a warning. You feel it for a reason. Your mind is telling you that you need to work harder” because he’s also telling them things like “emotional control isn’t a lack of emotion, it’s a necessary function of maturity”.

Having been offered compassion without discipline, manosphere fans have embraced discipline without compassion. Rollo Tomassi, another manosphere influencer, tells his followers to “stop sedating yourself”. It’s good advice – put down the video game; go outside. But like Tate, the irony of the discipline on offer is that it’s offered as a road to pleasure. Before his arrest by the Romanian authorities on charges of rape, human trafficking and forming an organised crime group to sexually exploit women (all of which he denies), Tate built a porn empire. Video games, pop culture and porn are at once the enemy but they’re also the model – the world is a game, one that you can win with the exploits and character build. Women are just waiting for the right behaviours that will turn them into your porn star.

Why does hatred of women play such a large part? Unlike old-school social conservatism, there is no patriarchal concern for the well-being of women, nor any idealistic essentialisation of women as gentle souls. Tomassi advises men to “not get married… avoid family creation” if they want to become a “high-value man”. Far from trying to win women over, there’s an adolescent appetite for pissing them off. Women who object to manosphere narratives are dismissed as old maids or sluts. 

[See also: Adventures in the manosphere]

According to this story, women really want “high status” men, who are described as muscled, rich, sexually aggressive and willing to ignore women’s stated preferences. The gap between the supposed secret preference for millionaire bad boys over the stated preference for “nice guys” is a hoary old trope of the PUA (pick-up artist) scene, adapted to a far more developed belief system (and, of course, money-spinner) that marries PUA sexism with Trumpian populism and half-baked Spenglerian narratives of Western decline.

The element of truth here – women don’t like under-employed losers with the confidence of a damp towel – becomes an absurd rape-fantasy about women falling at the feet of conquering barbarians. It’s a narrative that baffles normal people, but makes profound sense to under-socialised men who experience the rejection of their limp romantic gestures, and have indirect experience with these same women going off with outgoing men. If the fluffy liberal world is really a cover for a red-in-tooth-and-claw struggle for reproductive fitness and resources, women are resented because they are regarded as the arbiters and judges of the contest.

This is where the narrative frays at the edges. While men prove their fitness by being strong and sexually aggressive, women are supposedly valued on the basis of their meekness and purity (values that are notably missing from every other aspect of their worldview). Women who date famous men, have successful careers and earn large amounts of money are suspect. Nothing seems to raise the manosphere’s ire more than the idea of a woman living the lifestyle they themselves covet.

The hypocrisy is easy to notice. More interesting is the sadness and anger that lies behind it. For many who take the “red pill”, it’s the old ideal of a steady girlfriend and a fulfilling job that they long for. Studies in the US suggest that social capital has shrunk for everyone, but most sharply among men, with 15 per cent reporting no close friends at all. This is also reflected in dating patterns, with another US study showing massive long-term declines in couples meeting through friends, family and church, and a huge expansion in those meeting online.

In real-life, social sex ratios are likely to be equal; in the context of dating apps, fully three quarters of all users are men. Apart from gender ratios that already set the scene for ruthless competition, apps encourage a transactional approach to dating. Evolutionary psychology concepts like “hypergamy” (the idea that women want to meet men of a higher status, which the manosphere interprets as a small number of men getting the majority of the women) appear to make sense in the ruthless world of hook-up apps. The lessons society imparts about mutual respect and finding the right person often seem to be contradicted by the harsh realities of a world that – as the manosphere gurus might put it – owes them nothing.

This cold awakening to your own disposability is reclaimed, in the manosphere, as a Nietzschean rebirth. Stop waiting around for the world to give you things, and start seizing whatever you can get instead. Taking responsibility for your own life and seeking to contribute rather than just demand are good life lessons – but in the hands of the manosphere, it’s a bitter transformation, and one that forecloses any idea of mutualism and sociability.

What makes the manosphere more than an edgy boys group chat is its postmodern blending of market, social media and politics. Manosphere gurus, with their diets and self-help books have merged the social media influencer with ideology, social critique and biological science. For every dedicated Tate fan there are a dozen normal guys at the gym obsessed with self-improvement who have watched one of his videos.

The manosphere is a pervasive force, and perhaps its most powerful appeal comes from its explanatory power. Like Marxism, with its lightning flash that exposes invisible structures, it seems to offer the key to how the world works. Young men find themselves surrounded by failing institutions that often appear indifferent to them, educated in comprehensive schools where 75 per cent of teachers are women, in which girls outperform boys, and many more of them go on to university. It’s pointless to tell boys that at some theoretical later point men will have an unfair advantage, or that the girls who seem to effortlessly attract boyfriends are often more victims than beneficiaries of male attention.

Many looking at the manosphere will draw only negative lessons – “how do I keep my son away from this, we need to sit boys down and explain why Andrew Tate Is Bad”. But it’s a worldview that has emerged in the vacuum of a left that sees masculinity as regressive, and has ceased offering coherent critiques of capitalism, individualism and globalisation. Lessons about personal responsibility, health, hard work and confidence that would once have been imparted organically are instead being gleaned from misogynistic online father figures. The left has left the battlefield. While feminists are having important conversations about the need for female-only spaces, and have long promoted female mentorship and solidarity, the male need for mentorship and solidarity has been ignored.

The best way to push back against the manosphere is not censorship or yet more “we need to educate boys to not be sexist” approaches. Rather we need to offer better modes of social critique that allow men and women alike to make sense of the world. Rather than a politics of individualism, men and women alike are crying out for solidarity. Instead of a masculinity that thinks of relationships in terms of conquest and status, we need to make boys and men alive to grace, gift and common purpose.

[See also: There are thousands of Andrew Tates out there]

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