The Zizek vs Peterson Debate: Why nobody lost and we all won
By Greg Scorzo –
On April 19, 2019, Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson had a debate at the Toronto Sony Centre.
As a young Lefty, I was drawn to the work of Slavoj Zizek, not simply because of his iconoclasm, but because he seemed so much more interesting than your average Leftist. He lacked the rampant moralism of Leftists looking to condemn every aspect of modern life that doesn’t either maximise equity or show solidarity with the victims of capitalism. Zizek’s anti-capitalist utopianism was tempered by a deep pessimism about the nature of human life, with or without capitalism. His nebulous quasi-endorsements of everything from political violence to the deranged words of Mao seemed less like an activist platform than the intellectual equivalent of punk rock. Like many of my favourite artists, musicians, and film-makers, Zizek liked to provoke and shock the squares.
During the 90’s and 00’s, it seemed Zizek understood something about those very squares that Leftists themselves were blind to: the squares thought they were compromising, when they were actually expressing a longing for things they consciously said they did not want. For Zizek, this hypocrisy was pervasive throughout capitalist consumer culture. On his Lacanian interpretation, Diet Coke wasn’t so much a compromise between unhealthy Coke and a healthy energy drink. It was a foolish attempt at having health inside Coke, without having to face up to the fact that for a healthy person, the experience of regularly drinking a nice Coke is over. Diet Coke, of course, doesn’t taste like Coke. It tastes like shit. But health conscious Coke lovers can make themselves get used to a drink that tastes like shit, because they can’t let go of the idea of drinking the tasty and unhealthy beverage they’ve supposedly sworn off. They want health inside the very thing that brought them ill health (without noticing the contradiction).
Zizek was refreshing in the 90’s and 00’s, precisely because the politics and cultural trends of that era were frequently the equivalent of Diet Coke.
But by 2014, a massive cultural change was happening in Western society. The squares of the post-2014 world were no longer the bland Centrists of the 90’s and 00’s. The left had become the new religious right; a virtual equity religion that cast the majority demographics of the population as oppressors. This new post-2014 left, highly influenced by the radical left of the late 20th century, was only interested in democratic rights insofar as those rights aided the oppressed. It was also extraordinarily sectarian, fuelled by an unwavering contempt for capitalism, traditional Western values, and the slightest deviations from its orthodoxies. By 2016, the mainstream establishment Centrists, frightened of the populist backlashes against the left in the form of Brexit and Trump, were hybridising with the post-2014 left. The Centrists were still economically neoliberal, but they were no longer drinking Diet Coke. They were instead guzzling the Kool-Aid of social justice activism, embracing the identitarian strands of left wing thought that involve checking your privilege, promoting ridiculous fears about men, rape, and racism, while associating free speech with the far right, and unreflectively adopting the new left’s modus operandi: anything which isn’t us, is Nazi.
Much of the post-2014 left justifies its radical positions by describing the every day Western world as a hell on earth, where the fires of inequality burn innocent victims through the ignorance and complicity of every part of the political spectrum that isn’t leftist. This left regularly accuses its opponents of promoting everything from transgender genocide to the destruction of planet earth, all the while using mental health stats to blur the distinction between disagreeing with the left, and committing an act of violence that should be punished the way violence is punished.
In other words, by 2016, much of the left and the mainstream had become something like Diet Fascism. Anti-fascism was no longer feasible for them, as their ideologies had descended into tribalism, paranoia, authoritarian uses of language, prohibitions of essential freedoms and rights, the glorification of the state, and a howl of despair at the state of modern civilisation. Many believe our civilisation encourages the privileged to destroy the important egalitarian values of Western culture through sneaky manifestations of decadence and vice. Here, mainstream ideology isn’t all that different to what’s in Mein Kampf. But it is a kind of diet version of that book, because instead of scapegoating minorities, it scapegoats and vilifies the majority, the majority’s democratic freedoms and rights, and the distribution mechanisms responsible for most people living so much better than they did in either 1800 or 1900. Unlike Mein Kampf, post-2014 leftism often pays lip service to the mainstream left of the 20th century; the very politics which stood in opposition to fascism. Yet this lip service is laughably unconvincing.
If Hitler, say, in 1923 decided to abandon the Nazi party and become a Leftist, he would not have been a Leftist that fitted comfortably with either the socialist left of the early 20th century, or the new left of the late 1960s. Hitler’s leftism would have been closer to the most vocal voices in the mainstream left of 2019. This of course, is not to claim that the modern left is anywhere near as bad as Hitler. But it is to point out that Hitler and much of the modern left share the same temperamental attitudes. Zizek’s temperament is closer to Jordan Peterson. But unlike Zizek, Jordan Peterson is not a Leftist. He does not identify with a movement which has transformed from a largely benevolent force calling for social safety nets and individual freedoms, to a hodgepodge of bigotry, paranoid sociology, and an apocalyptic John the Baptist hatred of day to day life.
Jordan Peterson is a Conservative, but he is a Conservative of the present moment. He’s not a 60’s Conservative, or even a Conservative that would fit comfortably in the right of the 90’s and 00’s. Peterson’s big bugaboos are not the welfare state, the use of psychedelics, the ‘gay agenda’, or violent video games. His main aim is to be an eloquent antidote to a society saturated by post-2014 leftist excess. Peterson’s work, which is a hybrid of clinical psychology, political analysis, Jungian literary interpretation, and motivational speaking, is an inspiring challenge to a new Western culture that fetishes victimhood, valorises psychological immaturity, and has largely internalised the leftist tactic of equating activism with shaming and threatening one’s political opponents.
Peterson’s mass popularity is also a terrifying wake up call to a class of establishment intellectuals who see themselves as articulating the conditions of social compassion and civility, even though they prefer cheap shots, defamation, and discrediting tactics.
Hence, so many members of this class routinely write editorials describing Peterson as everything from a far right demagogue to an intellectual charlatan. Both accusations are ironic, because even if they were true, they would be reasons to engage with Peterson, rather than dismiss him.
Peterson is not perfect, mind you. Sometimes his eloquent descriptions of personal responsibility can sound like a longing for the 1950s; a time when women didn’t have access to contraception, and everyone was expected to become a suburban parent living behind whiter than thou picket fences. Peterson’s monologues about the importance of conscientiousness can sometimes sound like he wishes he could erase the 60’s, the period when Western culture (because of the mainstream left) took unprecedented steps towards appreciating and accommodating the diversity of human beings.
Peterson can also be naive in his praise of religion, confusing the insights to be found in holy books with the idea that the social institution called religion is a benevolent one. The reality is, the more religious people are, the more they tend to act like the left Peterson so passionately argues against. This is because, regardless of the wisdom in particular religious texts, as a social institution, religion consistently rides on the back of authoritarian attitudes. The less authoritarian a religion becomes, the less like a typical religion it gets, and the more likely it is to die out. This is why, contra Peterson, the Christian religion is not a benevolent alternative to the post-2014 left.
But like Peterson, Zizek is also far from perfect, in 2019. The man who I thought of as the Elvis of Cultural Theory in 2005, now seems more like Elvis Presley in 1969. Like late 60’s Presley, Zizek seems slightly old-fashioned. Zizek is still incredibly interesting, but he’s not taking stock of what’s important about the present moment: The post-2014 left is the biggest threat to what’s important about Western political and cultural life. This new left is making a good chunk of the political spectrum routinely say things which make them sound like paranoid schizophrenics, refusing to take prescribed medications. The modern Leftist hence does not seem merely wrong; they seem mad. Worse than this, the supposed moderates of Western society are enabling this madness, because even sane people without radical dispositions are accepting the sociological descriptions which ground the left’s paranoid new ideology.
Compared to much of the post-2014 left, both the ERG and Trump himself are moderate and sensible. Furthermore, the dreaded backlash against the post-2014 left is not merely right wing. It also contains figures from the left who have been virtually ex-communicated from that side of the political spectrum. Hence, Zizek’s attempt to be in the good graces of today’s left makes him look cowardly. The man who once seemed radical and exciting now seems like an apologist for the status quo, despite the fact that this status quo now considers him (an only slightly un-PC left-wing cultural theorist) too heterodox to fully embrace. By identifying with today’s left, it’s almost as if the once brave Zizek is now in an abusive relationship he won’t leave. Watching him defend modern left wing movements, I feel like I’m watching someone compliment a lover who constantly abuses and threatens them. By trying to keep today’s left happy, Zizek sadly looks like the cowardly Diet Coke drinking moderates he would lampoon when I was a university student.
The Fight of the Century
When Zizek and Peterson faced off in their highly publicised stadium filling debate on April 19th, I was deeply excited to see who would win this exchange. It was a bit like watching my present self (closer to Peterson) debate my younger self (closer to Zizek). I was hoping Peterson would mostly win (to reassure me that I had become wiser, rather than simply regressed). But I also wanted Zizek to put up a good fight, even when losing. By putting up a good fight, Zizek would reassure me that my youthful self was not simply a blind fanatic, and that there could be a bridge between my older leftism and my more recent Petersonion fears of the left.
I wanted Zizek to be like a dazzling and courageous Ali, defeated by a tough and persistent Peterson, who I imagined as a bobbing and weaving Joe Frazier. I was dreaming of the intellectual equivalent of that iconic 1971 boxing match at Maddison Square Gardens where Muhammad Ali shocked the world by failing to re-take his title from an amazing new champion. Like Ali and Frazier, I imagined Zizek and Peterson behind their respective podiums, giving each other their best in a suspenseful back and forth verbal slug-fest. It would be a torrid, exhausting, and fast paced battle, where it was only obvious at the end that Peterson had edged out a win on points, after almost decking Zizek with a rhetorical left hook that he would leap into faster than the tired Slovenian could block it.
But no, this wasn’t what happened. The battle between Zizek and Peterson was less like Ali-Frazier and more like the encounter between Jessie and Celine, in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.
Yes, the two men engaged in some fascinating debates, throughout the evening. But if you watch Before Sunrise, you can also see Jessie and Celine engaging in some fascinating debates, in-between holding hands, laughing, kissing and declaring how lucky they both feel to have met each other. Peterson and Zizek didn’t do any of that, but they might as well have. There was a genuine warmth between both of them, and a sense that two kindred spirits (who were supposed to hate each other) were secretly thrilled to be able to engage in such a compulsive conversation, eager to hear what the other’s response would be to whatever it was they had to say.
Round 1 (ish)
Peterson began the debate with a critique of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. He first critiqued the iconic little book for its misplaced confidence in claims that had the potential to create situations that could go terribly wrong. Peterson then critiqued the work for being uninformed by post-19th century biology. He critiqued the marxist history of class struggle by first noting that economic incentives are not the only incentives that explain human behaviour. He then went on to claim that the Communist Manifesto was too reductionist in explaining social hierarchies in terms of socially constructed class divisions, dismissing the possibility that what could explain such hierarchies is biological rather than social. Peterson also attacked the idea that social hierarchies were always malevolent, noting their capacities to efficiently distribute resources. He attacked the idea that those on the top of social hierarchies had the power typically attributed to them by Leftists, claiming that insofar as those at the top have power, this is unstable and precarious power.
Peterson went on to attack the binary nature of the Communist Manifesto’s conception of class struggle. He claimed that some people, according to the marxist logic of oppression, simultaneously have oppressed and oppressor identities. Peterson claimed that the Kulaks murdered in the Soviet Union were a casualty of this presumed binary, as they were nothing more than farmers who were unjustly killed because they had made use of economic mobility. Peterson also criticised the binary nature of class struggle for its conceptualisation of the oppressed as innocent and benevolent, when there is no reason to think any group running a complex social system would be more innocent and benevolent than the people they have replaced. This worry formed the basis of Peterson’s critique of the Communist Manifesto’s dictatorship of the proletariat.
Peterson claimed a benevolent dictatorship of the proletariat was impossible because workers would be corrupted by power, in addition to having the burdens of dealing with impossibly complex problems of centralisation. He also claimed it was unfair to characterise the labour and capital relationship as one of exploitation, firstly because of the tremendous value a business can contribute to society, and secondly, because it would not be in a business’s interests to exploit workers. Peterson rejected the view that “profit is theft”, claiming that profit maximising was a way of reacting to the demands of society, and that reacting to demands limits the amount of wasted labour one does. Peterson here used the example of his patients not paying for certain services, and the absence of profit giving him a good indication of what labour he could do, that would be more useful to those patients willing to pay for his services.
Peterson also criticised the idea that a dictatorship of the proletariat could be hyper productive, since that hyper productivity would depend on most people engaging in spontaneous and creative labour.
Peterson was skeptical that spontaneous and creative labour could organise itself in such a way as to produce the level of prosperity and efficiency that one sees in a market economy where the individual must provide a service, based on what the market is demanding.
Peterson suggested that while artists, writers, and bohemians may benefit from spontaneous and creative labour, most people would suffer the social symptoms of idleness, such as destructive behaviour. He ended his opening remarks by noting that capitalism had two features in its favour that are sorely lacking in marxist alternatives to capitalism:
1. Capitalism creates productivity that has a historic track record of allowing the bottom to rise up from poverty and enjoy the fruits of prosperity.
2. Although capitalist societies contain inequality, they contain less inequality and poverty than societies which attempt to create alternatives to capitalism.
Peterson finished by giving Stephen Pinker type stats demonstrating how capitalism has quickly improved not just longevity rates, but the diminishment of extreme poverty in small amounts of time.
What Zizek Could have Said in Response to Peterson
Here, Leftists (whether they are Marxists or not) can do one of three things. They can try and create an empirical case against the idea that capitalism explains either prosperity or the economic raising of those at the bottom. If this doesn’t work, they can try and give a moral argument against capitalism, claiming that capitalism is evil because it uses economic incentives to perpetuate inequality, is disastrous for the planet, and is based solely on the appropriation of surplus labour. This second more moralistic argument depends on a zero sum explanation of wealth inequality: the rich get richer, because the poor get poorer. On this second argument, wealth inequality is an immoral outrage, even if over time, there are substantial gains to the worst off. The third option for the Leftist is to try and create some hybrid of these two arguments, creating a moderate empirical case for capitalism not causing prosperity, and supplementing this case with a moral argument to the effect that regardless, capitalism is deeply exploitative, and dangerous for the planet. Zizek could have responded to all of Peterson’s arguments, using any one of these strategies.
If Zizek wanted to defend the dictatorship of the proletariat, he could have said that the productivity of this dictatorship could be sustained because in communism, workers are able to do what is in their interest, rather than be exploited. He could, like many basic income proponents, claim that Peterson’s distrust of creative and spontaneous labour is a distrust in the ability of people to be free. Zizek could claim (in the vein of Noam Chomsky) that big business does not contribute goods and services to society, because corporations are totalitarian institutions that use concentrated economic power to create demand, rather than respond to it.
Zizek could agree with Peterson’s criticisms of the Soviet Union, but then insist this was not true communism, giving an argument as to how Bolshevism was a failed attempt at communism, rather than evidence that communism is inherently dangerous.
Zizek could also claim that a sophisticated understanding of class doesn’t demand a simple binary of “oppressed and oppressor.” He could claim that the economic incentives of communism come from a place of justice, and hence, facilitate the absence of corruption in a way that capitalist economies do not. Zizek could even give an argument to the effect that although there are non-economic incentives that explain human behaviour, economic incentives are the predominant incentives. Zizek could then attack Peterson’s lobster analogies, claiming that they are attempts to legitimise oppressive systems through the use of the naturalistic fallacy: the assumption that because something is a natural phenomenon in nature, that therefore humans ought to imitate it, rather than aspire to something better (and more human).
Or at least, this is what my 2005 self would have said if I were debating Jordan Peterson. My 2019 self would not give these arguments.
What’s Wrong with What Zizek Could Have Said
Peterson’s lobster analogy is not a way of trying to legitimise something nasty and oppressive. This is because social hierarchies (even ones that involve dominance) are not inherently evil. We can certainly imagine bad versions of dominance hierarchies (North Korea, the Mafia, Zizek’s place within the modern left). But we can also imagine benevolent versions of dominance hierarchies (The Beatles, the cast and crew of a David Lynch film, or the fact that only the eye surgeons with the best reputations are the most sought after eye surgeons). It’s not obvious that the majority of dominance hierarchies are more like North Korea than they are a band where George Harrison only gets two cuts per album (unlike John and Paul). It’s also not obvious that Peterson’s lobster analogy is best interpreted as an attempt to justify dominance hierarchies, rather than an attempt to explain them. The way most dominance hierarchies actually work is what grounds their justification.
Regarding economic incentives, it’s a bit of a moot point whether or not most human behaviour incentives are economic. Either way, it’s doubtful that communism is an easy pathway into moral incentives for workers. Communism, after all, thrives off of resentment towards those who have privilege. Privileges are (at least sometimes) a result of competence, so a communist society seems to structure its incentive systems in a way where the competent are resented, particularly if they are also the beneficiaries of social mobility. Much of human life isn’t fair, and any system designed to route out as much unfairness as possible will wind up feeling largely anti-human and cruel.
This is partly because there are a multiplicity of important human values (justice, fairness, equality, love, compassion, creativity, freedom, aspiration, security) and any system that prioritises justice as much as communism seems decidedly unbalanced. The imbalance is manifested in the murderous reputation of communist regimes, regimes that routinely display an indifference towards any suffering that results from their attempts to create maximal justice. It’s also doubtful that a communist society would be able to sustain increases in wealth creation, since the most impactful social norm is to try not to have more than anyone else.
With regards trusting workers to create productivity through spontaneous and creative labour, the freedom to do what one likes all day long depends on other people’s productivity. However, what generates this productivity is a sense that many things need to be done, and there are financial incentives for doing them. The main incentive for doing them is being able to take part in prosperity, rather than being excluded from it (poverty and homelessness). Doing what you like may also technically be an incentive to produce, but it’s not as strong an incentive to produce as the threat of not being able to participate in prosperity, if one does not do what needs to be done. In the absence of these capitalist incentives, prosperity diminishes, and when prosperity diminishes, so do left-leaning social attitudes.
You can only worry about things like gay rights, for instance, if you feel entitled to have sex with people you are attracted to. In an environment of economic scarcity, you are less likely to have the entitled attitudes that produce the kind of rights based campaigns that have resulted in both gay marriage and the legality of abortion.
Successful rights based campaigns, like the market, are ways that society satisfies a demand. Although one can make a case that certain features of huge multi-national corporations are authoritarian, the idea that they create demand (rather than respond to it) seems at odds with how precarious their continued successes are. Even wealth itself is precarious, and this is why so many of the living super rich of 1980 are not the super rich of 2019. Moreover, the jobs and economic opportunities created by rich corporations seem like they do enrich society, provided society also creates appropriate regulations for such businesses. But even then, the regulations cannot be so stringent that they unnecessarily jeopardise many jobs that are the outgrowth of these big businesses. Nor can they undermine the chances for smaller businesses to be successful, drowning them in avalanches of red tape.
It is important to remember that protecting people from the possibility of wealth inequality often means protecting people from wealth. This is why it’s fundamentally counter-productive to embrace a politics which is based on resenting those who own most of the wealth. It’s easy to resent the top 1% of world wide income earners, until you realise this group includes anyone who makes 32, 400 dollars (or 24, 930 pounds) a year. What’s morally important is opportunities for those at the bottom, and while such opportunities certainly fluctuate in capitalist societies, such societies seem like they have the best track record of consistently providing them.
With regards the destruction of the planet, the entire debate about how to combat climate change has degenerated into something like the leftist discourses one sees around race and gender: disagree with the most extreme anti-capitalist, anti-industrial left wing demands for saving the planet, and you get attacked for being a climate change denier bought off by nebulous corporate forces. This is what happens to dissenters of environmentalist orthodoxy, despite the fact that it’s not clear that most scientists agree with the climate change solutions demanded by left-wing environmentalists. Nor is it clear that most of these dissenters are climate change skeptics. The infamous statistic about 97% of scientists thinking global warming is man made does nothing to show that only conspiracy theorists and corporate shills are skeptical of the most apocalyptic leftist interpretations of climate change data. What the constant invocation of this stat shows is that the left has a free speech problem in science, just as it does in the social sciences.
What Zizek Actually Said
To my amazement, Zizek did not attack Peterson in the way my younger self would have. Much of what he said was complimentary, rather than at odds, with Peterson. Zizek began his opening statement by mentioning how, like Peterson, he too had been attacked vociferously by PC authoritarians. Zizek then expressed worries that major capitalist economies (like China) were no guarantee against authoritarianism. He railed against the prioritisation of happiness in the human value system, as such prioritisation is often the justification for authoritarianism and brutality. For Zizek, like Peterson, a meaningful life is a more laudable goal than a happy one. Zizek elaborated on this by speaking eloquently about how life’s main existential burden is freedom. Freedom for Zizek is also the pathway towards creating a meaningful life, especially after traditional sources of security have been delegitimised.
Zizek then made a plethora of interesting observations; observations suggesting that like Peterson, he understands that we are living in a time of ideological flux. Zizek observed that Trump was less a typical Conservative than a post-modern one, and that the left’s obsession with the evil of Trump is what opened up the space for Trump to be seen as a viable alternative to the left. Zizek described the left as wallowing in its own marginalisation, fetishising self-hatred, and delighting in terrible facts about Western oppression, as such facts help Leftists sustain their identities as crusaders for justice. Here, Zizek was expressing what Peterson could have expressed using different terms. Zizek criticised populists for blaming immigrants for what could properly be attributed to the problems of global capitalism, again not saying anything Peterson would necessarily take issue with.
Where Zizek substantially departed from Peterson was in his skepticism towards organised religion, as a safeguard of life’s meaning. Where Peterson sees religion as a spiritual safe haven from the threat of nihilism, Zizek expressed the worry that religious fanaticism is fundamentally more nihilistic than non-belief. It was interesting how Zizek could make this point, despite his quite fascinating sympathies with the ethics behind Christianity.
Yet the biggest critique Zizek presented of Peterson was an attack on Peterson’s crusade against cultural marxism. Here, Zizek accused Peterson of not understanding marxism. Zizek claimed that Marx’s works (outside the Communist Manifesto) contain insights about capitalism which are far more nuanced than the critique Peterson gave of marxian economics. Zizek then claimed that PC identitarians who had persecuted both Peterson and Zizek were not Marxists, as much as they were Liberal Capitalists throwing a tantrum over the fact that they were losing the battle over equality, in the West.
For Zizek, “losing the battle over equality” means the diminishment of the welfare state, union rights, and the economically left-wing projects of the 20th century. Zizek then pointed out that egalitarianism itself was characterised as a bourgeois phenomenon within Marx’s writings, and that Zizek’s own belief in equality was one that was grounded in respecting individual (rather than group) diversity. Zizek’s vision of equality, surprisingly, did not clash with Peterson’s notorious promotion of equality of opportunity.
On Peterson’s lobster analogy, Zizek claimed that hierarchies of dominance don’t necessarily reflect competence, as even dominance hierarchies in the animal kingdom can “make successes out of failures.” Zizek then claimed the democracy was itself a blow against dominance hierarchies, because democracies are purposefully not run by experts. Zizek then ended his opening statement by claiming that capitalism had a problem reinforcing three kinds of negative dominance hierarchies. For Zizek, capitalism reinforces the conditions of environmental degradation, its technologies are reshaping man by commodifying too much of human life, and capitalism incentivises backward and reactionary societies to stay that way, provided they are profitable trading partners for richer societies.
Zizek ended his opening speech with a call for more government regulation, and the expression of a more general pessimism he has regarding human beings.
After Zizek’s opening speech, Peterson was visibly shocked at how much what Zizek said he agreed with. Peterson even went as far as to say that Zizek, “was a very strange Marxist” as the two men debated, discussed, complimented each other, and asked each other questions about the content of their opening statements.
Peterson was the first to make some decent responses to Zizek. Peterson noted correctly that Zizek’s critiques of capitalism didn’t seem to justify marxism, partly because so many of the criticisms were compatible with what Peterson himself believes. Here, Peterson stressed that he was not a Randian calling for the celebration of the individual. Rather, he recognised that social change must start from the individual, in an “iterated game” where what is good for the individual is what is good for his/her family, and what is good for his/her family is then what is good for society.
Peterson agreed with Zizek that the commodification of all forms of life was bad, and that the important project for capitalist wealth creation was not to create happy rich people, but instead alleviate the misery that comes from not having enough money.
Although Peterson recognised the environmental dangers created by capitalist industrialisation, he expressed skepticism over overpopulation worries, expressed faith in the ability of scientists and engineers to solve climate change problems without having to abandon capitalism, and he pointed out that doom mongering environmentalists have a history of making false predictions. Peterson gave examples of these false predictions regarding the depletion of natural resources, and overpopulation. Peterson then clarified that he agreed with Zizek that the depletion of natural resources was a possibility, but stated he did not think it was yet an empirically proven reality.
Peterson responded to Zizek’s attack on Peterson’s war with cultural marxism by saying Zizek had mischaracterised his views, slightly. Peterson’s view is not that there is an official discipline called “Cultural Marxism” or a conspiracy to indoctrinate students with cultural marxist views. Rather, Peterson thinks that cultural marxism was the result of post-modern theories adopting oppressor/oppressed narratives, and then indoctrinating students with a language for authoritarian activism. Peterson believes this language has hybridised post-modern sociological descriptions of women and minorities, with class struggle sentiments that have a marxist lineage. But it’s not clear that Peterson thinks this has happened in a manner where cultural marxism proponents are self-conscious of what it is they are doing (or indeed, aware that they are teaching something called “Cultural Marxism”).
Zizek confessed that he agrees with many of the problems that Peterson pointed out in Communist Manifesto style marxist revolutions. Peterson then asked Zizek why he identifies as a Marxist, after which Zizek insisted he wanted to hybridise the better aspects of Marx’s political economy with the philosophy of Hegel. Here, Peterson responded that Zizek was letting out the wolf, in the name of protecting the sheep.
Zizek then critiqued Jordan Peterson for Peterson’s infamous injunction to “clean your room”, and “get your house in order” before trying to change society through any kind of activism. Zizek suggested that often times, the reason why one’s house is dirty is because of society, and this is why the prioritisation of the cleaned house is silly. Zizek went as far as to suggest that Peterson himself was an activist that wasn’t simply doing his activism after having cleaned his room, but was cleaning his room through his political activism.
So Who Won?
Nobody won. Or rather, it wasn’t the sort of debate where anyone “wins.” But it was a conversation in which both parties said important things we can learn from.
For example, Zizek is right that activism can be a way of “getting one’s house in order.” But Peterson is right that you will be a much better activist, if you first work on your psychological and mental health. Cultivating wisdom will make you less likely to join bad causes, or try and produce social change by shouting at people and threatening them until they comply with your demands.
Peterson is right that Zizek is aligning himself with a political tradition that is infamous for defending both impractical and dangerous solutions to the problems of capitalism, as well as revolutions that have a fairly consistent reputation for winding up as tyrannies. But Zizek is right that one can get important and interesting insights about the nature of the economy from Marx; insights that are not aligned with the post-2014 left as much as one might think (Marx was not a proponent of the welfare state, he could persuasively articulate much of what was good about capitalism, he was nothing like a modern environmentalist, and Marx even had reservations about egalitarianism).
Zizek is right that the identitarians of the post-2014 left are reflecting a crisis in liberal capitalist societies, a crisis that has more to do with guilt, greed, narcissism, and prosperity than the writings of Marx. But Peterson is right that one of the factors that has enabled this crisis to take hold in such a lockstep fashion is the fact that Marx inspired doctrines are spread in universities using language that hybridises post-modern sociology and oppressor/oppressed narratives. It seems far too charitable to Marx, to insist his writing has nothing to do with the destructive consequences of political movements that rely on oppressor/oppressed narratives. Marx’s concept of class struggle is the most influential and iconic example of an oppressor/oppressed narrative that Western society has ever seen. This is why, although one can learn from Marx, one should be hesitant to call oneself a Marxist. In a similar way, although one can learn from Jesus, one should be hesitant to call oneself a Christian.
Zizek is right that one danger of capitalism is it can reinforce environmental degradation, the commodification of things which should not be commodified, and the economic conditions that stop societies from being less backward. Peterson is right that capitalist societies and their growth, technologies, and access to goods, are still the best hope for ameliorating these problems.
Prosperity, after all, creates liberal social attitudes, as well as ethical thinking that’s much deeper than what people do when they are fighting to survive. And like Zizek, Peterson believes a prosperous capitalist society can co-exist with a compassionate welfare state, as well as sensible regulations on big business.
Peterson is right that none of Zizek’s criticism of capitalism made marxism look like a preferable alternative. But Zizek is now less a Marxist (I think) than someone who uses Marx to express his ideas; ideas that are flexible enough to take on important criticisms of the marxist left, while not conflating utopian aspirations with an uncritical romanticisation of one’s own pie in the sky schemes. Both Zizek and Peterson were particularly insightful when they waxed eloquently to each other about how man’s fall from grace was a precondition of man being able to understand what goodness truly is.
Much to my surprise, neither men got in a clash about Marx’s labour theory of value. It seemed like Zizek, at least for a few hours, was behaving as though calling the appropriation of surplus labour “exploitation” is a semantic sleight of hand. Calling the appropriation of surplus labour “exploitation”, to me, has always sounded like calling all rough housing, “assault”, or calling all sex, “rape.” But on the other hand, I may be reading too much into Zizek here. Zizek may hold a more sophisticated marxist theory of labour exploitation than Marx himself does. And this, of course, is one of the troubles with belief systems like marxism: You can call yourself a Marxist and hold views that are more influenced by the views of Karl Marx, than they are like the views of Karl Marx.
Two Brothers (of a sort)
The fact that neither men stooped to the low levels one might have expected reinforced my respect and admiration for both of them. Peterson did a much better on stage performance in this debate, than I have seem him do on other occasions (particularly in his debate with Erik Dyson, where he seemed angry and hurt, rather than intellectually combative). Zizek, to his credit, did a much better job defending his views than he normally does when confronted with Conservative television interviewers. Both men combined a thorough attempt to defend their own ideas, with an openness to what the other man had to say. This was a rare event in today’s culture wars, where if you are open to anything Peterson has to say, that normally means you already agree with Peterson about most things. But Peterson needs Zizek, as it’s Zizek who can articulate something to Peterson persuasively that the post-2014 left cannot: the value of being eccentric, rather than simply conscientious. Based on what Zizek said in his debate with Peterson, it sounds like Peterson has been coherently articulating much of what Zizek already believes, but is cautious about expressing, to his Leftist fan boys.
Hence, we should not ignore Zizek or Peterson, anymore than they should ignore each other. I cannot ignore Zizek because of his leftism, anymore than I can ignore Peterson on the grounds that he is more socially conservative than myself.
As far as my older self and my younger self are concerned, I also can’t cut off one for the sake of the other. Although I am now closer to Peterson ideologically, I can still admit that temperamentally, I feel more of an affinity with Zizek. Like Zizek, I think Peterson underestimates the importance of social freedom and diversity, as well as the stultifying conformism of suburban family life, old time religion, and a society where rebellious kids only had Elvis, rather than “I am the Walrus.” Yet on the other hand, I can appreciate something Zizek seems to be less aware of, as times goes on.
Diet Coke is better than Diet Fascism.
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5. Person vs Zizek Stills Art (Greg Scorzo)