Review of Errol Miller,

Men At Risk

Kingston: Jamaica Publishing House Ltd., 1991, 290 pp.

by Adam Jones

[Published in Caribbean Studies, 25: 1-2 (Jan.-July 1992), pp. 167-72.]

[For citation purposes, a new page in the text as originally published in Caribbean Studies is indicated by bold type and square brackets, e.g., "existing patterns of male [169] privilege."]

A curious thing seems to have happened on the way to the patriarchal norm. A great many men were bumped off the gravy-train, or were emasculated - literally and metaphorically - as the price of admission.

But isn't patriarchy predicated on the subjugation and domination of women by men? Yes and no, according to Errol Miller, a professor at the University of West Indies. Miller's new book is an uneven but often intriguing analysis of another side of traditional male power: the systematic brutalization and marginalization of men by other men.

Men At Risk is two or three books in one. It offers a radical reappraisal of patriarchy as a form of social organization; an analysis of contemporary social change in the West and former Soviet bloc; and a stimulating discussion of the major demographic transformations underway in the Caribbean region. This eclectic approach makes for a certain patchiness, with glowing insights followed by banal overgeneralizations. But the balance sheet is a positive one.

As a Caribbean scholar, Miller emphasizes the global vanguard role now being played by Jamaica and other countries in the region. "To suggest that fundamental social changes in human society might start first in marginal societies and then spread to central societies may seem preposterous" given the "chauvinism and arrogance of the current world order," the author acknowledges. But Miller's book "located social formations in the Caribbean not just in the mainstream of changes in the world but in the very forefront."

He refers in particular to profound shifts in power relations between men and women, exemplified by women's gains in the areas of income and education. "In the Jamaican labour force," Miller writes, "women have made greatest progress in the most coveted, prestigious and highest-paying occupations." Women now outnumber and outperform men at all levels of schooling. The author sees the rise of "matrifocal" families - where fathers, and men in general, are an increasingly peripheral presence - as an index of women's growing independence and autonomy. He illustrates the phenomenon with vivid case-studies of Caribbean women who have discovered not only that they can get by without male support, but that male suitors or potential partners are intimidated and sometimes overwhelmed by "their" women's greater job skills, earning power, and social prestige.

[168] A development that has accompanied women's progress in jobs and education is the increasing marginalization - social, economic, and psychological - of entire subgroups of men. In recent years, this phenomenon has come in for increasing attention in the Black American context. Many are familiar with statistics indicating that young ghetto males are more likely to go to jail than to university; thanks to drug abuse and rampant intramale violence, they have a shorter life expectancy than Bangladeshis. But the phenomenon transcends racial boundaries, as a glance at the composition of the North American urban homeless (a large majority of them male) demonstrates. And Miller locates it also in the Jamaican context, with the rise of gang and random violence, alcoholism, and a retreat into patriarchal Rastafarianism. "In a real sense," he contends, "some marginalized men appear to have internalized the forces arrayed against them and have engaged in their own self-destruction" - as well as turning their hostility outward via increased violence against women and other men.

Miller generalizes among the American, Soviet, and Caribbean experiences in arguing a basic thesis: that the post-Industrial Revolution transformation of patriarchy has given rise to greater inequality between men, with challenges to the status quo met by harsh excommunication from traditional male privilege, and by the conscription of "reserve armies" of labourers - mostly female - to fill the void.

The core of his analysis lies in a sweeping reappraisal of patriarchy as an historical pattern of social organization. This is the guiding theme of the most challenging and provocative chapters of Men At Risk. The author convincingly argues that "patriarchy has been misinterpreted to mean the hegemony of all men over women and harmony among men." In fact, patriarchy is rife with fissures and paradoxes.

"From antiquity," Miller writes, patriarchy "has had an inherent problem with men not covered by the bonds of kinship or culture and has traditionally sought to marginalize them through diverse means. ... The practices of killing all male captives, of castrating the men whose lives have been spared, and of offering men less opportunities for manumission from slavery, all show that men's domination of men outside the bonds of kinship and community has been more severe and brutal than men's domination of women within or outside the kin or ethnic group."

In general, Miller asserts, female "outsiders" have been viewed as more assimilable by the in-group, primarily because patriarchy decreed that women occupy subordinate positions presenting no challenge to the status quo. Male outsiders, on the other hand, were viewed as immediate (or longer-term genealogical) threats to existing patterns of male [169] privilege. If not killed outright, the outsiders' lineage would be stamped out by more indirect means - via emasculation and incorporation as eunuchs, a practice common into the 20th century.

Miller's attempt at a Grand Unifying Theory builds on what he calls the "marginalization hypothesis": that women's increasing opportunities and some men's marginalization are intimately connected features of modern patriarchy. He seeks to demonstrate that "patriarchs, men of the dominant group, in defending their groups' interests from challenges from the men of other groups in society, will relax their patriarchal closure over education, employment, earning and status symbols, thus allowing their women and the women of the challenging groups most of the opportunities that otherwise would have gone to the men of the challenging group." He is not suggesting here that women are the pliant servants of patriarchy. In fact, Miller stresses that what began as a strategy to marginalize men has led to an environment that allows women successfully to challenge existing patterns of social domination.

Unfortunately, the exposition of the "marginalization hypothesis" is the weakest part of Men At Risk. Granted, the historical analysis is convincing; it is also fair to suggest that the plight of marginalized men in modern society mirrors traditional patterns to some extent. But the author's attempt to establish links between female progress and male decline fall flat. In fact, Miller's argument here never really moves beyond speculative assertions.

When discussing the advent of women's education in Jamaica, for example, the author is unable to adduce evidence suggesting women's rise to prominence was at all part of a patriarchal strategy to counter a perceived threat from the ranks of out-group males. There was anti-colonial agitation in Jamaica in the late 19th century - about the time women's education was taking off. And because the public arena at all levels was male-dominated, most visible agitation was by (underprivileged) men. But if the decision to open schooling to women was in fact part of a strategy to suppress outsiders, why is Miller unable to provide the slightest shred of documentation for the strategy? In the post-colonial era, there would seem no obvious reason to keep the archives locked.

The author skates over this difficulty by differentiating between "intentional actions" and "conspiracy." The former, allegedly, can bring about the kind of results he outlines, without leaving the documentary spoor associated with the latter. But this is evasive reasoning. It is more logical (and, analytically, a good deal more parsimonious) to view women's contemporary progress as the result of women's efforts - buttressed by the increasing influence of liberal humanism, and the [170] homogenizing effects of industrial capitalism.

Education trends provide much of the supporting data for Miller's arguments. But education is a time-honored means of upward mobility among members of underprivileged groups. The academic prowess of East Asian immigrants to North America, for instance, is well-known. But it is generally, and accurately, viewed as evidence of the immigrants' own dedication and determination - not of some elite strategy aimed at suppressing subgroups of the native-born.

If Miller is more successful at shaping the individual pieces of his argument than in fitting them together, though, that is not to downplay the value and significance of his work. Men At Risk is worth investigating solely for its contribution to the theory of patriarchy; many other useful insights are scattered throughout the text.

The author's conclusions are also worth pondering. Miller argues that patriarchy, as a universal pattern of social organization, has long outlived its usefulness (though this was once very real, in the context of group survival amidst scarcity). Women, "fired with zeal and inspired by new horizons," will tend to be the social, cultural, and political ground-breakers in the third millennium.

Men, meanwhile, could amply benefit by a spell on the sidelines, according to Miller. "Having dominated society for so long, men are basically morally bankrupt and spiritually tired. ... Men need to re-create themselves socially, morally and mentally. Time in the marginal is indispensable to that process."

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Created by Adam Jones, 1998. Copyright 1992 by Caribbean Studies.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.