The fourth wave: A feminist manifesto for ‘incels’

The feminist movement, as conceived in popular consciousness, has gone through three waves. The first wave brought political rights to women after the First World War, and was preceded by both peaceful and direct-action protest — labelled effectively as terrorism at the time by the patriarchal press. The second wave brought economic rights to women after the Second World War and the Cold War, as everyone was included in the system of wage labour under the market rule of capital. The third wave addressed inequality of gender and sexuality that cut across the male/female divide and categories of gender and sexuality — demanding social justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and more recently transsexual and transgender people. Each movement has its hiccups. I have criticised how the third wave has painted transgender people are God-given rather than as human beings like the rest of us — fully capable of erring and even committing violent crimes. The right blames this on the left, but the left thinks the right is blaming trans people as a whole. Personally, I find this whole debate to represent the way in which feminism is no longer a solely left-wing concern. The right may also be considered to be feminist now — news anchors on Fox News are not exclusively male, or white, or even straight (though I am certainly not going to check Wikipedia ‘relationship’ sections to verify this, as that would be what internet commentators call ‘cringe’). There are right-wing people who are gay and strongly opposed to woke liberalism — such as Milo Yiannopoulos, subject to too many controversies to elaborate in this post. I am trying to say this: left and right have switched sides. The ‘left’ now stands for tradition in the name of ‘progress’, and the ‘right’ stands for progress in the name of ‘tradition’. The ‘left’ is the new right, and the ‘right’ is the new left. To quote from the centrist musical Hamilton, ‘the world turned upside down.’ Let me explain with reference to the chief focus of the fourth wave of feminism: ‘incels’.

Judith Butler’s magnum opus, and my favourite text in the feminist and psychoanalytic canon: a detailed examination of the dialectical entanglement of love and power — pertinent themes for today’s totalitarian politics of romantic frustration in the context of market-driven exploitation and alienation (the themes of Marx’s original critique of modern society as a totality).

‘Incels’ are stereotyped as straight, white, young, and male. But as the ‘left’-leaning newspaper the Guardian (before it decided ‘incels’ are the root of all evil — demanding they be ‘productive’ as was once demanded of women a century ago, and praising targeting them through the same program, Prevent, that has targeted Muslim men in the right wing-led War on Terror) once explained, incels were once a movement of women around the turn of the century who couldn’t find love. (I cannot find the original article because Google is flooded with the aforementioned vitriol — something you’d expect expect to find on a conspiracy theorist’s site, not a mainstream media organisation with a reputation like the Guardian, which I once read with interest and enthusiasm. How the mighty have fallen …). With the rise of the internet, young men found themselves in the same position. Studies have documented how sexual activity among young men has markedly declined — as women face an abundance of options, enabling them to be more selective. Feminism has coincided with what Steven Pinker positively calls ‘feminization.’ As feminist scholar J. B. Elshtain documents, the divide between ‘Public Man’ and ‘Private Woman’ from antiquity is collapsing in modernity.

But there is a dark side to this process. Men who feel sexually frustrated embrace ‘toxic masculinity,’ lashing out (so the media contends) at all real or, more likely, imagined enemies. But now, as post-COVID society remains defiantly lonely, the incelification of society is proceeding apace. Everyone feels more lonely — and this Freudian psycho-sexual condition expresses itself in what Nietzsche termed ‘sublimation.’ Instead of ‘deposition,’ expressed most clearly in the sexual act, ‘sublimation’ is where physical desire is transferred to the conceptual realm. Romanticism in art is one example of this. Another is political totalitarianism. This is what happens to a lonely society, as Frankfurt School scholars Max Horkheimer and Hannah Arendt document. It falls prey to extremely violent forms of conduct.

In the wild, there is a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response to danger. And in today’s society, where there is more and more loneliness, with friendship and family being equally strained by market competition and a growing marital and romantic abyss in sexual relationships (the key to humanity’s survival as a species), we are facing the return of this ‘state of nature.’

Max Horkheimer suggested the revolt against totalitarianism, the fruit of loneliness as Hannah Arendt argued, was an alliance of the lonely in solidarity with each other. This transition from totalitarian ‘solitarity’ to balanced ‘solidarity’ is crucial for world peace and freedom. But to do so, we must think outside the box.

Nietzsche also argued that political failure coincides with artistic success. And perhaps failure in other areas of life also goes hand-in-hand with a certain artistic flowering. For art reflects the lack of the world. It represents what we long for but cannot have, for it is not exactly of this world, in which we mere mortals remain imprisoned.

There is a similarity between the situation of transgender people and incels. I have seen YouTube videos of transgender people expressing sympathy for the condition of incels. I have not seen videos of people admitting to being incels, however. To be seen as an incel is a crime against left and right. The left sees it as an admission of racism or violent tendencies. The right sees it as weakness. The centre, ostridge-like, buries its head in the sand. Perhaps incels, rather than being exclusively confined to the fringes of political life, hide in the centre, too. (Of course, contrary to popular ‘wisdom’, it is also possible that ‘incels’ are really just human beings with the capacity for love and friendship – as the left ceaselessly argues with transgender people, while giving them a quasi-divine status that doesn’t help the humanising ethos of progressivism – but I don’t want to raise too many eyebrows, do I?) Hell, what do I know?

Professor David Runciman argues that fascism requires a number of angry young men — and that our societies are too old for old-school fascism. There aren’t enough ‘thugs’ for totalitarianism to be sustained today. I think this is right. But what if fascism can be led by violence from people other than ‘incels,’ the villains of the media’s story nowadays? The scare tactics the media deploys about incel terrorism have been undermined by a trans man shooting children at Covenant School, Tennessee, followed by a left-leaning movement’s occupation of the state building in Tennessee. Is the left going to deny the atrocity just as Alex Jones denied the documented 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, Connecticut? It is already happening — the word ‘trans’ has been banned from NBC’s coverage of the tragedy. So the fascist tactics of blame and denial are being used today — just as they were reused in the War on Terror. While the centre and the right led that neo-totalitarianism, now the centre allies with the left to get the totalitarian job done, keeping people’s eyes fixed on real or, more likely, imagined enemies. The real threat — what Franz Neumann termed ‘totalitarian-monopoly capitalism’ — is completely obscured by today’s woke ‘antiracism’, which, as Professors Adolph Reed Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels explain, plays the same role today as racism did a century ago. Woke liberalism is, in this sense, the new fascism. Indeed, this has happened before in the history of ‘liberal’ capitalism.

We still fight with the spectre of totalitarianism — and everyone sees evil everywhere, instead of seeing the heroism in us all. ‘We are all great,’ the producer, rapper, and fashion designer Kanye West proclaimed in his infamous Saint Pablo tour. So we are. But things have gotten worse since 2016-17. The woke left movement is now mimicked by the right. Everyone sees everyone else as racist, or some other new term for the enemy.

But what if the enemy is not a person, but an idea? What if the only enemy is the belief that there are enemies?

It is the stereotypical idea of incels that they hate. But this is what white people used to say about black people — and men used to say about women. And then it was so shocking when Malcolm X turned the hierarchy upside down, replacing white supremacy with something that went beyond Martin Luther King’s message of civic empowerment for black people. But without brother Malcom, Doctor King could never have won over white America and lifted the veil of political repression.

There is not exactly the same direct political repression or economic exclusion of these old forms any more — but there are new forms. The prison-industrial complex expanded since the Clinton label of ‘superpredators’ was deployed to keep young black men behind bars. Now the same label is being used to describe young white men — and the right is responding to this left-wing sexism by hurling the allegation back at the left, noting how transgender men may seek to exploit their position to gain access to women and (even more shockingly, and disturbingly) children. The left accused and the right responds — but it used to be the other way around, where the right accused and the left responded. The new civil rights movement is not of the left, but of the right. And it is not a protest for political rights, but for personal acceptance. ‘The personal is political,’ as feminism maintains — and as Judith Butler insisted in both Gender Trouble and the underread text, The Psychic Life of Power, my favourite text in the canon.

In ‘Feminism For The 99%,’ Nancy Fraser calls on feminists to reject Hillary Clinton’s ‘progressive neoliberalism’ and embrace Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism. But what if the left can no longer accomplish this task? Ye has stated ‘Bernie Sanders principles’ would animate any future campaign. Is he right? I think so. Others disagree — including those who have, out of fear of being labelled as bigoted by the bigoted mainstream media, shied away from controversy in recent years, including when it comes to a music artist as renowned as Ye.

As a friend of feminists and incels alike, I think it is worth a try. After all, as writer Ali Smith has noted, sometimes you have to see ‘how to be both.’ Although as Nietzsche suggested this is practically impossible, as art and politics are inversely related, perhaps there is hope for a new balancing coalition against neoliberal hegemony and for a better world. The right talks about bitcoin and fighting the left, but if it’s serious about changing things, then it must follow through fourth-wave feminism to its conclusion, and critique the fundamental root of all forms of prejudice — from left, right, and centre: capitalism.


One thought on “The fourth wave: A feminist manifesto for ‘incels’

  1. Although the old forms of direct political repression or economic exclusion are no longer present, new forms have emerged. The prison-industrial complex has grown since the Clinton era’s use of the term “superpredators” to keep young black men behind bars. This term is now being applied to young white men as well, with the right responding to left-wing sexism by accusing transgender men of exploiting their position to gain access to women and children. The roles of the left and right have switched, with the right now leading a civil rights movement focused on personal acceptance rather than political rights. This movement aligns with the feminist idea that “the personal is political,” as expressed in Judith Butler’s works Gender Trouble and The Psychic Life of Power.


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