Macho revanchism hides an ugly face
Men's societies in universities and colleges have nothing to do with promoting equality, argues Chris Strafford
Over the last few years there has been a growing trend of reactionary moves against women’s representation and the women’s movement, and this has been reflected in universities and colleges.
A common argument now being put forward by everyone from the far right to a gaggle of peculiar libertarians is: ‘Women have their own groups and student societies, so men should have them too’. This has resulted in the abolition, merging or downgrading of women’s officers posts in student unions, to the extent that only eight universities now have a full-time women’s officer in student unions that are largely dominated by men. Over the last few weeks ‘Man Collective’ (Oxford) and ‘The Men’s Society’ (Manchester) have been accepted as recognised student societies, resulting in national media coverage. Rightwing commentators have dubbed this ‘men’s liberation’, a supposed reaction to ‘positive discrimination’.
These developments must be seen within the wider context of a growing macho revanchism and the recent attacks on women, such as through the Welfare Reform Bill, which essentially seeks to impoverish single mothers, new measures against sex workers, the continuing inequality in pay and life opportunities, not to mention the increasing trend to blame women for provoking sexual violence and rape, resulting in a low rate of convictions.
What some are saying is that it is men who are now oppressed - not because of class, ethnicity, sexuality or disability, but because the women’s movement has ‘gone too far’ and now it is not misogyny, but misandry (discrimination against men), that is the problem. To back up this assertion a variety of different ‘facts’ are employed - male underachievement in education, higher rates of suicide, poor investment in male-only cancers ...
But these phenomena are produced by class oppression, not misandry. Schooling for the working class is still centred on creating a significant number of semi-skilled or unskilled workers. Most of my school friends never went to university and ended up working in shops, as labourers, on apprenticeships or spent months at a time on the dole. Suicides are undoubtedly higher amongst the working class - unemployment, poverty, alienation and the constant stresses of capitalist society drive individuals to despair. It is also obvious that workers with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are less likely to survive than the rich. The NHS ‘postcode lottery’ is not actually random - life expectancy for men in working class areas of Glasgow is 28 years lower than those living in the lush suburbs.
Another common argument used by supporters of the ‘male backlash’ is that men need to discuss masculinity and to build a ‘positive male identity’. even supposed communists like George Waterhouse of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has been defending these groups, writing on Facebook: “The main aim of the men’s society is to counteract what we refer to as ‘the fall of man’. Too long have we listened to that serpent and munched upon his proverbial apples.”
In the abstract there is little problem with men discussing masculinity. Indeed there have been men’s caucuses doing that in order to aid the movement for women’s liberation in parallel with ‘women’s only’ meetings. In other words, male debate may be useful and play a positive role in strengthening the women’s movement. However, the new groups have been formed on a rather different basis.
To understand what they are about and where they are going we need to know who is behind them. In Manchester we have been very successful in exposing them. For example, the founder of the new society is Ben Wild, a rightwing evangelical Christian. Whilst well spoken and polite, Ben thinks that ‘straight pride’ might be a good slogan for a men’s society. Two of the Manchester committee belong to Conservative Future, the Tory Party’s student organisation. Unsurprisingly it is Conservative students who have been at the forefront of attacks on women’s officers posts.
But the Manchester committee also boasts a couple of individuals with links to the Orange Order, who have been quite happy to show their support for Ulster unionist extremists. After pointing this out we were threatened with libel action and violence, and the membership of such Facebook groups seems to have ended. The committee also includes a UK Independence Party supporter, who is notorious for choosing Goebbels as a favourite historical character!
All this may look like name-calling and silly student politics, but it is obvious that this group represents a coalescing of rightwing forces determined to undermine gains women have made over the last few decades. Their opponents have been labelled “feminist Nazi dykes”, “lesbians” and that age-old favourite of rightwing idiots everywhere: “men-hating feminists”.
In response to these moves students across the country have begun mobilising to counter the influence of men’s groups. At Goldsmiths University a move to accept the ‘Gentleman’s Club’ was defeated by a meeting of students. In Manchester supporters of Communist Students, the Socialist Worker Student Society, the Commune and the Anarchist Federation have met to discuss a plan of action for the new term. We are intent on winning the argument on campus. Those of us based in Manchester are looking to link up with other groups in order to present a united response to these attacks.