If a laboring man has no land, no chance of making use of the right, so natural for every man, to obtain from the land his own means of support and those of his family, this is not so because the nation wants it to be so, but because certain men, the owners of land, are granted the right to admit, or not to admit, the laboring people to it. And this unnatural order of things is maintained by means of the army. If the immense wealth, accumulated by the laboring people, is not considered as belonging to all men, but to an exclusive number of men; if the power to collect taxes from labor and to use the money for anything they may see fit is entrusted to a few men; if a few men are permitted to select the method of the religious and civil instruction and education of the children; if strikes of the laborers are opposed and strikes of the capitalists are encouraged; if a few men are granted the right to compose laws, which all must obey, and to dispose of men’s property and life—all this does not take place because the nation wants it so, but because the governments and the ruling classes want it so, and by means of bodily violence establish it so.—Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You
Jordan Peterson is many things to many people. For some, as the New York Times has pointed out, he is “the world’s most influential public intellectual.” For others, Jordan Peterson is a self-help guru and even a spiritual guide, offering essential traditional wisdom on how to navigate an increasingly precarious and uncertain world. On the other hand, to many, Peterson is a critic of some ambiguous philosophical movement known as post-modern neo-Marxism (analyzed by me here), which apparently influences the ideological outlook of everyone from radical feminists to trans activists and student agitators. Depending on your political outlook, this either makes him a stalwart defender of free speech and liberalism or a dangerous reactionary, who serves as a gateway to the far right, as Heterodox Academy’s recent study suggests. Finally, for his most scathing critics, Peterson is little more than a bloviating hack, hawking empty pseudo-profundities.
But, before his rise to fame, Jordan Peterson was an academic with some interesting things to say. Whatever one thinks of his positions, they have clearly generated debate. Our book, Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson, published by Zero Books, analyzes Peterson’s philosophical and political positions. Written by Conrad Hamilton, Ben Burgis, Marion Trejo and me, it includes a lengthy introduction by Slavoj Zizek. We address Peterson as an intellectual, whose arguments against the left and in favour of “ordered liberty” politics need to be engaged with and rebutted. We also attempt to explain Peterson’s popularity as a symptom of cultural malaise. The left needs to take him seriously, otherwise we risk ceding a lot of moral ground to someone whose understanding of political issues often leaves a lot to be desired.
The arguments of the book fall into two broad categories. First, we show where Peterson misinterprets or misrepresents left-wing ideas and demands. Second, we analyze Peterson’s positions on capitalism, classical liberalism and other topics.
Peterson on the Political Left
Peterson is well known for his criticisms of the contemporary left. His targets have included Marx and Marxist-inspired thinkers, such as Max Horkheimer; postmodern philosophers and historians, such as Derrida and Foucault; and feminist and trans theorists, pushing a radically egalitarian sexual agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with criticizing such figures; postmodern theory is often highly limited and the work of major thinkers like Foucault contains surprisingly reactionary undercurrents. The problem is that Peterson’s critiques are extremely general at best, and misleading at worst. For example, Chapter 10 of 12 Rules for Life contains one of his most sustained written critiques of so called postmodern neo-Marxism. In ten short pages—less space than he dedicates to the myth of Marduk in Maps of Meaning—Peterson lumps together criticisms of Marx, the Frankfurt School, Sartre, Derrida, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist analysis and other topics. He rarely cites any references or refers to specific works, relying instead on vague generalities and affective hyperbole. Derrida, the post-structuralist thinker, is chided for conceiving of the social world as oriented by structures of power; the Frankfurt school critics of liberal capitalist humanism and Stalinism are misrepresented as “Marxist humanists”; gender constructivists, identity politics activists and “post-modern Marxists” are accused on the one hand of never discussing the complexities involved in hierarchy formation and the relationship between individual and group identity formation and, on the other, of fixating on these issues like the “North Star.”
To give another example, cited by Zizek in the introduction to our book:
Another oft-repeated Peterson-motif is the idea that, according to the “postmodern neo-Marxists,” the capitalist West is characterized by “tyrannical patriarchy” (with Peterson here triumphantly mocking this claim, enumerating cases of how hierarchy existed not only in non-Western societies—but also in nature!). Again, I sincerely don’t know which “neo-Marxists” claim that patriarchy is the result of the capitalist West. Marx says the exact contrary: in one of the most famous passages from The Communist Manifesto, he writes that it is precisely capitalism itself which tends to undermine all traditional patriarchal hierarchies. Furthermore, in “Authority and Family,” an early classic of the Frankfurt School (the origin of “cultural Marxism”), Max Horkheimer is far from just condemning the modern patriarchal family—he describes how the paternal role model can provide to a youngster a stable support to resist social pressure. As his colleague Adorno pointed out, totalitarian leaders like Hitler are not paternal figures.
There have been several attempts to defend Peterson’s interpretation of postmodern neo Marxism. One of the best recent efforts is an article in this magazine, by Jonathan Church—though even its title is telling: “Jordan Peterson Is Not Entirely Wrong About ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxism.’” Church argues that Peterson overstates his case and “does not appreciate many of the subtleties of postmodern philosophy.” Nonetheless, Church claims that Marx’s influence can be seen in postmodern culture’s ongoing obsession with social marginalization, which has resulted in a left-wing effort to seize the means of cultural production in order to engage in social justice activism, inspired by critical theory going back to Marx. Church also points to the influence Marx still holds in the academy, in social science and humanities courses.
But Church takes postmodern theory more seriously than Peterson himself. Marx has had an impact on all subsequent generations of left-wing theorists and activists. His academic influence is so ubiquitous that most progressives must have engaged with Marxist ideas—at least accidentally. And no sociology, economics or philosophy department lacks at least a few courses on Marxism.
But this does not mean, as Peterson suggests, that postmodern theorists are just gussying up post-Soviet Marxism with some new terminology. The philosophical and political differences between Marxism and postmodernism are not mere subtleties. Marxism is fundamentally a late Enlightenment philosophy and approach to political economy, which argues that the world can be understood as it truly is and changed on the basis of that understanding. It is also predicated on a Hegelian theory of freedom, which holds that, in a more emancipated society, we will eventually be able to develop sides of our natures that are constrained by capitalism. Postmodern theory disputed that the world could be understood as it truly is, and was highly sceptical of dramatic efforts to change it. That’s why Jean Francois Lyotard advocates local, specific political activism in The Postmodern Condition: he rejects the transformative project of Marxism, along with its grand metanarrative about history and society. Theorists like Foucault were also very reticent to endorse specific accounts of what emancipated individuals would look like, wary of justifying new types of disciplinary power relations. Derrida, a favourite target of Peterson’s, was actually far more inspired by Heidegger (an influence he shares with Peterson), Husserl and French structuralism than Marxism. He did not even thoroughly engage with politics or with Marx until the 1990s, towards the end of a long philosophical career. Derrida’s primary interests were in language, the history of philosophy and writing. As a result of these philosophical differences from Marx, postmodern-inspired activists have largely eschewed demands for material changes to the economic system. Instead, they call for greater political and cultural inclusion—to the chagrin of Marxists like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton, who remain committed to the socialist project. (I have made similar arguments elsewhere.) These differences are not subtle. Peterson should take more care to distinguish different streams of progressive critical theorizing.
Equally problematic are Peterson’s arguments against alleged leftist demands for equality of outcome or the elimination of hierarchies. Virtually no leftist—even Marx—has ever thought it was possible, let alone desirable, to achieve equality along every or even most metrics (Marx only called for the elimination of class inequality). Even anarchists opposed to almost all forms of coercion accept the need for fluid hierarchical organization, to manage social problems. In political philosophy and science, questions about hierarchy usually turn on what kinds are acceptable or functional, not whether they should exist at all.
Peterson on Liberalism and Capitalism
We also take issue with Peterson’s more substantive claims about the virtues of tradition, meritocracy and capitalism, arguments I have categorised as a defense of “ordered liberty.” A full criticism of ordered liberty is beyond the scope of our book, but we point out the contradictions and limitations inherent in Peterson’s defense of the status quo. For example, Peterson supports a meritocratic hierarchy of competence, while failing to acknowledge the many ways in which individuals can be disadvantaged or advantaged by twenty-first century capitalism. Peterson often invokes a naturalistic argument, depicting liberal capitalist hierarchies as effective and relatively free ways of organizing a society that will inevitably include inequalities of rank and power. As he puts it in 12 Rules for Life:
All that matters from the Darwinian perspective is permanence—and the dominance hierarchy, however social and cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism either for that matter. It’s not the military industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy—that disposable, arbitrary, malleable cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence.
It is hard to tell whom he is addressing here, since almost all leftists concede that some form of hierarchy is necessary. The question is what kind. These issues apply to questions of distributive justice and the economy. John Rawls, the most influential liberal theorist of the twentieth century, has pointed out that most of our thinking about meritocracy and competence is misguided. Some believe that certain individuals are economically advantaged because they belong to the right social group or family. Others, like Charles Murray, believe that natural talents like intelligence are far more important than social factors in explaining why some get ahead and others fall behind. For Rawls, these disputes are largely beside the point. Whether one is disadvantaged by being born into a poor family or because of a lack of marketable natural talents, people get ahead for morally arbitrary reasons that have nothing to do with who they are and the choices they make. Neither the individual born into a poor family who cannot send her to college, nor the one who cannot cope with college because she was born with significant cognitive disabilities, is responsible for the disadvantages she faces. Rawls and his successors, such Dworkin, Nussbaum and Sen, point out that this is no small problem for consistent liberals, since a fundamental feature of liberal thinking is that all individuals must be treated fairly, as beings of equal moral worth. Even some defenders of capitalism have accepted elements of this position: as when F. A. Hayek urged all friends of the market to drop meritocratic arguments in favour of capitalism. Any argument for contemporary capitalism is going to have to accept that, in a capitalist society, merit and competence alone may not get you to the top. And, even if they did, that might result in an unfair and illiberal society.
Peterson’s defense of traditionalism is substantially at odds with his often hagiographic understanding of capitalism as a historical force. In Maps of Meaning and papers like “Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights and the Constituent Elements of Experience,” Peterson expresses anxiety that the traditional and religious value systems that held Western societies together are increasingly breaking apart, with the result that people are retreating into either cynical indifference or proto-totalitarian dogmatism. This may well be true. I share some of Peterson’s worries about modernity. But Peterson dismisses the possibility that capitalism—an economic and social system characterized by what Schumpeter calls the constant “creative destruction” of values—may have played a significant role in upending traditional mores and ways of life. This is hardly a new argument. Marx and Engels anticipate Schumpeter when they point out that, under capitalist conditions, “everything that is solid melts into the air”: previously sacred institutions and authority figures are upended by capitalist and related processes, such as commodification and urbanization. For example, the ongoing movement away from homogenous and orderly local rural communities—often characterized by a shared religious faith—has been largely driven by economic imperatives towards urbanization. This has resulted in greater pluralisation—but also more anomie and uncertainty. Instead of addressing these issues, Peterson blames the breakdown of traditionalism on easy targets, such as the influence of postmodern neo-Marxism. But are a bunch of opaque French philosophers more responsible for the predicaments of postmodernity than a centuries-old economic system of worldwide reach and influence?
Our hope is that Myth and Mayhem will be interesting to both Peterson’s critics and his followers. Many of the latter have already expressed anger that the book even exists. But we feel it is necessary both to correct Peterson’s mistakes and oversights, and to provide a substantive left-wing response to his arguments. They have proven influential, and an engaged left needs to reply. We have also created a website for those interested in contributing short essays about the book, or other topics related to Peterson. We’re happy to accept both critical analyzes and essays defending his positions, if they are well reasoned and presented in a spirit of dialogue, in the mutual pursuit of truth.