On Masculinity and Capitalism

“John Henry of American folk song legend refused to bow to the superiority of a machine. He raced the steam-driven drill and won, though the effort killed him. Because of his strength and pride, John Henry is usually celebrated as a working-class hero. But he is really a capitalist’s dream […]

Like John Henry, a working-class man’s desire to appear strong and tough will often lead him to lift more weight, keep working despite pain, and forgo safety measures that slow him down and suggest fear or vulnerability. To appear competitive, he may strive to outdo his fellow workers, bringing a smile to the boss’s face.

Middle-class and upper-middle-class men do the equivalent. To display toughness, they work long hours and exalt efficiency over conscience and compassion. They compete for promotions, putting work first in their lives, lest they be seen as wimpy or wussy—sexist code words for “feminine” or “womanly.”

This kind of manhood striving is driven by a contradiction: To be a real man in U.S. society, one must have or display power—the capacity to exert control over one’s self and the surrounding world—but the fact is that most men in a capitalist society have little or no power. For most men, striving for manhood status is an attempt to evade this contradiction, to escape the psychic pain it causes.

From Michael Schwalbe’s essay, “The Hazards of Manhood

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