The Death of Macho


Reihan Salam has an interesting article in Foreign Policy titled The Death of Macho. “But make no mistake: The axis of global conflict in this century will not be warring ideologies, or competing geopolitics, or clashing civilizations. It won’t be race or ethnicity. It will be gender. We have no precedent for a world after the death of macho. But we can expect the transition to be wrenching, uneven, and possibly very violent.”

This has bounced around the internet (Dana Goldstein, Feministing, Reihan responds); I’d like to add my thoughts on reading it.


I’m not actually sure what Reihan means when he says “macho.” He refers to both “aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power” and “mostly male-dominated, industries [of the housing bubble], such as real estate, cement production, truck transport, and architecture.” So is macho simply (a) wherever men happen to be in charge? or (b) institutions that display male characteristics of overt aggression, broadly defined? If so, how are we defining aggressive?

The aggression part is important because Reihan assumes a common macho culture to both the trading floor and the union hall, to the symbolic cultural worker and to someone in jail. The habitus of masculinity that is constructed in each of these cases is quite varied, even moreso when it comes to how people push back against the constructions. I think Reihan wants to work at a broad biological level, but I would assume that the 21st century, the century of algorithms, computerized logic, the non-presence of the internets, and the ice-cold economic rationality – the century of the google employee – is double macho, in terms of strictly stereotypically male behavior, than a group of public works projects. Will the future be even more macho?

I don’t mean to sound like I’m nit-picking, but setting up those terms is important for the next question Reihan is interested in, adaptation. Are men being asked to share power within already-existing institutions, say at a top firm where there will be more women law partners? Or are they losing substantial access in-and-of-itself, and women are better positions for what comes next, as when the union closes but nurses are very much in demand? Is his implication that women have some sort of biological advantage in the 21st century, say due to cognitive structures or a lack of testosterone? Since this is all being projected against a background of industrial decline and a rise of “knowledge work” in the First World, you may see women being better off strictly simply because men are being made worse off in some cases. Reihan I think is working under a frame worker of convergence between men and women in the labor force, but there’s an underlying divergence in the labor pool itself; whether or not gender norms as a catalyst or reflection of these changes I am not sure.


How much women will actually transform the institutions they gain access to, or how much they’ll be absorbed into the “macho” culture? Carly Fiorina was a notable female CEO of H-P, and the board had to give her $20m in a golden parachute to leave the company after running it into the ground. She also started the series of investigations that continued under her successor (also female) where phone companies were lied to and computers were hacked to see who was leaking information to the press. (Carly was a likely choice to be Treasury Secretary under McCain). Rent-seeking and bullying. Is this less macho? Is it extra-macho, because it shows how invulnerable the ideology of the New Capitalism is to the chromosomes of the people at the helm?

There’s a lot of talk about a study that showed, under self-selected home investment portfolio managers, women traded less frequently than men and thus had more patience and less-risk seeking. On a trading floor, the general rule is if a women is trading there (and there are a few here or there) they are double-badass, because they’ve been able to take the heat. Reihan is worried about the cultural distress, but part of that in his argument (I think!) is predicted on genuine social transformation of the institutions that are going to assimilate many women. But this assumes what needs to be proven.

Anyway, exciting times to be alive!

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One Response to The Death of Macho

  1. anne says:

    There is so much wrong with Salam’s article that I actually cannot believe you’re taking it seriously.

    Do you really think macho is dead? Seems hardly likely, given the resurgence of Dick Cheney in recent weeks and the news about GS’s big year – and the even bigger bonuses to be awarded to those very macho men over on Wall Street who profess to like to “eat what they kill.”

    And then the idea that the global financial crisis is a “he-cession” is insulting at best – in that this crisis has been devastating to families.

    Let me repeat – this is a crisis for families – for children in particular, who will come of age in an environment where the employee – regardless of gender – is viewed by executive leadership as a huge financial drain. Those salaries and benefits paid to the employees take money out of the bonus pool for top leadership, so we shed jobs by the hundreds of thousands each month so that the top leadership can bonus themselves.

    And then of course the idea that the housing bubble existed solely to prop up men who like to work with hammers is one of the most absurdly silly economic theories I’ve seen to date.

    Politicians weren’t just propping up the the wolves who like to whistle at the ladies walking by their construction site. The politicians chose not to stop the housing market when in full acceleration because they were propping up the many industries that made quite a lot of money when the housing bubble grew bigger by the year – construction, mortgage brokers, realtors (many of whom are women).

    And let’s not forget the banks, who profited HUGELY by the housing bubble as they accumulated that toxic asset mountain that they continue to sit on today.

    The housing bubble was propped up to support all those many industries that had high–priced lobbyists that apparently, in the words of Dick Durbin, my senator, today own the Congress….

    The death of macho is sadly premature, I think. I see macho in full revival on Wall Street these days, with GS and others looking to wrap up their best year ever.

    And whose going to replace those macho dudes who’ve done it all wrong for all these centuries? The women who are spread too thin managing work, home, kids and life? They’re miserable too, or did you not see that story?


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