Writing in the New York Times in 2018, David Brooks called Jordan Peterson the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world.” Whether or not that’s the case, he’s certainly one of the most-viewed intellectuals in the history of YouTube. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, a self-help book laced with Jungian psychology and reactionary politics, was a runaway bestseller. When he debated Slavoj Zizek in Toronto last April, ticket scalpers were charging more than they could have for Maple Leaf games.
Peterson is as famous for his criticisms of the Left as he is for his work on the psychological malaise of modernity. Many of his barbs have been directed at what he calls “postmodern neo-Marxism” and “cultural Marxism.” According to Peterson, universities are full of ungrateful radicals, determined to undermine the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization, insistent on advancing a dangerous totalitarian agenda that pushes for “equality of outcome” in every sphere of life. Nor is this danger confined to the classroom. Everywhere Peterson looks, he sees the attempts of institutionally powerful radicals to remake society in their multi-gendered image.
Take Bill C-16, which amended Canada’s Human Rights Law in 2017 to include gender identity and first rocketed Peterson to fame. The primary purpose of the act was to protect trans people from discrimination in areas such as housing. The word “pronoun” doesn’t appear anywhere in the text of the statute, and the Canadian Bar Association weighed in to say that the idea the amendment would “force individuals to embrace concepts, even use pronouns, which they find objectionable” was based on a basic “misunderstanding” of how human rights legislation works.
Nevertheless, Peterson was utterly convinced that C-16 was a totalitarian “compelled speech” bill and made a name for himself outside of Canada for his strident denunciations. C-16 has been on the books for a few years now, and no one has been charged with a Pronoun Crime. But neither Peterson nor his supporters seem to have considered the possibility that they might have misunderstood the law.
Given Peterson’s history of alarmism about civil rights legislation for trans people, his use of odd language drawn from Jungian mythic archetypes, and his often-overwrought style of presentation, it can be tempting to just ignore him. Some may worry that giving Peterson attention risks raising his profile and granting his critiques of the Left intellectual legitimacy.
The problem is that Peterson’s books and videos already exist and have been consumed by millions. Whatever happens to him as an individual, it’s unlikely that his legions of fans are going anywhere soon. He needs to be responded to in a comprehensive and rigorous manner.
Some defenders of Peterson, including at times the polemicist himself, have tried to depoliticize his interventions by insisting he is primarily a psychologist who offers individual guidance and inspiration to people — mostly young men — trying to make their way in a tough world. But this ignores the fact that Peterson speaks at great length about politics — excoriating socialism and feminism, defending hierarchy, and so on — and his rhetoric and ideas have been popularized alongside his self-help sermons telling listeners to clean their rooms.
It’s easy to denounce Peterson for his bigotries or to mock him for using ambiguous phrases like “the dragon of chaos.” The more important task is to show exactly where and why he’s wrong. We’ll focus on two examples: “postmodern neo-Marxism” and capitalism and hierarchy.
One of Peterson’s frequent bêtes noires is “postmodern neo-Marxism.” In a 2018 interview with Big Think, Peterson laid out his understanding of the concept and its origins. Marxist and socialist ideas were so discredited by the 1960s due to the horrors of Stalinism that “it became impossible for a thinking person to be a Marxist.”
The solution of thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Peterson argues, was to adapt Marxism’s class-based analysis into a much more general critique of power. The result was postmodern identity politics, with a growing number of self-described marginalized groups — from women to trans people — criticizing “Western society” and demanding a redistribution of power and wealth.
The nefarious end point of this project, to hear Peterson tell it, is an ambiguously defined “equality of outcome” for all people, in all spheres of life. Achieving that will require a massive expansion of state power and coercion, which is why Peterson regards today’s radical left as flirting with the same totalitarian impulses that sent Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the gulag.
One problem with all of this is that Peterson’s history is just wrong. Long after Derrida and Foucault had embarked on their careers as postmodern thinkers, the leading public intellectual in France, Jean-Paul Sartre, was a committed Marxist. Even more awkwardly for Peterson’s narrative, Sartre — as with many socialists of the day — was both a Marxist and a critic of the Soviet Union.
Peterson seems to find this mix of views — in a word, anti-Stalinism — incomprehensible. In a pinned comment on a 2018 YouTube video, Peterson responded to a debate invitation from the Marxist economist Richard Wolff by referring Wolff to his foreword for the fiftieth anniversary edition of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago — never mind that Wolff has argued the Soviet Union embodied a form of “state capitalism” rather than democratic socialism because Soviet workers didn’t control their workplaces or vote about how to divvy up the surplus value they produced.
The only real link between Marxism and the wide array of social movements and schools of thought that Peterson associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism” is that they all feature complaints about the existence of various forms of oppression. The idea seems to be that since Marxists think workers are oppressed due to their economic position and feminists think that women are oppressed due to their position in a gender hierarchy, the latter is a “version” of the former. But if thinking that one group is unjustly exercising power over another makes one a “Marxist,” then Marxism predates the birth of Karl Marx by pretty much all of human history. Spartacus, for example, was a Marxist by this standard. So was everyone involved in the American and French Revolutions. So were the authors of the Book of Exodus.
A third, deeper problem with Peterson’s analysis is that despite his objection to “equality of outcome,” he continues to believe in “equality of opportunity.” Yet in a society where wealth can be inherited, this distinction is untenable. One generation’s outcomes necessarily shape the next generation’s opportunities. Having rich parents or poor parents is the difference between having an array of choices and a narrow menu of options. It also undercuts Peterson’s arguments about “competence hierarchies” having some association with merit, since if wealth and other advantages can be passed on in a morally arbitrary manner, a person’s success can’t be simply attributed to having kept their backs straight and cleaned their rooms.
Capitalism and Hierarchy, or, Consider the Lobster
Peterson idolizes the “free market” of neoliberal capitalism. He frequently touts its role in lifting people out of poverty while also rewarding competence by placing individuals into hierarchies based on their merits and contributions as discerned by the market.
He gives a number of justifications for his support of capitalism and hierarchy. At times, he presents hierarchy as natural, and therefore both inevitable and justifiable in its current form. In the first substantive chapter of Twelve Rules for Life, Peterson famously asks us to consider the lobster, our genetic relative, and the way it competes to form dominant hierarchies at the bottom of the ocean floor. The bigger lobsters push around the smaller lobsters — why should things be any different in the human world?
It’s winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies, where the top 1 per cent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent — and where the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion. That same brutal principle of unequal distribution applies outside the financial domain — indeed, anywhere that creative production is required. The majority of scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists. A tiny proportion of musicians produces almost all the recorded commercial. Just a handful of authors sell all the books.
An obvious response is that while leftists might think that, all else equal, a less hierarchical society would be a better one, no one on the Left wants to eliminate all forms of hierarchy. Even the most radical socialists, for example, tend to think that parents should be able to exercise a certain amount of benevolent control over their young children. Both of us have been leftists for a long time, and neither of us has ever encountered a socialist who advocates as a matter of anti-hierarchical principle that toddlers should be allowed to play in traffic or have ice cream for dinner every night if they can’t be non-coercively talked out of it. The question has always been how many and what kind of hierarchies might be justified, not whether hierarchy should be permitted at all.
Later in chapter six, Peterson makes a more fatalistic argument for capitalist hierarchies. Life is often going to involve a great deal of suffering, he writes. This is not the fault of any social group or hierarchy. So rather than trying to scapegoat some social force, it is better to take charge of our own lives. As Peterson puts it, “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you.”
One problem with Peterson’s argument is that it could have been used at any point in history to defend any class hierarchy: Are you a slave? Don’t blame your suffering on slavery! Another wrinkle Peterson largely ignores is that while no one denies that personal problems very often have nonpolitical dimensions, they sometimes have transparently political dimensions, too. If your marriage is falling apart because you are working two jobs and never get to see your partner, there is an obvious personal element. But your situation also speaks to the severe flaws of neoliberal capitalism. Insisting that people exclusively focus on the dimensions of their problems that social progress can’t solve is as foolish as saying that no one should go to the doctor because not all human suffering is caused by curable diseases.
Peterson, Capitalism, and Tradition
A central contradiction runs through Jordan Peterson’s worldview. On the one hand, he defends capitalist hierarchies and demands that we do little to change them. On the other hand, he bemoans social atomization and the loss of traditional communal and religious bonds. Throughout Peterson’s books, he frequently describes modernity as a period where the meaning provided by faith has eroded under the assaults of overambitious scientific reason and corrosive postmodern philosophy. The result has been either a cynical withdrawal from the world or a totalitarian impulse to bring meaning back through force.
One needn’t share Peterson’s longing for an oppressive patriarchal past to share his discontent with these features of the present. Social atomization is a problem. And while no one should be forced — whether by law or social taboo — to stay in a bad relationship, it’s just as much of a problem for human freedom and flourishing when people have trouble holding together good and valuable interpersonal bonds because of economic pressures. Even when it comes to the more nebulous and spiritual component of Peterson’s complaints, there are socialist thinkers — Mark Fisher of Capitalist Realism fame comes to mind — who have commented on the same phenomena.
But unlike leftist thinkers, Peterson avoids asking whether capitalism bears any responsibility for the crisis of meaning he and others have diagnosed. This is a striking evasion, given the impact of capitalism on all kinds of traditional spheres of life. From multimillionaire pastors hawking their products in mega-churches in Texas to rural communities in the Andes decimated by Canadian mining industries, capital has fundamentally transformed the world around it. The conditions that gave rise to Peterson’s complaint were well-described in a book that the Canadian psychologist no doubt loathes, The Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air …
Peterson’s unwillingness to look at the transformative effect of capitalism while complaining about the decline of sacred meaning might explain why he puts so much stock in attacking relatively obscure French philosophers. By implying that it is an “ungrateful” set of intellectual sophists who are responsible for the current conditions, Peterson can avoid looking very deeply into the tension between his support for traditionalism and his role as a cheerleader for global capital. Far easier to point the finger at Derrida and Foucault for the advent of postmodern cynicism than to ask whether an ideology built on the axiom “everything has its price” might have something to do with declining faith in eternal values.