Arguments on both sides of this weary discussion are bloating the pages of every major liberal media outlet. Should we worry about men, as suggested by Will Hutton in the Guardian and Alice Miles in New Statesman, or should we worry about women, as per Deborah Orr in the Guardian and Samira Shackle in New Statesman? The answer, of course, is that we should worry about the poor, whatever their genital arrangement.
It’s not that gender doesn’t matter in this recession. On the contrary; it matters a great deal. As a society, we have been torturously slow in coming to terms with the real, permanent effects that the cultural changes of the past fifty years have had on our economic organisation. At the annual Marxism conference at the Institute of Education last weekend, Feminist academic Dr Nina Power observed that the ‘feminization’ of the British workforce has allowed employers to hold down wages in real terms so that a single salary is no longer enough to support a family, leading to “a race to the bottom in which everyone loses.” The change in the organisation of families as economic units, the shift in patterns of employment away from traditionally ‘male’ heavy industry towards jobs in the service sector, the concentration of women in low-paid, part-time and insecure work – these are all factors which will have a bearing upon how this country weathers the economic storms ahead. They are factors that require a far more subtle response than ‘who’s winning – men or women?’
Meanwhile, right-wing opportunists like Iain Duncan Smith and David Willetts seem to view the economic downturn as a perfect excuse to shrink the state until it’s small enough to fit into people’s bedrooms, with clunkily recalcitrant social engineering projects such as the government’s attack on single mothers. Gender matters in this recession. What doesn’t matter is trying to figure out which gender is ‘winning’ and which is ‘losing’.
Let’s be witheringly clear: there’s only one group of people who will remain secure and comfortable at everyone else’s expense over the next few years, and that’s the rich. As the Coalition sets out to prise away vital support from those who need it most, as new graduates haemmorage into the dole queue and Tory peers anticipate that housing benefit cuts will create "casualties", the richest people in the country have just seen their collective wealth rise by 30% in the tax year to April 2010. The profits raked in by Britain’s richest 1000 people over the past twelve months total £77billion – almost as much as the £83bn of public spending that George Osborne has promised to cut, endangering the homes and jobs of millions. Whilst the liberal press ties itself in knots over whether women or men will do worse out of the crisis, the wealthy – including the financiers whose toxic speculations caused the crash– are largely exempt from the narrow public conversation about social justice.
As the recession closes its jaws on Britain, both sexes are losing out, in different ways and for different reasons. We all live together, and we all have a stake in protecting each other from further economic hardship, and in these circumstances playing on latent public mistrust of the opposite sex is breathtakingly unhelpful. The 'mancession' debate is entirely lacking in the sense of political totality that is desperately needed if the left is to build a coherent resistance to these cuts.
I expect, in ten years or so, after a double-dip recession has brutalised this country even further, after the lost generation has been lost for good and the welfare state has been throttled into redundancy, someone in an office somewhere will be able to sit down with a calculator and work out once and for all who had it worse: men or women. But social justice is far more than a giant balance sheet with men on one side and women on the other, and this time the pundits have it dangerously wrong. This is not a gender war. This is class war.