It is easy to see incels — short for “involuntarily celibate” — as just another example of misogyny. This is so, but it is also true that the incel phenomenon departs from how today’s masculinity works. Incels are part of a growing trend of radical-right movements that are anguished by the success of neoliberalism. Like these other political happenings, how incels relate to our neoliberal present is far from coherent.
Incel identity is marred by an irrational acceptance of the dominant view that gender operates in market-like conditions. On the one hand, incels imagine that market-like competition is how people naturally interact. On the other, incel ideology is defined by the argument that sexual competition is biologically encoded, meaning that fair market competition is impossible. This internalized contradiction has led to a peculiar emotional status that is observable in incel communities: an aggressive indifference to suffering, including their own.
Understanding the incel phenomenon requires us to perceive the historical situation around it. Neoliberal restructuring of the past 50 years has fundamentally changed how masculinity works. The term “neoliberalism” describes the worldwide transformation of political economy after the 1970s. As economic troubles set in, the welfare state model was called into question. While this transformation is ordinarily described as welfare retrenchment, deregulation and an all-out offensive against trade unionism, this view is partial. With the transformation of political economy also came changes in how we interact socially.
During this neoliberal transformation, gender constructs were changed. It is important to remember that a set of gender constructions was hard-wired into the welfare state model. The postwar welfare state relied on the nuclear family, with women accessing money through the waged man. Men’s economic integration into waged production hinged on the expectation that women would perform unpaid but necessary domestic labor. Women were often compelled to enter into marital relations with a working man to get access to the welfare state’s primary benefit: the family wage.
Neoliberal restructuring pulverized the welfare state’s family wage and fundamentally altered gender relations. Previously, the welfare state’s guarantee for men’s labor determined how masculinity worked and how manliness was asserted. No longer determined by the welfare state provision of guaranteed employment, neoliberalism has recast masculinity in the mold of “entrepreneurial” values like self-making and self-management. The welfare state’s labor guarantee was replaced by the flexible, open-endedness of market “opportunity.”
Since the decline of the welfare state, men’s ability to successfully traverse a competitive socio-economic terrain has risen in social importance. Today’s seemingly indulgent norms of self-care — improvement of dress, enhancement of one’s social aptitude and other kinds of self-betterment like personal fitness — have become increasingly important for men to navigate the neoliberal gender landscape. In short, neoliberalism has transformed masculinity — and sexuality in general — into something that operates more like a market.
Incels Against Neoliberalism
Incel identity is a reaction against, and an unwitting criticism of, how today’s hegemonic masculinity functions under neoliberalism. On one side, incel identity exhibits a unique relationship to neoliberalism, in that competition is assumed to be the natural mechanism for sexual relations. As we know, a feature of market competition is an ever-shifting hierarchy. Market competition compels people to seek relative advantages that improve their position, resulting in an ever-changing balance sheet of “winners” and “losers.” The outcomes of this imagined sexual competition are repeated in online incel communications as ironized archetypes such as desirable “chads” and undesirable “virgins.” Thus, marketized sexuality appears as a cornerstone of incel identity.
However, what defines incel identity isn’t how they engage in an imagined field of sexual competition, but rather their absolute failure to compete. Incel identity is predicated on a vulgar, popularized version of evolutionary psychology. Instead of relatively similar people engaged in competition, incel identity posits a fixed hierarchy of men’s sexuality based in pop evolutionary psychology. This makes the incel position unchangeable, because a hierarchy of masculinity is assumed as “naturally” occurring. To identify as an incel means that one’s subordinate sexual position cannot change. They see themselves as stuck at the bottom of an evolutionary tree.
By making the outcome of sexual competition predestined, incel identity breaks with the neoliberal framework that rules today’s masculinity. In claiming that the incel exist at the bottom of a biologically fixed sexual ladder, competition is reduced to a performance that justifies predetermined results. The “sexual marketplace” is recast as a fixed process that’s guided by evolutionary compulsion. Importantly, the entrepreneurial behavior that regulates neoliberal masculinity — improvement of one’s style, taking up a new diet, adherence to a gym routine and any other mechanism of self-management — are nullified by the claim that the incel is naturally inferior. If the incel is of inferior genetic stock, then a sexual marketplace cannot exist. Sexual competition, as such, is made impossible.
Since incel identity appears different than neoliberal masculinity, we are forced to ask about its origins. What is most remarkable about the incel is that he constructs an unchangeable sexual hierarchy only to place himself at the bottom. This act of self-flagellation isn’t rational and appears emotionally guided. Absent a socially-dominant lens to make sense of their situation, subjects develop meaning through emotional resonance, a process that theorist Raymond Williams described as “structures of feeling.”
Incel identity appears to have developed from a peculiar structure of feeling. Incels reject the neoliberal compulsion to, against all the odds, better one’s position through self-care. Instead, incel identity allows one to identify with cruelty itself. Continually posting online about their inadequacy, writing self-flagellating posts and ironizing one’s misery, incels appear to have found pleasure in their pain.
This isn’t a matter of self-pity, but a new emotional state that’s defined by an aggressive indifference to suffering, including their own. In identifying with cruelty, incels unsettle the basic idea that we are all self-interested neoliberal subjects. Instead of the rationally calculating neoliberal subject, the incel embodies something else altogether: We have, perhaps, a new politics of indifference.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.