Sunday 11 July 2010

Mancession? Get real.

This week, the press seems unable to decide whether the recession is going to be good for men and bad for women, or good for women and bad for men. The latter scenario has even acquired its own cloying portmanteau – the ‘mancession’ – as journalists attempt to eke column inches out of the wobbly implication of a financial gender war. The possibility that something more systemic and pernicious is going on simply hasn’t crossed the consciences of headline writers, who understand the value of simplifying every social equation to a playground scrap between the girls and the boys.

Arguments on both sides of this weary discussion are bloating the pages of every major liberal media outlet. Should we worry about men, as suggested by Will Hutton in the Guardian and Alice Miles in New Statesman, or should we worry about women, as per Deborah Orr in the Guardian and Samira Shackle in New Statesman? The answer, of course, is that we should worry about the poor, whatever their genital arrangement.

It’s not that gender doesn’t matter in this recession. On the contrary; it matters a great deal. As a society, we have been torturously slow in coming to terms with the real, permanent effects that the cultural changes of the past fifty years have had on our economic organisation. At the annual Marxism conference at the Institute of Education last weekend, Feminist academic Dr Nina Power observed that the ‘feminization’ of the British workforce has allowed employers to hold down wages in real terms so that a single salary is no longer enough to support a family, leading to “a race to the bottom in which everyone loses.” The change in the organisation of families as economic units, the shift in patterns of employment away from traditionally ‘male’ heavy industry towards jobs in the service sector, the concentration of women in low-paid, part-time and insecure work – these are all factors which will have a bearing upon how this country weathers the economic storms ahead. They are factors that require a far more subtle response than ‘who’s winning – men or women?’

Meanwhile, right-wing opportunists like Iain Duncan Smith and David Willetts seem to view the economic downturn as a perfect excuse to shrink the state until it’s small enough to fit into people’s bedrooms, with clunkily recalcitrant social engineering projects such as the government’s attack on single mothers. Gender matters in this recession. What doesn’t matter is trying to figure out which gender is ‘winning’ and which is ‘losing’.

Let’s be witheringly clear: there’s only one group of people who will remain secure and comfortable at everyone else’s expense over the next few years, and that’s the rich. As the Coalition sets out to prise away vital support from those who need it most, as new graduates haemmorage into the dole queue and Tory peers anticipate that housing benefit cuts will create "casualties", the richest people in the country have just seen their collective wealth rise by 30% in the tax year to April 2010. The profits raked in by Britain’s richest 1000 people over the past twelve months total £77billion – almost as much as the £83bn of public spending that George Osborne has promised to cut, endangering the homes and jobs of millions. Whilst the liberal press ties itself in knots over whether women or men will do worse out of the crisis, the wealthy – including the financiers whose toxic speculations caused the crash– are largely exempt from the narrow public conversation about social justice.

As the recession closes its jaws on Britain, both sexes are losing out, in different ways and for different reasons. We all live together, and we all have a stake in protecting each other from further economic hardship, and in these circumstances playing on latent public mistrust of the opposite sex is breathtakingly unhelpful. The 'mancession' debate is entirely lacking in the sense of political totality that is desperately needed if the left is to build a coherent resistance to these cuts.

I expect, in ten years or so, after a double-dip recession has brutalised this country even further, after the lost generation has been lost for good and the welfare state has been throttled into redundancy, someone in an office somewhere will be able to sit down with a calculator and work out once and for all who had it worse: men or women. But social justice is far more than a giant balance sheet with men on one side and women on the other, and this time the pundits have it dangerously wrong. This is not a gender war. This is class war.


  1. Penny: As the recession closes its jaws on Britain, both sexes are losing out, in different ways and for different reasons.

    Exactly - start with the economics, then work out the gendered impact. Unfortunately, the demise of 'class' as a relevant political category means that for politics in general, and hand-wringing liberal commentators in particular, 'gender' is the easier category to go for. The symbolism of Prescott's replacement with Harman (who has repeatedly tried to sell the idea of a - ahem - 'womancession') is just one example; anti-feminist writers resorting to a sexist version of the 'lump of labour' fallacy ('if only those bloody women would stay at home instead of working...') is another. Polly Toynbee makes a similar argument to yours, but it doesn't sound convincing because her take as all too often her concern has been about 'the poor' in a patrician sense than 'class' in a more politicised/ideological one - well, that, and the fact that she cheered on the same Tony Blair she now criticises when he led the dismantling of the Labour party and its ability to speak about and for the working class. I'm not holding my breath that Labour will rediscover that lost language soon, or that female/feminist writers will stop assuming gender explains everything (or that sexist fuckwits will stop blaming wome, for that matter).


  2. An excellent article. Thanks so much & please do keep on giving voice to this side of the debate.

  3. Brilliant article. I find it interesting that early 20th century fallacies still dominate our ideology in the 21st century. Sexism, racism or whatever you want to call it really it is just a smokescreen thrown up to confuse the general populace. Classism is just another name for Fascism in the 21st century and it affects us all equally.

    Jesse- A man in Canada

  4. Yeh. It's a poorcession. Which by definition is disproportionately a womancession. Which may or may not be a coincidence...

  5. After all the huff and puff... babyboomers,men this and women that we're back to class war. Excellent!

  6. "... simply hasn’t crossed the consciences of headline writers, who understand the value of simplifying every social equation to a playground scrap between the girls and the boys..."

    Mme Pot - may I introduce you to M. Kettle ?

  7. You're getting caught up in romanticising politics, which seems to be a common theme here. How exactly is a "class war" going to help anything? It is just cheap sloganeering, the class system needs to be abandoned rather than the divisions inflamed.

    You're using a cliché to drive a point home with some snappy writing but manage to totally lose your point in the process.

  8. It's the poor who will suffer. Simple as that. Thanks for spelling it out in big capital letters. I read probably two of the articles you mentioned and found myself in the same conundrum. Why are they bringing up this whole men vs women malarkey?

    On Charlie Brooker and his latest column. Cut the guy some slack. He was writing about vampires, who are by nature depicted as highly sexualised semi-human/animal/anything else? beings. Plus, he's got the Monday slot and I think he does a very decent job of it. I think that G2 is slightly turning to what it used to be years ago when they had Catherine Bennett, Charlotte Raven and Marcel Berlins. I couldn't get enought of it. Charlie is brilliant on Mondays, Hadley does a good job on Wednesdays and thank God Deborah kissed the Indy goodbye and moved to the Grauniad. I still find Alexander Chancellor quite boring and given that he slagged my country of birth off many years ago, when he stayed at he five-star National Hotel, that is one grudge that I will hold forever. I'm still in two minds about Adiya, but Charlie's good, Penny, he definitely is good.

    Have a nice week.

  9. The interesting thing is I first hear the "it's not a he or a she cession" argument on an MRA site. They were responding to some American feminist's celebrating the >50% female work force as a result of the recession with an essay that ultimatly came down to "Pfft, wait till this thing trickles through to the public sector."

  10. Robby I'm not sure what your point is. Are people not allowed to mention it when the government that promised fairness is choosing to hurt disproportionately the most financially vulnerable? Are you saying that analysis is incorrect?

  11. I discovered something interesting last week. I hired the largest van I could imagine could get up the road to move my junk back into my parents garage so I can take up residence in their boxroom for the first time in 11 years, after being laid off a couple of weeks ago. I realised, that like a lot of traditionally manly, male occupations, driving a van doesn't carry any gender specific male mystique for which the correct set of chromosomes is a critical requirement. If you can lift it and take it into and out of the back door, you can do it.

    Whilst driving up and down the country over 2 days I watched in amusement as men and women alike were bemused at the sight of pint sized me overtaking them on the motorway or hopping from cockpit [how masculine can a description be?] at drive by fast food outlets. Yet, I realised, there was nothing special to it. I am fit enough to lift boxes, can drive a manual drive, therefore I can do it.

    It struck me that for many years the exclusion of women from so many workplaces was part of a succession of processes that kept women out, some social, some by creating barriers and others still by harder forms such as the subtle threat of harassment. Even after 10 years working in IT, I still meet guys, sometimes guys who think of themselves as liberated radical athiests who are men of the world, who somewhere in their psyche cannot quite believe that women are not just there to make the tea.

    I think part of this mystique and "hardness" was used to justify the concept of these jobs as deserving "mans jobs." Note that where men have been run out of dominance, wages have followed a steady downward trail - the UK public sector is a particularly strong example. Is it somehow the result of exposing the fact that these jobs are not as difficult as they once were or were perceived to be?

  12. Dandelion,

    I was just saying that using terms like 'class war' is a little silly, counter productive and clichéd. The analysis, while convincing, is not very deep.

  13. How deep does it need to be, Robby? What would you say is missing here?

    I'd say 'class war' is a pretty good description of what's going on here, which is the blatant redistribution of wealth, by the wealthy, from the poor to the rich. Banning people from naming it won't make it go it away. Now that really would be a silly, counter-productive and cliched thing to suggest...

  14. Dandelion,

    It might be a good description but the term 'class war' is still a cliché and has connotations that aren't helpful in my opinion. As you say it is rich versus poor which isn't actually the same as a war between the social classes.

    I don't like clichés and sloppy writing, it was probably pointless commenting about it though.


    This is good, very good! However there is an even better solution, and that is to just ignore Hutton and Orr - their careers are a testament to complacent folly anyway, so just treat it like a ravenous bugblatter beast. But the article is appreciated all the same.

  16. It's not class war, it's class genocide.

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