Incels: The New Politics of Indifference

Incels, shorthand for “involuntarily celibate,” frequently share their feelings of inadequacy online, often engaging in self-criticism and making light of their own distress, seemingly finding a twisted satisfaction in their despair.

While it’s tempting to view incels purely as embodiments of misogyny, their existence also signals a deviation from contemporary norms of masculinity. Incels are emerging within a backdrop of radical-right movements distressed by neoliberalism’s triumph. Their interaction with the current neoliberal era is complex and contradictory.

The incel ideology is entangled in the flawed belief that gender dynamics function under market-like conditions. Incels simultaneously believe in natural market-based competition among individuals while arguing that sexual competition is biologically determined, thus rendering fair competition unattainable. This contradiction fosters a unique emotional state within incel communities, marked by a stark indifference to suffering, their own included.

To comprehend the incel phenomenon, it’s essential to consider the historical context. The past five decades of neoliberal restructuring have significantly altered masculinity. Neoliberalism, which gained momentum in the 1970s, led to a shift in political economy globally, challenging the welfare state model and ushering in deregulation and a move away from trade unionism. This economic transformation was accompanied by shifts in social interactions and gender roles.

The welfare state model, which was heavily reliant on the nuclear family structure and gendered divisions of labor, has been dismantled. Men’s economic value was previously tied to their role as providers within this model, but neoliberalism has redefined masculinity through values of self-improvement and self-reliance. As a result, traits like personal grooming, social skills, and fitness have become crucial for men navigating this new landscape.

In this context, incels stand in opposition to the neoliberal definition of masculinity. Incels view sexual relationships as inherently competitive, yet feel doomed to fail in this competition due to a perceived immutable hierarchy of attractiveness, rooted in a distorted interpretation of evolutionary psychology. This perspective rejects the neoliberal ethos of self-improvement and competition, instead embracing a fatalistic view of sexual dynamics.

Incel identity, therefore, critiques the prevailing model of masculinity under neoliberalism by rejecting the idea that self-enhancement can change one’s position in the sexual hierarchy. Incels argue that they are biologically predisposed to be at the bottom, challenging the concept of a sexual marketplace based on competition and improvement.

This rejection of neoliberal masculinity raises questions about the origins of incel identity. Incels uniquely construct a rigid sexual hierarchy, positioning themselves at the lowest tier, not out of logic but through an emotional process. They reject the neoliberal imperative of self-improvement, identifying instead with a form of self-directed cruelty.

Incels’ consistent online expressions of self-deprecation and their ironic stance towards their own misery suggest an alternative emotional state: one characterized by a detached acceptance of suffering. This stance not only critiques the notion of self-interested neoliberal subjects but also introduces a different political attitude marked by indifference.

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