Something is bothering me about the coverage of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Soumission (which I have not read – I don’t think barely-remembered high school French is quite going to cut it).
Most of that coverage has revolved around the question of its attitudes toward Islam and its diagnosis of what you might call France’s existential malaise. The novel imagines a near future in which the French electorate must choose between an Islamist party and the National Front for President – and opts overwhelmingly for the former. Though one might think this scenario is intended as a warning, Houellebecq has protested that he meant nothing of the kind. He hasn’t converted to Islam himself, but he finds the religion compelling in certain ways – and thought it was worth considering whether a European spiritual revival might be more likely to come from that quarter than any other and, if so, what such a revival might look like.
But the more I read about the novel, the more I suspect that the revival being contemplated is rather more fleshy than spiritual, and of very specifically masculine organ.
Houellebecq imagines that, under the new Islamist regime, women would leave the workforce in droves, leading to a rapid drop in male unemployment, and polygamy would be made legal, leading to a male paradise where you have an older wife to organize your household, a young wife for pleasure, and perhaps additional wives for variety, all of them submissive to their husband’s needs. Entry into this paradise is the principal reason why his protagonist converts to Islam.
That’s a potent male fantasy – and Houellebecq isn’t the first man to indulge it in print. But it is a fantasy. It has almost no relationship either to economic or social reality.
Let’s start with unemployment. It’s easy to assume that, if you exclude a large fraction of the potential workforce from employment, there will be more jobs available for the remaining portion of the workforce. Easy – but naive. From the perspective of employers, they must suddenly choose their workers from a smaller pool. By definition, the productivity of the restricted pool must be lower than it was before the restriction was imposed. As well, two-earner families suddenly become one-earner families, with a consequent reduction in aggregate purchasing power. Less demand should equal less employment to meet that demand.
A mass exodus of women from the workforce would lead to a sharp economic contraction, and higher unemployment, until the economy settled in at a permanently lower level, at which point employment at lower wages would pick up.
A quick glance at the unemployment statistics across a variety of countries confirms that unemployment remains elevated in countries with a low female workforce participation rate. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria all have female participation rates of below 25% and all have unemployment rates in the teens – and above the current unemployment rate in France. The two EU-member states with the lowest female labor-force participation rates are Italy and Greece; both also have among the highest rates of overall unemployment within the EU.
There are obviously a huge number of confounding variables, not to mention a question of which direction the arrow of causality runs if it is operative at all. But there is neither empirical evidence nor a theoretical basis for the casual assumption that male unemployment would drop if men didn’t have to compete with women.
(As an aside: another appeal of conversion is apparently that the Saudis subsidize salaries under the new regime. This, again, is an interesting fantasy – does Houellebecq imagine that Saudi money is infinite? Saudi Arabia’s entire GDP is a quarter the size of France’s. How big a subsidy could they possibly provide? It seems to me this is another fantasy – of indolent wealth, the appeal of being a rentier. I suspect there is a connection between the two fantasies.)
And what about polygamy? Well, if some of the men get more women, some of the men must also get fewer women, unless part of the fantasy is that the sex ratio is somehow permanently skewed in a female direction. If the top quintile of men, earnings-wise, marry an average of 3 women, and the bottom 80% of men get no more than one wife each, then 40% of men overall will not marry, and must make do with celibacy, pornography and prostitution. Is this the promised polygamous paradise?
In fact, how different is it from the world Houellebecq lives in right now? If you are a wealthy, handsome, successful man, unsatisfied with one woman, do you have any trouble finding more? And if you are poor, unattractive, and unsuccessful, how will polygamy solve the problem that you can’t get a date?
Perhaps it’s a psychological change that matters – the women will be so much more willing in this new world, once they have accepted the importance of submission to the male. Well, has Houellebecq investigated the psychology of women in more traditional Islamic societies? Has he found that, in general, the women of Algeria resemble the Houri one might desire for one’s hareem? And what about the men? Do the men of Saudi Arabia profess a high degree of sexual satisfaction?
I don’t know too much about how polygamy works in practice. That’s one reason I was so interested to see a film like “Wadjda,” a film by a Saudi woman about a young Saudi girl’s coming of age, in the context of the deterioration of her parents’ marriage. You see, her mother and father love each other – but her mother has been unable to provide him with a son, so he has been looking to acquire another wife. He’s an honorable man, so he has no plans to divorce his first wife – he plans to shoulder the financial burden of providing for two households, though it will be a considerable struggle. But his prospective second wife is hardly going to suffer the pretensions of an elder wife when she will be the mother of the heir. A second marriage means the effective termination of sexual and affectional relations in the first.
That feels like reality to me – because the people feel real, with psychologies I recognize as real psychologies. The film is emphatically a feminist film – not because it’s beating an ideological drum, which it isn’t, but because it is interested in these women’s lives and their perspectives on the world they inhabit. It treats them as subjects, not just objects.
But not everybody wants reality, and very few people want reality all of the time. Sometimes we want fantasy. The burgeoning scale of the porn industry suggests that many of us want it more of the time than some of us are willing to admit. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong (in my opinion) with that. But there is something wrong – unhealthy, potentially dangerous – with wanting to live in a fantasy, and with being unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
There are unquestionably women as well as men who understand the appeal of the fantasy of submission. There are women who have run off to join the Islamic State, just as there are women who run off to ride with the Hell’s Angels or to be the groupies of pop stars or pro athletes. And there are men who fantasize about having such women at their disposal. And who wouldn’t like to be free to choose whether to relate to others as a human being or as an object – to have the freedom of superior position and power. That’s exactly the freedom that rock stars have.
Part of the surreptitious appeal of Islamism to men, I suspect, is the fantasy that under such a system you, the vanguard of the Islamic revolution, will get to be one of those men, even though you aren’t a rock star (or a famous novelist). There’s no reason to assume that appeal is limited to the Middle East – indeed, there’s every reason to wonder whether it isn’t even more appealing to Western men who find themselves socially, sexually, economically frustrated. And not just wonder – there’s is at least anecdotal testimony out there to confirm it.
I understand that desire. But I don’t see any reason to confuse it with a spiritual revival.