Until his retirement a few years ago, Norbert Bolz taught communication theory in Berlin. Among students of communication, he has a stellar reputation. Among others, he was largely unknown. Communication theory is not necessarily a topic that gets the average German terribly excited, which might explain why Bolz decided to use his background in communication to pursue popular philosophy instead. Today, popular philosophy often centers around the concept of Kulturpessimismus, the German term for “cultural pessimism.” This is the idea that the culture of a nation is in a state of irrevocable decline concerning matters of human rights, international relations, criminal justice, science, or politics.
Michael Kimmel famously portrays in his eponymous 2017 book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era., one year into the Trump presidency. Kimmel’s subjects are predominantly white men “who feel they have been screwed, betrayed by the country they love, [and] discarded like trash on the side of the information superhighway. Theirs are the hands that built this country; theirs is the blood shed to defend it. And now, they feel, no one listens to them; they’ve been all but forgotten.”
The Plight of the White Man
These characters (representatives of a real demographic) are the victims of globalization, deindustrialization, outsourcing, technological innovation, and, last but not least, the “China trade shock.” Kimmel’s book focuses on this phenomenon’s occurrence within the United States. Ironically, Kimmel himself may be a contributor to the phenomenon, as he was accused in 2018 of sexual harassment and failure to compensate female assistants for their work. However, his analysis applies equally well to Western Europe where populist entrepreneurs, such as Marine Le Pen, have promoted themselves as the advocates of the structurally irrelevant and forgotten.
Bolz’s grievances, however, do not stem from material deprivation or limited life opportunities. His grievances stem from a cultural malaise, reflected in the title of his book, Der alte weisse Mann – Sündenbock der Nation (in English, “the old white man, scapegoat of the nation”). White men, Bolz maintains in a brief synopsis of his book, are being held responsible for all the evils of the world. The white man “stands for colonialism, racism and sexism; he accounts for the poverty in the world, for the destruction of nature and, of course, for climate change.”
Bolz goes on to claim that “the old white man has become the central symbolic figure in a cultural civil war.”The foundations of the Western world, Bolz maintains, are grounded in fundamentally male values – rationality, domination of nature, assertiveness, and readiness to take risks. Today, all of these values have come under assault. They have been deconstructed and devalued, torn to pieces in the battles of the culture war that has engulfed much of Western society.
Political Theorists on the Future of the West
Carl Schmitt, a renowned German political theorist, famously reduced the political to the fundamental distinction between friend and enemy. Schmitt maintained that politics consist of groups that consider each other to be mutual enemies (for example, the Democrats and Republicans in US politics). He also claimed that, “all true political theorists base their views on a negative anthropology which holds that man is by nature, evil and licentious, and thus needs to be kept in check by a strong state capable of drawing a friend-enemy distinction if there is to be social order.” According to Schmitt, this crucial friend-enemy distinction cannot be achieved through secularism. He believed that a theological foundation beneath any political structure is essential to the prevention of anarchy.
Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist and influential political theorist who maintained that political outcomes depend largely on winning the metapolitical struggle over cultural hegemony. Gramsci defines cultural hegemony as “the general hypothesis that a social class aims to achieve consensual domination for its rule by progressively expanding its leadership across society.” If a social class achieves cultural hegemony by garnering society’s consensual support of its ruling, then it will not have to resort to coercion via the military, policing units, or harsh lawmaking (except in extreme cases).
Hardly surprising, both of these political concepts have made a spectacular comeback among academic analysts and figures on both sides of the political aisle. Arguably, the most important battleground in modern society regards “wokeism” and the notion of gender.
French philosopher Michel Onfray, founder and co-president of the populist magazine Front Populaire, has characterized wokeism as the ideology of a “tyrannical” minority that has become the majority. According to Onfray, wokeism is an ideology often represented by elites who use their control over the media to define what can and cannot be said. For Onfray, wokeism is one more expression of the general decadence that, in his view, pervades Western civilization. It is hardly surprising that Onfray is a cultural pessimist, as he is convinced that Western civilization is doomed and on its way out. Like many other cultural pessimists, Onfray is certain that it is just a matter of time before the West comes crashing down.
Onfray might have a point when it comes to the rise of wokeism. In the first round of France’s most recent presidential election, candidate Éric Zemmour(who Kimmel would likely classify as an “angry white man”) garnered a measly 7% of the vote, a far cry from the 23% won by Marine Le Pen, another far-right candidate. As a candidate, Zemmour declared himself to be the voice of the nation, employing the campaign slogan, “France has not yet said its last word” (also the title of his most recent book, La France N’a Pas Dit Son Dernier Mot). French voters thought otherwise, sending Zemmour into the dustbin of history. At least for now.
Pauline Hanson is Australia’s most notorious radical right-wing populist politician, an icon in her own right, known for her determination to get back on her feet. In 1996, as a newly elected member of parliament Hanson claimed that, “the most downtrodden person” was “the white Anglo-Saxon male” who, in her view, occupied “the bottom of the barrel.”
More than two decades later, newly-elect Senator Pauline Hanson went even further, declaring that white men were the “most demonized group” in Australian society. It is clear that Hanson and Bloz have a lot in common, not least a strong sense of male victimology, paired with the equally strong belief that traditional masculinity has seen its day.
The crisis of masculinity and the decline of Western civilization are obviously related, one symptomatic of the other. This was one of the central messages of Zemmour’s 2014 grand opus, Le Suicide Français. While the focus of his musings is predominantly on the Grande Nation, the diagnosis is applicable to the West as well, particularly given the fact that French nationalists like Zemmour consider French culture the epitome, if not apogee, of Western civilization.
What, then, accounts for all this decline and decadence? According to promoters of male victimology, the answer is fairly simple – women’s emancipation and feminism. Feminism, Zemmour charged, is behind the “end of patriarchy, the death of the father (a leitmotiv of his writings), the end of marriage, the end of the family, the end of virility” and “the feminization of France and its general lack of energy.”
Bolz, in his 2006 book, Die Helden der Familie (The Heroes of the Family), argued along the same lines. “The emancipation of women,” he wrote, “entails the devaluation of both masculinity and motherhood.” The narrative here is that feminism and masculinity are infinitely opposing forces. They cannot thrive simultaneously—the liberation of one gender can only be achieved at the expense of the other.
Bolz even went as far to say that “the more educated the women, the more infertile a nation is. Women earn more and give birth to fewer children.” Career women, he argued, tend towards genetic impotence. “The higher they climb up the career ladder, the less likely that they will get married and have children.”
In the process, men have become dispensable. The modern woman, as Jan Feddersen explains in his review of the Bolz’s book, no longer needs the man as breadwinner, as a heroic defender of hearth and home. He is this “castrated being” – thanks to feminism – “that no longer knows why he is on this earth.” In short, he has become superfluous, structurally irrelevant.
Readers familiar with the actual situation of women in Western societies might find this kind of discourse outrageous and frantic, even outright crazy and therefore not to be taken seriously. But gender has once again found its way into the heart of politics, largely provoked by the populist right’s adoption of the question of gender as a core issue informing political mobilization. In fact, the question of gender encompasses a range of issues, each one of them highly contentious politically.
Two of these issues appear most prominent. The first is the notion that gender is socially constructed and the question of gender-neutral language. French sociologist Éric Fassin coined the terms “sexual democracy,” and the “democratization of sexuality” to describe the trajectory of society in terms of gender. Sexual democracy refers to the “extension of the democratic domain, with the growing politicization of questions of gender and sexuality.” It involves the questioning of established norms regarding gender and sexuality in the name of liberty and equality. One of the pivotal points of this process is what Fassin calls the “denaturalization of gender and sexuality,” which calls into question the very existence of these norms and the way “they impose themselves on us.”
Thepopulist right – but also, to a degree, the populist left, particularly in Latin America – has designated the “ideology of gender” as a core issue to be combatted. This belief reflects a tacit and grudging acknowledgment of male privilege, hegemonic masculinity, and heteronormativity, which, largely uncontested, was the “normal” state of being for much of the postwar period in the West.
Along with this acknowledgment of male privilege is the notion that it has been irretrievably lost, kept alive only in the nostalgic reveries of the Trumps, Putins and Erdogans of this world, who embody what it means to be a “real man.” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan was a project predicated on the reassertion of masculine virtues.
A recent empirical study by Princeton University shows that men and women who endorsed “hegemonic masculinity” values in both 2016 and 2020 were more likely to support Trump than those who did not. Trump’s loss of the 2020 presidential election indicates that his brand of toxic masculinity failed to resonate beyond the forsaken regions of America’s heartland.
Anti-Feminist Women in Politics
Ironically enough, in Western Europe it is more often than not female politicians who have been most vocal in the radical populist right’s assault on gender. A prominent example is Alice Weidel, who ranks at the very top of the right-wing political party known as “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). The primary pillar of AfD is defending the traditional family as the fundamental nucleus of society. The party is vehemently opposed to the recognition of homosexual unions as equal to heterosexual ones, and condemns the marginalization of “the natural differences” between men and women.
Like Zemmour, the AfD is concerned about the dramatic increase of women refusing marriage and motherhood. As a highly-ranked leader of the AfD, Weidel has to subscribe to the party’s traditional conception of the family, even if she is the last one to conform to it. Openly lesbian, Weidel lives with her partner, a Swiss woman born in Sri Lanka, in an officially recognized union. As one commentator noted, it would be interesting to know how Weidel justifies to her partner how she can support a position that actively fights against the official recognition of her own same-sex relationship.
Weidel is hardly alone as a female proponent of Western Europe’s radical right ideology. A number of prominent female politicians have come out against various aspects of gender-related issues and policies, arguably nowhere more ferociously than in Spain. Until recently, Spain appeared relatively immune to radical right-wing populist contagion, the memory of decades of Franco dictatorship acting as a protective shield. However, since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, there has been a dramatic upsurge in support for the far-right Vox party, culminating into its domination of the 2018 regional election in Andalusia.
The breakthrough of the Vox party continued at the national level. Vox as an organization is notorious for its ambiguous stance on Francoism and its regressive position on gender. Once again, it is women who are at the forefront of Vox’s fight against gender equality.
The most vocal promoter of Vox’s anti-gender equality agenda has been Alicia Rubio, Vox’s chief ideologue on gender issues and author of the infamous novel, Cuando nos prohibieron ser mujeres … y nos persigueron por ser hombres (in English, “When they forbade us to be women … and persecuted us for being men”). The book (often referred to as the “feminist anti-Bible”) landed Rubio a seat in the Madrid regional parliament alongside Rocío Monasterio, another far-right female who serves as the head of Vox Madrid, where Rubio established herself as a fervent anti-feminist.
One of the central tropes of this anti-feminist discourse is the notion that feminist demands have resulted in the discrimination of Spanish men. They are the true victims, threatened with being canceled, as María Ruiz Solas, a member of Vox’s executive committee and member of the Congress of Deputies, Spain’s lower house, has lamented.
In Switzerland, where women did not have the right to vote until 1971, this type of anti-feminist rhetoric has been met with open ears – at least in Switzerland’s most popular party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). Patriarchy and male dominance have a long history in Switzerland, particularly within the ranks of the SVP.
Many attribute the rise of the SVP to Christoph Blocher, a wealthy entrepreneur turned politician. In his campaign for an “independent and neutral Switzerland,” Blocher single-handedly turned a traditional farmers’ party into a modern right-wing populist Wahlmaschine (vote getter). Blocher is the archetype of the grumpy old man (he was born in 1940), stubbornly defending the image of Switzerland as it once was, before immigrants and European Union (EU) bureaucrats destroyed the idyllic Swiss Insel der seligen (Island of the Blessed), a refuge shielded by neutrality against the vicissitudes of an evil outside world. These days, the siren calls of feminists represent yet another outside evil, one that is suddenly gaining ground in the country.
In order to tackle the problem at the roots, the SVP recently appointed a woman named Esther Friedli to head its program commission. Her mission – the fight against “gender terror” and “woke insanity.” In her first statements, the new director charged that “woke culture” had “religious-fanatical traits.” It sought to impose its minority vision on the rest of society. With respect to the growing influence of gender-related issues, such as gender-neutral language, Friedli promised she would do whatever she could to ban its use, particularly in official documents. While she recognizes that some persons might have been born “in the wrong body,” she strongly objects to forcing children to confront questions of gender identity. Friedli continued on to say that she often feels constrained to ask herself whether or not she “as a heterosexual woman” is “still normal.”
What explains this pronounced hostility on the part of the radical populist right towards any advances in gender equality? Much of it can be attributed to the development of secular trends across the globe, which have gradually undermined the traditional status of men in Western societies. Reiterating the ideologies of the previously mentioned political theorist Carl Schmitt, many modern right-wing politicians feel that a religious foundation (with a strong sense of gender roles) is preferable to secularism and the separation of church and state.
According to the far-right, secularism and the overturning of gender roles leads to anarchy of all sorts. To name a few: the inexorable decline of manufacturing, which has deprived routine manual industrial workers of decent-paid jobs; the substantial gains women have made in accumulating cultural and social capital, reflected in the growing gender gap at secondary schools and universities; the growing number of women, particularly in urban areas, who choose to remain single and forego having children; and, last but not least, the growing public acceptance of lifestyles and official arrangements that do not conform to heteronormativity. All of these trends and developments, in one way or another, have engendered a devaluation of the position of men in society while, at the same time, have fundamentally challenged the role of the traditional family as the nucleus of society.
Gender in Latin American Politics
In Mexico, gendered violence has run rampant for decades. In 2021, the international human rights organization, Amnesty International, released a disturbing report concerning “feminicide” in Mexico. Feminicide differs from homicide in that the murder must be “motivated for reasons of gender,” often determined by “signs of sexual violence or the fact that the victim’s body is exposed or exhibited in a public place.” The report found that in 2020, an average of 10 women were murdered in Mexico every day. However, many believe the numbers were actually much higher, due to the failure of the Mexican criminal justice system to investigate reports of missing women. In most cases, “the victims’ families are often left to investigate the murders due to police failings,” including, “lost evidence, inadequate investigations and a lack of understanding on gender perspective.”
Prominent feminist writer Denise Dresser pointed out that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) apparently devotes more public money to the promotion of male baseball teams than to the protection of women as victims of violence. As a reminder, AMLO won the presidential election of 2018 on a left-wing platform of fundamental change with the promise to advance gender equality. After four years in power, his feminist critics charge, it has become patently clear that he has failed to deliver on his promises.
However, politicians forsaking campaign promises is not a rare phenomenon. When Hugo Chavez embarked on his course to the top of Venezuelan politics, he raised high expectations regarding equal rights for women. As president, Chavez even incorporated legislation focused on gender equality into a new constitution. But, as they say in German, Papier ist geduldig (paper is patient). You can write legislation, but whether it will actually be implemented and enforced is an entirely different question. In the case of Venezuela, the gap between progressive rhetoric and the lived experience was enormous.
In fact, as sociologist Anais D. López Caldera has noted, with the passing of time, Venezuela witnessed the resurgence and establishment of a radicalized “maternalist ideology” which extolled the traditional role of women as mothers and caregivers. Similarly, in Bolivia, during Evo Morales’s tenure as president, women’s rights advanced significantly, but, in the end, the government was incapable of dismantling the country’s deeply-ingrained patriarchal mentalities and structures.
In Ecuador, previous president Rafael Correa once stressed his commitment to gender equality, but not “total equality” because of the undeniable biological differences” that exist between men and women. Correa’s emphasis on these biological differences supports his claim that the notion of gender as a social construct is “pure and simple ideology.”
Adamantly opposed to reproductive rights, Correa even rejected legalizing abortion in the case of rape, even threatening to step down as president if the law was successfully passed. Correa’s view of women has always been void of civility and respect. His weekly TV address to the people was laced with insults directed at women.
Even more notorious was Correa’s dismissal of the Social-Christian candidate for the 2017 presidential election, Cynthia Viteri. If he were an advisor to the candidate, Correa wrote that he “would recommend that she not talk about the economy, but about other topics, such as makeup.”
Chavez, Morales, Correa—all of them part of Latin America’s so-called “pink tide,” the term coined for the countries’ collective left-wing turn. This left-wing turn, however, appears to screech to a halt as soon as women begin to call for equalityPresident Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua—another supposedly left-wing populist regime—has also clearly demonstrated the brutal repression of women’s rights over the past few years. Ortega’s solidarity with Vladimir Putin, the ultimate paragon of male privilege and white male supremacy, speaks volumes.
Failing Women on Both Sides of the Political Binary
Women seem to have a good sense of who is on their side and who’s not. In Mexico’s 2018 election, roughly 67% of men voted for AMLO compared to less than 50% of women. In Western Europe, the gender gap has been even more pronounced—with one important exception. In France, Marine Le Pen has managed to appeal to a growing part of the female electorate by portraying and promoting herself as a feminist. Whether or not this claim is justified is a different question. Her detractors would certainly disagree, citing, for instance, her long-held position on criminalizing abortion, as well as her close association with Putin—an association she shares with many populist leaders in Western Europe.
Ironically enough, those who have expressed strong reservations with regard to Marine Le Pen, have simultaneously shown great admiration for the Latin American populist left. Spain’s left-wing populist party, known as the Podemos party, is arguably the most prominent among them. Yet, ironically enough, when it comes to questions of gender, the gap between left and right considerably narrows. The defense of (white) male privilege and the subordination of women pervades the discourse of populism, both right and left.
This narrowing of the political spectrum when it comes to gender equality is the result of various factors. In order for any political party to successfully elect a candidate, it must appeal to certain segments of the male vote. The same is true when it comes to cornering the religious vote. It was hardly a fluke that evangelical women voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, despite his overt misogyny. Their pro-life stance when it came to abortion easily surpassed their concerns for gender equality. Therefore, it is no surprise that Trump’s promise to install an ultraconservative judge on the Supreme Court with the ultimate goal of reversing Roe v. Wade was music to the ears of female evangelicals.
These days, there is a strong sense that male dominance has come under heavy pressure, socioeconomically and socioculturally. While the claim that “men have become obsolete” is over exaggerating, it certainly holds true for the status of toxic masculinity, Donald Trump notwithstanding.
Hardly surprisingly, the gradual loss of hegemonic status that men have suffered in recent years has provoked a strong backlash. In this new episode of the culture war that has been poisoning democracy for the past several decades, anything goes, no matter the damage.
The stakes are high—for both sides. Unfortunately, as has usually been the case, those most affected by the epochal transformations confronting us today—both women and men—are likely to be no more than collateral damage in this war. The legitimate worries and concerns of the public will be ignored and dismissed, and lives will continue to deteriorate.
The fact that this culture war is being intensified by polarizing political parties and candidates who claim to represent the grievances and concerns of their constituents is yet another unfortunate irony. Obviously, those constituents do not appear to include women in any sense.
[Hannah Gage edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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