Indias prime minister Narendra Modi rose to power boasting of his 56-inch chest, and promising true national potency. Photograph: Danish Ismail/Reuters
Historians have emphasised how male workers, humiliated by such repressive industrial practices as automation and time management, also began to assert their manhood by swearing, drinking and sexually harassing the few women in the workforce the beginning of an aggressive hardhat culture that has reached deep into blue-collar workplaces during the decades-long reign of neoliberalism. Towards the end of the 19th century large numbers of men embraced sports and physical fitness, and launched fan clubs of pugnacious footballers and boxers.
It wasnt just working men. Upper-class parents in America and Britain had begun to send their sons to boarding schools in the hope that their bodies and moral characters would be suitably toughened up in the absence of corrupting feminine influences. Competitive sports, which were first organised in the second half of the 19th century, became a much-favoured means of pre-empting sissiness and of mass-producing virile imperialists. It was widely believed that putative empire-builders would be too exhausted by their exertions on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow to masturbate.
But masculinity, a dream of power, tends to get more elusive the more intensely it is pursued; and the dread of emasculation by opaque economic, political and social forces continued to deepen. It drove many fin de sicle writers as well as politicians in Europe and the US into hyper-masculine trances of racial nationalism and, eventually, the calamity of the first world war. Nations and races as well as individuals were conceptualised as biological entities, which could be honed into unassailable organisms. Fear of race suicide, cults of physical education and daydreams of a New Man went global, along with strictures against masturbation, as the inflexible modern ideology of gender difference reached non-western societies.
European colonialists went on to impose laws that enshrined their virulent homophobia and promoted heterosexual conjugality and patrilineal orders. Their prejudices were also entrenched outside the west by the victims of what the Indian critic Ashis Nandy calls internal colonialism: those subjects of European empires who pleaded guilty to the accusation that they were effeminate, and who decided to man up in order to catch up with their white overlords.
This accounts for a startling and still little explored phenomenon: how men within all major religious communities Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish as well as Christian and Islamic started in the late 19th century to simultaneously bemoan their lost virility and urge the creation of hard, inviolable bodies, whether of individual men, the nation or the
umma. These included early Zionists (Max Nordau, who dreamed of Muskeljudentum, Jewry of Muscle), Asian anti-imperialists ( Swami Vivekananda, Modis hero, who exhorted Hindus to build biceps, and Anagarika Dharmapala, who helped develop the muscular Buddhism being horribly flexed by Myanmars ethnic-cleansers these days) as well as fanatical imperialists such as Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement.
The most lethal consequences of this mimic machismo unfolded in the first decades of the 20th century. Never before and never afterwards, as historian George Mosse, the pioneering historian of masculinity, wrote, has masculinity been elevated to such heights as during fascism. Mussolini, like Roosevelt, transformed himself from a sissy into a fire-breathing imperialist. The weak must be hammered away, declared Hitler, another physically ill-favoured fascist. Such wannabe members of the Aryan master race accordingly defined themselves against the cowardly Jew and discovered themselves as men of steel in acts of mass murder.
This hunt for manliness continues to contaminate politics and culture across the world in the 21st century. Rapid economic, social and technological change in our own time has plunged an exponentially larger number of uprooted and bewildered men into a doomed quest for masculine certainties. The scope for old-style imperialist aggrandisement and forging a master race may have diminished. But there are, in the age of neoliberal individualism, infinitely more unrealised claims to masculine identity in grotesquely unequal societies around the world. Myths of the self-made man have forced men everywhere into a relentless and often futile hunt for individual power and wealth, in which they imagine women and members of minorities as competitors. Many more men try to degrade and exclude women in their attempt to show some mastery that is supposed to inhere in their biological nature.
Frustration and fear of feminisation have helped boost demagogic movements similar to the one unleashed by the locker room bully in the White House. Godses hyper-masculine cliches have vanquished the traditions of androgyny that Gandhi upheld and not just in India. Young Pakistani men revere the playboy-turned-politician
Imran Khan as their alpha male redeemer; they turn viciously on critics of his indiscretions. Similarly embodying a triumphant masculinity in the eyes of his followers, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoan can do no wrong. Rodrigo Duterte jokes, with brazen frequency, about rape.
Misogyny now flourishes in the public sphere because, as in modernising Europe and America, many toilers daydream of a primordial past when real men were on top, and women knew their place. Loathing of liberated women who seem to be usurping male domains is evident not only on social media but also in brutal physical assaults. These are sanctioned by pseudo-traditional ideologies such as Hindu supremacism and Islamic fundamentalism that offer to many thwarted men in Asia and Africa a redeeming machismo: the gratifying replacement of neoliberalisms bogus promise of equal opportunity with old-style patriarchy.
Susan Faludi argues that many Americans used the 9/11 attacks to shrink the gains of feminism and push women back into passive roles. Petersons traditionalism is the latest of many attempts in the west in recent years to restore the authority of men, or to remasculinise society. These include the deployment of shock-and-awe violence, loathing of cucks, cultural Marxists and feminists, re-imagining a silver-spooned posturer like Bush as superman, and, finally, the political apotheosis of a serial groper.
This recurrent search for security in coarse manhood confirms that the history of modern masculinity is the history of a fantasy. It describes the doomed quest for a stable and ordered world that entails nothing less than war on the irrepressible plurality of human existence a war that is periodically renewed despite its devastating failures. An outlandish phobia of women and effeminacy may be hardwired into the long social, political and cultural dominance of men. It could be that their wounded sense of entitlement, or resentment over being denied their customary claim to power and privilege, will continue to make many men vulnerable to such vendors of faux masculinity as Trump and Modi. A compassionate analysis of their rage and despair, however, would conclude that men are as much imprisoned by man-made gender norms as women.
One is not born, but rather becomes a woman wrote Simone de Beauvoir. She might as well have said the same for men. It is civilisation as a whole that produces such a creature. And forces him into a ruinous pursuit of power. Compared with women, men are almost everywhere more exposed to alcoholism, drug addiction, serious accidents and cardiovascular disease; they have significantly lower life expectancies and are more likely to kill themselves. The first victims of the quest for a mythical male potency are arguably men themselves, whether in school playgrounds, offices, prisons or battlefields. This everyday experience of fear and trauma binds them to women in more ways than most men, trapped by myths of resolute manhood, tend to acknowledge.
Certainly, men would waste this latest crisis of masculinity if they deny or underplay the experience of vulnerability they share with women on a planet that is itself endangered. Masculine power will always remain maddeningly elusive, prone to periodic crises, breakdowns and panicky reassertions. It is an unfulfillable ideal, a hallucination of command and control, and an illusion of mastery, in a world where all that is solid melts into thin air, and where even the ostensibly powerful are haunted by the spectre of loss and displacement. As a straitjacket of onerous roles and impossible expectations, masculinity has become a source of great suffering for men as much as women. To understand this is not only to grasp its global crisis today. It is also to sight one possibility of resolving the crisis: a release from the absurd but crippling fear that one has not been man enough
Pankaj Mishras Age of Anger: A History of the Present is published in paperback by Penguin. To order a copy for 8.49 (RRP 9.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.