The Hazards of Manhood — The Good Men Project


John Henry of American folk song legend refused to bow to the superiority of a machine. He raced the steam-driven drill and won, though the effort killed him. Because of his strength and pride, John Henry is usually celebrated as a working-class hero. But he is really a capitalist’s dream: a worker who devotes his last ounce of energy to generating profit and then conveniently dies just when a cheaper technology becomes available to replace him.

Every year, thousands of men in the United States die like John Henry, albeit with less drama. They quietly work themselves to exhaustion, bad health, and premature death. Or they take risks and suffer fatal workplace injuries. Women workers die, too, of course, sometimes in exactly the same ways. The difference is that men die trying to prove to themselves and others that they are men.

Conventional wisdom has it that what capitalists exploit is the labor power of workers—the capacity to do work­—paying less for it than the value it creates. But it could also be said that what capitalism exploits, what it uses up, in the quest for profit is human bodies. This occurs in both the workplace and the marketplace. One way to enhance the exploitability of male bodies is to instill in them the desire to be men. The trick is to make feelings of self-worth contingent on the ability to display the qualities culturally defined as signs of being a real man…



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