Last night, Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek debated each other at the Sony Centre in Toronto. The title of the debate was “Happiness: Capitalism v. Marxism.” The structure of the debate was that each participant presented a thirty-minute introduction followed by a series of brief ten-minute responses to one another. The conversation ended with a few general questions from the audience.
The event was sold out and lasted three hours. What was anticipated to be a heated “debate of the century” turned out to be a rather friendly and amiable exchange. Throughout the evening, both speakers stated on multiple occasions how much they agreed with and admired one another. Peterson was particularly taken by Žižek’s charismatic performance and “complex arguments,” while Žižek stressed how much he agreed with Peterson’s critique of political correctness and his aggressive style of argumentation.
Žižek surely isn’t as odious as Peterson. But the debate revealed just how far the leftist intellectual has fallen, and why we need a real Marxist politics to argue forthrightly for freedom and justice.
Peterson on Marx
Peterson focused nearly all of his thirty-minute introduction on a pointed attack of the Communist Manifesto. He came prepared with ten propositions against the Manifesto and Marxist ideology. Peterson began by arguing that Marx and Engels were wrong to reduce the primary problems of existence to class struggle. He claimed that Marx and Engels failed to appreciate hierarchy as a hardwired biological fact. He also questioned whether or not the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be better than that of the bourgeoisie.
Peterson even portrayed Marx as an identitarian thinker, pitting a supposedly benevolent but oppressed working class against an evil capitalist class. He proceeded to question how society would be organized under communism, arguing that power will always be concentrated in the hands of the few regardless of the social system in place.
Peterson also attempted to criticize Marx on economic grounds. He began by citing Marx’s own acknowledgment of the material abundance produced by capitalism itself. Peterson argued that capitalists, through their business acumen and leadership, add economic value to society, and that the system has done much eliminate poverty and help the poor. Though he admitted that capitalism does make the rich richer, he also stressed that capitalism makes the poor richer as well. He ended his introduction by claiming that the pursuit of profit morally disciplines capitalists to not mistreat their workers, and that any profit-driven boss would never exploit their workers through fear of losing business. As Peterson put it, “you don’t rise to a position of authority that is reliable in a human society primarily by exploiting other people.”
Peterson’s presentation of the fundamental tenets of Marxism is a ridiculous vulgarization, to say the least. He sounded like someone who barely skimmed its key texts.
Take his comments on the inherently hierarchical and exploitative nature of people: when Marx and Engels said that all history is the history of class struggle, they were talking about all written history. Human beings lived without classes for millions of years. The creation of class society — where a minority appropriates the surplus labor of a majority — is a relatively recent phenomenon, and for Marx and Engels it is the production and reproduction of real life that is at the center of human beings’ interactions with nature.
Peterson even went so far as to say that nature as a category does not exist in Marx’s writings, which is patently false. In the very first chapter of Capital, Marx stated that labor is the essential relation between human beings and nature itself, and that labor of some form “is an eternal nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and Nature, and therefore no life.” He didn’t even have to get to the end of Volume One to figure out that one.
As for Peterson’s claims about hierarchy, he constantly conflated hierarchy with class society. He never demonstrated why the privilege of one class to exploit another is essential to human existence. Further, when Marx argued for the overcoming of class society, he did not think that human beings would end the need for political organization. For Marx, the political “state” has a very specific meaning as an organ of class society. In overcoming class society, people will still need structure and organization; they will still need to deliberate, argue, and pursue things in common through struggle and debate. As Norman Geras put it in his defense of Marx against “Seven Types of Obloquy,” under communism, forms of public power would be based in democratic and elective principles.
Since Peterson sees human nature as essentially fallen and synonymous with original sin, the efforts of oppressed groups to collectively overcome their situation will be inevitably fraught with more violence and suffering. But this is a metaphysics that prevents any group of people from seeking justice or improving their condition out of fear that they would engender more violence.
Further, contrary to Peterson, Marx did not see working class struggle in identitarian terms: workers have an interest in abolishing their own identity as exploited proletarians. For Marx, even though the socialist struggle will have its elements of idealism, solidarity and sacrifice, the proletariat are not angels; hundreds of years of class oppression prevents humanity from acting “benevolently” (in Peterson’s sense). These issues of class antagonism cannot be seen through Peterson’s shallow moralizing, but in the structural terms Marx pointed out.
As for capitalists contributing value, Peterson does not understand how Marx sees value as necessary labor time. The bourgeoisie cannot add value without exploiting the workers, i.e., without benefiting from their unpaid labor. Exploitation is thus not a moral failing of the capitalist, but built into the structural relationship between the capitalist and the worker. Peterson’s attempt at making capitalists essential pillars of civilization is no better than the famous fable of Menenius Agrippa about the belly and its members.
We could go on, but it’s clear enough that Peterson is shamelessly ignorant of what Marx actually argued. It’s not that he disagreed (plenty of smart right-wing critics have), it’s not that he tried to simplify for a popular audience, he simply isn’t informed enough to engage in the debate.
As for global capitalism today, improvements in consumption, mortality, and the fact that we are better off than our ancestors is no excuse for condemning the mass of humanity to be perpetually exploited and alienated. Peterson dogmatically asserted that these relative improvements are simply due to free markets, and not from other sources, such as public health interventions, education, and working-class struggles against exploitation. That’s not to mention that the drive for profit is also one of the main factors behind virtually all social problems, including the acceleration of climate change.
United Against Happiness
While Peterson assumed that he was entering a debate with a classical Marxist, and that much of that debate would be centered around Marxism, Žižek came with a different agenda. In his thirty-minute introduction, Žižek did not focus on Marx at all, but began the talk lamenting how marginalized he and Peterson are from “politically correct” academia:
Peterson and I…are both marginalized by the official academic community and supposed to defend here the Left liberal line against neoconservatives. Really? Most of the attacks on me are precisely from Left liberals. Just remember the outcry against my critique of LGBT ideology.
After establishing that he and Peterson share a common enemy, Žižek went on to discuss various topics. These included how China’s economic miracle was not based in a free market democracy, but in authoritarian capitalism; that Bernie Sanders is demonized as a radical, while he is actually an “old-fashioned moralist,” and that “white liberal multiculturalism” is to blame for the failure of the Left.
Žižek also claimed that the immigration crisis is due to the “immanent contradictions” of capitalism, but argued against open borders later in the evening. Žižek rightfully claimed that the populist hatred of refugees is irrational. However, he ambiguously asserted that “reports [about refugees] are true.” One can speculate that Žižek was referring to previous remarks he has made regarding violent refugees, which have been criticized as xenophobic.
To his credit, Žižek expressed support for universal health care and education, which would allow individuals to focus on fulfilling their creative potential. He also acknowledged that climate change is not a hoax, but an actual threat to humankind that must be fought with some form of international cooperation.
But throughout the debate, Žižek stated that he is a pessimist numerous times. He sees the contemporary Left in much the same way that Peterson does, as a swamp of resentment and victimhood. He does not subscribe to the optimistic vision of Marx, which advocates for free and transparent social relations. In contrast, Žižek and Peterson claimed that human beings are not rational, but instead inherently tend towards self-sabotage.
The Marxist goal to liberate the productive forces from capitalism is not an issue for Žižek. He puts modernity in existential terms as the need to “carry…the main burden, which is freedom itself.” Without traditional authority, we are responsible for our own burdens, condemned to struggle for meaning against a commodified and hedonistic world. “We need to find some meaningful cause beyond the mere struggle for pleasurable survival.” But this kind of existential asceticism against pleasure and hedonism is alien to Marx’s project of satisfying human needs on a universal scale. Marx, as Ishay Landa points out, was not against consumerism per se, but was against the conditions of austerity capitalism enforces for the vast majority.
Over and over again, Peterson and Žižek cited the Judeo-Christian tradition (or the “Western” tradition) as their starting point, but this is an existentialist tradition a la Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and not the rationalist tradition of Hegel and Marx. Žižek invoked Hegel as opposed to Marx as his philosophical hero, but this is a Hegelianism without dialectical resolution, turning Hegel’s contradictions into irresolvable antinomies.
Alienation, for Žižek and Peterson, is baked into the cake of existence itself. Both see the human condition as inherently tragic, either through the lens of biology, psychoanalysis, or metaphysics. Essentially, we are all doomed to failure and frustration, no matter what the economic and political regime may be.
As the debate continued, Peterson kept pushing Žižek on the topic of Marxism, and implored Žižek to clarify his stance with regards to Marx. In response, Žižek made it clear that his embrace of the word “communism” is a provocation, and in fact he does not identify as a communist. Rather, Žižek affirmed the need for a self-limited, regulated capitalism. He did not affirm the self-emancipation of the working class, but instead advocated the need for a master who will “force people to be free.” Here, Žižek came off as a technocratic liberal, since for him, the masses are incapable of achieving freedom for themselves — some kind of “master” is needed to guide them. Peterson did not contradict any of these sentiments; instead, he admitted that capitalism has its problems, and that he does not support fully unbridled markets. He paraphrased Winston Churchill in saying that capitalism is the worst possible system…but still better than all the others.
Towards the very end of the evening, Peterson pushed Žižek one last time. He asked Žižek why he would even associate himself with Marxism. In response, Žižek vaguely referenced the Eighteenth Brumaire and Marx’s Capital as subtle and sophisticated political and economic analyses, respectively. He didn’t offer a more thorough defense beyond that.
Even though Peterson was mesmerized by Žižek’s charisma, he was even more impressed by Žižek’s firm refusal to align himself with the core arguments of Marx and Engels. Despite Žižek’s left-commitments, he and Peterson both affirmed the existence of class society, social hierarchy, and the inescapable fate of suffering. We can only hope to cope with the suffering generated by capitalism (either as individuals or through tepid regulations) — we can never hope to overcome this system.
Peterson said that Žižek’s claims sounded nothing like Marxism, and more like “Žižekism.” But there’s nothing original here: this is not Žižekism or Petersonism, but the old metaphysics of bourgeois pessimism. Neither participant in this debate outlined a specific alternative to capitalism. Nor do they believe that a real systematic alternative is desirable.
The difference between Žižek and Peterson is thus the difference between John Locke’s fool and madman: The fool cannot draw conclusions from his premises, whereas the madman dutifully draws his conclusions from bad ones. Žižek here is the fool, since his left-wing commitments remain incompatible with the philosophical premises he shares with Peterson’s tragic view of human existence. Peterson, the madman, takes these tragic premises to their logical, anti-socialist conclusion.
But who knows: With so much in common, could this be the start of a beautiful friendship?