Marion Trejo and Matt McManus discuss the relationship between Jordan Peterson and the theoretical Left, and why this might be important in facing down the rise of the fascist Right.
Jordan Peterson has been a public figure in Canada since his early appearances on TVO focusing on the themes brought up in his 1999 opus Maps of Meaning. But Peterson really skyrocketed to fame in 2016 on the back of his criticisms of Bill C-16, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act by adding gender expression and identity as protected grounds while offering protections against hate speech, and his series of YouTube lectures “Professor Against Political Correction.” Since then Peterson has also become something of a darling to right wing media for his sermons against political correctness on university campuses, radical feminism, and an ambiguous tradition he calls “post-modern neo-Marxism.” This has generated no small backlash from progressives claiming he either doesn’t have a firm intellectual grip on what he’s talking about when it comes to the left, or is even a reactionary wolf posturing as a classical liberal sheep.
For all that, most of the progressive responses to Peterson have been partial and short form. They raise valid points, but don’t address the sweep of Peterson’s outlook. There needs to be a sustained intellectual response from progressives to show where Peterson’s arguments actually fall short. There are several areas where the limitations to Petersonian analysis become a lot clearer. In this article we try to highlight some of the most prominent.
The Big Problems with Peterson
Many of the limitations to Peterson’s analysis stem from the relentless philosophical idealism underpinning his outlook. As he puts in Maps of Meaning:
“I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way, that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This discovery has not turned me into a moral relativist however. I have become convinced that the world-that-is-belief is orderly; that there are universal moral absolutes (although these are structured such that a diverse range of human opinions remains both possible and beneficial. I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes-in ignorance or in willful opposition-are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution. I learned that the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker-and that, so rendered, can be experienced as fascinating, profound and necessary. I learned why people wage war-why the desire to maintain, protect and expand the domain of belief motivates even the most incomprehensible acts of group-fostered oppression and cruelty-and what might be done to ameliorate this tendency, despite is universality. I learned, finally, that the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life, and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable.”
The problem with claiming that “beliefs make the world” in a “more than metaphysical sense” – whatever that means – was well criticized by materialists going back to the 19th century. While it going too far to suggest, as some orthodox Marxists still do, that everything can be explained by material relations “in the last instance,” materialisms fundamental insight was showing that belief systems and hierarchies which appear natural or mythological are often predicated on contingent relations of power. This suggests that they are neither inevitable, or in many cases, desirable, and can be changed. This can be true in a capitalist context, and also in more intimate realms such as gender-sex relations. What Peterson is reacting against are the compelling progressive arguments that the status quo may be in need of some serious revision. He is also keen to defend these positions against those arguments; though often in an unconvincing way. We will discuss some of those below.
Firstly, Peterson has a very unusual understanding of contemporary capitalism and the justifications for it. He often describes modern capitalism as a “competence hierarchy.” Invoking the Matthew Principle, which suggests that economic and social advantages will accumulate at the top, Peterson claims that the system tends to disproportionately reward those with significant abilities. While it might be morally permissible to engage in low level economic redistribution to help those left behind by these trends, he stresses that achieving equality of opportunity for individuals shouldn’t lead to a totalitarian striving for equality of outcome. This may seem like a compelling argument, except that virtually no progressive-including Marx-has ever suggested achieving equality along every dimension of life was possible or even desirable. In the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx even takes issue with those who aspire to equality of outcome, criticizing egalitarian moralism as another offshoot of bourgeoise theory. As is well known, the Marxist argument was about the elimination of class power and exploitation through the advent of a new social form.
“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only – for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.”
One doesn’t even need to dive deep into the radical left to see the limitations of Peterson’s arguments about capitalism and criticisms of egalitarianism. Take the work of John Rawls, the most significant liberal theorist of the 20th century. Rawls points out that whatever you want to call the capitalist competence hierarchy it is no meritocracy. People do nothing to deserve having limited natural talents, or being born into more disadvantaged situations than others, or having skills which the market happens to reward even if they aren´t exactly praiseworthy. In other words individuals fall behind for reasons that are “morally arbitrary.” Rawls argues that taking seriously the liberal claim that we all are created equal and enjoy the same moral status means we have to compensate the least well off for the misfortune of being hard done by.
On another front lets look at Peterson’s relentless criticisms of radical feminism, which he often seems to conflate with the feminist movement as a whole. Peterson sees radical feminists as pushing for strict gender equality in all spheres, even where that requires the coercive use of state power. Peterson argues this as a serious problem, since given equality of opportunity women and men are more likely to make different choices. For instance men will choose to privilege their careers, while women will assume responsibility for their families. But feminists have never been ignorant of this possibility.
While many feminists have argued that women should be encouraged to enter traditionally male dominated fields, as Drucilla Cornell would point out, this is as much about achieving freedom and power for women as it is about equality. They also point out that one of the big problems is the current system devalues work carried out by women, even in the household. Take the famous Canadian 1973 case Murdoch vs Murdoch, where the Supreme Court found that the wife of an Alberta rancher was not entitled to half the family property since her many efforts were no more than what was expected of a ranch wife. The feminist outcry this provoked stressed how society undervalues the labor and effort women put into family life by suggesting it has no economic worth. These kinds of problems persist, with a recent University College London study showing that even where women and men are both employed, the former are likely to spend a disproportionate 20 hours a week on household chores. The unpaid “second shift” is alive and well. This is partly why the Nordic countries provide significant aid to parents, and particularly to mothers. Peterson may attempt to chock these inequities up to the different choices made by men and women in accordance with their nature. But in the face of that argument we should ask why a sufficiently large number of women choose to adopt feminist perspectives to challenge traditional sexual and gendered hierarchies.
A final example of the limitations to Peterson’s work is how frequently we found ourselves frustrated that a man so fixated on the evils of totalitarianism would find student activism at elite universities immensely threatening. Yet at the same time one sees him devote so little of his considerably energy to criticizing the emergence of authoritarian leaning post-modern conservatives like Donald Trump, Putin, Modhi, Bolsonaro, Victor Orban, or Poland´s Law and Justice Party. Trump has been transparent about his admiration for authoritarian figures such as Putin and the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, while undermining conventions and norms surrounding the limits of executive power at every turn. He has also relentless pushed the envelope on untruths his followers are willing to accept, lying so frequently that new epistemic considerations are warranted. Trump is not even a liar in the sense we would normally understand it, but a bullshitter as Harry Frankfurt would put it. He is someone to whom the truth or falsity of claims does not matter, since the worldview he projects is entirely shaped by his own preferences and a desire for commendation. Victor Orban has gradually concentrated more and more power in the hands of Fidesz, assuming state control of the media and judicial system and even forcing out Hungary´s most significant university. Indeed just recently, in response to the COVID 19 crisis, Orban effectively assumed the power to rule by decree and further suppress dissent. Not a great look for someone Peterson was chumming around with in the summer of 2019. Jair Bolsonaro has openly pined for the days of authoritarian dictatorship in Brazil, while bashing gays, refugees and anyone else he considers a deviant from his hard-line reactionary outlook.
This is not to say that one should engage in only a single kind of criticism. There are serious areas where the left can improve its outlook. As outlined by Mark Fisher in his great essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” there are too many progressives who see denunciation and moralistic partisanship as the central to leftist activism, when the reality is that it often makes winning converts extremely difficult. But these post-modern conservatives are the major threat to our civilization and its freedoms. Yet Peterson has comparatively little to say about them relative to the evils of campus activism and the danger of Canada´s human rights tribunals
All these themes will be explored in more detail in our forthcoming book Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson which will be released on April 24th, and will be co-authored by Ben Burgis, Conrad Hamilton and introduced by Slavoj Zizek. Our hope is that Myth and Mayhem shows why progressive solutions offer a better way forward in our increasingly chaotic times. We argue that much of the “madness” described by conservative pundits like Douglas Murray can be laid at the feet of systematically undermining democratic and communal institutions and redistributive efforts which ameliorated the conditions of the least well off. Given that it should come as no surprise that many are turning to cynicism and authoritarianism as distractions or outlets for their rage. Peterson would have been wise to recognize that.
Marion Trejo is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. Her research is on the genealogy of political fear and contemporary feminist issues in Latin America.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan.
The most lengthy defense can be found in Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. (Toronto, ON. Random House Canada, 2018) Chapter One.
 John Rawls. A Theory of Justice. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971)
 Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. (Toronto, ON. Random House Canada, 2018)
 Anne McMunn and Lauren Bird and Elizabeth Webb and Amanda Sacker. “Gender Divisions of Paid and Unpaid Work in Contemporary UK Couples.” Work, Employment, and Society, Jul7 2019