There are a lot of competing definitions of alphas and betas out there. I’m going to build a model here for my own purposes, and I’m open to constructive criticism. A model is just a model, a way to think about something. When thinking about humans, models are useful renderings but never perfect mirror images. They are blurry and inaccurate at certain levels of detail, and they break down in lights and shadows. Those areas are important to consider. But the value of a model is that it can give you a general idea of a thing, or a more complete understanding of it than you had before.
Men push down and look up.
A man establishes his own position by applying pressure on the men around him. The men who succumb to that pressure fall beneath him. They may resent him or covet his status, but in some way they are always looking up to him. Those men, in turn, apply pressure on the men around and ultimately beneath them. It is not a linear order, but a pyramid of dominance. In relative proportion to the size of the group, multiple men can claim comparable levels of dominance. Their highest task is to compete with each other, but they also have to apply a certain amount of downward pressure to stay where they are.
Well adjusted men tend to have a sense of humor about all of this jockeying for position. I offer that humor about hierarchical competition is one of the most popular forms of everyday male humor.
How do you like me now?
Men are hierarchical but hierarchy requires a group. Men in complex societies move through many groups. Depending on the composition and the values of a given group, a man may achieve a greater or lesser status within it. In a room full of men who are rarely dominant, there is hierarchy. In a room full of naturally dominant men, there is still hierarchy.
Most men will experience many levels of dominance over and deference to other men throughout their lives. One of the major benefits of the patriarchal system is that a man with low status in the male hierarchy still enjoys the highest male status at home. He is “the man of the house.”
This brings me to the word alpha. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and it has been used in the natural sciences to designate dominant male animals like apes and wolves in group or pack situations. When the word alpha is applied to men, it should likewise refer to status or dominance among men. Alphas often get preferential access to pack females, but as a benefit of their dominance over males. Being alpha means being alpha among men. This is the only alpha status that actually matters. Being able to manipulate or dominate women doesn’t make you an alpha. Being able to dominate men makes you an alpha.
What does it mean to dominate men?
In our complex society, this becomes confusing, because otherwise weak and submissive men—and women—often wield authority over men who in feral circumstances would naturally dominate them. But while we acknowledge that men who lack certain qualities have power, through the accumulation of wealth or some other form of status, we hesitate to refer to them as “alpha males.” There is a difference between power and manliness. Power is gender neutral.
Alpha is not merely power or dominance but manly power, manly dominance, and dominance over other men. Alphas dominate men as men. They are better men, or better at being men, but not necessarily better people. Alphas are not necessarily even good leaders, though they often have leadership qualities and a specifically male version of “star power” that makes men want to follow them.
Alpha is a zoological reference, and it refers to a wilder, more primitive masculine norm. Non-violent, artificial forms of social power can only exist because some men somewhere back those power structures with a threat of violence. Violence is golden. Laws and money mean nothing without law enforcement and other forms of “protection.” Masculine men secured the peaceful, protected space in which other forms of power can exist. And if the security is breached and the system fails, it will inevitably be manly men—led by alphas—who will step in and take charge. Forms of power not backed by the threat of violence will be meaningless. The threat of violence is implied by strength, and strength is the metaphor that defines manliness.
I have said that men push down and look up. What do alphas look up to?
In my model, the pinnacle of the male dominance pyramid is not inhabited by the alphas. Like the cap of the pyramid on the dollar bill, above the alphas floats The Form. I mean this in the metaphysical, Platonic sense. Above the alphas is the unreachable ideal of MAN. The form is idea of man we keep creating over and over again in every culture and civilization. The ideal varies from culture to culture, but even across boundaries of time and race and religion the key qualities of the masculine ideal overlap. The Form of man is not any one man, but an amalgam of those key qualities that the best example of a man would ideally have.
Legendary god-heroes are our approximations of The Form, but even those men are rarely perfect.
In male hierarchies, the alpha is dominant but also closest to the form. Beyond him is the unreachable ideal.
Someone recently mentioned the “NFL Quarterback” as the alpha ideal, and while the masculine ideal is not really a football player per se, the comparison works. The quarterback is not the strongest or the fastest guy on the team, but he’s an exemplar of many desirable masculine qualities. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s dominant, he’s decisive, he’s a leader, he’s charismatic, he’s likeable, he’s probably smart and he’s usually good looking. He may not be the best at any one thing, but he’s the guy other men can and will look up to. He’s got it. He’s close to The Form. He’s going to be near the top of any natural male hierarchy. He’s going to assert himself confidently, and he’s going to be the alpha in almost every room.
When I think of what I mean by alpha as a type rather than a position, I’m not thinking of guys who are never betas or guys who must dominate every male group. Alphas are close to the form, and they will dominate most of the time. Other men will step out of their way most of the time. And when they push their way through, most men will let them. This is due in part to an implied threat of violence, but that’s only one aspect of it.
Now…what about the rest of the guys?
I don’t find the way the term alpha is used nearly as confusing as the way beta is employed. To me, true betas are the cornermen for alphas. They are also close to the form, but less dominant than the alpha for whatever reason. Most betas can step in for alphas in most scenarios. They are alphas in the minds of many other men. They look up to the alpha, but it’s easy for them to push down on most others. Most alphas probably shuffle back and forth between alpha and beta roles depending on which men they’re interacting with.
As you move down the pyramid, you get more specialists, and you get men who for various reasons are further away from the form. They’re men in their own right, and they still recognize and look up to the form. They have their own value and they bring something to the table. They’re part of the team and they understand their place in it.
The gearheads and tech-heads mentioned recently are a good example of men in the middle or toward the bottom of the pyramid. They aren’t alphas or betas by type, though they will still create their own hierarchies and one of them will dominate. It is worth noting that many of them revere The Form through video games. They are often avid consumers of comic books, science fiction, adventure tales, sword and sorcery stories and what have you. They know they are not the alpha heroes, but they look up to them. In some sense they still want to be more like The Form. These men might be ζ, η, θ, ι, κ, λ, μ or even ψ. Some near the very bottom get picked on and pushed down all the time. But they revere The Form, and being pushed down to the bottom of the male hierarchy is still better than being outside of it.
The real omegas in my model are the men who reject The Form completely. They may be naturally challenged in some way, but so are many of the men who stay part of the team. Males who reject the form completely have ressentiment. They hate The Form, and the alphas and the whole hierarchy. They seek to undermine or reorganize it. They often want to remodel The Form in their own image, making their own attributes the most highly valued. Sometimes they are bitter, effeminate, socially inept or physically challenged intellectuals. Often, they are fags. Gay culture is omega culture; it’s an overt rejection, perversion and mockery of masculine culture. Its proponents often see it as a more enlightened or more evolved version of masculinity, or simply a “different kind” of masculinity, which also subverts the order of the unified pyramid of male hierarchy.
“Wait, we get to make up our own rules where we can all be alphas? Sweet!”
True omegas are pushed down and out of the group because they reject The Form—what everyone is looking up to.
Women have traditionally recognized and respected The Form and the male need for hierarchy, even though I’m sure it frustrated them at times to know that they couldn’t be included. However, they did gain social status among women as their husbands gained social status among men…so sometimes the system worked to their advantage.
Feminists make direct attacks on The Form.
Men can push omegas down and out, but they don’t know how to combat feminist attacks on The Form—which disrupt order and capitalize on the frustrations of men at the bottom of the pyramid.
Without a unified concept of the form and some sense of order, it’s every man for himself. And that’s about where we’re at now. That’s the real “crisis in masculinity.”
Jack Donovan is the author of Androphilia and the co-author of Blood-Brotherhood and Other Rites of Male Alliance. He lives in Portland, Oregon and works in the fitness industry.