Postmodern Neomarxism: Round Two — XG on the Jordan Peterson Subreddit

My recent post on “Postmodern Neomarxism” has gone the distance, appearing on the Jordan Peterson subreddit and receiving quite a few responses. Let’s go through them and maybe start a fight for shits and giggles, shall we?

The first commenter doesn’t like my previous suggestion that there’s a similar cynicism under the surface of our popular understandings of the neo- prefix in “neoliberalism” and “neomarxism”.

Nice of him to tell us what these words really mean when everyone else thought they meant something else.

The counter-argument here is to post the Wikipedia definitions of these terms… Neoliberalism is a revised liberalism. Neomarxism is a revised Marxism. Great. Thanks for that. The point being made was more that these one-dimensional definitions do little to clarify what these ideologies have been “revised” in favour of — i.e. market logics. Neoliberalism wears this proudly on its sleeve; neomarxism isn’t quite that self-aware. It was my suggestion that the latter, at least in how Jordan Peterson superficially uses it, seems to connote a cross-pollination of Marxism with a neoliberal unconscious: a moral market selecting for profitable ethical standpoints. This doesn’t deny what everyone else thought they meant. It just adds a deeper layer.

The original poster in the subreddit actually stuck up for me on this point, so it was clear to someone at least:

The author appears to be more interested in the philosophical definition of neo as opposed to the one that’s expressed in the context of international relations and/or the academy.

Peterson clearly isn’t referring to neo-marxism in the strict sense otherwise he’d most likely be referring to the likes of the Frankfurt School or academic marxists like David Harvey rather than Foucault and Derrida.

A retort came fast:

Neoliberalism is a defined term. You are a post modernist because you are attempting to impose your narrative over something about which there is no ambiguity.

I’m failing to see how my definition of neoliberalism contradicts this. (I’m also failing to see how imposing a narrative on something constitutes postmodernism.) It’s simply extending that understanding to other terms that neoliberals like to use, i.e. what is a neoliberal-marxism in the mind of Jordan Peterson, which he cannot separate from Marxism proper? Is it the under-researched indeterminate bogeyman of political correctness? It seems to me to be the mirror image of his apparent neoliberal “good” — the market selecting for ideological positions he doesn’t like.

The same disgruntled commenter responds:

Neoliberalism is not ambiguous.

Neoliberalism is laissez faire economics

It does not mean new ‘things I don’t like’

Maybe “postmodernism neomarxism”, from Peterson’s perspective at least, is an inadvertent bit of both…? More on that in a moment.

Someone else chimes in:

I just find it amazing that this person is so adept at mind reading that he knows how Peterson means things.

I can explain to you the Marxism of Postmodern Neomarxists. Queer theory uses Postmodernist critique to deconstruct sexuality and gender. And it uses Marxism to rally all kinds of marginalized identities against the Patriarchy. The motto is “Marginalized people of all genders, unite!”

It would be telling if this were truly what Peterson thought, as this seems mighty confused. The Marxism of the postmodern neomarxists is a form of deconstruction constructing populist opposition to patriarchy? Does not compute. But wait, isn’t Peterson the real deconstructionist in this sense? Articulating the disparity between text and meaning in modern leftism? Doesn’t Zizek similarly deconstruct Peterson’s understanding of Marxism in much the same way? Didn’t I deconstruct the two of them to find a kernel of agreement? Isn’t Reddit now deconstructing this argument through Wikipedia entries? What does deconstruction mean again?

Edgelords of all subreddits, we must unite and deconstruct together rather than deconstruct each other! This is how we complete Marx’s dialectical materialism.

Someone else thinks something else is going on here altogether:

The article provided a different take on what Neo-marxism means, it wasn’t really about the video that it reacts to so what’s your point?

edit.: or why do you think the video ended right after Peterson has addressed the issue and it was Zizek’s time to react?

The claim from the clipped version of the original is just a claim. You can’t write an article about a claim and call it refutation. In other words: Write an article about the claim or article that refutes Peterson’s position, don’t do both or you end up doing neither very well.

Not really sure what this person wants at all… Don’t think they do either…

Once again, the OP comes to the rescue:

The article uses the video because it points to Zizek’s critique of the same intellectual tendency the author is critiquing the main difference is that both the author and Zizek appear to have a better grasp of the history and etymology of the phenomena being discussed.

EDIT: Essentially the author and Zizek’s claim is that what’s being referred to as postmodern neomarxism is a reaction to the conditions of modernity and internalization of capitalist logic rather than as Peterson claims simply a reaction to failures of socialism.

Honestly, god bless this OP. It was genuinely quite heartening to read this. After seeing a bunch of shitlibs corral me as one of their own on Twitter not long after the original post went up, it’s nice to see that the argument being made is clear to someone outside our immediate community of Twitter interlocutors.

Instead of letting the OP fight a battle for me, I thought it might be useful to weigh in myself. Taking the piss only gets you so far. Maybe it’d be better to engage with the debate for myself? Throwing caution to the wind, I wrote the following:

Hi, author here.

Essentially the author and Zizek’s claim is that what’s being referred to as postmodern neomarxism is a reaction to the conditions of modernity and internalization of capitalist logic rather than as Peterson claims simply a reaction to failures of socialism.

u/wewerewerewolvesonce: this is a great encapsulation of the argument I’m making. However, whilst it is certainly my claim, I’m not sure it is Zizek’s explicit claim. I’d argue he’s certainly on the side of that kind of viewpoint. Peterson certainly isn’t. The issue with this, however, isn’t simply a case of left versus right. It’s a question of unreflectingly spouting ideology and analysing ideology as such. Peterson does the former; Zizek is very good at the latter.

Zizek’s point, with this in mind, is simply that Peterson doesn’t really understand what a Marxist is. He has a very poor understanding of what ideologies are — both his own and those of others. Zizek argues that what Peterson calls “neomarxists” has little bearing on what an “actual Marxist” is, in that none of his criticisms have anything to do with the political critiques of Karl Marx (who Peterson admits he has barely read and so Zizek rightly calls him out on it). He simply uses “neomarxism” generically to refer to a left that is overtly concerned with political correctness and identity politics — a left that Zizek similarly has little time for because they’re also not Marxists.

Extrapolating out from this discussion, it’s my opinion that neoliberalism and neomarxism share something in common. u/sherman_fairchild_II: your point that what I’m saying isn’t on the Wikipedia articles for neoliberalism and neomarxism so it can’t be true is… mindbogglingly superficial and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what postmodernism is (spoiler: it is also a defined term but something being well defined — as seems to be your ailment — says nothing of your understanding of it), but it establishes the ground I’m building on, even if by accident on your part, so let’s start there anyway.

Postmodernism, in part, refers to “the cultural logics of late capitalism” — as defined by Fredric Jameson. What I interpret this to include, in our present moment at least, is how capitalism selects for cultural tendencies, just as it selects for trends in an actual marketplace. Think about so-called “woke capitalism” — the way that the market selects and promotes certain ethical, moralistic or generically “progressive” ideas for the sake of the continued existence of the market. The right call this “pandering” to the left, but it is simply companies doing what companies do: pandering to consumers and telling them what they think they want to hear. When companies fuck this up — and they frequently do — the left are as happy to ridicule them for it as the right are.

The irony of this is that this is also how many on the left relate to each other socially. They don’t think critically about their own ethical positions, they simply reflect the cultural logics of the market by parroting what they think people want to hear. Political correctness, then, is a chicken-egg scenario. Where do these positions come from? Who enforces them? Finding an origin is not always so easy.

Now, in a(n abstract) late capitalist marketplace, the (objectively) “best” products and services do not simply rise to the top. It’s something that results due to a lot of different factors. (I’m sure everyone knows this — it’s obvious — but bare with me for the sake of building an argument.) It’s a case of who has the best advertising campaign, for example, but also which products and services actually benefit the existence of the market itself.

Have you ever heard that urban myth about lightbulbs? Supposedly, someone once invented a lightbulb that supposedly never pops, but the invention was suppressed by the government because an item you buy once is not economically sustainable. It would effectively eradicate the lightbulb market. In this sense, although we can talk about laissez faire capitalism, the state nonetheless has to support the market. Sometimes this involves bailing out economies after crashes. Sometimes it means dispelling the establishment of monopolies — a task that is becoming increasingly more complicated in an era of monopoly “platforms” like Amazon and Facebook that are not so easily regulated. Anyway, suffice it to say, the state and the market are, at this point, more or less inseparable. ( u/wewerewerewolvesonce has done a good job of arguing why this is a complex topic already in the thread.) Laissez faire capitalism isn’t economic Darwinism — if it was, most capitalists wouldn’t like it. Anyway, overarching point being, you have to have a product that people will buy again and again. Whether the legend of the lightbulb is true or not, it says something key about how our markets function.

I’d argue that this is precisely what postmodernity is (or, at the very least, these are the market mechanisms from which it emerged) — it is a tendency to dispel monopolies, whether economic or cultural, but only so that capitalism can continue in its “frenzied stasis”, as Mark Fisher once referred it. The familiar visual symbolism of a lightbulb for an idea is also very fitting here. When we talk about an “incredulity towards metanarratives” — as Lyotard argues is postmodernity’s key feature — we are referring to the suspension of universal truths in favour of debates that never end. It is a vague gesture towards a baroque relativism that unfolds into all areas of life (always with the sustaining of the market in mind). Now, I don’t think this is simply a dismissal of debate as such, otherwise Lyotard would be trying to put himself out of a job, but the analogy of a “job” is also precisely the point — those thinkers who analysed and described postmodernism were often precisely asking how the production of ideas and culture has become increasingly entangled with capitalism and its markets.

The assumption is that the likes of Peterson and Ben “Facts-Don’t-Care-About-Your-Feelings” Shapiro are vocal dissenters against this tendency, but they’re both snake oil merchants, in my opinion, because they are precisely involving himself in this very marketplace. They’re not in it for “truth”. They’re in it to line their pockets and keep the economy moving. They are “public intellectuals” (with most of the emphasis being on “public”). They are very visible investors in the “marketplace of ideas” — a conservative, neoliberal and fundamentally postmodern concept.

This is where u/sherman_fairchild_II‘s confusion becomes quite pronounced. You can say that neoliberalism is something, absolutely, but what it is absolutely is precisely this suspension of truth or any final solution. (The implementation of a single solution within a marketplace would surely be socialism and/or totalitarianism, depending where you’re stood.) Do you see the contradiction yet? Neoliberalism is a political programme in favour of postmodern marketplaces of all forms. (The Wikipedia page doesn’t say this, unfortunately, so I’d ask you to take my word for it — or maybe just read a few other sources.) However, this is complicated, in Peterson’s case, by its laissez faire qualifier.

Peterson is certainly for a laissez faire marketplace of ideas because he believes that the state should not interfere in it, i.e. it should not enshrine into human rights or civil law what he views as matters of opinion (i.e., something that can be endlessly debated). He would undoubtedly frame this as its opposite — postmodern neomarxists display an incredulity towards the universal truths of man and women — but this, again, is a bizarre contradiction on his part. This “universal truth” has not always been universal and the history of subjectivity is very complex. Postmodern neomarxists are, instead, challenging present identitarian monopolies. This is, in many ways, the predictable endgame of how we have come to understand ourselves as individuals. This is a process that has emerged of (or was, at the very least, intensified by) the establishment of capitalism as a hegemonic socio-economic system. In this sense, historically speaking, everything Peterson seems to claim to defend is “new”, at least in our understand of it, and so he becomes a reactionary in resisting any signs that this sense of self (collective or individual) might be shifting again.

A lot of interesting discussions can nonetheless emerge from this — none of which I’ve ever seen Peterson engage with. For instance, to what extent should the state protect, in law, the right of the individual to self-identify as whoever they want to be? In some ways, this is precisely what the state is supposed to do. I’m not an American but isn’t the pursuit of happiness defined as a fundamental right to do what makes you happy, so long as it doesn’t violate laws and the rights of others? Peterson’s position on this general “right” seems very confused to me, particularly when he’s spent so much time debating a libertarian approach to gender and its self-identification. He frequently confuses what is all well and good in a truly laissez faire marketplace of ideas and what he himself doesn’t like. This is why Zizek asks what he’s so worried about. If our understanding of self were to shift, so what? It’s not going to effect the marketplace in any meaningful way. It’s like television fighting for a place on the shelf whilst Peterson angrily debates the benefits of radio.

As Zizek points out, it won’t change the world, because this is anathema to Marxism. The dogged pursuit of individualism is capitalism 101. Marxism is (or should be) for the establishment of a group consciousness of a broad and — if you’ll forgive the term — intersectional underclass, meaning that a proletariat of all races, genders, etc. should unite against an oppressive bourgeoisie. u/bERt0r gets close to this, admittedly, and if you’re just fundamentally against an end to oppression that’s fine, I guess, but then we’re getting predictably close to (dictionary definition) fascism, and it is that slippery slope that gets Peterson a load of shit, obviously.

The point of the article, then, was as u/wewerewerewolvesonce said it was. Peterson is wholly complicit in what he thinks he’s critiquing but he doesn’t have the self-awareness to understand that. Zizek obviously does, because he’s incredibly well-versed in the history of philosophy and has written book after book on the nuances of modernist and postmodernist subjectivity and how they have developed and continue to. Peterson never should a chance in their debate.

I’ll check back later to see if anything interesting comes out of this, but I won’t hold my breath.

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