men, masculinities and gender politics

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Subdivide and rule

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Others of my generation were brought up believing the myth of the classless society. Yet I was not. I am from the class which supposedly does not exist. I come from another class - apparently the most privileged within society - white, owning class male. Just as those hit hardest by classism know it exists, so do I.

My people are business owners, stock holders, large land holders, owners of banks, heirs and heiresses, and holders of natural resources and the rural base.

We are known to others only as "the ruling class", "the rich", "the upper class", "the upper middle class" or "the privileged".

We have all had influence in deciding what wages shall be paid, how capital shall be invested. Some of my people are household names - but most are nameless. In terms of world population we are very small. In terms of the world's wealth we are very large. We are also aware of the huge human potential of the other classes. Should the other classes be able to unite, we would not have a chance of stopping it, despite our wealth, power and weapons.

Charles Tuzack -- Depression - man with shovel, 1935

As time goes on and monopolisation of the world's resources increases, our numbers are even fewer. Many of us have already joined the working and middle classes, the losers of competitions fought out on grand scales. The other victims, the workers, are measured each month in the unemployment statistics. Hence our class identification does not depend solely on the amount we own, rather upon how and where we grew up, and that we earn at least part of our living from the unearned increment extracted from those who work. Thus we have had the advantages and opportunities which have buttressed our abilities to think, to lead, to set and reach goals, and to expect success. Furthermore, everyone, including other classes, expects these things of us.

Largely, the participants of the men's movement have been unaware of who is in their membership. As the role of middle class people in the economic system is to "mop up" or "prop up" society, anti-sexism work is an attractive place for many of them to be. As part of the conditioning of the middle class is also to aspire to become owners of the means of production, and to want for the trappings of wealth my people flaunt, it is also a comfortable place for us to be. It is only when we really look at our classist or sexist attitudes that it feels life threatening (I see these feelings as a clue that we are on the right track - for some reason challenging the values we hold always feels like dying).

Just as many famous revolutionaries and class theoreticians of the past have been owning class, some modern day owning class people have also begun looking at the ways owning class people have been socialised. It has become clear that even our conditioning as men and our sexist attitudes will vary with class background. Here are some insights.

Owning class people in general live disconnected from the resource base and people of other classes. From neighbourhoods of opulent and artificial environments, from exclusive private schools which reinforce the notion of our imminent leadership of the world forsaking all others, we are excluded from the bulk of humanity, the working-class. We grow up, therefore, with a lack of real knowledge or information about our own physical and spiritual abilities, about the world, about other people and cultures different from our own, and know only of how to run the economic system but little about the damage it perpetuates.

We are also taught to deny our feelings. Conversation is rarely consequential, physical closeness is a no-no, and maintaining a stiff upper lip is essential. Other classes are homophobic, while our parents' concern was less that we might be gay (it's fine for us to be gay and experimental in private) it was more that we should always maintain proper standards in public. To cross any of these boundaries means being subjected to treatment by the mental health system. Many of you would be aware of stories about the rich having "mad" uncles or "black sheep" in the family. To not conform meant being ostracised or locked up in a loony bin. Even working-class people cannot believe that anything at all is really hard for us. Any attempt at telling our stories is usually dismissed with sarcastic cries of "poor little rich boy". No wonder owning class people wonder sometimes whether we even exist. The solution to that dilemma has been to identify ourselves as nothing without our privileges and wealth. Reinforced by the fact that many of us received little physical love when we were young, the trappings of wealth became substitutes for love, offering us a pseudo-comfort, a pacifier for our pain. We appear to others as cold-hearted and uncaring, while at the same time those same people aspire to our "good life". We feel unloved, while the rest of the World finds us - apart from our money - unlovable. Our women are made to feel they must remain eternally young, judged entirely on their looks and breeding, and they are never given financial responsibility. Many of them also undergo systematic sexual abuse, often at the hands of many family members.

The good intentions of past world-changers has also left us quite scared. To be told that we will be the first up against the wall when the revolution comes is no encouragement for us to want to change things. Indeed, it is encouragement for us to turn up the volume. Not all of us are the same, however. We have to reconcile this fear of losing our money/identities with the sense of guilt, grief and confusion left to us because we know that not everyone has full access to the advantages we have enjoyed. No wonder you find owning class people at the root of frantic, often meaningless, charity work.

Yet the men's movement has offered a way out of the vicious circle for many of us. Men have long been blamed for the oppression of women through perpetuating the over arching structure of patriarchy. The pro-feminist men's movement, in concert with key feminists, has also been instrumental in promoting a male-positive agenda, one which recognises the influence that past hurts and limited choices have had on us. Conditioning is viewed only as a reason, never as an excuse. By refusing to equate patriarchy with individual men, we have been able to see a system of oppression, rather than a group of individuals who oppress (even though some of us may act as the agent or deliverer of that oppression).

By not writing men off, by refusing to blame us, by helping us to heal, men have been able to work alongside women towards the liberation of women. Men in the process have seen the benefits of giving up sexist ways while not losing sight of our major objective: women's liberation.

We of the owning class can see very clearly the economic (ie class) links between the systematic oppression of people on the basis of gender, age, ethnicity and sexuality, even though we are traditionally seen as the agents of those oppressions. The rule is tried and true: subdivide and rule. The owning class is safe as long as we can keep the other groups apart and divided within those groups. Feminism, which has retained a class critique as one of its major components, has recognised the benefits of insights from a pluralist movement. By including all women under their banner, they have included the thoughts and insights of their entire membership.

This is in direct contrast to a predominantly middle class men's movement. The nature of a middle class upbringing seems to occlude or discount the views of different class perspectives, and alienates the bulk of the potential membership. Just as I have argued elsewhere in this XY feature for the inclusion of working-class men in our movement, so I now argue for a decisive strategy of non-blaming, so the men's movement can continue to be a place where every man can be healed. We need all people to be part of this revolution. Each class, each age, each sex, each ethnic culture has something to give, as well as something to give up. We should not be afraid of embracing everybody.

The pro-feminist men's movement has provided a stark contrast to the shallow and empty lives owning class men have led. As other men have begun to heal under the banner of pro-feminism, we too are hopeful of being healed. Rather than being scorned and blamed, we want the chance to stand up and ensure nobody overlooks the class oppression in the world, and this time eliminate it completely.

 

 

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 3(3), Spring 1993. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995