There is something refreshing about Jordan Peterson.
Something that conservative thinkers have yet to bring into the public discourse. What has long been an ageing, traditional, and defensive ideology—publicly embodied by the septuagenarians of the GOP and the oil industry—has been revitalized by a captivating and competent speaker. Peterson has managed to cast “leftist doctrine” as the dominant, oppressive cultural force of our day, and the defenders of Western civilization and common sense as the radical bearers of dark truths.
His appeal is unmistakable: a calmness that offsets leftist screeching; a scientificity that roots the supremacy of the individual in biological fact; and a slick co-optation and reclamation of the very term ‘liberal’ for his own purposes (he calls himself a classical liberal), allowing him to escape the pigeonholes of left and right, conservative and progressive.
But, for all of his fine rhetoric, Dr. Peterson is a swindler. He’s a magician, a salesman selling the same snake oil that conservatives (and he is very much about conserving traditional norms) have been feeding us for decades. And if you’ve got your finger to point out that the good doctor has transcended politics in favor of truths, then you’ve likely already swallowed a spoonful. Because, although his tactics are new and effective, they are mere reupholstery over a story as old as human time.
The pith of Peterson’s fundamental premise—the one that has catapulted him into stardom and raised the blood pressure of young men to worrying heights—is that Western civilization is under attack. He worries most about the destruction of social hierarchy and monogamy, about the subsumption of the individual into the collective, and about the forced, large-scale implementation of equality of outcome. In his conception, the “radical left” is hellbent on viewing society entirely through the lens of a series of oppressor-oppressed dynamics, and on systematically attacking the fruits of the Enlightenment: science, reason, dialogue, and individuality.
Peterson calls these radical leftists “postmodern neo-Marxists.”
I’d like to shine a light, if you will, on this term. As with any ruse, his rests on a point of weakness—a thread which, if tugged at, unravels the fabric of his disguise. Just what he means by postmodern neo-Marxism is, in fact, relevant neither to postmodernism nor to Marxism. And his incessant use of the term betrays not only his deep ignorance of both concepts, but also the profound artificiality of his worldview. And he sells this perspective in the form of a stale, putrescent, and noxious narrative—a turbid little red pill that is more likely to give you constipation than enlightenment.
According to Peterson, Marxist ideology advocates two things: the division of society into the oppressive bourgeoisie and the oppressed proletariat; and the overthrow of the former by the latter. Now, if this were really Marx’s point, he probably could have said it in a few hundred words (or a 40 minute YouTube lecture). But in truth, Peterson’s understanding of Marx is the worst kind of reduction—all the more surprising coming from a guy who accuses the left of reductive tendencies all the time.
So allow me to provide my own reduction, much too simple to do justice to Marx, but just detailed enough to demonstrate why Peterson’s notions are wrong. Marx’s view of history is a fundamentally dialectical one (alternately called dialectical materialism, historical materialism, or inverted Hegelianism). Along these lines, history tends toward the material liberation of humankind, and manifests as a grand narrative of cycles of social revolution, ignited by shifts in the productive powers that eventually contradict the existing relations of production. Communism was a prediction generated by his model—something that he believed would happen, not something he thought should happen based on his personal convictions. And Das Kapital was his attempt to describe and identify capitalism as a particular manifestation of productive relations at a certain point in the historical development of productive powers—in other words, a cross-sectional analysis of a period of history.
Thousands of holes have since been poked—the vast majority of them by Marxist scholars—in Das Kapital, historical materialism, and the contradictions in Marx’s personal life. Nevertheless, two things remain clear: Marxism is not a theory of oppression, nor did it advocate, out of some ethical proposition, the overthrow of the oppressors by the oppressed.
And yet, for Peterson’s purposes, it is useful to construe the term in this way. It’s probably true that Marxism is taken more seriously in the academy than in establishment political discourse. And it’s true that many socialist and communist movements have used Marx’s theories to justify their revolution. (Though, as Peterson consistently fails to recognize, Marx himself made no such guidelines about how revolution should be carried out, nor how communism could be established.) And if he can define Marxism as a veritable and blindly destructive threat, and proceed to point out its followers just beyond the university gates—well, then he’s set up a pretty decent stage for the Clash of Civilizations.
But Peterson, shrewd as he is, knows that it’s no longer 1984. Communism as the great existential evil has lost its bite, and even become boring. So, magician-to-magician, he gives the radical left credit for what is surely the most well-coordinated trick ever performed—what he calls a “sleight of hand,” which saw Marxists couch their bourgeoisie-proletariat worldview in a new, postmodernist vocabulary.
Postmodernism is a messy term. And yet Peterson is quite clear about what he means: it is the systematic rejection of the major tenets of the Enlightenment, and of all grand narratives of human development. (Granted, this is a tolerable, if superficial, reading of Lyotard—but I’ll get to that soon.) Naturally, he identifies Paris as the birthplace of these views, which, he claims, seek to tear down Western civilization.
It is perhaps easier to talk about how postmodernism has been used than about what it is. It’s a term that has cast a wide disciplinary net, spanning criticism applied across art, literature, architecture, political science, sociology, history, and so on. Importantly—sorry, doctor—it is not a cape and mask which academics and students wear as they take Western values to task. In other words, a critical position set in relation to the era or “attitude” of modernity, as Foucault put it. Jameson himself has since regretted even using the term postmodernism, explaining that “it is not a style,” not something that is brandished, but a “system that is called postmodernity.”
To be fair, Peterson cares little about the many manifestations or critiques of postmodernity. He is fixated on “postmodern philosophers,” specifically Derrida and Foucault, though he fails to grapple with these thinkers directly in his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and has only demonstrated a cursory understanding of Derrida’s work in filmed interviews. As Shuja Haider aptly puts it in his article on Peterson and postmodernism:
“Apparently, not only has Peterson never bothered to actually read them, he seems not to have even read their Wikipedia entries. The only relevant citation is of a book called Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, which he customarily recommends at speaking engagements… 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.”
Peterson’s knowledge seems to extend no further than harping on the overused and under-analyzed quote from Jean-François Lyotard, that postmodernism is defined as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Even on these terms, it is clear that he mistakes incredulity for rejection. He claims that the radical left has renovated Marx’s oppositional worldview into one of “power games,” one in which there are only those who oppress and those who are oppressed. And, apparently, it is the goal of the left to define themselves as the latter, and to blame their fate on the most admirable structures in our society—like monogamy—and destroy them.
Another clever trick—one which makes the threat seem more contemporary and, therefore, real. For who of us hasn’t heard “Fuck the Patriarchy” being thrown around? Who of us hasn’t been told of diversity-in-hiring initiatives, or gender discrimination laws? Peterson, in his professional proximity to university-aged young folk, has packaged his hoary wisdom in the language of the now.
But his grasp on that language is perfunctory. And he’s raising his new army of disaffected young men to hate and, if necessary, combat an evil that doesn’t exist. For this apparent wholesale rejection is nowhere to be found. To be incredulous in the manner of Foucault or Derrida or Kristeva, is to interrogate and be skeptical of grand narratives of human subjectivity and human progress, of binary value systems and categorizations, and of the assumptions underlying structuralist and modernist historiography and philosophy. This is not a rejection; it is an incredulity, a refusal to be credulous as a default—a call, in other words, to question that which is handed down, and to seek justification for its perpetuation. What we’re talking about here is one of the oldest intellectual activities in human existence.
But Peterson’s goal isn’t to understand or improve; it’s to remedy a problem whose cause he cannot locate and thus must invent. His postmodern neo-Marxist is a Frankensteining of a century’s worth of boogeymen. Nevermind the fact that, by pure definition, it makes little sense: it was precisely the “postmodern philosophers” who were most incredulous toward Marx’s dialectical grand narrative. As Lyotard said, “Our incredulity is now such that we no longer expect salvation to rise from these inconsistencies, as did Marx.” Marxism is, at the final analysis, a modernist theory. Postmodernism is, well, in some sense exactly what it says on the tin.
All the same, Peterson throws the term around and constructs a worldview of his own—a grand narrative of good versus evil, those with values versus those without, collectivists versus individualists, the postmodern neo-Marxists versus the classical liberals.. But, you may ask, so what if the term makes little sense? And so what if Peterson doesn’t really understand Marx, or Derrida, or Foucault? Even if the signifier is wrong, can the signified not still exist? Many would no doubt remain convinced that the phenomenon that Peterson describes is actually happening, however mislabeled.
But this term is not merely a label. The term itself creates a reality—an alternate reality, one which filters out nuance and heterogeneity and serves simple enemies to the hungry Petersonian tribe. The stern Canadian has forced a perspective that creates monoliths of the world. And if you lift the goggles, you’ll see that there are no steering committees for “the left.” And you’ll find that much of the most thoughtful analyses of the very concepts Peterson claims are lacking on the left—freedom of speech, individualism, rationality, science—comes from within the left itself.
The truth is that if you actually spend time in these communities and read the vast literature produced by humanities and social sciences departments (which Peterson believes have been “overtaken” by postmodern neo-Marxist thought), you’ll note that there is little interest in a binary social theory of oppressor and oppressed. Conversations about patriarchy, or capitalism, or gender identity, or Orientalism have little to do with systematic destruction, and much to do with analyses of structural conditions, like hierarchies of knowledge and unjustifiable inequalities. This kind of critique has, in fact, great affinity with the classical liberal notions of liberty and equality, which Peterson so admires.
If Peterson criticizes such methods now, it is not because they are wrong or different, but because he is threatened by their conclusions. He feels that his values, and even his social position, are threatened. “Identity politics” is the great scourge. Nevermind that concepts like intersectionality were devised precisely to elucidate a fuller picture of the individual within society, a bridge between the collective and the individual self—a gap that is of the utmost concern for Peterson. To him, this is an old war game with an entire civilization at stake. And the enemy is banging on the hallowed gates.
No doubt there are problems within leftist discourse, when Ben Shapiro needs a $600,000 security detail to give a speech, or parts of Twitter go bananas over the misuse of certain words, or Charles Murray can’t put forth his ideas, however misguided, without being physically assaulted. But if you think these phenomena aren’t being decried and discussed by as many on the left as elsewhere, then you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Pull those goggles off, and you’ll see that there is no “doctrine of the left,” and there is no monolith of the left. Peterson is not your daddy, no matter how forcefully he tells you to clean up your room. He is a child who has convinced thousands of young men that there’s a monster in the closet.
The nifty psychologist has pulled a rabbit out of his hat, and thousands have been left gawking. His proposed reality only makes sense if you accept his misdirection, his monolithization and misinterpretation of the left. His social theory coheres only if you believe his binary, his sleight of hand that transforms oppressor and oppressed into the radical left and the guardians of good values. His postmodern neo-Marxist only exists if you dog-ear his overwrought and under-studied encyclopedia.
True, Peterson may successfully be reviving and redefining conservatism, and he may be spawning a new generation of conservative men to carry his torch. But make no mistake: his misfit model can only bear some semblance to reality for so long. Soon, the thread will unravel, and Peterson will be just another cranky Socrates. He, too, looked at the younger generation, and censured their disregard for the values he held sacred:
“Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
As the old, grand narrative goes: there is nothing new under the sun.