I’m five minutes in and already this seems like something beamed in from an alternate universe. Did this crowd just cheer “doctoral degrees” and then, specifically, “psychoanalysis”?
This big arena debate world where people cheer academic qualifications like wrestling belts is obviously Peterson’s world. And it’s really off-putting. He sits in his chair looking expectant and deep in thought, occasionally letting slip a brief acknowledgment of the surreality of the situation. Zizek, on the other hand, looks bewildered. When his introduction is concluded, he simply shrugs and does a brief facepalm.
Peterson, by contrast, barely flinches. He’s obviously used to this… And that’s the weirdest thing of all.
I’m not really sure what I’m in for here as I sit down to watch this. I’ve heard interesting things about this debate from those who have already watched it — apparently it’s not a complete waste of time — and so I have been tempted to give it a go for myself…
But I’m already aware of the kind of discussion I’m hoping for — and unlikely to get — and this anticipation is probably going to inform my viewing for better or worse…
So, first things first, I feel like I should declare my biases.
I like Zizek (generally speaking). He’s the sort of cantankerous sniffling voice I’m happy to have in the public sphere. I have a soft spot for him, in a way, because, perhaps like many other people my age, he was the first contemporary “Public Intellectual” that I paid any attention to; the first living philosopher I remember hearing and reading about.
However, that’s not to say I know his work all that well. The only book of his I’ve read with any seriousness is his first: The Sublime Object of Ideology — which is still a good read — but the majority of the rest of his written work is unknown to me. (Those films of his are, at the very least, entertaining.) I have, however, read a lot of his earlier articles and writings on communism, but I’ll come back to those shortly.
My understanding of Peterson’s general project is even more limited. I haven’t read his book. All I’ve seen are a few lectures and some click-bait “Peterson destroys…” YouTube appearances. That being said, I’ve found very little to admire or relate to in what I have heard him say. (I’ve previously critiqued one of his UK television appearances here.) But he’s nonetheless on my radar as a cultural figure and I have found his discussions around masculinity to be interesting, if only because of what he leaves out.
I want to briefly talk about Peterson’s views on masculinity because they seem integral to his overall position and you can see much of the same logic that is applied to this topic leaking out into his other opinions. For instance, on at least one occasion, he’s compared the modern “femininsation” of men to the Nietzschean death of God. It’s an apt comparison in some respects — although I’d take it more positively than he seems to do. His argument seems to be that men have lost their purpose, their drive, their grounding, like peasants without God, or a state without its sense of nationhood — the latter being a particularly important similarity, I think, when considering his popularity amongst hypermasculine nationalists. Point being: men are lost without their own inflated (and gendered) senses of self. Peterson is here to give it back to you. It’s not a bad project in and of itself, but he’s pretty terrible at it. His success despite this perhaps says more about the depths of the crisis that we’re willing to accept him as a savior.
What Peterson decries as taking the place of traditional gendered duties and positions within society is what he regularly defines as “contemporary nihilism”. This nihilism is, of course, a huge freedom to many others who have felt traumatically constricted by societal expectations and in contemporary philosophy more generally we have seen the emergence of a new nihilism which explores the outsider epistemologies of occultism with as much rigour as scientific rationalism — you could say it was precisely this crossover that gave the world Reza Negarestani — and so Peterson’s nihilism is, in itself, a very limited concept.
Ray Brassier’s old nihilism, for instance, is a nihilism that grounds itself on the “meaninglessness” of rational truth, which is to say, nihilism is an attempt to decloak oneself of the stories and “realisms” which we allow to structure (but also inevitably limit) our realities. Truth and meaning are not the same thing and so a life of facts and rationality is far closer to nihilism than the popular conception of the term allows. By contrast, despite warning of its dangers when it applies to something he doesn’t believe in, Peterson seems to champion the adoption of ideologies in order to give your life meaning. It is in this sense that he’s often positioned by some as fascist (or at least fascist-adjacent).
Masculinity, for Peterson, appears to be just such an ideology in being held up as an Idea that gives gendered subjects purpose and a sense of duty. But what is odd about this is how much Peterson otherwise critiques ideology. Because, for Peterson, it seems ideologies are only ever collective. Individualism, in particular, is not an ideology…
… And that’s ridiculous. As Zizek writes himself:
[I]deology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ — ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence — that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological’ is not the false consciousness of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by a false consciousness.
He defines ideology as Marx does (at least implicitly): “they do not know it, but they are doing it“. Such is Peterson’s argument — don’t pay attention to any of that stuff which supposedly defines (or fails to define) your existence, just get on with it; tidy your room. (His insistence on personal cleanliness is, I’ve always felt, near identical to an army induction into self-presentation, and if that isn’t the ultimate immersion in ideology then I don’t know what is.)
Today, despite Peterson’s attempts to rehabilitate it, we see that the particular ideology of patriarchal individualism has been in crisis and so the left embraces the ideological crisis of masculinity, understood as a by-product of a broader crisis of patriarchal capitalism, in order to encourage the emergence of a new consciousness; the emergence of something altogether different. This is not to try and destroy men as such — well, okay, that depends who you ask… — but rather the ideology of Masculinity. In response to this general vibe, Peterson’s blinkered response to this is to try and save patriarchal capitalism by focussing on the individual and selling them an anti-feminist magical voluntarism.
What Peterson doesn’t get is that the argument is not that this crisis of manhood is a result of capitalism’s “failure”, per se — which is presumably why Peterson wants to defend its honour — but rather that this crisis is a direct result of capitalism’s own internal development and indifference.
(It would also be interesting to see what other takes people have on this, actually: “the feminisation of men” — a marxist feminazi psyop or a by-product of free market automation reducing the need for big strong physical labourers? You’d think Peterson, for all his citing of anthropological evidence, would be more on board with the latter, but he’s not… Responses on a postcard!)
The relevance of modern masculinity, and its crisis, to this particular debate is that masculinity is, more often than not, framed as an ideology in being not just a gender but a gender identity. To be a Man, in the sense that Peterson describes, is — sociopolitically and, that is, ideologically speaking — not that different from being a Communist. It is a declaration that says something about your view of the world and how people should expect you to act within it; indeed, how you should expect yourself to act within it. In this way, his is an individualised ethics — and that is how many contemporary men’s groups, for better or for worse, present themselves on both the left and the right, in defining masculinity as an ethics first and foremost — whilst communism instead strives for a collective and communal viewpoint, a “collective subjectivity”, a collectivised ethics, far broader than Peterson’s consideration of (but of course not ignorant to) these kinds of identity markers.
I want to keep this in mind going forwards because I think Peterson’s framing of masculinity actually gives us a good entry point for talking about communism (and his particular framing of communism) and this may help us understand just how flawed and limiting his conceptions of both these things are.
As I mentioned in passing, over the last few years I’ve started to read more and more of Zizek’s earlier work — particularly his articles on communism and, specifically, “the Idea of Communism“. When writing my Master’s dissertation back in 2017, reading a lot about Maurice Blanchot and his Bataillean conception of “community”, the Idea of communism emerged as a central framework through which the questions Blanchot (and others) raised have been continued into the present, and Zizek — as a writer and an editor — at one time contributed a fair amount to this discourse.
I’ve written a lot about the “Idea of communism” before on this blog, albeit under various different guises — the Idea of communism as an event horizon; as a “community which gives itself as a goal”; as a sort of ethical praxis in and of itself, a sort of politico-philosophical First Principle, rather than a solidified (statist) political ideal — it’s under the surface of a lot of my patchwork stuff.
To be clear, what I mean by the “Idea” of communism here is perhaps something akin to the Platonic Idea. To quote Plato himself, writing about his own philosophy:
There is no treatise of mine about these things, nor ever will be. For it cannot be talked about like other subjects of learning, but out-of much communion about this matter, and from living together, suddenly, like a light kindled from a leaping fire, it gets into the soul, and from there on nourishes itself.
The Idea, in this sense, is a sort of ephemeral thing, an event in a process of becoming. It is fuel for discourse and politics but is not, in itself, either of these two things. It’s something else unique to philosophy.
To many this may sound like the beginning of some wishy-washy apolitical intro to communism, but the intention here is to emphasise — what Deleuze & Guattari, in What Is Philosophy?, call — “the Concept” of communism. (This is, arguably, also the intention of U/Acc, in giving philosophical priority to the Concept of Acceleration over its conditioned political vagaries which leave the concept in the corner to their detriment — i.e. the rejection of a state-accelerationism on the same terms as a state-communism, with both being as sensical as the other despite how the latter is so often understood.)
The Concept, in this sense, is a provocation, an invention. To pin it down, to attack it or defend it, is to condition it and use it — which is fine in most circumstances — but there is always something that comes first which we mustn’t lose sight of in the process putting concepts to use. We must be “critical” — just as Peterson describes his preferred mode of thought, which we’ll discuss in a minute — by which I mean that we must not lose sight of the process of engineering which produces the concept when we put it to use. That is the purpose of the Idea or the Concept: that which philosophy always hopes to produce: the simultaneous product of and originator of thinking. (I’m writing on this in relation to accelerationism for somewhere else at the moment so I won’t go into this too much further or else I’ll start plagiarising myself.)
The Idea of communism, then, becomes this original seed which existed before the horrors of state-communism and continues to exist after them. It is a communism produced communally, lidibinally; a kind of communist consciousness; an outsideness; a view to that which isn’t. It is, in this first instance, the Idea of the future, of the new, of what is to come, held in the minds of those affected by it at the expense of that which is. When Kodwo Eshun called himself a “concept-engineer”, this is no doubt what he was positioning himself in favour of, and against the “great inertia engine”, the “moronizer”, the “futureshock absorber.” That’s what the Communist Manifesto calls for too. It’s a provocation, a call to revolution, not just of politics and economics but, more fundamentally, of thought and thinking.
Masculinity — reconfigured as a concept — (and femininity too, for that matter) can be thought of in much the same way, as a becoming, which may signify certain horrors, past and present, but as a future may instead be something which gives itself as a goal. And there is every chance that that goal might be unrecognisable to our current sense of the cloistered Ideal.
Like it or not, the best word we have for this process, related to gender anyway, is queering.
Everything else is cage.
Anyway, I’m rambling…
What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, it has everything to do with Peterson’s opening statement.
The Idea of communism is seemingly an alien concept to him. The very Idea of philosophy seems alien to him, for that matter. He’s a man of blinkered systems and boundaries and “truths”, and to such an extent that “truth” ends up undermining his own arguments. His pursuit of an absolute logic — so common to many North American conservative pundits; “facts don’t care about your feelings” — only makes the holes in his reasoning more apparent. Encapsulated in a wall of logic that he has built around himself, he starts to undermine his own apparent superiority by being incapable of giving himself the room to breath and produce thought. He’s like a real life Vulcan, his ironic flaw being the bemusement which erupts from his consideration of the adaptability of those illogical and mentally vulnerable humans (read: leftists).
What makes this difficult for some to see, however, seems to be the effort Peterson puts into superficially privileging the opposite within his own work. Early on in his opening statement, for instance, he says:
It doesn’t seem to me that either Marx or Engels grappled with one fundamental — with this particular fundamental truth — which is that almost all ideas are wrong … It doesn’t matter if they’re your ideas or something else’s ideas — they’re probably wrong. And, even if they strike you with the course of brilliance, your job is to assume that, first of all, they’re probably wrong and then to assault them with everything you have in your arsenal and see if they can survive.
Such is philosophy — and, on that note, I’m reminded of a particular passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy? where they write that the Greeks distrusted the Idea, the Concept, “so much, and subjected it to such harsh treatment, that the concept was more like the ironical soliloquy bird that surveyed the battlefield of destroyed rival opinions (the drunken guests at the banquet).”
And yet, for Deleuze and Guattari, the Concept doesn’t seek truth. It might emerge from certain judgments and appraisals, from thought, but truth is not its end. If truth were the goal for Marx and Engels, it might be called the Truth Manifesto. But it’s not. It is called the Communist manifesto because communism is its goal — a politics of multiplicitous and unruly communality.
Here we see the first glimpse of Peterson’s own nihilism — again, despite his apparent rejection of that -ism and its affects on thought. We might ask ourselves: What is it to introduce your position with a statement as vacuous as “almost all ideas are wrong”? Deleuze and Guattari, again, do a far better job of articulating the stakes of this suggestion which, again, seem totally lost of Peterson:
A concept always has the truth that falls to it as a function of the conditions of its creation. […] Of course, new concepts must relate to our problems, to our history, and, above all, to our becomings. But what does it mean for a concept to be of our time, or of any time? Concepts are not eternal, but does this mean they are temporal? What is the philosophical form of the problems of a particular time? If one concept is “better” than an earlier one, it is because it makes us aware of new variations and unknown resonances, it carries out unforeseen cuttings-out, it bring forth an Event that surveys us. But did the earlier concept not do this already? If one can still be a Platonist, Cartesian, or Kantian today, it is because one is justified in thinking that their concepts can be reactivated in our problems and inspire those concepts that need to be created. What is the best way to follow the great philosophers? Is it to repeat what they said or to do what they did, that is, create concepts for problems that necessarily change?
From this we can say that the prevalence and continued existence of “Marxists” and Marxism is that the problems Marx (and Engels, of course) pointed to remain relevant today because we remain under the problematic system of capitalism. Many further concepts have been added to the arsenal but the original ground remains unresolved. Capitalism — as another -ism — endures for the same reasons. We have yet to settle the problem of capitalism as a response to the end of feudalism and instead treat the conceptual framework of capital as eternal rather than temporal, a being rather than a becoming.
Now, the Idea or Concept of communism can perhaps be summarised in similar terms. Communism is the name of a becoming-to-come, a postcapitalism. Peterson, instead, in wanting to rehabilitate what we already have, doesn’t get this. But still he continues to use the language of someone who does whilst nonetheless remaining trapped in his own circular argument.
For example, again in his opening statement, he calls Marx and Engels “typical” — as opposed to “critical” — thinkers because they accept things (that is, the problems of capitalism) as they are, as given and self-evident (to capitalism), and don’t think about their own thinking, which is to say that they also present their critiques to their readers as if they were self-evident. Peterson says no — these problems are inherent to nature, not capitalism. But in shifting the goal posts rather than engaging with the text directly he portrays himself as guilty of what he decries in them.
In doing this, Peterson sidesteps the entire point of the Marxist project, particularly as it is framed in the Manifesto: a project which attempts to systematise a deep understanding of capitalism (as in Marx’s Capital) and then critique the material reality of capitalism, provoking action against it (as in the Manifesto). If anything, Peterson might have come out of this better if he’d read anything but the manifesto. Instead, he misses the entire point, failing to get under the skin of Marxism because he fails to acknowledge its attempts to get under the skin of capitalist realism and reveal to us the ways in which that which is, that which we see and accept as the nature of reality, is instead a contingency. In this sense, “all ideas (capitalism tells you) are wrong” could be the brainlet summary of the Manifesto in itself, and in this sense, if it is an ideology, it is one which defines itself by what it escapes.
It is here that the circle of Peterson’s argument completes itself before its even really begun. What is it to critique critical thinking in this way? What is it to critique critique through naturalised tradition? Does this make Peterson a critical-critical thinker? Or is he instead just a critical-typical thinker? Either way, his is a position that eats itself. Peterson, however, seems good at supplying the gall to ignore your own inability to take your own medicine.
This is the entire problem with Peterson’s argument going forwards too, which might be summarised as: “Marx and Engels say that this is self-evident within capitalism and must be challenged — I say, actually it is self-evident within nature and nature is sacrosanct so back off.” Peterson’s form of “critique” is simply to take pre-existing critiques of our sociopolitical world and place them within a broader (supposedly) scientific context and, in the process, turn his own critical thinking back into (by his own definition) a typical thinking. He’s literally bending backwards over his own arguments.
Take, for instance, his analysis of the first “axiom” of the Communist Manifesto — his summary of Marxist historical materialism being that the very engine of history is economic class struggle. Peterson flippantly throws out the relevance of economics and says, sure, class struggle exists, hierarchies exist, but they exist in nature too so why are we so upset about them and put all the blame on economics?
In framing it this way, he seemingly misses the main point that our hierarchies are not “natural” — they are instantiated by capitalism as an economic system. To say that hierarchies have always existed ignores the sense in which economics defines class. It is to ignore the very nature of our hierarchies, in the present epoch, as economic — that is, how economics forms them — which we can interpret as not just being about how much your earn but also how much you are worth, connecting slavery to wage-slavery and encompassing the fallouts of both. Contrary to this, Peterson’s is the sort of argument that takes scientific observations of the natural kingdom and then uses them to reconstruct a sort of secular Divine Right of Kings. It is a gateway to a racist and eugenic thinking.
It is from this flawed analysis that Peterson goes on to make the point that went viral in the aftermath of the debate. He says:
it is finally the case that human hierarchies are not fundamentally predicated on power and I would say that biological / anthropological data on that is crystal clear. You don’t rise to a position of authority that’s reliable in a human society primarily by exploiting other people. It’s a very unstable means of obtaining power.
This clip has done the rounds online already, as it gets a very audible laugh from the crowd, and rightly so. It’s perhaps the most moronic comment anyone could make — but it is also a comment that can be split into a right half and a wrong half, further demonstrating Peterson’s circular reasoning.
People do rise to positions of authority through exploitation — that is true not just of capitalism but the feudalism that birthed it and it is also, arguably, true of the animal kingdom too (depending on how you define exploitation — the exploitation of behaviours, habits, circumstances?) — but it is also right to say that this is an unstable means of obtaining power. Rather than that instability meaning people don’t do it, it leads to the sort of resentment and protest that Peterson dismisses as unfounded. His entire logic system starts to fall into place. Reading the Communist Manifesto at aged 18 and presumably reading it with all the nuance of an 18 year old, Peterson has embarked on a career of self-fulfilling criticism based on the logical fallacies of a teenager.
From this point, it is very hard to take anything else he says seriously. What follows is a long, meandering and confused rant that ends with the basic point: “Actually, relatively speaking, the poor are richer now than they once were… As are the rich…” Thank you, Dr. Peterson. Truly insightful.
I’m left wanting to bail out at this point. I feel like I’ve wasted 40 minutes of my life but I try and stick it out for Zizek’s opening statement at least.
From the outset, it is far more interesting. Taking on the three topics of the debate’s title — Communism, Happiness, Capitalism — he considers the ways in which “Happiness” is not such a simple and virtuous goal for us to give ourselves, especially under a system like capitalism which does all it can to grab the steering wheel of our desires. (It’s an argument I’ve made myself before when writing about Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism — a communism that is “beyond the pleasure principle”.) Zizek says:
I agree that human life or freedom and dignity does not consist just in searching for happiness — no matter how much we spiritualise it — or in the effort to actualise our inner potentials. We have to find some meaningful cause beyond the mere struggle for pleasurable survival.
Zizek’s statement from here is actually quite brilliant, and subtle. He eschews any temptation to echo Peterson’s polemic book report and instead implicitly skewers everything wrong with Peterson’s own body of work and, indeed, the entire situation of their meeting under the cover of the debate’s own title. It’s very cunning.
For instance, he says a few minutes later:
Once traditional authority loses its substantial power it is not possible to return to it. All such returns are, today, a post-modern fake. Does Donald Trump stand for traditional values? No. His conservatism is a post-modern performance; a gigantic ego trip.
Whilst Zizek takes firm aim at Trump, Peterson lingers on the edge of his seat. You wonder how much he knows that he is also in Zizek’s sights. Whilst Peterson through criticisms at a 170-year-old target that just don’t stick, Zizek DESTROYS his opponent in a philosophical proxy war.
If Trump is, according to Zizek, the ultimate postmodernist president, Peterson appears, by proxy, to be the most successful postmodernist public intellectual — the attack-dog of YouTube conservatism, the spewer of the very postmodernism he declares his enemy through his snake-oil salesman act of Making Men Great Again as a neo-traditional ideology.
Zizek powers through point after point from here and everything starts to blur into one. It’s not easy to follow without the post-stream benefit of stopping and starting, but there is substance here — substance, I am nonetheless told by the better informed, that Zizek has already repeated again and again through his most recent books and public appearances. There is nothing new here, but it is in part worth listening to just to see Peterson’s face. He is out of his depth. And it shows.
Whereas Peterson’s history lesson is under-informed, Zizek’s history lesson, encapsulating the 20th / 21st century development of hegemonic ideologies, ends simply with a door through which Peterson blindly walks, being the capstone to Zizek’s own argument simply by being himself. Little else needs to be said. The undertone of Zizek’s argument seems to be: “You want postmodernism? You’ve just seen a masterclass… And wasn’t it shit!” It’s very entertaining.
But honestly, I’m burnt out. It’s hard to adjust to Zizek’s rapid-fire drive-by of our contemporary moment after Peterson’s lacklustre ahistorical ramble. Maybe I’ll come back and watch the follow-up back and forth at a later date… But I doubt I’ll want to blog about this any further.
UPDATE: This, from Quillette of all places, is spot on:
The debate about whether there’s a straight line from Marx to Stalin is an important one, especially given the revival of interest in socialism in the contemporary West. Everyone should want the key participants in that debate to be as well informed as possible. Marxists should want to sharpen their minds by having to confront the best versions of anti-Marxist arguments, while anti-Marxists should want a champion for their position who knows Marx’s writings inside and out. Unfortunately, as he’s shown on many occasions, Jordan Peterson doesn’t fit this bill.