The False Problem of Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson giving a TEDTalk in 2013.

The left has nothing to fear from Jordan Peterson. Not even fear itself. He argues with his version of what the left stands for and talks past what the radical left really advocates. Peterson believes he is fighting against the postmodern neo-Marxists, but they don’t exist. This is just plain weird.

In case you’ve never heard him of the man, Jordan Peterson is an internet superstar. He can tell you everything you need to know about depression, the self and how to lead a fulfilling life, as well as how to slaughter strawmen by the dozen. Peterson is hawking a self-help book full of strange metaphors involving lobsters, but he also has a right-wing message to hawk.

What does Jordan Peterson want? It’s not easy to answer this question. Peterson is evasive on most political questions, except when it comes to red-baiting. Beyond the left-bashing, Peterson advances a mix of Jungian psychology and individualism buttressed by market assumptions about human behaviour and economics. He might be seen as almost apolitical, but this is a mistake.

Politics here is just something separate from society at large, and the main purpose of the state is to leave existing social relations intact. The real truths about the world are found elsewhere. Most conservatives go for the market as reality, others go for religion or science. Ideology is what the left and intellectuals bring into society in this framework. It’s what distorts things.

A fear of introspection and critical examination is an odd thing for an academic to take pride in. Typically, conservatives find truth in faith and tradition, but they can only do so by presuming capitalism as the background to these forms of meaning. The market economy is a reality, yet it is really a theory and an ideology.

Philosophy for Lobsters

The focus on so-called ‘postmodernism’ is a necessity for a certain kind of conservative. It is no accident that Peterson rejects what he calls ideology and theory. He is suspicious of big ideas and eggheads. Maybe he thinks we don’t really need big ideas. We certainly don’t need big ideas which undermine our assumptions about the world.

The key idea here is that the left is propagating cultural and moral relativism to undermine notions of objective truth and destabilise the values of Western society for its own nefarious ends. This vision of subversion by truth-denying ideology has a special kind of use-value. It can be used to grounds the conservative disposition as a defence of truth and its values as the touchstone of objective truth.

Of course, there are no coherent relativists. The fact that the values we hold may vary across space and time does not lead to any normative conclusions about the world. If you advance any judgement based on human equality, you have to presuppose a universal moral framework for taking such a position in the first place. In other words, the left cannot be relativist.

It’s unclear if Jordan Peterson knows this or does not really care about it. He may just see misrepresentation as necessary given his audience wants a convenient and simplistic narrative. Peterson refuses to comply with the proliferation of gender pronouns on the grounds that it will concede language to the far-left.

Peterson thinks this is how the Soviet Union got started. He has said he thinks Marxism is about ‘group identity’, which is just not true. But he mischaracterises Marx consistently – so we should not be too surprised by this – just as he misrepresents poststructuralists like Foucault and Derrida (who he definitely has not read).

It’s unclear if Peterson has read anything Karl Marx ever wrote or if he is knowingly misrepresenting the Marxist tradition. He talks as if Marxism and postmodernism are two sides of the same coin. However, the Marxist tradition comes out of the Enlightenment, it is by definition a grand universal project of emancipation. Marx’s writing is a passionate embrace of modernity.

What the right fails to understand is that Marx admired capitalism. He saw it as a revolutionary force, sweeping away the feudal orders of Europe and the slave society of America, but he recognised its destructive and alienating capacities. Ironically, this is something that the modern day left could do better to remember too.

Mistakes of Not Reading

Not that any of this matters to the right. They don’t care if Peterson has not done the reading. So who cares if Peterson misattributes concepts like ‘white privilege’? He claims it was the ‘postmodernists’ (who aren’t even a category). The phrase was coined by Theodore W Allen and Noel Ignatiev in the 1960s. It has since been taken up by other theorists and activists.

Although Allen and Ignatiev were both Marxists, neither of them are anywhere near what Peterson describes as postmodernism. Yet the real work of whiteness studies and intersectionality comes out of critical race theory and critical legal theory. So it is strange that Peterson says nothing about either. It would not undermine his thesis.

Naturally, Peterson appeals to the kind of crowd who believe ‘cultural Marxism’ and ‘political correctness’ are the left’s strategy for taking over society. The alt-right adore Peterson for defending hierarchies around class, gender and race. He provides them with a psychological and biological account of why straight white men end up on top.

When this account starts to falter Peterson brings in economic indicators and market assumptions to buttress his shoddy craftsmanship. The data is meant to demonstrate that the inequality present in today’s society is inescapable and natural to human existence. It is just a cold, hard reality and we have to accept it.

Yet we are meant to be unique individuals pursuing our own ends. These two thoughts can only be combined if you blur the fact-value gap beyond all recognition, so ‘the way things are’ becomes ‘the way things should be’. The existing world is simply the way things are meant to be. Otherwise the world would be different.

This is why Peterson is not a real threat to the radical left. He never comes close to landing a blow on the Marxists he loathes – because he cannot even accurately present their argument and take it apart. It would give his position some strength if he would do this. The truth is Peterson is arguing with himself and everyone can watch on YouTube.

Photograph courtesy of TEDxUofT Team. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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