Neoliberal post-modernity has generated many novel forms of reactionary politics and intellectual figures. Arguably none has been as influential and infamous as Jordan Peterson. He shot to fame in 2016 on the back of a questionable legal interpretation of Canada´s Bill C-16 which made gender identity a prohibited ground of discrimination, and a series of Youtube lectures on topics ranging from existential thinking to the Cold War. Since then Peterson has made a name for himself in right-wing circles for his criticisms of identity politics, political correctness, and an ambiguous philosophical tradition called “post-modern neo-Marxism.” In 2019 he engaged in a broadcasted debate with Slavoj Žižek, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, while also finding himself mired in several controversies over whether his polemical anti-leftist rhetoric can serve as a gateway to the far right.
Peterson’s work has been the subject of fawning praise and scathing criticism. He has been called everything from the most important public intellectual of our time to the “stupid man´s smart person” and the “intellectual we deserve” in our “impoverished” political landscape by Current Affairs’ Nathan Robinson. While many of the criticisms have real bite to them, they remain partial efforts that focus on one element of Peterson’s thinking and activism or another. Typically, critics analyze one or another of Peterson’s comments to showcase where they fall flat, or criticize him for his questionable associations and disconcerting views on hierarchy and genetics. These are very useful, but need to be buttressed by a more systematic approach that unpacks the myriad dimensions of his work and criticizes them as a whole. Moreover, a left-wing critique also needs to take Žižek’s argument seriously and situate Peterson’s influence in a broader analysis of neoliberal capitalism and the failure to provide a convincing alternative to its contradictory imperatives.
A systematic philosophical and political critique of Peterson from a left-wing perspective needs to address two different lines of argument. The first concerns how Peterson misrepresents the left, both theoretically and practically. The second, and no less important, is to demonstrate the limitations of Peterson’s own political preferences for dealing with the anomie of post-modern neoliberal society.
There are many ways in which Peterson misrepresents left-wing theory and activism, but the lessons we should draw from it are more complex than might first appear. I think that Žižek is correct in pointing out that Peterson often appeals to largely empty neologisms in lieu of concrete arguments against his political and philosophical opponents. He refers to vague groups of opponents such as post-modern neo-Marxists, radical feminists, or youth activists. This confused eclecticism makes it very hard to even tell who or what Peterson is criticizing, though this has the advantage of allowing people on the right to project their stereotyped visions of the left into his pseudo-intellectualized fables. Even when Peterson does try to argue against specific left-wing ideas and thinkers, the result isn’t much better. A good example is the treatment of post-modern theory in Chapter 10 of 12 Rules for Life. In about 10 short pages-less than Peterson dedicates to analyzing the myth of Marduk in Maps of Meaning-Peterson discusses Marx, Sartre, feminism, queer theory, the Frankfurt school, Derrida, anti-racism and more. There are very few specific citations, and a large number of clear misreadings. One of the more amusing is Peterson’s decision to interpret Derrida, the seminal post-structuralist theorist, as fixated on hierarchical structures of power.
Given these problems, it might be tempting to just write Peterson’s criticisms off as one more polemic pandering to the right-wing outrage machine. But the left needs to take Žižek’s point seriously and recognize that these caricaturized polemics are appealing in part because progressives have failed to provide an appealing alternative to the limitations of neoliberal capitalism. Without such an inspiring alternative, figures like Peterson will always be attractive to those who want to paint the left as little more than a bunch of downers peddling various forms of nihilism and cynicism. It also makes constructive calls for right-wing politics seem more appealing and concrete. This brings me to the second line of arguments a left-wing critique of Peterson must address.
At various points in his work Peterson puts the breaks on criticizing the left to defend capitalism and a form of traditionalist liberalism—what is sometimes called “ordered liberty.” A prominent example is Peterson pointing to the existence of rigid hierarchies amongst lobsters (a distant evolutionary relative of human beings) in an attempt to prove that some form of social stratification is inevitable and natural. The existence of human hierarchies is, therefore, not the fault of coercive and malicious power structures such as the dynamics of liberal capitalism or patriarchy. Moreover, Peterson insists that trying to pin the blame for our problems on coercive power structures is dangerous. We could very well end up destroying venerable but increasingly fragile institutions and traditions that work relatively well in our haste to eliminate any perceived inequities. Instead of pointing the finger at structures outside ourselves we should focus on improving our own lot materially and spiritually.
There are several objections one can make to such a position. To give just one example, Peterson’s insistence that people need to “put their own life in order before trying to change the world” depoliticizes problems which could have a political solution. Someone may be putting their life in order by demanding fairer wages from an exploitative employer, or unionizing to provide job security for themselves and their family. Peterson’s skepticism regarding these activist efforts demonstrates that what he really wants is for people to look after themselves without fundamentally tinkering with the liberal capitalist system, even if that would benefit them and others. More importantly Peterson’s anxieties about collapsing support for religious and spiritual traditions is in tension with his support for post-modern capitalism, which, as Marx and Engels pointed out, is the most transformative and revolutionary economic system the world had yet seen. Peterson never analyzes how a capitalism system, which commodifies all spheres of life while desacralizing the world—everything has its price today, even holy water—may have played a serious role in corroding support for traditional ways of life and values.
These objections highlight the fundamental limitations of Peterson’s work as both a critic of the left and a defender of the status quo. Taken together they are reflective not just of Peterson as an intellectual, but also of the unwillingness of many conservative and reactionary commentators to address issues that might upset their ordered and hierarchical worldview. Especially, if doing so would involve criticizing cherished institutions and capitalist dynamics. It is, after all, far easier and more popular to lay the blame for the corrosion of traditional values at the feet of twenty-something student activists and opaque French philosophers than reckon with the material and cultural conditions of the era.
Note: The above themes will be explored in more detail in a forthcoming collection, Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson (available here on April 24th), to be published by Zero Books and coauthored by myself, Ben Burgis, Conrad Hamilton, and Marion Trejo, with an introduction by Slavoj Žižek.