Mike Donaldson and Scott Poynting. Bern: Peter Lang, 2007, 273 pp. (paperback)
This is a momentous book. In an age of ecological crisis one cannot help but look to the ruling class for a change of heart, recognition of the problem and a willingness to forgo narrow self interest. On the evidence of this book, this seems unlikely. Ruling class masculinity is part of the machine of capitalism, constructed quite deliberately to perpetuate the capitalist class and very impervious to change.
So much a work of Australian sociology despite its global focus, this is an ethnography of ruling class men, in the tradition that links humanist marxism to feminism; the missing chapter from Connell’s Masculinities. A problem faced by the authors is that capitalists are nearly impossible to interview. A patchwork of sources is the alternative – accounts from disaffected capitalists; hagiographic biographies; the narratives of employees; with a few successful interview studies thrown in.
Some aspects of this account are not unexpected. The fabulous houses of the rich, their marriages, their extensive travel, their sports and leisure are somewhat familiar. These chapters of the second part of the book show how the habits of rich men demonstrate their power and success; their emotional distance from other people; their obsessive competitiveness. They also explain their behaviour at work, why they work and how they relate to competitors, employees and to the political sphere. They are bullies at work. Many very rich men work hard – gaining self-esteem by displaying “might, strength, aggression, honour, daring and indifference to the feelings of others” (p. 238). They do not hesitate to control political life to suit their own interests or those of the class. They believe their superiority and hard work legitimates their success and they scorn the rest of society as “losers”. This is the practice of ruling class men as they exercise their ownership of production.
Some of this is not completely novel. It is the first part of the book that makes this study truly amazing. This is a tour de force of making the familiar seem strange; the ruling class are aliens from a Dr Who episode. Their childhoods and adolescence turn them into people quite different from the rest of us. Some of what is described is not totally unfamiliar in the construction of patriarchal masculinity in this and other cultures. But the excessive degree to which these practices are carried out in the ruling class today is a revelation.
Both parents are distant but fathers are to be feared. James Packer’s father made a conscious effort to make his life difficult – to help him to be sure of himself and to “realize the way the world lives” (p. 38). Rupert Murdoch described his parents as “remote and tough … preoccupied with their own lives, quick to find fault, slow to praise and even slower to demonstrate affection” (p. 37). His mother said she did not want the children to be “spoiled”. Except during winter, he was made to sleep outside in a tree house in the garden of their country home, with no light. She thought it would be good for him. Between seven and eleven years, boys are usually sent to a ruling class boarding school to continue this toughening process. Bullying is the norm and getting into a gang, going along with the gang’s leaders and conforming are the only ways to survive. Boys who cry at night when first arriving at the school are set upon with great ruthlessness – punished for their unmanly weakness.
These competitive all male environments are continued in university colleges for ruling class men. Relationships with women are instrumental. Womanly qualities are hated along with homosexuality. Throughout all this period ruling class boys are taught to separate themselves from and despise people from other classes. Their superiority is constantly affirmed through lavish material dispensation, the market provision of all human services and social isolation from people with other backgrounds.
The authors make a good case that these unusually harsh childhood experiences are deliberately inflicted to create men who can be successful in business competition; ruthless with subordinates and competitors alike. An obsessive acquisitiveness staves off an insecurity borne out of their emotionally starved childhoods. The authors quote Bronfman – these men are “aloof; insecure; insensitive to their own and others’ feelings, desires and mistreatment” (p. 236).
A final summary chapter invites the reader to tease out some of the implications. As writers like Castoriadis and Perlman suggest, capitalism operates like a machine with ruling class masculinity as one of its functioning parts. The ruling class is “historically continuous, integrated, networked and impervious to change with in built mechanisms operating to keep it this way” (p. 232). While these mechanisms are not set up by a conspiracy they are undoubtedly deliberate – ruling class men are constructed to be incapable of intimate relationships that might “hinder capital’s accumulation” (p. 233). Parents bring up their sons to “toughen” them by depriving them of intimacy and emotional security. This is consciously intended to enable them to maintain and increase their wealth.
While all this is conscious and deliberate, I cannot believe that the human cost for ruling class men is clearly perceived by people formed by this regime. What these men do not seem to understand is that this process does not in fact produce men who have a “head sure upon [their] shoulders” (p. 38) at all. Instead ruling class men are very insecure; they mask this with a show of confidence and superiority; they experience constant fear and distrust, which they keep at bay with further conquests; they are unable to enjoy the love and affection of other people. Surely little of this is transparent to those involved. This is the hidden cost to the ruling class of strategies seen as necessary to maintain class power.
As the authors point out, the consequences for the rest of us are nothing less than disastrous. If an archaeologist of the future wonders why our civilisation failed to make it to the 22nd century, this book would make a good place to start looking for the answers.