The Toronto van attack has brought the so-called ‘incel’ movement into the public eye, but it should also raise our consciousness of how a right-wing subculture in online politics has turned to violence. There is a spectre haunting our sexual relations: the spectre of male chauvinism.
We might better describe this misogynist subculture as ‘masculinism’. We’ve gotten away with not taking this threat seriously for many years, and it has spilt over into political violence on more than one occasion.
There are many differentiations of masculinism. You have the men’s rights activists (MRAs), the ‘men going their own way’ (MGTOW) crowd and self-described ‘incels’ – meaning involuntarily celibate – who have gained prominence through the Isla Vista killings, the UCC shooting spree and the Toronto van attack.
The MRAs aren’t to be conflated with MGTOW and the incels, but it’s the same spectrum. Many MRAs are more than happy to pursue members of the opposite sex, whether it’s to find a partner or just as pick-up artists. By contrast, the incels and MGTOW are more like male separatists. Some of them take asexuality as a political choice.
It may be very tempting to dismiss such people as sad, basement-dwelling failures. Tapping into a deep well of resentment has long been a tried and tested method of revanchists everywhere. Then there are those reactionaries who go a bit further to reach for more than just resentment.
This is where we’d do better to borrow a concept from Nietzsche – some would say, an indispensable concept – that of ressentiment. As Anindya Bhattacharyya blogged, the best way to understand ressentiment is in Deleuzian terms as the master’s maxim is “I am good, therefore you are bad,” while the slave expresses the logic of ressentiment: “You are evil, therefore I am good.”
In striking down the affirmative and active propositions of the master, the slave asserts their own power and their own position. This is reflected in the incel phrasebook. A beautiful woman is a ‘Stacy’, but an attractive man is a ‘Chad’ and anyone who can find a mate is a ‘Normie’. At the same time, the incels actually call themselves beta males. This is true slave morality.
Angela Nagle, the author of Kill All Normies, has charted this subculture for many years. In an article in The Baffler, Nagle delineates the subtle (or not so subtle) distinctions between Chads and Stacys:
As his name none too subtly suggests, Chad is a stand-in for the young, attractive, muscular football player claiming dominance over the beta-world in the contest for sexual success with women. Chad and his female equivalent Stacey are embodiments of the “normies” meme—and are typically depicted as sports playing, small-town ciphers of mass culture with generic tastes. One famous post, accompanied by an image of a football player and cheerleader kissing, describes with relish a fantasy of the couple going home together in his Ford, him crashing, and Stacey’s “last moments spent in utter agony” as she tries to tear her “bronze arm” free.
These guys clearly don’t get very far with Tinder and Bumble. The world of online dating is often a social minefield, with every step forward you risk awkward and embarrassing encounters, but no more so than ‘normal’ dating. This is if you can even get a date with the help of an algorithm.
A crude reading of game theory would suggest that the best way to maximise your chances of getting more matches on Tinder is to swipe right constantly. You can eliminate the bad matches afterwards. The problem with this approach is that it can lead to women getting hundreds of matches and even thousands of likes. Thus, the constant right swipe is self-defeating.
Yet the response of some men to rejection, or just a lack of a response at all, is to dig deep into the well of resentment. Most men go through this in their teens and soon get over it, but the incels represent what can happen when men don’t get over it.
The incels might seem like a narrow, pathetic subgroup, but the disturbing truth is that their thoughts are more prevalent than we might want to admit. The French reactionary nihilist Michel Houellebecq has fleshed out a similarly bleak view of sex in the modern world.
In Houellebecq’s view, the West languishes in affluent, shallow hedonism in a world where nothing has meaning and everything is permitted. Market forces have triumphed in every sphere of life, including in our sexual relations. His novels are less about plot and character development than the changes in Western society since the cultural tumult of the 1960s. It’s a picture of irresistible decay.
Houellebecq sees sex as just another commodity to be traded on the open market. But it’s more than that. Sex is another type of social differentiation, which parallels social class. If sexuality is a hierarchy, as he views it, then its structure may only serve as a barrier to be circumvented. Market forces break through all obstacles, but they need such blockages in the first place. As he put it in Whatever in 1998:
Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.
So the market has taken over our sexual relationships – what Houellebecq describes as sexual liberalism, and “the domain of the struggle” – and his initial attitude is one of despair. This despair can be detected in the pages of Whatever and Atomised. Whereas in Platform and Lanzarote, Houellebecq looks to accelerate this state of total marketisation: sex tourism as the next stage of progress.
It’s probably no coincidence that the slow decline of marriage and the rise of cohabitation has been matched with the left becoming obsessed with sexual choice, consent and non-monogamous relationships. Indeed, the same can be true for the left’s defences of sex work. Yet there is no answer to the reality that a lot of people don’t find it easy to find a partner.
This is as true for women as it is for men. The difference is that the problem hasn’t given rise to a misandrist movement, and this is due to the history of our gender relations. Male resentment is not just a product of sexual frustration and rejection, it’s partly down to the important social changes of the last fifty years. The gradual shift in gender relations has given women more opportunities and rights (at least on paper), while the neoliberal economy has created new levels of scarcity.
So many members of my generation are too busy to go out and date. Even more of us cannot afford to settle down and start a family in the way that people did just a generation ago. In other words, the incels are just an extreme reaction to the decline of the old order.
Incels are not a community of sad men that reflect a societal problem with loneliness; they’e a community of violent misogynists that reflect a societal problem with sexism & sexual entitlement.
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) May 3, 2018
Photograph courtesy of Comedy Central. Published under a Creative Commons license.