I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a question someone posed in response to an essay on relations between the sexes. I must apologise for having forgotten the source, but the gist was “This is all very interesting but what do you think we should do?”
Recently a brilliant Cambridge postgrad in her early twenties approached me for advice on a personal dilemma. We walked across autumn countryside for two hours, and talked about many things. In the course of that conversation, she asked me how I thought we should start rebuilding relations between the sexes in the rubble of hyper-liberalism.
Three points emerged, all of which I’ll write about in due course, and all of which address the question: “what in fact should we do?”The first is this: it’s time to abolish Big Romance.
One of my central contentions is that while some liberalisation has benefited some women, especially bourgeois women in the developed world, radical social liquefaction across the board is catastrophically bad for women – and especially those of us who are mothers. Interdependence is a defining feature of motherhood, from gestation onward. Family life is the archetypal template for those ways in which, as humans, we thrive when we belong to one another.
Another central question for me is how we start rebuilding after liquid modernity. In particular, as I argued at Natcon, how we do so in a way that isn’t just stuffing women back into some imaginary ‘trad’ box, or seeking the ultimate victory of one sex over the other. In my view the central institution for surviving and rebuilding after liquid modernity has to be marriage. But for this to work under today’s conditions we have to revise what we understand marriage to mean.
No group is more dangerous,” growled Theodore Dalrymple in 2014, “than the disgruntled literate.” Two years later, in Ages of Discord, the political scientist Peter Turchin made the same point, stating famously that “one of the most reliable predictors of state collapse and high political instability is elite overproduction”.
The problem, as Dalrymple and Turchin both see it, is that the sharp elbowed bourgeoisie makes often considerable sacrifices to obtain an education, with the aim of then securing employment that affords status and compensation commensurate with that sacrifice. And when there are more sharp elbowed strivers than juicy jobs, the also-rans become restive.
Turchin argues that this is the predicament in which America finds itself at present: with an excess of would be middle class courtiers, managers and nobles and too few desirable positions for them all to fill. He predicted in 2016 that this would drive a period of growing unrest as intra elite competition intensifies, that will peak in the 2020s.
American political events so far this decade have done nothing to dispel the impression that Turchin is onto something. But while he draws on American history to develop his thesis, one aspect of contemporary elite overproduction is historically unprecedented: the pronounced, and growing, overrepresentation of women.
It’s often noted that the right generally has a better grasp of the left’s motives and arguments than vice versa.
The right thinks the left is mistaken, while the left thinks the right is evil.
With one exception: feminism.
I have sympathy with some critiques advanced by friends on the right, of the excesses and uncounted costs of feminism. I have made a number of those critiques myself.
But I’m often frustrated by conservatives’ refusal to engage with feminist arguments or history much beyond the ‘pop’ versions you might find in the pages of Vox. The result is, regrettably, a right-wing treatment of the women’s movement that’s often as ignorant of what it condemns as modern liberal feminists are of the conservative case against abortion.
I’ve been reviewing like mad: first Amia Srinivasan’s The Right To Sex, which I found so evasive I concluded it was a coded cry for help from inside the woke ivory tower. And secondly, Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, which I argue here makes a compelling case for trans activism as a legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism – complete with the ambivalent and sometimes matricidal mother/daughter dynamics that pervaded that movement. No wonder the so-called ‘TERF wars’ are so bitter.
Elsewhere, I proposed in American Affairsthat what we understand as ‘feminism’ is to a great extent an effect of industrial-era economic shifts, that triggered wholesale re-negotiation of sex roles. But further, that we’re now leaving the industrial era, and thus once again re-negotiating sex roles; and if we try to do this on the industrial-era yardstick for what constitutes women’s interests, we’re going to end up somewhere very dark indeed.
I agree with the intersectionalists that feminism can’t be understood as universal; applying that logic across history opens the possibility that twentieth-century feminist ideals that were legitimately in our interests then may no longer be so now. And all these themes: economic transitions, matricide, woke feminism and trans activism, come together in reflections this week on yet another book: Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.
If you were a greengrocer in Soviet Czechoslovakia, it would be prudent to display, in your window, a poster proclaiming: “Workers of the world, unite.” This is the famous example Vaclav Havel used, in The Power of the Powerless (1978), to illustrate mass conformity to Communist dogma. Havel’s greengrocer probably never thinks about that slogan, let alone believes it; he puts it obediently in his window to signal compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: “If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.”
I was reminded of Havel’s greengrocer when reading The Right To Sex, a much-lauded new book on women and feminism by Amia Srinivasan — the holder of Oxford University’s prestigious Chichele professorship of social and political theory, a position previously held by luminaries such as Isaiah Berlin.
Despite — or perhaps because of — her standing, she opens the book with a statement typically found in the preface of any contemporary woke writing about women; I’ve come to think of it as a direct equivalent to the greengrocer’s poster:
“At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’, though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made. This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned.”
Yes, commissar, the statement says, the definition of “woman” in my book about women is “anyone who identifies as a woman”. No, commissar, biology is not a thing.
“A reactionary feminism seeks to honor women by accepting as givens the things that make us human: our bodies and our relationships. It asks how we might frame our obligations justly, between the sexes, in the interest of the common good. Women must negotiate new social and economic conditions, not in a spirit of zero-sum conflict with men, but alongside our friends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. The aim is not to return to some imagined perfect past, but to reach a future unshackled from the dystopian pursuit of progress. The only escape from a nightmare of atomization and war between the sexes is the recognition that we are embodied creatures, and that interdependence is not oppression but the very thing that makes us human.”
Charlotte is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate. Beautiful and willowy, she grew up in — her words — ‘a super-liberal environment’. You might expect to find her Instagram full of sexy, pouting pictures. But Charlotte has deleted all the bikini photos from her online life. And six months ago, she embraced ‘modest dress’: nothing that exposes her collarbones or shoulders and nothing that reveals her legs above the knee.
Narayan is seven years older than Charlotte. He is what matchmaking 18th-century matrons might have described as ‘very eligible’: a clean-living, highly educated and charismatic single guy with a well-paid job in tech. He’s the embodiment of Jane Austen’s famous observation that ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. And contra all the modern laments about single men preferring to play the field, Narayan actually wants to get married.
Narayan and his close male friends are all around the same age. They’re all elite guys working in tech and finance — and all either dating to marry, or already married. In what amounts to an informal 21st-century marriage brokerage, they and the wives of already-married members of their friend group collude to track down potential partners. But they’re picky — and Narayan is blunt about the criteria. It’s not just about being educated, ambitious or pretty. ‘Guys who say they don’t care about their wife’s sexual history are straight-up lying,’ he tells me. All the men in his group, he says, would strongly prefer their future wives to be virgins on marriage. Some categorically rule out women who aren’t: ‘No hymen, no diamond’.
Charlotte and Narayan are not the uptight fundamentalists or ugly, embittered feminists of stereotype: they’re members of the Ivy-educated jeunesse dorée. They’re pushing back against a culture of sexual freedom they see as toxic not just to individual wellbeing, but even to the long-term health of American society. They’re the forefront of what ‘Default Friend’, a Bay Area writer on sex and relationships, terms ‘the coming wave of sex-negativity’.