Jordan Peterson has no idea what he’s talking about

As Peterson's debate with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek looms in the horizon, it's about time we scrutinize his brand of populist theatre.

April 9, 2019

On April 19, 2019, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson is set to face off against the infamous philosopher Slavoj Žižek in Toronto to debate the merits of “capitalism vs. Marxism.” When the debate between Peterson and Žižek was announced, a friend of mine immediately DM’d me. “Do you want to go?” he asked. “I’m thinking about it.”

I said no. As someone that he might characterize as a “postmodern neo-Marxist” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), I tend to disagree with Peterson. And while I’d love to see him get dunked on by Žižek, I didn’t want to put any money into it that might end up in his pockets. But I can’t deny that the event looks undoubtedly interesting. Positioned as a debate between the merits of capitalism vs. Marxism (what kind of Marxism, you ask, and in what capacity? Don’t worry about it!), it’s certainly timely and controversial. These days, politics is pop culture; where YouTubers claim to be our most important thinkers and algorithms define the various echo chambers where we form our political beliefs, there’s no denying the theatrical appeal of a public debate between two endlessly memeable heavy-hitters.

But it also felt… well, off. Peterson is surely a prominent thinker, albeit an unquestionably slimy one. He’s been widely celebrated as one of the most influential figures of the moment, and his impact on the discourse of North American intellectual life is clearly visible. His “facts vs. feelings” brand of pop evolutionary psychology attracts those who believe that pesky things like feminism, anti-racism, and LGBTQ activism are moral threats to the objective biological truth that supports Western hegemony (colonialism, I guess, being the sort of thing that just happens because of science, and not a constitutive force in and of itself, as nearly every other expert on the subject would suggest).

Peterson has managed to rise quickly as a sort of cult hero for the well-read anti-feminist de jure. But is he an authority on Marxism or capitalism? Hardly.

Swerving wildly outside of his disciplinary lane to imply that men are biologically inclined towards dominance and that all theories of social construction are a left wing conspiracy, Peterson appeals to a massive audience of (mostly male, mostly white) pseudo-intellectuals. Having arrived in the public consciousness just as Milo Yiannopoulos’ star was falling, and endowed with the credentials of a career in psychology, Peterson has managed to rise quickly as a sort of cult hero for the well-read anti-feminist de jure. But is he an authority on Marxism or capitalism? Hardly.

So… why this guy? What is he saying, and why does he so consistently find the word “Marxism” in his mouth?

In Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Slavoj Žižek argues that, in populism, the central struggles that define political life are not between powerful and disenfranchised classes, or the product of flawed institutions and unequal divisions of resources. Rather, as Žižek writes, “for a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such, but the intruder who corrupted it (for example, financial speculators, not capitalists as such); the cause is not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such, but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly.”

Žižek explains how, in Europe, populist politics has tended to take the form of defining the immigrant, the Jew, and the bureaucrat as symbols of these kind of corrupting interlopers who threaten the body politic. Populism does more than merely recognizing that societal change can often have disruptive effects, a fact which all popular politics acknowledges and struggles with. It also refuses to cede the means to address flaws in society to the realm of formal representative politics, as might be demanded of liberal democratic traditions.

He refuses to turn the lens inward. It’s not the systems that are wrong, but the critical interlopers.

Instead, populism creates a moment of collective identity through frustration, a political crystallization of “the people” formed in opposition to those sources of corruption, immorality, or decay. It is a symptom of a system that is collapsing under its own contradictions. Populism reveals the failure of capitalist liberal society to maintain the illusions of freedom and opportunity for all; yet instead of turning the lens inward in self-reflection and critical deconstruction and reconstruction, it displaces these contradictions onto the “other” — the sign of the immigrant, the Jew, the bureaucrat, etc., individuals and communities to be rooted out by “the people.”

As Žižek argues, populism by definition must be held distinct from Marxism, which concerns itself more with internal contradictions and the fundamental class dynamics baked into the structures of a society. Rather, populism is always a prelude to the more malignant politics of fascism. You can see evidence of this everywhere. It’s the vitriolic tirades of American politicians, European ultra-nationalists, and Canadian populist movements, which all variously point the finger at “globalists,” immigrants, and pro-environmental activism as the source of their economic woes, even as these woes could be solved by a truly equitable state committed to providing expanded services for all.

I’m not interested in taking cheap shots at Peterson; unlike him, I try to be an original writer. While it would be easy to dismiss his intellectual standing as a product of white male privilege (which it is), this is not a satisfying response. And it wouldn’t explain why he made his way out of the white male echo chamber when many other reply-guys of his ilk have been left behind. Instead, I’d argue that Peterson owes much of his success to his consistency with the model proposed by populism. He refuses to turn the lens inward. It’s not the systems that are wrong, but the critical interlopers (feminists, anti-racists, Marxists, trans people, postmodernists, etc.) who seek to interrogate them. In short, Peterson has a unique hold on our culture at this moment precisely because of his incredible capacity to identify foes that may not truly exist and ignore the structural sources of inequality that have produced the same social movements he sees as conspiratorial threats. His lack of understanding is exactly his strength.

I can’t deny that Peterson holds certain appeal for a lot of people, even though many of his claims walk that line between “things you can’t technically prove,” and “hot takes with little basis.” For example, his insistence that Bill C-16 (the law that would recognize transgender people as a discriminated group by the Canadian government) amounted to a frontal attack on anyone who flubbed someone else’s pronouns is a reach at best, but it still managed to catch people’s attention in 2017. It’s easy to paint one’s opponents as frothing, bloated ideologues when you manage to extract them from the context of a university classroom of young adults with no institutional support.

Similarly, Peterson’s belief that human sexuality is best understood through evolutionary analogy makes sense on paper, until you recognize that it effectively implies that women around a certain age are always-already “asking for it.” His frequent complaints of free speech suppression also seem strange and unhinged when compared to his generally positive treatment in almost all mainstream American and Canadian media, his massive Patreon following, and his free rein from the University of Toronto despite numerous complaints from faculty and staff. It was only when he started tossing around the idea of creating a watchlist for “Marxist” and feminist faculty (a claim that came within years of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at UofT being publicly threatened with gun violence) that he had to back down for fear of public opinion changing.

Of course, he’d never say all these things outright — he allows his readers and viewers to make those linkages himself. Natalie Wynne, a YouTuber who goes by the name Contrapoints, pointed out this same dynamic when describing his work in her video on incels. Sure, Peterson might not be putting the worst of his opinions out in the world, but he’s creating ample space for them. He’s also marketing on the confusion — with lobster themed merchandise, book deals, and a massive content marketing engine.

So clearly, people care about Peterson, and that can’t be dismissed outright. But while Slavoj Žižek has been writing publicly about Marxism for decades, and while he’s certainly earned the criticism against him, he has also justifiably earned his place as a voice for the Marxist contemporary.

On the subject of Peterson’s foes, his intellectual shallowness and poverty of political knowledge is as well-recognized as his influence and reach as “the stupid man’s smart person,” to quote Tabatha Southey. In a review of Peterson’s 2018 book for Viewpoint Magazine, Shuja Haider takes aim at the psychologist’s oft-repeated pejorative of his opponents as “postmodern neo-Marxists,” and argues that the man probably doesn’t know what either of those words mean. Peterson associates the work of writers like Derrida or Foucault with what he calls “postmodernism,” despite neither thinker being a postmodernist. But it appears that he hasn’t even read them, let alone engaged with them in any meaningful way.

The obscurity and inscrutability of Peterson’s claims serve him well. He can offer no structural critique, only hot takes.

“Neither Derrida nor Foucault is cited in 12 Rules for Life. Apparently, not only has Peterson never bothered to actually read them, he seems not to have even read their Wikipedia entries,” writes Haider, pointing out that Peterson only seems to have heard of these authors through a review text written by a noted neoconservative ideologue. “Armed with this dubious secondary source, Peterson is left making statements that are not only mired in factual error, but espouse a comically reductive conception of how social life and history work. He takes a common misunderstanding at face value, proceeding to build a whole outlook on it.”

It’s also worth acknowledging that neither of these authors are Marxists. In fact, Peterson does very little in the way of genuine engagement with Marxist thought, even as his ideology functions on Marxists and Marxism as an idea, a sort of rhetorical figure, to reject and despise.

Populist politics encourage us to believe that people are not in revolt against an unjust system, but against social corruption, infection, and invasion. The subtext of this message has everything to do with blame. And in Peterson’s world, where the system of capitalist production, male dominance, Western hegemony, and other forms of social inequality are the result of morally stable, evolutionary processes, the blame does not rest on any flaws within the system. Instead, it rests on those who embody the role of the political Other. It’s the foundation of classically fascist politics, and it’s gained greater currency in an age of populism and capitalist decline. Here, the system is not at fault, but those who critique it — a motley crew of conspirators that Peterson broadly refers to as “postmodern neo-Marxists”.

For Peterson, that Other is the Marxist, the postmodernist, whatever kind of ideological foe he identifies as improperly “playing the game” of liberal capitalism. The obscurity and inscrutability of Peterson’s claims serve him well. He can offer no structural critique, only hot takes. He can offer no analysis, only objection. He is a populist, whipping his audiences into a frenzy, attempting to crystallize the heat of belief and conviction into a functional politics. He’s not stupid. But he hopes that we are.

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