The Rise and Fall of the Working Man:
Toward a Critique of Modern Masculinity (2008)

Norbert Trenkle

The crisis of labor is also a crisis of modern masculinity. For in his identity, the modern bourgeois man is constituted and structured in a most fundamental way as a working man — as a someone who grapples and creates, who is target-oriented, rational, efficient, and practical, and who always wants to see a measurable result. This need not always happen “in the sweat of his brow.” In this respect, modern masculine identity is very flexible. The suited man in management, consultancy, or government understands himself as a maker just as much as — or even more than — a worker in the construction industry, on the assembly line, or at the wheel of a truck. The latter have, in any case, long been outdated as models of masculine vocational orientation and are reserved to those who do not manage to jump through the social hoops on the way to the top-floor offices. However, they serve all the more as the representation of true masculinity on the symbolic level. Half-naked musclemen with heavy monkey wrenches or sledgehammers in hand, decoratively smeared with a little oil but otherwise almost aseptically stage-managed against the aestheticized backdrop of an auto workshop or a furnace, are the icons of modern masculinity.

When these men are used in advertisements for designer suits and cologne, the aim is to awaken fantasies and identificational desires that are firmly anchored in the deep structures of the construction of masculine identity. Even the pale, weedy insurance employee or corpulent, puffing sales manager of a soda firm can identify with the musclemen. On the bodily level, these are unattainable dreams. But in the psyche something else is decisive. For the musclemen and the statuesquely chiseled and hardened bodies represent the entitlement to exercise power — power over others, over the world, and over themselves. But this may be a miserable power, such as the ability to command a few employees, prevail against a rival on the market with a new kind of soda, or to have attained a rise in profits compared to the previous year. This power is also extremely precarious because it is constantly threatened and subject to revocation. For it depends not only on self-assertion in competition, which can fail at any time, but also, at the same time, on business cycles, which cannot be influenced by individuals. But it is precisely because of this uncertainty that it requires constant and aggressive self-assurance.

Modern man is thus not characterized by muscle-bound physicality as such. Rather, this symbolizes a hardness that in the first instance pertains to an inner attitude and mental
(self-)punishment. A “true man” has to be hard on himself and on others. Bulging biceps are the symbol for self-mastery, discipline, and self-restraint, of the power of the will over the body. The spirit is willing, the flesh is weak — and it must therefore first be tamed if a man wants to have everything under control. Therein lies the difference from the ancient notion that a healthy spirit dwells in a healthy body. Although this idea already announces the external separation into body and mind, the aim is their balanced relationship. In the modern conception, in contrast, the domination and subjugation of the body under the mind is foregrounded. The “free will” that falsely believes itself to be independent of all sensuousness, which it must permanently fight precisely because it disowns it, and that lives in terrible fear of losing this fight, amounts to the socio-psychological core of bourgeois man.

The Labor of Desensualization

It is precisely in this respect that modern masculine identity corresponds exactly to the profile of the demands of labor in capitalist society based on universal commodity production. For labor in capitalism is by its nature a desensualized and desensualizing form of activity — in many senses. Firstly, its goal is not the manufacture of concrete, useful objects, but the production of commodities as a means of valorizing value or capital. The things that are produced thus do not count as such in their material-sensuous reality, but only so far as they are representations of value and in this form contribute to making more money out of money. From this perspective the material aspect of a commodity is a necessary evil from which one unfortunately cannot be liberated, because otherwise it would not be possible to find a buyer. This is accompanied, secondly, by a fundamental indifference toward the natural foundations of life which ultimately only count as material for valorization and even then are used up ruthlessly, despite the fact that it has for a long time been well known that this threatens the existence of millions upon millions of people. Thirdly, labor is also a desensualized activity to the extent that it takes place in a special sphere that has been detached from all other contexts of life, a sphere that is solely aimed at economic efficiency and profitability, and in which there is simply no place for other goals, needs, or feelings.

Fourthly and finally, however, labor in this form does not only represent a specific historical mode of production, but also determines the entire social context in a fundamental way — and this not only quantitatively, by means of the direct transformation of more and more areas of life into divisions of commodity production and spheres of capital investment. Labor in capitalist society represents rather the central principle of the mediation of social relations, a mediation that by its nature has an objectified, alienated form. For people do not consciously create their context by agreement or direct communication, but enter into relation with one another by the diversion of products of labor either by selling themselves as labor power or by producing commodities that are then thrown onto the market in order to realize their value. That is, in a certain way, products of labor instead of people communicate with one another, in a manner in accordance with the objectified code of the logic of valorization. Mediation through labor means subjugation of people under the presupposed laws of valorization that follow an automatized internal dynamic and that people encounter as inviolable natural laws — even though they are their own form of social relations.

The World, a Foreign Object

The almost all-encompassing establishment of this historically unique form of social activity and relation was not possible without the creation of a particular human type corresponding to it and guaranteeing that it can function adequately. For even an objectified form of relation does not produce itself independently of but through social individuals who actively produce this relation again and again. But this human type is the male-inscribed modern subject of labor and commodities, whose central essential characteristic is that the entire world becomes to him a foreign object. His relation to his social and natural context, to other people and even to his own body and his own sensuousness, is that of a relation to things — things that are supposed be processed, organized, and also treated as things — as objects of his will. The modern subject even wants to manage his feelings and correspondingly to regulate functional demands. Despite an incredible mass of self-help literature, this regularly fails, but even then the intention is by no means abandoned.

This modern form of relation to the world and to the self becomes most obvious where one sells one’s labor power and thus relinquishes the power to dispose over oneself and immediately submits to the logic of valorization. But whoever works independently in no way escapes this logic but also stands under the compulsion to abstract himself from his sensuous needs and from the concrete-material characteristics of products which to him are indifferent and exchangeable means of earning his living — things of value. What is decisive, however, is that what is at stake is not an act of passive subjugation under a merely external compulsion, but that modern subjectivity is structured according to this compulsion. Only in this way can the obligation to function without rest, the obligation to objectification and self-objectification for the duration of the entire labor process, be fulfilled without a slave driver brandishing the whip. To the external pressure corresponds an internal pressure. It is precisely for this reason that the objectifying pattern of action and behavior is in no way restricted only to the spheres of labor and economy, but shapes the entire network of social relationships. But because this is intolerable in the long term (because having to act that way requires constant strain and exertion and permanently threatens to fail), the modern subject of labor and the commodity has such a fundamental hatred of all those who flounder under these pressures or even refuse them altogether.

Man Makes Woman

The Protestant work ethic first elevates this human type, which abstracts from its sensuousness and makes itself into a means of attaining an objectified success, to an ideal. At a time when the capitalist mode of production was only beginning to establish itself on a few islands in the ocean of feudal society, it already anticipated in the history of ideas the profile of requirements pertinent to a social context mediated through labor and the commodity form, and thus made a decisive contribution to its general establishment. In actually existing history, it was centuries before the human type that corresponded to these requirements was formed and had become the normal case. The entire history of early capitalism and its establishment is one of violent training and self-training of people into subjects of labor and the commodity. A history that is also one of stubborn resistance to this formation, which ultimately, however, could not be prevented.

That in this process the modern subject form was at the same time inscribed in terms of gender with the result that it corresponds to the time of modern masculine identity can be explained in the first instance historically, by means of the long prehistory of patriarchal domination on which capitalist society is based, and which it reinscribes and transforms in its own way. The identification of man with abstract reason and woman with sensuousness, which is at the same time devalued, desired, and fought against within her, follows in the wake of a long tradition that dates back at least to Greek antiquity, and which was adopted by Christianity and reinterpreted and further developed in accordance with its needs. However, in capitalist society this construction gains a new and central significance to the extent that the abstract and objectified relation to the world becomes the general mode of socialization. For this reason it combines with the basic social structure in a most fundamental way. The training of men into agents of objectification can draw on a variety of elements of the prior model of patriarchal masculinity; alongside identification with reason, this means in the first instance identification with the warrior, the violent subjugator. However, with the reification of all social relations, they are recomposed into a largely coherent and self-contained identity of “man.”

However, this could not succeed without the creation of a feminine counter-identity that unites all those features that the modern subject cannot endure because they do not fit in the system of coordinates of the construction of masculine identity, and which the subject must therefore split off projectively. This is the basis for the creation of a feminine “other,” the sensuous, emotional, and impulsive woman who cannot think logically or hammer a nail in the wall and is therefore charged with looking after the children, the household, and the well-being of “her” man. The invention of this “other” not only brings about the stabilization of the masculine subject’s identity — at the same time, it also installs and legitimizes a gendered division of labor that is thoroughly functional for the capitalist enterprise, because it takes the load off the working man, enabling him fully to exert himself in the sphere of labor and commodity production that has been dissociated from the contexts of everyday life.

Working Man in Crisis

Now while this construct of femininity has been called into question by the wide-ranging inclusion of women in the capitalist labor process on one hand, and by the women’s movement on the other, it nonetheless persists astonishingly stubbornly, and has in its core held its ground until the present day. To the extent that women have succeeded in gaining positions of social power, this has always happened at the cost of accommodating the requirements of the masculine norms of labor, competition, and abstract achievement. At the same time, seen in society as a whole, their primary responsibility for household and children remains preserved, and objectification of the female body for men’s sexualized fantasies is all-pervasive, as a glance at the display of any magazine kiosk or billboard demonstrates.

This tenaciousness of polarized capitalist gender identities may at first glance seem surprising. But as long as the social context continues to be produced in the reified forms of relation of commodity, money, and labor, the male-inscribed subject-form that is proper to it survives. Even the current crisis process that catapults people out of the labor process on a massive scale or forces them into increasingly precarious working conditions in no way removes the gender identities. While it is true that the crisis process unsettles one of the basic pillars of male identity, it nonetheless at the same time leads to an intensification of competition at all levels of everyday life. However, under these conditions the classical qualities of modern masculinity such as hardness, assertiveness, and ruthlessness are more in demand than ever. It is thus no surprise that the cult of masculinity — including sexist and racist violence — is booming again today. For this reason, it is precisely under the conditions of the extensive crisis process that a fundamental critique of the modern, male-structured subject is necessary in order to open up a new perspective of social emancipation.