Rise and Fall of the Working Man

On Criticism of Modern Masculinity

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Norbert Trenkle

Our permanent crisis, the perfect economic storm, calls for radical rethinking, rethinking work, meaning, fulfilment, sexism and cooperation and reducing our footprint. The work religion confuses independence and dependence and distorts the world into a foreign object.

The crisis of work is also a crisis of modern masculinity because the modern middle class man is constituted and structured in his identity in very essential ways as a working man. A working man is goal-directed, rational, efficient and practical and always wants to see a measurable result. This need not always happen “in the sweat of his brow.” In this regard, the modern masculine identity is very flexible. The man of action in management, business consultation and government understands himself as an achiever or as a worker in construction, on the assembly line or driving a truck. The latter have long been outdated as models of male vocational orientation and are reserved to those who don’t leap over the social hurdles on the way to the top floors. Nevertheless they serve as representatives of true masculinity on the symbolic plane. Half-naked musclemen with heavy monkey wrenches or sledge hammers in hand, smeared a little decoratively with oil but otherwise nearly aseptically clear are put on stage before the aestheticized scenery of an auto shop or a big oven are the icons of modern masculinity.

In advertisements for designer suits and men’s cologne, fantasies and identification desires that are firmly anchored in the deep structures of constructed male identity should be awakened. The frail insurance employee or obese short-winded sales manager of a lemonade firm can also identify with the musclemen. Physically they are unattainable dreams that will never be reached. However something else is crucial. The muscle packages and steel bodies shaped like statues represent the claim of exercising power, power over others, over the world and over themselves. This may be a wretched power to control a few employees, prevail on the market against a rival with a new kind of lemonade or gain higher profits compared to the previous year. This power is also extremely precarious because it is constantly threatened and subject to recall. It depends on self-assertiveness in competition which can always fail and on business cycles that cannot be individually influenced. Because of this uncertainty, constant and aggressive self-assurance are necessary.

Thus the muscle-laded physical specimen does not constitute the modern man. Rather this symbolizes a severity that firstly is an inner attitude and mental self-preparation. A “true man” has to be hard on himself and others. Bulging biceps is the symbol for self-control, discipline and the power of will over one’s body. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – and therefore must be first tamed if man wants to have everything under control. Therein lies the distinction to the ancient notion that a healthy spirit dwells in a healthy body. Although body and spirit are outwardly separate, their balanced connected is still valid. However the domination and subjugation of the body under the spirit is in the limelight in the modern interpretation. The “free will” that imagines itself independent of all sensuousness and must permanently fight lives scared stiff that it could lose this battle. This anxiety constitutes the socio-psychic core of the middle class person.


The modern male identity corresponds to the demanding profile of work in the capitalist society based on general goods production. By its nature, work in capitalism is a corrupted and corrupting activity in many ways. Firstly, its goal is the production of goods as a means for exploiting assets or capital, not the manufacture of concrete useful objects. Thus the produced goods do not count as such in their material reality but only so far as they represent value and contribute to making more money out of money. From this perspective, the material side of a good is a necessary evil from which unfortunately one cannot be free. Otherwise a customer would not be found. Secondly, production of goods as a means goes along with a basic indifference toward the natural foundations of life which ultimately only count as material of exploitation and then are themselves consumed recklessly even if gigantic catastrophes occur threatening the existence of millions upon millions of people. Thirdly, work is a corrupted activity when it takes place in a special sphere separated from all other life contexts subject to the dictates of company efficiency and profitability and simply has no room for the goals, needs and feelings that are not subject to this dictate.

Fourthly and lastly, work in this form defines the whole social contest in a very basic way and is not only a specific historical mode of production. This is not only quantitative in that more and more areas of life are transformed directly into divisions of goods production and spheres of capital investment. Rather work in capitalist society represents the central principle of mediating social relations. By its nature, this mediation has an objectivized, depersonalized and estranged form. People do not consciously produce this connection by agreement or direct communication but relate in the round-about way of work products by either selling themselves as workers or producing goods thrown on the market to realize a profit. In a certain way people communicate with one another through work products according to the objectivized code of exploitation logic. Communication through work means subjection of people under the assumed laws of exploitation that follow an automated momentum of their own. Opposing them is likened to opposing inviolable natural laws although they are a form of social relations.

The largely across-the-board enforcement of this historically unique form of social activity and relations was not possible without the creation of a certain anthropological type corresponding to it and guaranteeing its adequate functioning. An objectivized relational form is not produced independent of social individuals but goes through them and is actively reproduced again and again. This anthropological type is the male subject of work and goods of the modern age. To him, the whole world becomes a foreign object. His relation to his social and natural context, to other persons and even his own body and his own sensuousness is that of a relation to things, things that should be treated, organized and handled functionally as objects of his will. The modern subject only wants to manage his feelings and regulate functional demands correspondingly. Despite an incredible mass of self-help literature, this regularly fails but is not abandoned.

This modern form of world- and self-relations is most obvious where one sells one’s labor power. One loses control over oneself and submits very immediately to the dictates of exploitation logic. Whoever works independently does not escape this logic but also stands under the pressure to abstract himself from his material needs and from the concrete material qualities of the products that are indifferently exchangeable means in earning his livelihood. Modern subjectivity is structured according to this pressure. More occurs than an act of passive submission under a mere external pressure. In this way the obligation to complete functioning objectification and self-objectification can be enforced for the duration of the work process without a slave driver swinging the whip. An internal pressure corresponds to the external pressure. The objectivizing model of action and conduct is not limited only to the spheres of work and economy but influences the whole social relational structure… Because the objectivizing mode is unbearable in the long run, because having to act that way requires constant exertion and effort and threatens to permanently fail, the modern work- and commodity subject hates all those who run aground or refuse these pressures.


The Protestant work ethic first raised this anthropological type to an objectified ideal of success. When the capitalist mode of production first began to prevail on a few islands in the ocean of feudal society, it anticipated in the history of ideas the social context mediated through work and commodities and contributed to its general enforcement. In real history, it took centuries until the human type was formed corresponding to these demands and became the normal case. The whole history of implementing capitalism is one of forcible preparation of persons into work- and goods- subjects and at the same time one of stubborn resistance against this formation which ultimately could not prevent it.

The type of modern male identity can be explained historically from the long prehistory of patriarchal rule on which capitalist society is based and transformed in its way. The identification of the man with abstract reason and the woman with the sensuousness that is simultaneously devalued, desired and combated. , follows a long tradition that extends to Greek antiquity, was adopted by Christianity and further developed and reinterpreted according to its needs. However this construction gained a new central position in capitalist society when the abstract and objectified relation to the world became the general mode of socialization. This construction is connected in a very essential way with the base social structure. The training of men into actors of objectification can be tied to different elements of the past model of patriarchal masculinity. Besides identification with reason, identification with the warrior, the violent subjugator occurs in male training. However given the objectification of all social relations, these forms are compounded into a largely coherent and self-contained identity of the”man.”

This could not succeed without the creation of a feminine counter-identity uniting all those features that the modern subject cannot endure because they do not fit in the coordinate system of male identity construction and therefore must be split off. The creation of a feminine “other, ” the sensuous, emotional and impulsive woman who cannot think logically or hammer a nail in the wall and therefore has to care for the children, the household and the well-being of “her” man. With the invention of this “other, ” the male subject did not only stabilize his identity. A gender division of labor was installed that is very functional for the capitalist enterprise.

This femininity model is now put in question by the wide-ranging inclusion of women in the capitalist labor process on one hand and by the women’s movement on the other hand. Still this model continues in its core up to today. When women succeed in gaining positions of social power, this always happens at the cost of an adjustment to the demands of the male norms of work, competition and abstract efficiency. At the same time their main responsibility for the household and children remains. Objectification of the feminine body for sexualized men’s phantasies is all-pervasive as a glance at the window display of any magazine kiosk or billboard advertisement proves.

This tenaciousness of polar capitalist gender identities may be surprising at first. However the male subject form will survive as long as the social cohesion is produced through the objectified relations of commodity, money and labor. The current crisis process that hurls thousands of persons from the labor process or forces them into increasingly precarious working conditions in no way suspends the gender identities. This crisis process shakes one of the basic pillars of masculine identity and leads to intensified competition on all planes of everyday life. Nevertheless under these conditions the classical qualities of modern masculinity like hardness, ruggedness and ruthlessness are more desired than ever. Therefore not surprisingly the masculinity cult has a boom season again today – including sexist and racist violence. Under the conditions of the sweeping crisis process, a fundamental critique of the modern male-structured subject is necessary to open a new perspective of social emancipation.