In your May 2020 article, “Alt-Virilities: Masculinism, Rhizomatics, and the Contradictions of the American Alt-Right” you discuss the lack of research on masculine elements of fascist movements. What is masculinism and why is it important as an analytical lens in the field?
In the West, it is difficult to speak of masculinity. No question. Always, the scholarly study of men, boys, and masculinity must commence with this foundational insight. With due credit to Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club (and the later film starring the incomparable Brad Pitt), the first rule of masculinity is: Do not talk about masculinity. In naming the phenomena of men, boys, and the various masculinities they embody, the scholar breaks a key taboo.
Already, I have broken the second rule of masculinity: Do not talk about masculinities. Masculinity entertains no rivals. There is only one way of being a man or boy, it claims. To fail to be masculine is to be a failure. The stakes are always very high. Of course, a historian of masculinity knows that masculinity is often defined very differently over time, even amongst the same people or in the same culture: masculinities. But for men or boys who live within the horizon of a given form of masculinity, there are no worlds beyond.
Masculinism encompasses any ideology in which one or more conceptualizations of masculinity are centrally, overtly, and self-consciously at issue—not simply politics in which lived forms of masculinity may be tangentially, covertly, or unconsciously present. Here I differ from scholars who see masculinism everywhere we find a form of masculinity. That strikes me as far too broad. Since there are many ways of being a man or boy, we will always find many forms of masculinity. But just as there are many forms of nationality, not all of which is a nationalism, not every form of masculinity is a masculinism. No. To say we have found a masculinist ideology, we must show more: a concept of masculinity and one with some centrality in the ideology, for example. In thinking of ideologies as conceptual clusters comprised of core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts, I simply follow the seminal work of Michael Freeden.
Fascism is a quintessential masculinist ideology. Its concept of the New Man is inescapable. One finds it everywhere, from fascist aesthetics and physical culture to leadership and rhetoric. That scholars long ignored this fact follows from my point above: In the West, it is difficult to speak of masculinity. Only early in the twenty-first century did the discipline burgeon and break through such taboos. New horizons now open up. Take the theory of Roger Griffin—fascism is a form of palingenetic ultranationalism—which has inspired my own thought and that of many others. Does that theory now appear in a new light? Rebirth, yes. But of what? In Italy the state, in Germany the volk, in different fascist movements other emphases still. A common element across all: the New Man. Palingenesis begins with revivified, even “revirilized,” men.
One final concept must be introduced, perhaps a surprising one: geopolitics. Western masculinities, especially on the right, are deeply invested in geopolitics—and modern Western geopolitics are profoundly influenced by masculinity. Fascism arises in the wake of a geopolitical catastrophe. World War I shatters the bodies, minds, and spirits of men. Men. Not sexless and genderless humanoids. Millions of young men—some hardly more than boys—return from the battlefields scarred, amputees, bereft of fallen companions, disoriented by domestic life. The front generation. We must never forget this generation includes also those who did not fight but were inwardly steeling themselves to do so. Younger men whose older brothers and friends fought and fell. Many heard an irresistible call to redeem such losses. The front generation includes also men whose bodies were not on the battlefield but whose spirits evidently were. Consider the philosopher Martin Heidegger. After the war, the language of his thought shifts.
Western masculinities, especially on the right, are deeply invested in geopolitics—and modern Western geopolitics are profoundly influenced by masculinity.
The war is a great chasm in the continuity of European manhood. Never in modernity had such a catastrophe befallen European men on such a scale and on their home soil. Of the Great War it can be truly said: after, nothing remained as before. The male body politic simply could not be made whole. Too many men had been lost to life or lost to wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Furthermore, another tragedy would unfold: Europe was soon unmasked as totally bereft of ways of responding to such men as men. What did it mean to a man to lose his bosom buddy, a comrade of the trenches? What did it mean to a man to lose his eye, his leg, his testicles? What did it mean to a man to have his spirit shattered? Neither religion, nor philosophy, nor politics, nor the medical and psychological sciences proved adequate to the Herculean task of reconstituting European manhood after the war. Fascists opportunistically seized upon this astonishing failure.
You describe masculinism as being quite flexible, embodying different archetypes such as “manly liberal” and the “robust socialist worker.” How does masculinism’s flexibility allow it to be applied in Alt-Right contexts, and what does that indicate about the trajectory of such a movement?
Yes, masculinism has a certain flexibility, but also firm limits if it is to remain a masculinism at all. Freeden’s theory is again helpful: Political ideologies consist of concepts in core, adjacent, or peripheral positions. The concept of the New Man, or variations thereof, is found at the core of all fascist ideologies. Given the centrality of the concept, it would make little sense—and be thoroughly redundant—to refer to an ideological formation like “masculinist fascism.” Fascism, in all significant forms, simply is masculinist. Without some concept of masculinity at its core, it is impossible to conceive of an ideology as properly fascist.
I do not know of any scholar who argues that a concept of masculinity must be central to either ideology for it to be a form of liberalism or socialism at all, whereas I argue this is deeply true of fascism.
The two examples of the manly liberal and the robust socialist worker illustrate how a concept of masculinity can sometimes be found in an adjacent—that is, a noncentral but still significant—position within an ideology and thus tell us something important about a particular variation of that ideology. Liberalism takes many forms. Socialism takes many forms. I do not know of any scholar who argues that a concept of masculinity must be central to either ideology for it to be a form of liberalism or socialism at all, whereas I argue this is deeply true of fascism. But at certain times and places—one thinks of the liberalism of Teddy Roosevelt or the socialism of Joseph Stalin—concepts of masculinity do appear, albeit in adjacent positions, in variations of each.
We are at last ready to approach the Alt-Right. The Alt-Right was not, properly speaking, fascist. Too many archetypal elements of the interwar fascisms are lacking. However, like fascism—but unlike liberalism, socialism, or most other ideologies—the Alt-Right had at its core a fixation upon masculinity. Without finding such a fixation, one is not looking at a form of the Alt-Right.
The Alt-Right did not begin with a marked fixation on masculinity. The ideology took shape over time and underwent a masculinist turn, I argue. The question about trajectory is crucial. Richard Spencer and other early Alt-Right leaders did not speak often and openly about masculinity. See again the first rule of masculinity. To understand how the Alt-Right took a masculinist turn, one must always remember that the Alt-Right appeared in the wake of geopolitical catastrophes: 9/11, the foreign policies of the Bush administration, and especially the Iraq War. Such roots are often obscured by a tendency—not only in the press but also among many scholars—to carelessly deploy the most sensational ideological labels and purported parallels rather than doing the disciplined and patient work of empirical analysis. As Jim McAdams and his collaborators have shown, the contemporary far right is a dynamic phenomenon, one responsive to an ever-changing political and geopolitical environment.
The “alt” prefix, promoted by Richard Spencer, denotes “alternative,” a term first used by Paul Gottfried. Alternative to what? To an establishment right. The Alt-Right emerged in the US in the 2000s. Who then were the establishment right? Neoconservatives, as their paleoconservative rivals admitted already in 2002: interventionists cloaked in liberal rhetorics of democracy and human rights. In the person of George W. Bush, if not all his advisors, also a form of Christian nationalism—not without reason did he, the “compassionate conservative,” once call the global war on terror a “crusade.” Against this trinity of liberal interventionism, Christian millenarianism, and unquestioning nationalism, the Alt-Right positioned itself. Extensive links with European movements emerged, especially with the Identitarian youth groups. French New Right thinkers like Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye came to North America to speak to Alt-Right audiences. Tellingly, one of Faye’s central concepts is “devirilization”: He warns of the devirilization of the West.
In responding to these geopolitical catastrophes—followed by the Global Financial Crisis, the opioid crisis, deaths of despair, and more—the Alt-Right, like fascism before it, found itself responding to perceived crises of masculinity.
In previous reactionary movements, masculinity hovered in the background without being named because the exercise of power was tied to hegemonic masculinity. The contemporary far right is fixated on a performance of that masculinity, whether this plays out in esoteric channels like 4chan or in the mainstream such as on Fox News programming. Why does there seem to be a crisis of masculinity today that has not been observed in previous reactionary movements?
In the West, something has shifted in the realm of the masculine. I observe the trends at the levels of thought and discourse, including online, but I am also a teacher and hear directly from my students. Many boys and men perceive themselves to be directly targeted by dominant institutions—schools, workplaces, media, governments, “watchdog” groups, even the military—at a deep and sensitive place: their understanding of themselves precisely as boys or men. Reactionary movements have been quick to sense this angst and to capitalize upon it.
Take the mainstream progressive discourse around “toxic masculinity.” Certainly, it raised the visibility of the term masculinity itself. Yet however well-intentioned, it has had an effect quite opposite to what many hoped. Anyone enrolled in Masculinity Studies 101 (may we have many such courses) would learn the first week that masculinities exist in the plural, as I emphasize above. There are many forms of masculinity, many ways of being a boy or man. Toxic masculinity could be taken to mean that some forms of masculinity are toxic, but certainly not all. Yet since we have deplorably few Masculinity Studies courses, many took the phrase to be saying that masculinity itself is toxic, that masculinity is now outré and slated to be “canceled.”
There are many forms of masculinity, many ways of being a boy or man. Toxic masculinity could be taken to mean that some forms of masculinity are toxic, but certainly not all.
As an educator, I naturally believe that more and better education will go a long way to solving such misunderstandings. I am deeply disappointed by efforts to close down gender studies programs in parts of Europe and the US. We need more and better gender studies.
Again, parallels to the interwar period and fascism are illustrative, if pursued with care, and can serve to put the present moment in perspective. Fascists spoke to masculine anxieties overtly and in ways other movements neither could imitate nor, in most cases, would want to imitate. Fascists were extraordinarily adept in the art of masculine seduction. They knew how to appeal to men and boys in an astonishing number of spheres: from the aesthetic realm of images, sculpture, and film to embodied practices like the wearing of uniforms and physical culture to social practices ranging from squadrismo to Hitler Youth. In truth, the masculinist turn among reactionaries today appears anemic by comparison—mere “LARPing” or role-playing, as the younger ones say.
One danger unique to our present moment: Masculinity itself, or its overt articulation, is increasingly associated with one end of the political spectrum and even with its more radical and extreme elements. I have analyzed abortive forms of left-wing masculinism in twentieth-century communist, anticolonial, New Left, and Black radical movements. As the century progresses, moments of left-wing masculinism become increasingly rare and shorter-lived; often, they are stillborn. But perhaps the masculinist appeal of interwar fascism was dented by the range of alternative forms of masculinity on offer across the political spectrum. One could be a manly liberal or a robust socialist worker. One could be a deeply masculine conservative, nationalist, even aristocratic reactionary—as were many officers in the German Wehrmacht—and thereby oppose fascism and the forms of masculinity it proffered. Do we find such a spectrum today?
In your Spring 2022 article “’Apollo has Saved Us!’ Global Ambition and Metapolitical Warfare in the Alt-Right Religion,” you describe masculinism as a religion. Is that a religion supported by mythology? And do the tropes of religious masculinism result in misogynistic praxis? If so, how does this play out in far-right groupuscules?
Shocking, is it not? To think we would see right-wing efforts to reconstruct lived forms of Greco-Roman religion in the present day. Apolloism is one such example. A collaborator of Richard Spencer, Mark Brahmin (a pseudonym), elaborates at great length how such a religion could begin to take shape. Other online figures—especially in the burgeoning sphere of right-wing bodybuilders (RWBBs)—now adopt Apollonian aesthetics and cultural references, propagating them far more widely than Brahmin himself. Such efforts number among more obscure manifestations of the phenomenon, but far-right religion merits continued scholarly attention.
More well-known, and considerably larger, are right-wing attempts to appropriate and revive Germanic or Norse religion. Such attempts have deep roots in pre- and interwar milieux in Central Europe—some highly influential on the development of National Socialism and, after WWII, neo-Nazism. And there were attempts among certain Italian Fascists to revivify classical Roman religion—as there were among fellow travelers like the Traditionalist Julius Evola, a man praised by Steve Bannon in a 2014 Vatican interview.
In modernity, such religious projects are often deeply masculinist in inspiration and orientation. In a way, they are as old as the Renaissance. No less a figure than Niccolò Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, praised classical Greco-Roman religion for the fierce manliness it instilled in believers—even as he critiqued Christianity as effete and effeminizing—and for its political effects.
Religion reveals a fault line at the heart of the reactionary right. Will it try to resuscitate Christianity—despite critics who believe it a “Middle Eastern religion”—or embrace some form of “indigenous European” religion, or an Indo-European “Aryan” religion with even wider geopolitical implications? Such disputes are never far from geopolitics. Aryanist claims regarding an ancient homeland in the Eurasian steppes served as a justification for invading those same steppes in WWII, a form of homecoming.
Ultimately, what is at stake is identity. Masculine identity, certainly, but also ethnic and racial identities of the Europeans and the descendants of European settler colonists worldwide, especially in the Americas and Oceania. We are witnessing the rise of global Identitarianism, to invoke the subject of a forthcoming scholarly collection co-edited by Pedro Zúquete, the first scholar to bring widespread awareness of the European Identitarian movement to the Anglo-Saxon world. Identitarianism—albeit manifesting only in small groupuscules—has geopolitical implications, potentially serving as a far-right source of Western and trans-Atlantic unity. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, for instance, Richard Spencer unhesitatingly backed US and NATO support for Ukraine. He and certain others on the far right differ thereby from right-wing populists in Europe and the US who are skeptical of supporting Ukraine.
Misogynistic praxis is a topic worthy of its own extended treatment, but one point is germane here. From its origin to post-Charlottesville decline, the Alt-Right excluded women from leadership and activist roles and largely ignored them in its messaging and recruitment. We see the same in its successors on the so-called Dissident Right and in more distantly-related movements like Patriot Front or Proud Boys. If we are talking strategy, excluding and ignoring women may prove a miscalculation on the part of the far right. Women have often spearheaded right-wing movements as both leaders and grassroots activists.
If we are talking strategy, excluding and ignoring women may prove a miscalculation on the part of the far right. Women have often spearheaded right-wing movements as both leaders and grassroots activists.
In many racist and reactionary spaces there is great importance placed on heterosexual relationships that produce children. Indeed the 14 Words, a credo that is echoed in the Great Replacement Theory speak to this desire. Such spaces are vehemently homophobic, and yet at the same time they often indulge in homoeroticism. Can you make sense of this contradiction? What purposes does it serve within reactionary movements?
Many complex issues arise here. Natality—and reactionary approaches thereto—strikes me as the most demanding of further research. Far-right homophobia and a seeming homoeroticism are comparatively easy to analyze. Some extreme figures, especially those online, evince ferocious forms of homophobia. Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, for instance, regularly calls for what he terms “white sharia” to govern the sexes and sexuality, a quasi-religious law featuring practices like “throwing gays off rooftops.” Other reactionary leaders evince a benign neglect regarding homosexuality, not wishing to invest much energy in the issue. At the level of everyday discourse or on social media, one does find many anti-gay sentiments—but such, sadly, are not unique to the far right.
Regarding homoeroticism and reactionary movements, I see very little (and I speak here also as a gay man). Admiration, even veneration, of male prowess or excellence in various spheres—including physical ability and beauty—is found in many masculinist movements, both left and right, with interwar fascism being again the most prominent. But there is nothing erotic about the Nazi-beloved statuary of Arno Breker, for instance, which critics rightly describe as cold and unfeeling. Nor is there anything erotic in the archetypal militarism of fascists.
Regarding contemporary movements, I have written extensively about the Bronze Age Pervert (BAP), an influential figure on the masculinist right. He and his followers regularly celebrate images of handsome and muscular young white men. But I argue the force behind such images is almost never sexuality (at least not homosexuality) but gender—a masculinist vision which is also highly ethnocentric, racial, and geopolitical. The images depict men in typical ways for Western masculinities: active, in motion, subjects shaping the world, not sexual objects. BAP posts images of virile young men on beaches or surfboards in tropical locales—including the Caribbean and Baja California—with captions stating they are “conquering” or “cleansing” such territories. These are geopolitical visions, a form of popular geopolitics calling for expansion and conquest of the global South.
I argue the force behind such images is almost never sexuality (at least not homosexuality) but gender—a masculinist vision which is also highly ethnocentric, racial, and geopolitical.
Let us return to the starting point of your question. Natality is one of the mysteries of both political philosophy and policymaking. Only the very greatest philosophers attempt to think the phenomenon—consider Plato in his Symposium and Phaedrus. Most do not dare. Once one begins down that road, other mysteries appear: desire, courtship, mating, the whole realm of “erotics” and the erotic arts. Nor have Western policymakers much concerned themselves with natality—save in moments of national crisis, like France after its defeats by Prussia, or the infamous case of eugenics in which the US (truth be told) was at the vanguard. Even so august an analyst of modern biopolitics as Michel Foucault leaves natality comparatively underexplored. Any surprise that extremists, who typically lack philosophical and policymaking heft, turn to simplistic slogans like the 14 Words or conspiracies like the Great Replacement?
The overarching point is that reactionary movements do not exist in bubbles immune to broader political currents. Natality has only recently become a “problem” in the West, or the global North and developed world more broadly, with declining birthrates and demographic aging observed nearly everywhere. Only when something becomes absent (or breaks) do we perceive it for the first time, as the phenomenologists show us.
Questions are now being asked across the political spectrum and by serious grand strategists—that is, not only by right-wing populists or extremists—regarding “demographic shifts” and “immigration shocks” (to invoke the argot of policymakers in the European Union). This reveals a unique feature of our time. So too do reports that young people are increasingly less likely to have sex at all, or to drink alcohol and experiment with drugs, or to find a spouse (opposite-or same-sex, it seems not to matter).
What do these have in common? They occur in “meat space,” as it is called by certain persons who live more in cyberspace (or the metaverse) than in what used to be called the “real world.” That rightwing movements, even the most ethnocentric or racist, are having trouble reproducing themselves and their avowed peoples, or just getting them to turn out in the streets for activism and protest—as opposed to lounging in their parents’ basement posting online memes and videos, a stereotype about the Alt-Right with more than a kernel of truth—may be symptomatic rather than idiopathic.
Josh Vandiver is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of European Studies at Ball State University. His research and teaching center on grand strategy, geopolitical theory, and extremism—both on the Left and the Right—with an emphasis on transatlantic influences between Europe and the USA.