Feature

1979: The Great Backlash

What do Ayatollah Khomeini, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Deng Xiaoping all have in common?

If you want to understand the surge of politicized religion, post-communist globalization, and laissez-faire economics that has defined our modern era, forget 1968. Forget even 1989. It's 1979 that's the most important year of all. A remarkable chapter in international affairs—and intellectual history—began that year, and it had the strangest group of authors imaginable.

It was in 1979 that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and showed once and for all that "Islamic revolution" is not an oxymoron. The Soviet Union made the fateful decision to invade the poor backwater of Afghanistan, sparking a different kind of Islamic uprising that hammered the first nails into the coffin of the communist empire. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher blazed a conservative resurgence in Britain that not only changed the rules of politics in the West but also shaped the subsequent age of market-driven globalization. Pope John Paul II's first pilgrimage to his Polish homeland in the summer of 1979 emboldened freedom-loving peoples throughout Eastern and Central Europe and set events in motion that would culminate in the nonviolent revolutions of 1989. And throughout 1979, a stoic and unlikely visionary named Deng Xiaoping quietly took the first steps to prepare communist China for its long march toward the age of markets.

Thatcher seems to have nothing in common with the ayatollah and Deng, and even less with the pope. Yet there was something that connected these seemingly disparate people. They all set out to overturn, in their unique ways, the defining spirit of their age—the progressive, secular, materialist order that had, until then, dominated the political landscape of the postwar 20th century. Theirs were not just political movements, but moral rearmaments that passionately rejected what they saw as the decay, malaise, stagnation, and suffocation that resulted from heavy-handed technocrats trying to accelerate humanity’s march toward the end of history. In this way, the transformational events of 1979 were linked by the impulse of counterrevolution, whether against Soviet communism, social democracy, modernizing authoritarianism, or Maoism run amok.

Timeline: A Year to Remember

The counterrevolutionaries of 1979 attacked what had been the era's most deeply held belief: the faith in a "progressive" vision of an attainable political order that would be perfectly rational, egalitarian, and just. The collapse of the European empires after World War i and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the triumph of wartime bureaucracy and planning during World War II all gave forward thrust to this vision; postwar decolonization and the rapid spread of Marxist regimes around the world amplified it. By the 1970s, however, disillusionment had begun to set in, with a growing sense in many countries that heartless (and in some cases violent) elites had tried to impose a false, mechanistic vision on their countries, running roughshod over traditional sensibilities, beliefs, and freedoms. As a result of the late 1970s revolt, we live today in a world defined by pragmatic and traditional values rather than utopian ones.

At the time, the success of these counterrevolutions was far from a sure bet. Most observers failed to comprehend their implications in 1979. And those who did just as often condemned them as retrograde forces of mass destruction. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's men accused Khomeini of trying to turn back the clock, while Deng’s enemies vilified the Chinese leader as a "capitalist roader." To the Soviets, the Afghan mujahideen were representatives of "the old feudal order," the pope a force of "neocolonialism." But these were labels that the accused, as often as not, wore with equanimity. On the campaign trail in April 1979, Thatcher proudly told a Conservative Party rally how her opponents had dubbed her a reactionary. "Well," she declared, "there's a lot to react against!"

Indeed there was. And perhaps there is again—for 30 years later, the transformations of 1979 have themselves grown into decadent established orders, the excesses of which may now be inspiring new reactionary movements and counterrevolutions.

Imagine how the world looked on January 1, 1979. Soviet Marxism appeared anything but fragile. The Moscow regime, which had dispensed altogether with God, individual freedom, and the spontaneity of markets, was buoyed by sky-high oil prices. CIA analysts deemed it an economic as well as military superpower, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter's national security staff fretted about Soviet advances in the developing world. From Vietnam to Nicaragua, the dominoes were falling. If you had claimed that the mighty ussr would shuffle quietly off the world stage a few years hence, due in large part to the damage inflicted upon it by a religiously inspired rebellion in Afghanistan and a pope from Poland, you might well have been declared insane. (A few years earlier, a Soviet dissident named Andrei Amalrik had written a book that predicted the imminent demise of the ussr, citing in particular "the extreme isolation in which the regime has placed both society and itself" and arguing that the resulting disconnect from reality would make its collapse "more rapid and decisive" when times grew tough. He was treated, by the very few who took notice, as a crank.)

The Chinese version of communism, by comparison, looked enfeebled. The Maoist fever of the Cultural Revolution was on the wane, but the traumas it had left behind ran deep, and Deng's announcement, in December 1978, that government policy would henceforth be guided by the principle of "seeking truth from facts" struck many as quixotic. No communist country had successfully reformed itself. In the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's fitful attempts at de-Stalinization had failed miserably, and, for that matter, so had tentative efforts to do something similar in China.

But Deng was different. Long an acolyte of Mao Zedong who had gradually parted ways with the Great Helmsman's utopian yearnings for permanent revolution, Deng was a hardened political survivor. Twice purged from the senior leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, he staged his final comeback in 1977, in the wake of Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four. His call for a new era of pragmatic problem-solving clearly had a strong emotional resonance for the rapturous crowds that greeted the news of his reinstatement in Beijing. In three 1975 essays—denounced by the Maoists as the "Three Poisonous Weeds"—Deng had taken overtly conservative positions on everything from art to economics. Although he took pains to justify his work as a defense of the true revolution, his supporters understood perfectly well what he meant: a return to tradition, common sense, and efficiency. This amounted to a fairly radical rejection of everything Mao had stood for since 1949.

China was a country that had, among other catastrophes, witnessed repeated waves of state-orchestrated famine over the years. So when the first peasants forged ahead with the private use of land in 1978, they did their best to keep it a secret, fearing retribution. But in 1979, to their surprise, Deng not only sanctioned their experiment—he approved it on a national scale. He also embraced the idea of establishing Chinese "special economic zones," where foreign investors could set up factories staffed by low-wage mainland workers, and approved the idea of gaining technology and know-how from the West—another dramatic reversal of Maoist dogma. So there was a certain logic to it when the United States, reeling from stagflation and defeat in Vietnam, decided to build on President Richard Nixon's earlier overtures to Beijing as a way of reining in Soviet expansionism. The two countries took up diplomatic relations at the start of 1979.

Deng's genius, it turned out, was to start small and quiet—so much so that the true scale of his counteroffensive against Maoism was largely overlooked in the West. When Deng came to the United States, the Washington Post's correspondent could only shake his head at "the enthusiasm of American businesses eyeing the China market, an enthusiasm even leading promoters of China trade here think has gone too far." No one would have dared to predict that Chinese gdp would grow tenfold in less than a generation.

The countries of the West had certainly followed a more moderate path than China's since World War ii. Yet they, too, had embraced a steadily expanding role for government. Welfare, regulation, and rationality were the watchwords. Europe's social democratic consensus was embodied by the all-encompassing "nanny state" ushered in by the Labour Party in Britain in 1945, with its nation-al health insurance and generous state pension schemes, close cooperation between unions and government, and state ownership of key industries. Markets were some-thing to be tamed and controlled, not unleashed.

Thatcher sought to overturn all that, and did. But you might not have guessed it as her term in office began. Her 1979 election manifesto remains a monument to vagueness, and she was outnumbered within her own first cabinet by Tory moderates. Few at the time would have predicted that she was about to become the defining figure of post-war British politics by breaking with the vision that had ruled for the previous 30 years. Yet within a few years she would be cutting tax rates, selling off the state-owned jewels of the economy to private investors, and staring down the all-powerful trade unions.

As with Deng, many commentators did not know quite what to make of Thatcher’s ambitions. After her first year in office, British journalist Hugh Stephenson wrote: "Her rhetoric is radical, even reckless. But from the start her deeds have shown a politician's instinctive caution." Stephenson was right, but he and other onlookers didn't reckon with the intensity of the sentiment behind that rhetoric, namely Thatcher's deeply held conviction that Britain desperately needed not just economic but also moral renewal. This became clearer during her brutal battle with the coal miners' union and her anything-but-tactical embrace of "privatization" (a once obscure word seized upon as a rallying cry by her think-tanker-in-chief, Keith Joseph). The appeal of Thatcher's counterrevolution became clearer still when Ronald Reagan, who was already campaigning against Jimmy Carter's presidency the year she was elected, won his own mandate in 1980 armed with a similar passion to replace the Great Society with "Morning in America."

Although the United States never quite embraced the mixed-economy consensus that prevailed in Britain, pre-1979 America was a radically different place than it is today. The political cosmos was inhabited by now-extinct species like moderate East Coast Republicans and power-brokering labor leaders. During the 1970s, as David Frum notes in How We Got Here, his provocative take on that decade, the private ownership of gold was a criminal offense, consumers had only one telephone company, and airline travel was largely a perk of the upper class. The tone was set by huge, faceless corporations. With the personal computer still in its nascent state (Bill Gates moved his fledgling firm Microsoft home to Seattle on January 1, 1979), technology of the era promoted uniformity and anonymity. When Republican President Richard Nixon decreed wage and price controls in 1971, it was received as an understandable acknowledgment of the reigning orthodoxy. Not a few thinkers, most memorably the hugely influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith, were able to imagine the "convergence" of Western corporatism and Soviet socialism in some in-determinate future. After all, didn't both depend on bureaucratic elites and the wisdom of planners?

These were compelling visions, and they informed thinking about the developing world too. "Development economics," as propagated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, pre-scribed big infrastructure projects like hydroelectric dams overseen by top-heavy bureaucracies. How this differed from competing Soviet aid projects was not al-ways obvious. The extent to which this conventional wisdom had taken hold came out clearly in both Iran and Afghanistan. The shah was staunchly anticommunist, yet the main planks of his effort to drag his society into the 20th-century mainstream looked strikingly similar to what the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan had started implementing there after seizing power in a 1978 coup: land reform, literacy campaigns, secularization, and women's rights. Tellingly, the shah had dubbed his modernization program the "White Revolution."

Small wonder, then, that experts who tried to interpret events in Iran tended to get it so wrong. It all flew in the face of centuries of revolutions trending against the clerics. As religious scholar Karen Armstrong observes in her book The Battle for God, no less than political philosopher Hannah Arendt had mused that "what we call revolution is precisely that transitory phase which brings about the birth of a new, secular realm." Even the United States' "bourgeois revolution" had established the principle of the separation of church and state, while the more radical versions in France and Russia had aspired to do away with religion altogether.

Yet Khomeini, too, was tapping into this intellectual tradition by embracing the radical thinking, if not the antireligiosity, of the Muslim world's revolutionaries. For decades, powerful secular ideas—pan-Arabism, Baathism, revolutionary Marxism—had dominated the Middle East's politics, and their utopian political rhetoric had become second nature to the region's intellectuals. Nascent Islamists learned a great deal from these ideologies even as they excoriated them for their abject failure to overcome the challenge of Israeli and Western "neocolonialism." One of the Islamic Revolution's great progenitors was Ali Shariati, an Iranian intellectual who strove to meld leftist ideas of revolution with the fundamentalist longing for a return to the Prophet's original vision of social equity and justice.

Certainly, the journalists who converged on the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château to find Khomeini in exile didn't really know what to make of him. Modern revolutionaries were supposed to be egghead Marxists of the Lenin-Mao breed or flamboyant young longhairs on the make, like the radicals who had taken to the streets in Paris, Chicago, and Frankfurt a decade earlier. This taciturn Shiite legal scholar with his hooded gaze and long black robes just didn't fit the picture. Yet he had become the de facto leader of Iran's multifarious opposition movement. Some observers even compared the ayatollah with Mahatma Gandhi. Why not? They were both men of faith who tried to change the world, right?

One of the most remarkable eyewitness accounts of the 1979 Iranian Revolution comes from Desmond Harney, a fluent Farsi speaker and British ex-diplomat who knew more about Iran than just about any other Westerner at the time. Yet, as his diary ruefully records, he was shocked to see Khomeini and the mullahs gain the upper hand; he had assumed that the left-wing National Front would prove to be the decisive force. "Strange to think of the destinies of this country being swayed by a frail, elderly, vengeful priest sitting in a Paris suburban villa, with half the Iranian world paying court to him there!" He had underestimated the traumas that the shah's modernization program had inflicted upon a deeply traditional society.

Khomeini's extraordinary bid to graft an Islamic theocracy onto the body of a modern nation-state amplified trends that had been building for years in the Muslim world; 1979 was the year they burst into inarguable reality. In Saudi Arabia, a group of armed Islamist fanatics took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held on for two weeks until they were bloodily suppressed. Around the world, mobs of Muslims, blaming this sacrilege on the Americans, took to the streets. In Tripoli, Libya, they burned the U.S. Embassy to the ground; an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, left two Americans dead. (After this last fiasco, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance reassured reporters: "It's hard to say at this point whether a pattern is developing.")

But none of this compared with the backlash building in Afghanistan, where young intellectuals like Ahmed Shah Massoud had been reading up on Islamist classics such as the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Already in revolt against their own communist government, they would soon throw themselves into battle against the troops of the invading Red Army. Some of them would transform that war against the Soviets into a much broader global jihad—including a group of "Afghan Arab" sympathizers who would eventually form al Qaeda.

And the pope? The office of the Holy See had already been memorably dismissed as a political factor by Joseph Stalin. "The pope?" Stalin supposedly sneered to the French foreign minister. "How many divisions has he got?" When John Paul II made his epic visit to Poland in the summer of 1979, no one was crazy enough to predict that it would inspire the formation of the independent trade union Solidarity the following year, or that it would trigger a revival of civil society throughout Eastern and Central Europe, leading to the collapse of the communist order there less than a decade later. "[W]ithout the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980," historian Timothy Garton Ash later wrote. "[W]ithout Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989.”

The key to the pope's spiritually motivated defiance of the Soviets was its nonviolence. During the nine days of his visit in June 1979, some 13 million Poles turned out on the streets and fields of the country to greet him—in direct defiance of a Soviet-backed government that had always treated the Catholic Church as a minor irritant. "We realized for the first time that 'we' were more numerous than 'them,'" recalls Radoslaw Sikorski in his memoir Full Circle (an anticommunist teen at the time, Sikorski is now the foreign minister of today's democratic Poland). It was a crucial realization, one duly noted by dissidents elsewhere in the region. As a result, religion remains a large but underappreciated ingredient in the peaceful uprisings of a decade later.

The events of 1979 tell us a great deal about the nature of counterrevolution, which is very important to understand, because we might be living through another one right now. Perhaps the key insight is that though counterrevolutionaries may be reactionaries, they are not mere conservatives. Conservatives aspire to return to the status quo ante. Counterrevolutionaries understand that their revolutionary opponents have changed the rules of the game in fundamental ways and that the reaction must adjust accordingly. Although philosophers Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre rejected the French Revolution as evidence of "progress" run amok, they responded with intellectual programs of such vigor and sophistication that the leaders they claimed to be defending didn't always find themselves approving.

The shrewdest counterrevolutionaries, moreover, happily exploit revolutionary achievements to their own ends. Deng understood that, by imposing its harsh unity throughout the once fissured mainland, China's dictatorship of the proletariat had actually created the preconditions for a thoroughly bourgeois, ruthlessly capitalist economy. (Wasn't it supposed to work the other way around?) The shah's modernization program displaced legions of overeducated, underemployed young men from villages to the margins of big cities—disoriented, angry, and ripe for recruitment by the "traditionalist" Khomeini. As for Thatcher, one of her most eloquent opponents within her own party was writer Ian Gilmour, who reproached her for failing to grasp that "real" conservatism meant above all adherence to the received order: "British Conservatism is not an '-ism.' It is ... not a system of ideas. It is not an ideology or a doctrine." Thatcher, by contrast, embodied a classic counterrevolutionary paradox: She wanted change, radical change, in order to get back to the way things should be.

She changed a lot, of course—just like the other big figures of 1979. Yet today, 30 years down the road, we once again see that even the most compelling ideas have expiration dates. Counterrevolutions, too, eventually burn them-selves out, inevitably succumbing to stasis and decline. The regime of the jurists in Iran increasingly resembles the one they aspired to destroy: corrupt, cynical, starkly at odds with popular yearnings for reform, concerned primarily with the maintenance of power. "Socialism with Chinese characteristics," Deng's great ideological hybrid of liberal economics and political repression, struggles to answer or contain popular demands for clean air and water, justice and the rule of law, and greater freedom and opportunity. The Sunni jihad unleashed in Afghanistan 30 years ago remains mired in bloody utopianism, with more Muslims among its victims than infidels. The discredit brought down upon no-holds-barred capitalism by today's Great Recession has left the conservative counterrevolution of Thatcher and Reagan showing its age, its followers intellectually parched and politically marginalized.

And so today, in much of the world, ideology has be-come a somewhat suspicious category in itself, and even the hopeful young new U.S. president, Barack Obama, preaches change while studiously rejecting programmatic labels and touting his "pragmatic" credentials. Yet if there's one thing that the legacy of 1979 teaches us, it's that people are always ready to embrace a compelling vision of the future—particularly when it's cast as a moral crusade against the dark forces conspiring against traditional sources of identity, against the "natural order" of things. Today, just as in 1979, many pundits continue to speak in terms of yesterday's battles ("the return of social-ism," "the triumph of Keynes") even though the contours of the future remain hazy at best. The countless predictions of doom or salvation amount to nothing; the one thing you can count on is that we will be surprised. Our modern age owes much to the Great Backlash of 1979. And no one saw it coming.

ILLUSTRATION BY SEAN MCCABE FOR FP

Feature

The Death of Macho

Manly men have been running the world forever. But the Great Recession is changing all that, and it will alter the course of history.

The era of male dominance is coming to an end.

Seriously.

For years, the world has been witnessing a quiet but monumental shift of power from men to women. Today, the Great Recession has turned what was an evolutionary shift into a revolutionary one. The consequence will be not only a mortal blow to the macho men’s club called finance capitalism that got the world into the current economic catastrophe; it will be a collective crisis for millions and millions of working men around the globe.

The death throes of macho are easy to find if you know where to look. Consider, to start, the almost unbelievably disproportionate impact that the current crisis is having on men—so much so that the recession is now known to some economists and the more plugged-in corners of the blogosphere as the “he-cession.” More than 80 percent of job losses in the United States since November have fallen on men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the numbers are broadly similar in Europe, adding up to about 7 million more out-of-work men than before the recession just in the United States and Europe as economic sectors traditionally dominated by men (construction and heavy manufacturing) decline further and faster than those traditionally dominated by women (public-sector employment, healthcare, and education). All told, by the end of 2009, the global recession is expected to put as many as 28 million men out of work worldwide.

Things will only get worse for men as the recession adds to the pain globalization was already causing. Between 28 and 42 million more jobs in the United States are at risk for outsourcing, Princeton economist Alan Blinder estimates. Worse still, men are falling even further behind in acquiring the educational credentials necessary for success in the knowledge-based economies that will rule the post-recession world. Soon, there will be three female college graduates for every two males in the United States, and a similarly uneven outlook in the rest of the developed world.

Of course, macho is a state of mind, not just a question of employment status. And as men get hit harder in the he-cession, they’re even less well-equipped to deal with the profound and long-term psychic costs of job loss. According to the American Journal of Public Health, “the financial strain of unemployment” has significantly more consequences on the mental health of men than on that of women. In other words, be prepared for a lot of unhappy guys out there—with all the negative consequences that implies.

As the crisis unfolds, it will increasingly play out in the realm of power politics. Consider the electoral responses to this global catastrophe that are starting to take shape. When Iceland’s economy imploded, the country’s voters did what no country has done before: Not only did they throw out the all-male elite who oversaw the making of the crisis, they named the world’s first openly lesbian leader as their prime minister. It was, said Halla Tomasdottir, the female head of one of Iceland’s few remaining solvent banks, a perfectly reasonable response to the “penis competition” of male-dominated investment banking. “Ninety-nine percent went to the same school, they drive the same cars, they wear the same suits and they have the same attitudes. They got us into this situation—and they had a lot of fun doing it,” Tomasdottir complained to Der Spiegel. Soon after, tiny, debt-ridden Lithuania took a similar course, electing its first woman president: an experienced economist with a black belt in karate named Dalia Grybauskaite. On the day she won, Vilnius’s leading newspaper bannered this headline: “Lithuania has decided: The country is to be saved by a woman.”

Although not all countries will respond by throwing the male bums out, the backlash is real—and it is global. The great shift of power from males to females is likely to be dramatically accelerated by the economic crisis, as more people realize that the aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power—the cult of macho—has now proven destructive and unsustainable in a globalized world.

Indeed, it’s now fair to say that the most enduring legacy of the Great Recession will not be the death of Wall Street. It will not be the death of finance. And it will not be the death of capitalism. These ideas and institutions will live on. What will not survive is macho. And the choice men will have to make, whether to accept or fight this new fact of history, will have seismic effects for all of humanity—women as well as men.

For several years now it has been an established fact that, as behavioral finance economists Brad Barber and Terrance Odean memorably demonstrated in 2001, of all the factors that might correlate with overconfident investment in financial markets—age, marital status, and the like—the most obvious culprit was having a Y chromosome. And now it turns out that not only did the macho men of the heavily male-dominated global finance sector create the conditions for global economic collapse, but they were aided and abetted by their mostly male counterparts in government whose policies, whether consciously or not, acted to artificially prop up macho.

One such example is the housing bubble, which has now exploded most violently in the West. That bubble actually represented an economic policy that disguised the declining prospects of blue-collar men. In the United States, the booming construction sector generated relatively high-paying jobs for the relatively less-skilled men who made up 97.5 percent of its workforce—$814 a week on average. By contrast, female-dominated jobs in healthcare support pay $510 a week, while retail jobs pay about $690 weekly. The housing bubble created nearly 3 million more jobs in residential construction than would have existed otherwise, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other, mostly male-dominated, industries, such as real estate, cement production, truck transport, and architecture, saw big employment gains as well. These handsome construction wages allowed men to maintain an economic edge over women. When policymakers are asked why they didn’t act to stem the housing bubble’s inflation, they invariably cite the fact that the housing sector was a powerful driver of employment. Indeed, subsidizing macho had all kinds of benefits, and to puncture the housing bubble would have been political suicide.

And yet, the housing bubble is just the latest in a long string of efforts to prop up macho, the most powerful of which was the New Deal, as historian Gwendolyn Mink has argued. At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, 15 million Americans were unemployed out of a workforce that was roughly 75 percent male. This undermined the male breadwinner model of the family, and there was tremendous pressure to bring it back. The New Deal did just that by focusing on job creation for men. Insulating women from the market by keeping them in the home became a mark of status for men—a goal most fully realized in the postwar nuclear family (Rosie the Riveter was a blip). In this way, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, the Great Depression and the New Deal reinforced traditional gender roles: Women were promised economic security in exchange for the state’s entrenchment of male economic power.

Today, this old bargain has come undone, and no state intervention will restore it. Indeed, the U.S. economic stimulus package no longer bears much resemblance to a New Deal-style public-works program. Despite early talk that the stimulus would stress shovel-ready infrastructure projects, high-speed rail lines, and other efforts that would bolster heavily male sectors of the economy, far more of the money is going—directly or indirectly—to education, healthcare, and other social services. Already in the United States, women make up nearly half of biological and medical scientists and nearly three quarters of health-industry workers. No less an authority than U.S. President Barack Obama has weighed in on the shift of power from men to women, telling the New York Times that, though construction and manufacturing jobs won’t vanish altogether, “they will constitute a smaller percentage of the overall economy.” As a result, he said, “Women are just as likely to be the primary bread earner, if not more likely, than men are today.”

What this all means is that the problem of macho run amok and excessively compensated is now giving way to macho unemployed and undirected—a different but possibly just as destructive phenomenon. Long periods of unemployment are a strong predictor of heavy drinking, especially for men ages 27 to 35, a study in Social Science & Medicine found last year. And the macho losers of globalization can forget about marrying: “Among the workers who disproportionately see their jobs moving overseas or disappearing into computer chips,” says sociologist Andrew Cherlin, “we’ll see fewer young adults who think they can marry.” So the disciplining effects of marriage for young men will continue to fade.

Surly, lonely, and hard-drinking men, who feel as though they have been rendered historically obsolete, and who long for lost identities of macho, are already common in ravaged post-industrial landscapes across the world, from America’s Rust Belt to the post-Soviet wreckage of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the megalopolises of the Middle East. If this recession has any staying power, and most believe it does, the massive psychic trauma will spread like an inkblot.

How will this shift to the post-macho world unfold? That depends on the choices men make, and they only have two.

The first is adaptation: men embracing women as equal partners and assimilating to the new cultural sensibilities, institutions, and egalitarian arrangements that entails. That’s not to say that all the men in the West will turn into metrosexuals while football ratings and beer sales plummet. But amid the death of macho, a new model of manhood may be emerging, especially among some educated men living in the affluent West.

Economist Betsey Stevenson has described the decline of an older kind of marriage, in which men specialized in market labor while women cared for children, in favor of “consumption” marriage, “where both people are equally contributing to production in the marketplace, but they are matching more on shared desires on how to consume and how to live their lives.” These marriages tend to last longer, and they tend to involve a more even split when it comes to household duties.

Not coincidentally, the greater adaptability of educated men in family life extends to economic life, too. Economist Eric D. Gould found in 2004 that marriage tends to make men (particularly lower-wage earners) more serious about their careers—more likely to study more, work more, and desire white-collar rather than blue-collar jobs. This adaptation of men may be the optimistic scenario, but it’s not entirely far-fetched.

Then, however, there’s the other choice: resistance. Men may decide to fight the death of macho, sacrificing their own prospects in an effort to disrupt and delay a powerful historical trend. There are plenty of precedents for this. Indeed, men who have no constructive ways of venting their anger may become a source of nasty extremism; think of the kgb nostalgists in Russia or the jihadi recruits in search of lost honor, to name just a couple. And there are still plenty of men in the West who want to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” These guys notwithstanding, however, Western developed countries are not for the most part trying to preserve the old gender imbalances of the macho order this time around.

Instead, the choice between adaptation and resistance may play out along a geopolitical divide: While North American and Western European men broadly—if not always happily—adapt to the new egalitarian order, their counterparts in the emerging giants of East and South Asia, not to mention in Russia, all places where women often still face brutal domestic oppression, may be headed for even more exaggerated gender inequality. In those societies, state power will be used not to advance the interests of women, but to keep macho on life support.

Look at Russia, where just such an effort has been unfolding for the past decade. Although there are 10.4 million more Russian women than men, this hasn’t translated into political or economic power. After the Soviet collapse, the ideal of women’s equality was abandoned almost entirely, and many Russians revived the cult of the full-time homemaker (with Putin’s government even offering bonus payments for childbearing women). But Russian men, floored by the dislocations of the Soviet collapse and a decade of economic crisis, simply couldn’t adapt. “It was common for men to fall into depression and spend their days drinking and lying on the couch smoking,” Moscow writer Masha Lipman observes. Between their tremendously high rates of mortality, incarceration, and alcoholism and their low rates of education, only a small handful of Russian men were remotely able (or willing) to serve as sole breadwinners.

This left Russia’s resilient women to do the work, while being forced to accept skyrocketing levels of sexual exploitation at work and massive hypocrisy at home. A higher percentage of working-age women are employed in Russia than nearly any other country, Elena Mezentseva of the Moscow Center for Gender Studies has found, but as of 2000, they were making only half the wages that Russian men earned for the same work. All the while, Putin has aided and abetted these men, turning their nostalgia for the lost macho of Soviet times into an entire ideology.

If this represents a nightmare scenario for how the death of macho could play out, another kind of threatening situation is unfolding in China. The country’s $596 billion economic stimulus package bears a far stronger resemblance to a New Deal-style public-works program than anything the U.S. Democratic Party has devised. Whereas healthcare and education have attracted the bulk of U.S. stimulus dollars, more than 90 percent of the Chinese stimulus is going to construction: of low-income homes, highways, railroads, dams, sewage-treatment plants, electricity grids, airports, and much else.

This frenzy of spending is designed to contain the catastrophic damage caused by the loss of manufacturing jobs in China’s export sector. The Chinese Communist Party has long seen the country’s 230 million migrant workers, roughly two thirds of whom are men, as a potential source of political unrest. Tens of millions have lost manufacturing jobs already, and so far they’ve proved unwilling or unable to return to their native provinces.

Just as the housing bubble in the United States was a pro-male policy, China’s economic trajectory over the past two decades is deeply tied to its effort to manage the threat posed by the country’s massive male migrant population. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Yasheng Huang has argued that while the first decade after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms saw tremendous economic growth and entrepreneurship in the Chinese hinterlands, the next two decades have seen a marked decline in the economic prospects of rural China coupled with a concerted effort to promote the rapid development of China’s coastal cities. State-owned enterprises and multinational corporations enjoyed generous subsidies, tax abatements, and other insider deals, and in return, they employed millions of migrants. The trade-off exacerbated China’s internal migration, as millions of men fled rural poverty in search of short-term urban employment, but after the Tiananmen Square uprising, Chinese elites welcomed it as a way to stave off urban unrest.

Today, however, it’s hard to see how Chinese leaders can safely unravel this bargain. Matters are made worse by China’s skewed population—there are 119 male births for every 100 female—and the country has already seen violent protests from its increasingly alienated young men. Of course, it’s possible that China will constructively channel this surplus of macho energy in the direction of entrepreneurship, making the country a global source of radical innovation, with all the military implications that entails. More likely, if the nature of China’s stimulus is any indication, Beijing will continue trying to prop up its urban industrial economy—for if this outlet for macho crumbles, there is good reason to believe that the Communist Party will crumble with it.

It might be tempting to think that the death of macho is just a cyclical correction and that the alpha males of the financial world will all be back to work soon. Tempting, but wrong. The “penis competition” made possible by limitless leverage, arcane financial instruments, and pure unadulterated capitalism will now be domesticated in lasting ways.

The he-cession is creating points of agreement among people not typically thought of as kindred spirits, from behavioral economists to feminist historians. But while many blame men for the current economic mess, much of the talk thus far has focused on the recession’s effects on women. And they are real. Women had a higher global unemployment rate before the current recession, and they still do. This leads many to agree with a U.N. report from earlier this year: “The economic and financial crisis puts a disproportionate burden on women, who are often concentrated in vulnerable employment É and tend to have lower unemployment and social security benefits, and have unequal access to and control over economic and financial resources.”

This is a valid concern, and not incompatible with the fact that billions of men worldwide, not just a few discredited bankers, will increasingly lose out in the new world taking shape from the current economic wreckage. As women start to gain more of the social, economic, and political power they have long been denied, it will be nothing less than a full-scale revolution the likes of which human civilization has never experienced.

This is not to say that women and men will fight each other across armed barricades. The conflict will take a subtler form, and the main battlefield will be hearts and minds. But make no mistake: The axis of global conflict in this century will not be warring ideologies, or competing geopolitics, or clashing civilizations. It won’t be race or ethnicity. It will be gender. We have no precedent for a world after the death of macho. But we can expect the transition to be wrenching, uneven, and possibly very violent.

ILLUSTRATION BY AARON GOODMAN FOR FP

BARBARA LUTTERBECK/GETTY IMAGES